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Religion of Art

by Sangharakshita

Sangharakshita in Seminar

Seminar Discussions Based on the Windhorse Publications Book
“The Religion Of Art” by Sangharakshita
Held at Madhyamaloka, Birmingham, UK, in the Spring of 1999
Those Present: Urgyen Sangharakshita, Padmavajra, Padmavijaya, Ratnachuda, Kovida, Chintamani,
Manjusvara, Suriyavamsa, Indrabodhi, Subhadassi, Shantigarbha, Padmakara, Paul Hatton.
[Transcriber’s Note: There were no voice prints made at the beginning of the tapes, and speakers did
not announce their names before speaking (one of which is usually done on every seminar) so it has
been very difficult at times for the transcriber to accurately identify who is speaking and at times I’ve
guessed!. There may also be one or two people who are not named above who were present for the
discussions. I hope this doesn’t cause any difficulties with your study of this material - Silabhadra]
[Day One
Tape One, Side One]
Sangharakshita: Ah, so what have we here? The wiring up’s all been done I take it. I am going to
start off with the longest question, because probably it is going to get the shortest reply! [Laughter]
That you’ll have to see. We may have supplementaries of course. It’s from Chintamani, who says:
“At a recent university art faculty open day that I attended, the head of the faculty informed the
assembled visitors that when preparing for an interview there prospective students should remember
the motto: “No Dead Artists”. By this he meant that whilst one could learn from the past, one’s chief
source of cultural inspiration should be contemporary artists, and he and his colleagues were not
really interested in students who lived too much in the past. As he put it, “Impressionists and Post-
Impressionists died a long time ago.” Would you comment on this contemporary obsession with
contemporariness, with the ideology of being true and relevant to one’s time, and generally where you
think this attitude might eventually take the culture?”
Well, in a way I am lost for words [Laughter]. I think the attitude of that - who was he? - head of
faculty, really quite appalling. Mainly because he says “‘should remember the motto: no dead artists”
and “chief source of cultural inspiration should be contemporary artists”. So how can one prescribe
somebody’s source of inspiration? Whether it’s their chief inspiration or perhaps a subsidiary
inspiration. I would have thought that inspiration, by its very nature, comes from almost anywhere,
and that you can’t lay down in advance from what, or which, source it will come. So it seems almost a
sort of totalitarian approach. To say that, “Your inspiration shall come from such and such, otherwise
you are not going to be taken seriously as students. We don’t want you. Unless your inspiration comes
from sources of which we approve, or which we think appropriate.” And that seems to be absolutely
shocking. Because well it is not even a question of your inspiration coming from artists, it might just
come directly from nature. Sometimes artists are inspired directly by nature, at least sometimes. So
how can you really lay down what the student’s sources of inspiration should be? Whether in the
visual arts or anywhere else. You might as well say to the novelist, “Oh, you mustn’t be inspired by
George Elliot or Jane Austen, you have to be inspired by” - well who is the latest - Anita Bruckner or
somebody like that. Preferably female of course [Laughter]. So I think this is really quite shocking,
the prescriptive nature of the statement. And also that he says “he and his colleagues were not really
interested in students who live too much in the past.” So this suggests, which I suspect is true in other
departments or faculties, that the faculty members use students in order to follow their own particular
agendas. They are not interested in the student himself, his interests, potential, of course his particular
inspiration. They are interested in using the student to pursue their own particular agendas. So
certainly it doesn’t seem to be a student-oriented art education in this case. It seems to be a faculty-
oriented art research project probably, where the student is perhaps just a regrettable necessity. You
teach as a means of earning a living while you get on with your own work. So your students have to be
subordinated to your project. So I’m really lost for words. Oh yes, there is another point here, “One
could learn from the past but one’s chief source of inspiration should be contemporary artists.” So
there is a sort of distinction being made here between learning and being inspired by. Can you really
learn from an artist by whom you are not at least moved, if not inspired? It suggests that learning from
another artist is just a question almost of technical expertise. Or have I got it completely wrong?
Chintamani: I think probably what he meant was that one could draw on general lessons from the
past. But it wasn’t that clear actually, but I think the underlying assumption is that we are of a
particular time and therefore in order to be relevant to that time and to express that time one has to
learn from people who are also more or less in that time; that people who went before, whilst
interesting might/may be purveying general lessons, or of the previous times, are no longer relevant to
our time.
Sangharakshita: Because I say it is not just a question of learning general lessons from them. If they
are great artists, even of the past you are inspired by them if you are at all sensitive. The fact that you
are inspired by great artists of the past doesn’t mean that you can’t use that inspiration in such a way
that you are relevant, if relevancy is required, to the contemporary situation.
So if anyone continues down along that road, well getting more and more contemporary and less and
less inspired by the past, and losing all sense of tradition, well I am afraid you will end up with a
rather dreadful cul-de-sac. In fact I think some contemporary artists are already there, very much so,
from what I can judge. Those that I read about in the papers anyway.
Kovida: It seems also a very narrow view of the teacher as well. Ibsen said that an artist is always
fifty years ahead of his time. So how can one be relevant for one’s own time if one is actually being
inspired in a way that means you’re ahead of.....
Sangharakshita: Yes, I think you are more likely to be ahead of your time if you are inspired by the
past, paradoxically. Yes. Any comments on this whole issue from those who have some experience of
art schools?
Padmavijaya: I would have thought that his point was rhetorical rather than literal. I would have
thought he was just making the point that we don’t want people coming in painting Expressionist
paintings as though nothing has changed since the 19th Century. Which is what at A level or O levels of
education you do get taught styles from this period or that period, and so when people come into
higher education they come in with the sort of idea of how art should be made, which is conditioned
by, or which is determined by what was done in the 19th century or the 1920's. I think the point is a fair
one although overblown, that you should make work that does reflect the fact that you live in this
society now.
Sangharakshita: But that doesn’t mean that you can’t derive your inspiration from the past.
Padmavijaya: No, no.
Sangharakshita: And he seems to be precluding that, quite literally.
Padmavijaya: But I wonder if it’s perhaps a mistaken point, that he is just saying “don’t paint like
the Impressionists”’.
Chintamani Why not? [Laughter]
Padmavijaya: Has it just had its time?
Sangharakshita: Why should one be contemporary? Or what is contemporary? Does contemporary
mean what is produced now or does it mean what is produced in a certain style which has been
labelled contemporary in the sense that it has no precedent in history?
Padmavijaya: I would have thought one of the reasons why you wouldn’t paint as an Impressionist is
because if you did you tend to reflect a certain kind of escapism. I think that the idea if you paint in a
certain..... Like the Pre-Raphaelites. It is almost as though they didn’t want to face the issues of
industrialism in their time and instead of addressing the whole kind of question they just lived in a
Sangharakshita: But does the artist have to address questions in that sort of way, necessarily?
Padmavijaya: But you yourself have said that the Pre-Raphaelites weren’t successful in the sense of
they tended to be decorative so their concerns ....
Sangharakshita: Yes, sometimes they were decorative but, well, sometimes they produced, I won’t
say great art but very good art.
Padmavijaya: I agree. But .....
Sangharakshita: But of course I am also very suspicious of this whole idea that if something is
escapist, well, it’s necessarily wrong. Was it wrong in the Victorian period for some people to try to
escape from the contemporary world, from industrial civilisation, and to depict another world which
was for many people more inspiring? Do you have to depict a Lowry sort of world, all ...

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