What is Art and Why it matters.
Recently I was sitting on a bench watching people push their shopping carts down the aisle as they exited our local Costco store. I observed the steady stream of humanity passing me by, and the subject of Art somehow surfaced in my mind. Most of these kind folk were focused on the toil of everyday affairs—taking care of their needs for food and survival. Many had tired and empty expressions on their faces, and I wondered if anyone was reflecting upon, say Dali’s “One Second Before Awakening from a Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate”?
Ok, sorry, my sarcastic muse just got the better of the battle…So the answer is, probably very few. Now, that is not to say that one reflection is better than any other–they are just different. If you look and observe human behavior, which is a fascinating subject for me, it is easy to see that there are just different types of human beings. Some enjoy watching or playing sports, some people can spend a lifetime buying things, and others explore the wonders of the deep mystery of life.
It does seem that the capacity to reflect upon your own existence is a special evolutionary development which we normally attribute exclusively to the human species. Below is some archaeological evidence suggesting a point in time in which the transformation of human consciousness from practical survival to that of an awareness which might be called “Artistic Awareness” might have occurred.
Here is a hand ax from 400,000 years ago, which is the Furze Platt Axe from Maidenhead, England.
Axes of this type have been found throughout the world, and are demonstrably the first human tool. The oldest currently known Oldowan tools have been found in Ethiopia. These are dated to about 2.6 million years ago.
What is unusual about the Furze Platt axe is that it is almost 16 inches tall, and that is simply too large to have been useful as a tool. What is suggested might be what the California poet Robinson Jeffers calls “Divinely Superfluous Beauty”, or the ability of human consciousness to contemplate the mysteries of life.
Joseph Campbell has said that there are 2 types of human beings.
“The first is that ‘animal‘ human being, who is concerned with practical things. There is also the ‘human‘ human being, who is susceptible to the allure of beauty. Beauty you see, is divinely superfluous. This is the first human germination of a spiritual concern and need, of which the animals know nothing.”
Since the ax is too large to have a practical use, the suggestion is that it must have been used in some sort of ritual context. So a prerequisite for ‘Artistic Awareness’ might be a brain and consciousness capable of contemplating these matters. We might say that there is some sort of evolution of life from the practical to the artistic.
What is Art?
The word “art” comes from the Latin ars, which, means “arrangement” or “to arrange”. Although today the word art usually refers to the visual arts, the concept of what art is has continuously changed over centuries. A good definition is its broadest—art refers to all creative human endeavors, excluding actions related to survival and reproduction. Art can be conceived as any product of the creative impulse.
Some characteristics of art have traditionally included the quality of elusiveness, a communication on many levels and open to interpretations, and a requirement of creative perception by both the artist and the audience. While it is convincing that art cannot properly be defined, it is commonly held that art is a vehicle of ‘beauty’. Another meaning of the word art connotes skill associated with craftspeople, for instance, we might say “That piece of furniture is a work of art.”
Indeed, when I think about art in a commonplace way, it usually refers to something visual–a painting, a portrait, a sculpture–that has a certain beauty, or has a message intended to lead the viewer into some appreciation of a social or political statement.
Much of the art I see that was created during my life has this political quality. It is pushing you against something, or pulling you towards something…and idea, a belief of oppression or injustice. This art lies within the realm of morality—Good and Evil—Duality.
There is however, a quite different meaning to Art, and one that few people have considered. Similar to a language in danger of becoming forgotten as its native speakers become extinct, perhaps these words might kindle a renaissance. Without trying to sound grandiose, this art has its origins in the depths of the ‘soul’. In fact, whether from the pre-historic shamanic traditions or later from poets, philosophers and mystics, this Art has spoken to us throughout history about the mystery of life and our connection with it.
A Radical Proposal:
Said in another way, for most of you reading this, whatever comes to mind when you consider the word Art, probably has little to do with this deeper, hidden, esoteric wonder of the magical nature of Art.
The Artist is Present
Recently I watched the film “The Artist is Present”, a biography of Marina Abramovic and her work as a performance artist. I was fascinated by what I experienced. Here are 2 video links to her work:
Marina has been at her craft for over 40 years. When I first became acquainted with her, and saw some of her work, I had mixed emotions. Some of the performances were difficult to watch, and some of my negative reactions were similar to my critique of much of current ‘Hollywood’ culture, namely that the primary intention of much of this genre is merely to shock, to challenge the normal boundaries of the culture for the mere sake of challenge. We could mention the ‘shock-jock’ Howard Stern, or perhaps the ‘twerking’ Miley Cyrus. To such performances I usually respond, “So what”. There is a quality of superficiality in much of this entertainment.
However, as I watched “The Artist is Present” something else transpired. There was a quality of richness and depth, and some of the language Marina used evoked some of the same feelings and experiences I have had while reading a Buddhist text, or a Sufi poet. At first, the film challenged me to ask, ‘What the hell is going on here!’ ‘What does that have to do with art?’
In what follows, my intention is to provide some clues and connections, and to perhaps lead you into a new understanding of the parallels between this type of art, the nature of mystical experience and the roots of your own being.
Improbable Synchronicity: Art, James Joyce and the Way of the Mystic.
Years ago I was intrigued by a ritual described by the main character in Tom Robbins’ book “Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates”. It was my first introduction to Robbins, and the protagonist Switters speaks of a small group of raconteurs who meet periodically and read Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake aloud while getting sordidly intoxicated. The group had been meeting this way for years, but had only been able to progress through several pages of the massive impenetrable volume.
Well, this was the beginning of my intriguing introduction to the Wake. I carried my paperback edition religiously in my golf bag, and would take it out and select a page ‘I Ching style’, and read a few lines before the first tee. Never having a clue to the almost incomprehensible work, I nonetheless had a feeling that there was something hidden and marvelous in the novel. Occasionally I would burst into spontaneous laughter, which for those who know me is entirely contrary to my character.
For an introduction to this radically different understanding of art, and of aesthetic theory, we coincidentally must turn to James Joyce. But before we jump into that, let us become acquainted with…
Fear and Desire
One of my favorite poems is from the 3rd Chinese Patriarch of Zen, which begins:
The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.
Those are some fairly radical thoughts. When I read ‘when love’ is absent, a gut-wrenching discord arises in my belly. It goes against most of my western conditioning. We want to love, we want to be loved. If love is absent that is a terrible thing, right? How can you read something like this?
Years ago in my college days I was introduced to the German romantic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who the general public, if they even recognize the name, associate it with his infamous and villainous comment “God is dead”. Misconstrued, Nietzsche possessed a brilliant and deep awareness, and was the author of a book titled “Beyond good and evil”. Therein lies a clue.
Fear and Desire in the Garden of Eden. Here we have Eve desirous of the fruit. We have Adam reticent and fearful. Why was the couple expelled from the paradise in which there was no time? It was because they experienced the knowledge of good and evil. Duality… Separateness. These themes of duality are mythic icons which are found in all cultures of the world. But what do they have to do with art, and how does this apply to Marina Abramovic?
Before I try to answer that question, let us turn back to James Joyce.
Joyce, for those unacquainted, was an Irish Author of the early 20th century, and his books are generally considered ‘obscure’ and unapproachable by the public. His 1922 Ulysses was banned in the United States as obscene, complete with burnings, until 1933, when a United States judge declared the book “not pornographic”.
In an earlier work, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, Joyce’s protagonist Stephen Dedalus states his aesthetic theory. What follows is a summary description of Joyce’s understanding of art.
Most of us today think of art in very different ways from that of Joyce. Indeed, as previously mentioned, when I think about art in everyday terms, it usually refers to a painting or sculpture that has a certain beauty, or message. Joyce’s theory of art includes “improper art” and “proper art.”
What he called improper art is kinetic (from the Greek kenesis or movement) – it moves you to either fear or desire the object represented. Consequently it moves you to action.
Art that moves you with desire toward the object, Joyce calls pornographic. All advertising is pornographic art. You are not simply enchanted by the object you are beholding. You want it. You are watching television and you see an attractive couple holding hands and smiling towards each other each reclining in separate bathtubs in the beautiful pastoral setting at sunset. The announcer melodically says ‘for erections lasting more than 4 hours call your doctor’, and you say “That’s the drug for me!”… Pornography.
Or consider that beautiful vacuum cleaner in the magazine, and beside it stands a lovely girl with lovely teeth. And you think, I’d love a vacuum like that… Pornography.
Pornography here used has a broader meaning than merely the common usage that most people understand. In Joyce’s usage here, it primarily refers to depictions of things that elicit a strong emotional reaction.
Art that repels you, Joyce calls didactic. He says that almost all writers using the didactic are trying to get you to turn away from something. In reference to sociological art, the emphasis is on some grand idea with a moral or social lesson. The artist is intentionally trying to elicit a response from you, for instance creating a moral indignity about some current politically correct event. This is the flip side of the same coin—It is either desire or fear. Movement either towards or away from the object. Proper Art has to do with the aesthetic (sense) experience. It is static, or standing still. It is not moving you to do anything. It is in aesthetic arrest.
Now the practical techniques of proper Art are to carry a person into relationship and experience with that which looks neither with desire nor with fear at the object.
Joyce’s definition of the kinetic is the same message as the temptations of the Buddha when he sat beneath the Bodhi tree of illumination and was tempted by Mara.
The Buddha had achieved the immovable spot which is that place in the psyche which is not moved by desire or fear. The same metaphor is in the bible as the Tree of Immortal Life in the Garden of Eden. There came before the Buddha the tempter, Lord of things of the World, who challenges us all. And in order to move the one there sitting from the immovable spot, he offered three temptations. The first was in his character as Kama, lust, the God of desire. And he displayed before the Buddha his three beautiful daughters. Their names were: Desire, Fulfillment, Regret. And if the Buddha had identified himself with his temporal ego, rather than with his eternal consciousness he would have been filled with desire. But he had already identified himself with the eternal and was not moved.
So the Lord of Desire was greatly frustrated and he transformed himself into the Lord of Death. Mara. As the Lord of Death he flung his army at the one there seated. But there was not ego there to be frightened. And the weapons that came into his sphere of presence were transformed into Lotuses.
What does our discussion of Art have to do with Marina Abramovic?
During the run of the MOMA exhibition, Abramović performed “The Artist is Present,” a 736-hour silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. To be able to sit immobile everyday for 3 months is almost a super-human accomplishment. It is similar to the meditation practices of monks who withdraw their awareness from the world of reactivity and devote their lives to the practice of quieting the mind.
This is challenging to do for 10 minutes, and the thought of sitting still in a chair for 7 hours straight is quite astounding. What is interesting to consider is what happens in this situation? If a person can become so still, so immovable, like a tree, but at the same time fully present, “What transpires as eyes meet?” What happens when awareness meets itself?
Joseph Campbell was fond of the phrase “Transparent to the Transcendent”, which I think is an apt description of what we have here. If one can imagine a Christ or Buddha sitting in front of you, there is a transparency in their awareness. There is no fear, no desire, only a clear witnessing. By becoming empty, becoming still, this transparency becomes a portal, a link to what we might call the transcendent, or that which is beyond all name and form.
What I am trying to convey here with words is that this awareness is beyond words and concepts. While it might seem difficult to grasp or understand, this experience is not the exclusive property of the grand intellects or even the ‘enlightened saints’. This is OUR common nature, and truly is what we really are.
Words and ideas fall short, they can only point the way. Sometime in the journey, what we are searching for is the experience. Books and teachings and teachers can’t give that to you. It is inside of each one of us, it is hard-wired in our DNA.
One of the immediate observations that arises from my recent move from southern California to rural Oregon is that there is a sensory overload almost unavoidable in today’s cities and urban life. It is very difficult to experience the slow rhythm of life arising from within yourself if you are constantly being bombarded with stimulation from your external environment. While the ‘still small voice’ is within us all, it seems to benefit from cultivation.
Take a taste of “The Artist is Present”.
Feel what resonates.
Cultivate a slow life.