this essay is a response to Dharmavidya (part of the summer teachings at Amida France)
Looking in the mirror of art, we see reflected the world; a world. Do we see the world that is, the world the artist saw, or yet, perhaps, the world which lies beyond the mirage of the seen, a transcendent reality distilled in the created image. Does art bring depth of insight, or decorate the surface of appearance?
Art at its best is multi-layered. The general is manifested in the particular, the global in the detail, the abstract in the concrete. Lightly held, its metaphors are uninterpreted, drawing our mental process into relationship with the universal questions for which there are no answers and not even language. The simple object becomes the container for the divine, the sound of a frame of words encompasses the dance of time.
Both of the artist, and yet unowned, the hand of creativity is guided by unseen forces which we attempt to name at our peril. Personal yet universal, the artefact speaks with as many facets as a diamond, catching light reflected from a myriad directions. Its voice is heard according to our need as much as through the will of the creator. Unpredictable, its power must rest in the perceiver to be appreciated and much as in its author.An act of faith
, the interaction between artist and audience is mediated by grace. In the creation of art there is always an element of the uncontrollable, the other. We invite the muse but cannot force her to appear. Untamed, the flames of creativity are not our own. Mysterious as a misted peak, they hide within the clouds of the invisible, a presence which we may come to trust but not to possess.
Like the prophet and the oracle, the power of creativity is not in the artist’s sway, but from afar. Clinging too tightly to the script, the process dies. The artefact becomes a fossil, cast in stone. The measureless becomes a shrunken shell. Only by opening to the other does the artefact find birth.
In another sense, all that we see and hear and speak and create is in the circle – nothing new. The artist, gathering the colours of life’s fabric, simply redistributes threads already spun. Shapes and hues jostle and re-convene across the canvas. Phrases regroup, metamorphosing into new tunes, which yet are drawn from earlier notes. As the great web of life recycles cell on cell, molecule on wheeling molecule, star dust becomes creatures, plants become soil; the bug becomes the butterfly, the child becomes the crone. In such primeval turmoil is the artefact born, a new assemblage of the old, a juxtaposing of the familiar with a fresh interpretation.
Old elements in a stark configuration, stripped down by honesty and providence to the bones of experience. Nothing new, the image in the camera reflects the scene in raw precision. Nothing new, the novel parades its characters in gritty scenes of love and conflict, grief and confusion which we recognise immediately and personally for their human familiarity. Nothing new, our ears perceive the gentle fragility of a melody that follows the common scale, recoiling with its discords and enjoying its harmony.
So does the artist convey to us the world, sharpened, heightened, accented or perhaps simply conveyed in its unadulterated truth. Presented in shades which are borrowed from the common stock, the revelation is powerful for lacking our contaminating interpretation. Prised from our habitual stance, we are offered loan of the artist’s different view. We are shown a new vision, which, being new, has the capacity to break through our preconceptions.
For mostly we languish in the bubble of our thoughts, our view conditioned by the furrow long since made. We circle samsara, seeking confirmation in our identity and world view. We cling desperately to our constructed reality, though it is but projected perceptions. We hide from discomforting truths in our familiar dream. Only occasionally a point breaks through. Only rarely is our air-tight membrane pierced. Then usually it is the knowledge of impermanence which breaks the seal of our delusion, that cracks open our false assumption of continuation. Death is of this kind.
That which we fend off offers the greatest hope: dukkha, affliction, in its many forms. Death and its many imitations force our hand, shaking our grandiose defences, and showing us that we are not self-sufficient. Each rend an opening, these moments proffer opportunity. Engage or retreat, we may choose to grasp life or deny it, to live or kill, to love or to reject. Only such unadulterated otherness, beyond our capacity to manipulate or control, reveals the truth.
But only when the seal is broken can we love. Only the force of otherness, whether the inevitability of death or the stirring magnificence of a symphony, the poignancy of a personal story or the stark representation of a squalid truth, can wake us from our self-obsessive loop. In this the role of death or art or love becomes the same, the power of intervention which is strong enough to bring awakening. We see, we meet, we are changed.
And in the art transaction, artist, world and audience crystallise positions around the artefact. Each is a stranger to the other, engaging in silent dialogue. Each plays its part in an ever changing drama of perception. This drama is on the one hand conditioned by all three elements, and on the other unbounded, arbitrary and expansive, a dance in which participants draw closer, finding new interpretations of one another. Participating, do we learn to love?How much derives from straight reflection, channelled directly? What is expression of the artist’s soul, the deeper, darker reaches of human mind? How much interpretation? All play their part, and all are present in varying degrees. Sometime the channel, other times the origin, the artist is gatekeeper to experience.
And so, the artist offers succour to our curiosity. Sometimes baring his own process to the world, other times a neutral commentator, orchestrating communication between ourselves and the world. Importantly, art is communication, a dialogue in which we are invited to participate with the artist in a shared regard.
Our place already marked by open space, a platform created for the viewer of the image, hearer of the words, prescribed in its direction of view if not its interpretation. The artist may be communicant, but more often the interpreter, the medium, the embroiderer or the lens. Thus we have choice and yet do not have choice, are free and yet directed.
In entering the dance perhaps we learn to love the artist and to love his objects of love, to appreciate the beauty in the ugly and the fascination in the plain. Certainly we learn to engage, to meet the others in the dance, to know the artist and to know his world. Can one have such engagement without love?Art, that is art, lives in its technicolour capacity to break us out of our complacency. It shouts to us across the divide of our pre-conceptions and tears down the barriers of our mental filters. It transcends our habitual interpretations.Good art, like death, shocks us. It breaks us out of dormancy by its uncompromising otherness.
Poor art mimics our nature, creating bland wallpaper for our lives; the pastel image that matches the colour co-ordinated room, the muzac which lulls us into extravagant indulgence in the supermarket: these are designed to soothe the cravings of self and support our slumbering nature. They throw a blanket across our mental activity, and cocoon us in familiarity. They do not disrupt.
The artist, trickster, calls to question our life scripts and our expectations; blasts through the niceties of social convention with a fresh wind of perception. The alchemist of the modern age, the soothsayer, the seer, bringing to us the messages of the gods, the artist straddles worlds and offers through the gift of second sight, perspectives beyond convention. He cracks the social mirror.Good art, like death, intrudes. It upsets our illusions of permanence and predictability. It shows us we are not in charge and that experience is not amenable to our dictation. Whether through beauty or through horrific imagery, its raw reality throws out a lifeline across the straights of Mara. It melts our defensive assumptions with emotion and invites us to relate. Is this love?
Art draws us into encounter. Such meeting is crucible of spiritual discovery. Only in truly meeting can we discover love. In truly meeting can we avoid its pull? To know another is to deeply understand; to understand without the hesitancy of self-interest is to embrace. From such encounter wisdom and compassion rise, shaping the flow of response but not confining it and by this means the meeting may be consummated.