Silence Bursting OutwardArt serves to reflect a society back on to itself; it reveals the shape of our inner and outer lives; and honors the beauty and contradictions of the world. Art can be an expression of our identity as individuals and as a culture. The arts of today reflect a myriad of social, natural, and political realities. However, beyond expressing what is, art may prefigure what can be. It can reveal the vast potential of individual human evolution and offer a measure of hope, radiance, and inner beauty. It can echo our deepest aspirations, showing the way towards inner wholeness and awakening.
Certain types of art can transcend art; where the connotative function of creative expression gives way to actually depicting higher states of being and deeper levels of reality. There are works of art that vibrate with subtle intensity, that originate through the field of silence, and remind us that impressions color, voice and sound, certain expressive movements, subtle combinations of words, expansive ideas, piercing shapes or tones, and particular qualities of light can evoke transcendent realms within us. Much of what we call sacred architecture, certain kinds of music such as Tibetan or Gregorian chants, Scriabin’s the Poem of Ecstasy, and Ravel’s Bolero, some forms of dance, films such as Peter Brook’s Mahabharata and Meetings with Remarkable Men, and works of literature such as the poetry of Rumi and Rilke or Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and Magister Ludi; these works have the capacity to help us open to a greater dimension. Indeed, most were created with the intention of awakening our higher nature, to nurture our search for consciousness. When artists reach into the deeper levels of the human experience, their resulting works express an energy, a vibratory tone, that contains within it the potential to help awaken something in us if we seek it. During the premiere of the film Meetings with Remarkable Men, Peter Brook, the noted director, stood before the assembled audience and introduced the film in the following way: “This is not art, not entertainment. Rather, it is the result of one man’s search….”
Once again, Rilke’s phrase, “the grace of great things,” describes the language inherent in these works of art and literature that serve to activate our deepest impulses. Throughout history, many works of art can be found that transcend their maker, that grow out of a sense of community, that involve the work of generations of individuals such as the European cave painters, the medieval guilds, the schools of Japanese craftsmen, or the romantic musicians of the 17th and 18th Century. It is art often produced for the glory of God; that arises from a highly spiritualized impulse, where the attention and care that goes into the making is both the means and the end. Here the work of craft is closely aligned with the effort towards self-perfection of the artist. In the Japanese traditions, as we refine the pot, we refine ourselves. The discipline involved in this form of art-making provides a means for the active self-development of the individual and, by extension, the society.
Art as a Spiritual Practice
Many artists from the modernist era attempt, though awkwardly, to achieve this ideal. The vigilance necessary to open toward this inner listening, bypassing the ego, is one of the challenges inherent in using art as a genuine practice. The discipline of synchronizing with the materials of one’s craft, allowing something of another order to come through—and gaining the self-knowledge required to distinguish between real intuition and the multitude of other voices clamoring within—is part of the magnificent exercise undertaken through art and creativity. When an artist works in this manner, their own search comes alive for the viewer. We cannot ignore the palpable and highly nourishing energy transmitted through this type of art. Its affect on us is enduring and it feeds our collective soul.
The color field paintings of Mark Rothko are examples of such work in the visual arts. The paintings have no subject and are nearly devoid of compositional elements. Rather, he used the luminosity of color to penetrate beyond the superficial and pierce through one’s armor to reflect the finer quality of energies experienced in our most collected, unified inner states of being. The mature work of Mark Rothko is, according to Roger Lipsey, “one of the great spiritual realizations of twentieth-century art in any medium.” Rothko’s own statements confirm his artistic intent: “I don’t express myself in painting. I express my not-self. The dictum know thyself is only valuable if the ego is removed from the process in the search for truth. Art is not self-expression as I thought in my youth… a work of art is another thing.”In a visit with a friend, the art critic Dore Ashton, Rothko asserted “They are not pictures.” For the viewer, they make visible the silence and solitude of consciousness.
In looking at Rothko’s paintings, we are witnessing the unbearable silence of being. We are arrested into the present moment. The art critic Andrew Weiss incisively defines Rothko’s paintings as ‘silence bursting outward.”
Roger Lipsey, author of An Art of Our Own, comments on the experience of viewing Rothko’s paintings : “… one could feel that there is a modern spiritual, and these works demonstrated it. One responded to their simplicity and quietness ‘by becoming like them.’”
As we move beyond the strict conditions of post-modernity, where all experience is relative and based upon one’s upbringing, conditioning, and cultural background, we are witnessing a rebirth of interest in our essential humanness and shared truths. Maya Angelou, when teaching a class—any class —begins by writing a quote on the blackboard: “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.” Defying the deeply ingrained attitude of defining ourselves by our differences, we can maintain hope for a widespread embrace of the human context we all share, a return to empathy and compassion, and a renewed search for the sacred dimension of life.
We need our artists. We need to be perpetually reminded of the possibility of a life lived authentically, of a life lived to transform and transmit those forces and energies that exist within us, pass between us, and come down to us from another source.
Sing Through Me, O Muse
The works of art with the most lasting impact, that have influenced generations of people and have brought something of another order into the world, give the feeling (and there is often anecdotal or documentary evidence to support this) that the artist was merely the vehicle. “Sing through me O muse,” begins Homer in the Odyssey. What we call a miracle or an ecstatic creative vision is often the manifestation of the energies and laws of one realm descending into another.
While I don’t know with certainty where artistic inspiration comes from, it is well-established that when we raise our level of vibration, like a tuning fork, we magnetically attract influences from higher realms. At this higher level of the creative process, the artists can become a transparent vehicle for another order of intelligence to pass through fully formed.
This is not a vague concept or a mystical conundrum as many would think. It is a lawful result. The artist has prepared the ground, developed his or her craft with rigorous intent, and struggled with the question of content, often for years. It is through these conditions of a sustained commitment that something may clearly pass; from our unconscious, from a transcendent source, from our own deeper nature, or as some are disposed to believe, from the energies which pass between us as human beings. Rilke’s greatest and most mature poetry arose unexpectedly as he was composing a business letter. The lines of verse just appeared in his mind fully formed. He simply wrote them down, making and needing few changes in the works which arose spontaneously in a short period. His companion reported that he whispered: “What is that? What is coming?” And after their swift arrival, “he knew that the god had spoken.”
Now the creative currents use our talents, our efforts for their own mysterious purpose. Here the stream widens from receiving fragments of intuitive revelation to the potential of becoming a willing, gracious host of transmission of forces and energies much larger than we are, originating from cultural, collective, transpersonal, or spiritual realms.
The implications of this phenomenon are enormous. Simply stated: The gods speaks to humanity through art. What has been called “conscious” art is a means of giving expression to the voices of the deeper realms for the purpose of transmitting collective or transpersonal truth. All peoples of the world have offered their unique gifts, increasing our perspective of the human condition—and these insights are often left behind in the form of works of art.
Here we acknowledge that the human organism is the same the world over. The vibration of color and form, sound and light, or carefully crafted words have universal implications. The language of myth, allegory, and symbol can speak to many across the barriers of time and environmental conditioning. Through the language inherent in art, we may elevate thought, voice our deepest truths, and communicate our most profound experiences. Many, for example, are touched, by a sense of the sublime in experiencing the space, light, and symbolic expression found in the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. The sacred geometries and the conscious use of proportion and symbol have been richly explored through scholars over the years. And many find a resonance with their own paths through life in reading Homer’s Odyssey. The trials of Odysseus in his great journey home after the Trojan Wars closely parallel the universal stages of the hero’s journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell and others. Admittedly, this form of expression does require a high level of skill and knowledge, and is generally seen only in the mature work of a creative individual.
We are only beginning to recognize that the energetic expression—what underlies the surface level of meaning—of a work of art or literature is of equal or greater import than the overt content. In this context, art is a physical manifestation of energy and an expression of consciousness.
In contemporary art, many artists, with varying levels of success, aspire to this form of expression. But the democratization of our society does not permit or acknowledge a hierarchy of levels of being. By placing art on the same playing field as entertainment, society denigrates its artists. By viewing art as a commodity or merely as a form of superficial aesthetic pleasure, creativity is brought down to commerce or a certain kind of middle-class self indulgence. Art and creativity, at their core, encourage a resonant connection with those forces and energies that lie beyond our conscious knowing, that take us into the worlds of the gods, that have the capacity to make us like god, in the image of the divine.
It is widely affirmed that working with an art or craft, or engaging any activity with passion and care, is a path toward self-knowledge. In the De-Definition of Art, art critic Harold Rosenberg attests to this condition.
“… The individual arts, in whatever condition they have assumed under pressure of cultural change and the actions of individual artists, have never been more indispensable to both the individual and the society than they are today. With its accumulated insights, its disciplines, its inner conflicts, painting (or poetry, or music) provide a means for the active self-development of individuals—perhaps the only means. Given the patterns in which mass behavior, including mass education, is presently organized, art is the one vocation that keeps a space open for the individual to realize himself in knowing himself. A society that lacks the presence of self-developing individuals—but in which passive people are acted upon by their environment—hardly deserves to be called a human society. It is the greatness of art that it does not permit us to forget this.”
Adapted from The Widening Stream: the Seven Stages of Creativity, by David Ulrich