Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 14: The Arts in Culture > Chapter 1: Appreciation
The arts and spirituality
Beauty has its own holiness.
A life devoid of the contributions which the arts can make is an arid life. Aridity is not the same as simplicity.
Philosophy includes no narrow type of asceticism. It does not reject, like some of the forms of religious mysticism or Oriental yoga, but gratefully accepts the ministrations of Nature's beauty and man's art. It knows that what calls forth our attraction toward fair scenes and our appreciation of lovely sounds is, at its final degree, nothing other than the exquisite beauty of the Overself. Therefore the productions of talented artists are to be welcomed where they are true responses to this call, true aspirations to answer it, and not mere representations of the artist's own diseased mind. For the same reason, the introduction of art into the home and of artistic design into industry is also to be welcomed.
I cannot separate, as the old Greeks could not separate, the love of beauty in Nature and art from the love of Truth in thought and experience.
Art and Nature may so be used as to enlarge us, to give us less egoistic ideas and greater hearts.
Aesthetic appreciation of art productions, no less than harmonious rapport with Nature, leads us nearer and nearer to the divine in us, until our inner being is wholly absorbed in its ecstatic joy or unutterable peace.
In our own era many people are unable to come to Spirit through religion but are able to do so through art.
I believe, as the Platonists of Alexandria believed, that "beauty nourishes the soul." But we may need to learn what is really beauty.
Any creative art which opens up an entrancing world of beauty to us, if it refines and uplifts us, opens up a spiritual path at the same time.
Anyone who is susceptible to beauty in music or place has a spiritual path ready-made for him.
The cultural arts offer a path to reality, whether one can actually create or can only enjoy their products. Through good inspired drama, painting, writing, poetry, or opera, there is the possibility of achieving contact with its transcendental source.
To bring man to the Real, art must become more and more refined.
It is the higher, more refined forms of art which at times reveal this authentic note of inspiration. The low forms lack it because they belong to the grosser, more primitive cultural levels where mere physical activity is the prime concern.
Although it is true that aesthetic appreciation is relative and not absolute, it is also true that the process of evolution has set up standards within us which are progressive from a lower to a higher, a vulgar to a finer one.
Art opinions and reactions are more than just a matter of personal taste. They are also indicators of evolutionary status.
It depends on a man's taste, which in turn depends on how mature he is, how rich an experience garnered in former lives he possesses, how developed and balanced is his judgement, and, lastly, how refined are his feelings.
The stage epitomizes and dramatizes human experience. This offers us the chance to draw some of its lessons. Serious literature interprets human life and offers some of its meaning. Music's incantation can draw us up to exalted levels, and the other arts can show us a beauty which refines feeling and uplifts emotion. But all these possibilities can be realized only if the creators of these productions are themselves open to true inspiration.
The first test of a piece of art is, "Is it beautiful?" Many minds today, especially the younger ones, will vehemently deny the truth of this statement; but that is because they do not know who they really are, what the universe really is, and why they are here at all.
Only out of a beautiful heart or mind can a work of true beauty be produced.
The refined works of art come out of the refinement of the artists. The coarse, crude, and materialistic workers in this cultural area are simply that--manual workers.
There are moods when the aesthetic feeling in some individuals rises to the surface and expresses itself as the beauty of lofty aspiration or the beatitude of nurturing reverence.
In scholarship, in the arts, in precious classics of poetry and literature and music, wide-ranging over the entire world and back to ancient eras but not deserting the latest knowledge of science, he will find nourishment for his mind and feelings. Culture, real education, makes man man, puts him over the animal.
Despite all the degradation which art, literature, and music have suffered in our time, their work will be carried on by the sensitive. They will continue to use imagination to create beauty or to copy Nature and, with its help, to refine human beings, to draw them away from and above the beasts.
Art cannot be expelled from human culture, any more than thought. Just as all attempts to stop the followers of religion from exercising the faculty of reasoning do not succeed in the end, so all attempts to stop them from making sacred figures likewise fail. The first Buddhists were without statues for at least two hundred years. The first Romans did not venture to carve figures of their gods for the same period. The Muhammedans still do not dare to imitate sacred sculpture--neither Allah nor Muhammed is ever depicted, so fierce would the opposition be--but their artists put their skills into geometrical patterns to build mosques of striking beauty. Art cannot be dismissed as mere embellishment. It answers a human need. As Plato saw, the search for the beautiful is only another aspect of the search for the true and the good.
He will be told by the ascetic-minded that he will have to shed the arts on his upward way because simplicity of possessions and freedom from desire for outward things are essential. This is true. But he can learn to shed them inwardly by becoming unattached. If he does this then he may accept them into his life again. The cult of ugliness is not a necessary part of the spiritual existence.
Culture rebelled against those ascetic doctrines and fanatic teachers misusing the virtue of simplicity for the propagation of hatred for beauty.
For us it is not enough to search for reality. We search also for the Beautiful Reality. We need its presence as enjoyably visible here and comfortably felt now.
A creative work of music, pictorial art, or literature which kindles an inspired mood in the audience, the beholder, or the reader has justified itself. It has made a contribution to humanity not less valuable on its own different plane than that which is made by the engineer or the builder.
No nation can call itself truly civilized which does not encourage the teaching, the practice, or the appreciation of the arts.
A country without culture, without music, painting, poetry, drama, and literature, is a country without a soul.
If more persons can be stimulated to create these works, and more beholders encouraged to view and appreciate them, the country benefits.
Beauty is as much an aspect of Reality as truth. He who is insensitive to the one has not found the other.
We must call in the services of art to give religion its finest dress. Music must show its triumphs in the individual soul, architecture must create the proper atmosphere for communion, painting and sculpture must give visual assistance to the mind's upward ascension.
Judge a work of art by analysing its effect. Does it leave you feeling better or worse, inspired or disturbed, calmed or restless, perceptive or dulled? For every opportunity to behold great paintings or listen to inspired music or read deeply discerning literature is itself a kind of Grace granted to us.
When art or literature inflames negative passions, it renders a disservice; but when it purifies, redirects, and exalts them, it renders not only a cultural service but also an evolutionary one.
A gracious and refined style of living might be disapproved by those of ascetic tendencies and even decried as materialistic. But aesthetic feeling can be quite compatible with spirituality.
One of life's objectives is to develop in us these aesthetic feelings, for they lead to the Overself.
Why should culture be abandoned at the bidding of a harsh, anti-intellectual, anti-aesthetic asceticism? It need not be so. One can become spiritual, detached, and even enlightened without depriving oneself of those enrichments of mind and heart which culture can bring.
A work of art which awakens in its beholder or hearer or reader a deep feeling of reverential worship or inner strength or mental tranquillity thereby gives him a blessing. It enables him to share the artist's inspiration.
To the extent that the beholder immerses himself--that is, concentrates on--a work of art, to that extent he partakes of the artist's inspired state.
The inspired beauty to which a true artist introduces the world is an aspect of the same power to which a true priest introduces his flock.
A philosophic temperament, well-developed and sufficiently rounded, has little taste for the ugly bareness propagated in the name of simple living, or for the dreary denial of the beautiful arts in the name of anti-sensuality.
Tolstoy, in his ascetic recoil against his own handiwork, called art "a beautiful lie." Well, it often is so. But it is quite often not so. It can arouse either devilish or divine feelings. It can lead men to that higher beauty which, Keats saw, is one with truth. Whenever its influence is bad, it is the artist who is to be blamed, not art.
A mind caught up with spiritually significant meanings, or attentively held by highly beautiful sounds, is a mind that one day will respond to Truth.
Beauty is one side of reality which attracts our seeking and our love. But because it is so subtle and our perceptions are so gross, we find it first in the forms of art and Nature, only last in the pure immaterial being of the intangible reality.
The way to benefit most by an inspired production is not only to recognize it for what it is, but also to greet it with love.
If it is an inspired, worthwhile piece of art--whether it be music, composition, or painted picture--it will be able to shift one's attention from other and personal things to itself and hold that attention, however briefly. In short, it helps him to forget the self and to become the other. Now if he could make that same transition from the self to a higher level of consciousness where the highest part of his being resides though it is seldom brought within the circle of consciousness, he will achieve the greatest blessing he could give himself.
If a work of art or a piece of writing cleanses the heart or stimulates the search for truth, it is worth what it costs if you have to pay for it, or worth your time if you do not.
Art should evoke an atmosphere. It should transfer an emotion; if it merely transmits a thought, it is but half art.
It is true that we get experience at second hand if we get it through art, but it is also true that we are then able to get experiences of a kind that otherwise we would never have had at all.
True art is successful to the extent that the artistic production guides the listener's, reader's, or viewer's thoughts into the mood in which it was itself created.
Creative art demands concentration if it is to be taken seriously. This is achieved by entering at least a half-meditation.
The need of aesthetic surroundings which once was felt by few is today felt by many more. With the democratic spread of education this is as it should be; this is an evolutionary gain. This is one area where the craving for beauty can satisfy itself. What is still needed is a refinement of this craving, of the taste it engenders, to the border of elegance. With the desertion of vulgarity and grossness must come the appreciation of quality and refinement.
The interest in making or in seeing good paintings among classes previously indifferent towards them is in a way a symptom of everyman's search for spiritual integrity; it is another signal of a half-aware dissatisfaction with a merely materialistic life. Beauty in art and Nature is one side of spiritual appearance which, through the ages, has in poems, stories, paintings, drawings, and sculptures attracted man. But because it is so subtle and our perceptions so obscured, we find it first only in the forms of Nature, then in the forms of art, and finally in the intangible experiences of the deepest feeling.
What calls forth man's attraction toward fair scenes is in the end nothing other than the exquisite beauty of the spiritual link which he there has with God. This is why the productions of talented artists are to be welcomed and valued, but of course only to the extent that they are responses to this inspired call from within.
The difference between creative art and the sterile copying of art is to be learned in sitting humbly at the feet of the higher self.
Beauty of form without nobility of soul misleads its beholders.
Art is the culture of the Beautiful. Yet there is no art greater than that of living.
The Beautiful necessity is not only an aesthetic demand but also a practical asset.
Men follow the vision of beauty because it is an attraction of the Divine and not, as they believe, merely because they happen to like it. Art can be used to ennoble and inspire man, and to revive divine memories in his mind.
To deny spiritual worth to art because it is created to meet physical sense is shortsighted. It starts with the physical response but, in its highest form, it transcends that level. Beethoven set as his loftiest mission the exaltation of man to a harmony with sacred ideals, to joy in the triumph of good over evil, to peace and goodwill on earth. Bach comes near him in certain works which are more specifically concerned with religious themes, whereas Beethoven was more favourable to humanitarian ones.
However enjoyable an aesthetic experience may be, its possibilities are limited by the presence or absence of inspiration in the artist who made it possible. If his own creative work failed to lift him, its result will fail to lift others, too.
It is true that men learn through disappointment and develop through suffering. But this need not cause us to forget that they also learn and develop through joy and beauty.
It is too much an Oriental tendency to regard suffering and unhappiness as the principal causes of turning to the quest. We Westerners must put a better balance on this idea. The love of beauty can also be a step towards the quest. This love can express itself through an ever-increasing refinement of manners or appreciation of nature, and through art and poetry.
Why are so many so attracted by the beautiful in Nature and Art, in creatures and ideas, and so repelled by the ugly in form and thought? Did Plato the cultured Greek and Baal Shem-Tov the unlettered Hebrew share the same truth when they asserted that beauty, rightly understood and properly regarded, could lead us Godward? For different persons react to the Divine differently, because it has--like themselves--different aspects or attributes. If some are attracted to the Truth-side and others to the Love, why not also to the Beauty?
To live with inner death all the time, as unfeeling asceticisms and dried-up metaphysical systems would have men do, did not appeal to the ancient Greeks. Their attraction to the arts, to culture, and to philosophy prevented that. Perhaps that is why their contact with Asia gave those beautiful figures of the Buddha to that vast continent but did not give Greece the fakirs in exchange.
The interest taken by the young people of today in the various arts, both creatively and publicly, at exhibitions and in galleries, would be a good sign and one beneficial to their evolution if the object of their admiration were really worthy of it. But too often this is not the case. We find productions which are senseless, almost insane, or ugly and sinister or sensual and degrading.
Goethe discovered during his Italian journey that the common people seldom had what he called "disinterested admiration for a noble work of art. It was utterly beyond them." Just as Emerson was left quite unimpressed by the uniforms and ceremonials of the religion he found in Italy--a "mummery" he called it--so was Goethe, who wrote of his stay in Rome and visits to the churches: "I felt that I am too old for anything but Truth. Rites or processions, they all run off me like water off a duck's back; but Nature like the sunset seen from the villa or a work of art like my revered Juno leaves a deep impression."
Through art man can create images of those qualities and attributes he finds in the Overself: its beauty, its order, its intelligence. Whether these images come through the medium of music or painting, of sculpture or poetry, they may bring their audience into a mood, a glimpse, or a thought closer to their source.
Why should the enjoyment of beautiful surroundings, things, clothes, music, poems, and moods be sinful, as they are to puritanical minds? Is not the infinite Being the hidden source of the True, the Real, the Good, and the Beautiful? To the philosophic mind their blessings and inspirations are bestowed on man.
Where the faith in, or feeling of, God's reality does not exist, then morality, art, metaphysics may be taken up instead.
The Moors put only a single rug on the floor of a room, as the Japanese put only a single picture on a wall. The aesthetic effect is at its highest when attention is concentrated; but at its lowest when scattered.
The concentration of attention instead of the dispersal of it--this is the guiding rule which is behind the Japanese custom of displaying a single picture for a period of time instead of several competing with one another. There is a precise remembered effect in the first case but a confused one in the second.
Just as art when applied in one's own personal life, environment, and work is an expression of the person himself, so can art also be used as a kind of therapy to refine taste, harmonize character, and uplift moods. So, too, can even a useful craft like handwriting and penmanship be used for the same higher purpose. To turn a clumsy, ugly, half-illegible script into a symmetrical, graceful, easily read one needs good observation, self-discipline, and careful training.
He should refuse to crush his aesthetic instinct.
There is the heat of rapture, the feeling of ecstasy, when we touch this Spirit of Beauty that draws us through and beyond all beautiful things.
Correct taste is more easily and correctly formed if we deliberately seek for the best and continually ignore the worst--that is, if we discriminate under proper guidance.
Art is at its best when it is adventurously creative, but it still serves useful purposes when it is imitative.
Let him expose himself to the best influences in art and spirituality. If they are not available in persons, they may be in books and periodicals, in pictures and statues, in records and concerts.
Art may be the mere embellishment of a drab human existence, or it may become a veritable approach to divine existence.
I am old-fashioned enough to believe that beauty ought to be the aim of art.
It was not all Greeks who were deeply sensitive to beauty, but only the educated ones.
A man may possess metaphysical wisdom yet truly lack aesthetical taste.
If through lack of faith people cannot bring themselves to look upward to the Higher Power, or inward to the spiritual self, and if the experiences of life are not interpreted as exhortations to do so, then the other means of reorientating them which is still left is art.
The lack of artistic taste is not a thing to be proud of: yet when it appears as ascetic indifference to beautiful things, it is considered a virtue!
The practice of art requires qualities which the discussion of art does not. In the first case, we get actual knowledge whereas in the second we get only mere opinion.
For the majority, Art ought to be a path toward a higher level of being, and for the enlightened an expression of it.
The writer who has something worthwhile to communicate, the artist who has an offering of beauty to contribute, blesses his world, but the other kind pollutes it.
Even Buddha never condemned art; that was left for his misguided followers to do: he even recommended, as one exercise to help attain goodness, "the contemplation of the beautiful."
He is thankful for the crocus's purple or mauve colours, for the thrush's song, for the inspired poems and the uplifting books. He appreciates them all the more because he is well aware of the evils and shadows, the horrors and uglinesses.
To recognize, appreciate, or create beauty is to bring gladness into life.
There was a professional landscape gardener (he is not now alive but his work is very much so) who laboured in a public park for thirty-five years. His toil was his spiritual path, a karma yoga. It gave him inner satisfaction, and gave us who visited that park a chance to share it. He was a true artist, with a pure love of Nature.
The leading fashion models show the kind of female beauty admired today--high facial bones, deep eyes set wide apart, slim bodies. The ancient Greeks admired this kind, too, and added the straight line along forehead and nose.
It is better to make efficient yet beautiful things than those which are only functional, better to provide serviceable yet handsome towns than those which offer shelter alone.
If an artistic style makes great ideas seem greater still, let us honour it for the enrichment given us.
We have only to compare a muddled, bewildering statement of truth with a clear, carefully phrased one to learn the value of verbal accuracy. We have only to put a prosaic record of inner experience written by an ascetic side by side with one written by an artist--that is, one devoid of all distinctive style and beautiful form alongside of one that possesses them--to feel which is more likely to stir emotion, inspire action, or affect thought.
He may find beauty in the productions of man, as in the graceful architecture of Muhammedan lands, the elegant harmonious temples of Greece, the prints of Japan, the crafts of China, and many pictures of our own Western painters. He may find it in the music of the Viennese trio--Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven--and in scintillating gems of the poetic art. He may find it in Nature, what she has to give through the season, through a day even, through the forms and colours she shows.
The beautiful symmetry of the public and esoteric buildings put up by ancient Greek architects fulfilled that part of their purpose which was to create a certain high atmosphere. This also happens with the finest artwork of any era or country.
Any piece of musical composition or literary material which has inspiration will also have impact. But not all the hearers or readers will feel this impact. Some amount of sensitivity is called for in those who would patronize the arts, as well as in those who would work creatively in them.
He will achieve at best what the artist or author has himself achieved in the production placed before him, but only if he can put himself in the mind of its creator.
Art is a help to spiritual perception.
The man who has discovered the mentalistic source of beauty does not need to disdain its physical expressions. He can accept them because he has adjusted his life to the practice of inner freedom in the outer world.
He does not have to be a creative artist to possess the pure love of beautiful moods. They may come to him from admiring landscapes, listening to music, appreciating decorative things. But they may also come entirely from within.
The love of Nature and the appreciation of art follow easily from, or equally lead up to, Philosophy.
Let those who want a bare ascetic spirituality have it. But let us inheritors of the culture of the whole known past enrich our lives with their arts, their literatures and music, their educational knowledge.
They insist on looking at the shaded side of life--its brevity and instability, its infirmity and mortality--and then assert that there is no joy, no happiness in it. But the man who has risen into the consciousness of beauty through art finds the clue which can one day lead him to these things.
Inspired art should carry one upwards, should enable the soul to soar to higher levels of feeling and thought.
All rare and inspired art is to be received as the Overself's voice uttering a message and calling us back to our true homeland.
Feeling refines itself if he pursues the true ideal of art, until it attains a delicate exquisite grace like a ballet's in its best moments.
A man may welcome and enjoy any aesthetic enjoyment obtained by the physical senses from Nature's beauty or art's creativity. But if he stops there he serves the body only; it is not enough. What about the soul?
But however much we appreciate aesthetic feelings or cultivate artistic talents, we must also recognize that we cannot stop with these activities. It is not enough to paint pictures or play music. We must still rise to our godlikeness.
When Nature's beauty or man's art moves you deeply, be grateful for their help and appreciate their service. But do not stop there. Use them as aids to transcend your present level and come closer to the god within you.
Value of aesthetic environment
The closer he draws to the Overself's beauty, the more will he feel the necessity of linking it with his physical circumstances; the more will his taste, senses, outlook, and desires become refined. His home and clothes, his furniture and speech, even his diet, will begin to improve aesthetically and be touched by a delicate grace. An environment that is dirty and ugly may be an ascetics's delight but it will not be his: it will, in fact, affront his finer feelings.
The intimate association which is built up with a beautiful environment satisfies the finer instincts. And if the objects in it are themselves associated with spirituality, then higher instincts are encouraged. Moreover, to the extent that the creator of a decorative scheme or work of art possesses a measure of mystical experience or intuition--or, rarer and even better, philosophic insight--something of this quality may be seen or felt in the production.
A beautiful home helps to introduce beauty and refinement into thought, feeling, and even character.
The use of pseudo-antique furniture and classical reproductions today in architecture is a tragic sign of bankrupt artistic creativeness. The use of newly designed furniture and contemporary architecture, of up-to-date materials and methods and inventions, is a praiseworthy sign of true inner vitality. Modernist home, office, factory, and public buildings, furnishings, decorations, fitments, appliances, and machines are strong in their own right because they have stemmed from modern developments in thinking, feeling, and living. The antiquated past products, with their fancy decorations rather than functional design, were useful and attractive to former generations but have now fulfilled their mission. Today their imitations sound futile and untimely notes, whereas the twentieth-century creations, styles, and productions are harmonious parts of the symphony of our very existence in this twentieth-century world. Nevertheless, they too fall into a one-sidedness which is the defect of their own virtue.
The modernist architecture and merchandise, furniture, airplanes, and automobiles, which express themselves in streamlined but plain clean-cut forms almost entirely devoid of ornament, do so in the belief that the purpose of a structure should dictate its form and that the mechanical function of a household article should govern its appearance. This leaves little room for aesthetic feeling. These designs are highly efficient for their purpose. But does not integral living call for something more than such monotonous efficiency--something more than such severity? What harm is there if a touch of the picturesque is introduced? The cold bare undecorated lines of modern productions are as extreme as the tropic ornate lines of baroque architecture. The one seeks comfort and utility, the other grace. Why not combine both in the philosophical manner?
An artistic and refined environment is a dispensable luxury to those of coarse unevolved stuff, but a spiritual necessity to those of sensitive evolved fibre.
Will it make a sensitive man more dull if he lives in a dull surrounding? Will it increase his desires if he shapes and colours it to suit a refined taste and puts comfortable furniture inside it? Will a plain and homely hut conduce to greater so-called spirituality? Will the daily rendezvous with his higher self through meditation be adversely affected one way or the other by the amount of money and care he spends on his environment? The answers must depend on the kind of man he is, not on other people's opinions.
To surround oneself with beauty in materials and designs, in clothes and carpets, in pictures and decorations, is not necessarily to be snobbish and ostentatious, nor is the cultivation of taste and refinement necessarily accompanied by revelling in luxury. And to assert that elegance and quality and beauty must be abandoned for the simple life when one enters the path of spirituality is to raise the question: what is simplicity? Is it utter barrenness, the caveman's life? Is it mere ugliness? Is it squalor and dirt? Is it discomfort? And further: How many could agree on the basic needs of a simple life? In any case, let us not force all spirituality into a single groove. The philosophic way is to seek a quality of consciousness which transcends the ordinary, which is enriched by one's spiritual development and not impoverished by it. Both thought and feeling must be able to meet in the Silence, bow down and worship It. Both of them should enter into this final act as a consequence of their own growth and creative fulfilment.
Refined and gracious living is an expression of refined taste. It does not necessarily need great wealth to support it, for even within a modest income it can still be expressed in a modest way. A few plants, soft lights, fine porcelain, pleasantly patterned carpet, brightly coloured pictures, and a minimum of decorative furniture will give a man comfort and beauty.
The home, be it room or house, is both an extension and an expression of oneself. It tells, to some extent, what one has made of oneself.
Small narrow minds find fit expression in cramped living quarters, but spacious refined minds need spacious and beautiful homes if they are to feel at ease.
A dingy room in a squalid slum will not obstruct the saint or sage in feeling the Spirit, but it is hardly inspiring to less evolved persons.
Two hundred years ago life was dressed in colours, and a walk through the town's streets was like walking through a fancy dress parade.
Drab, tasteless, and mediocre rooms do not contribute toward spiritual uplift merely because they cost less to decorate and furnish. A refined sensitive nature will feel depressed rather than uplifted in them.
Bright colours in a room where cheerfulness, warmth, and vitality are needed are most apt decoration and furnishing, as soft pastel hues fit better to one where quietude is desired.
The human being is played upon by various influences at various stages of his life in the body. We all know what climate and music will do to create different moods, but one factor often not understood or neglected is the influence of colour. It is always there in our surroundings, in a room, apartment, or house, in our clothing and in our furnishings. It can contribute towards health or take away from it; it can cheer or depress the emotions; it can invigorate or devitalize the body; it can give pleasure to the eyes or irritate them. Red, for instance, colour of the planet Mars and associated in astrology with war and anger, can be stimulating and life-giving if it is in its pure clear form. But in its undesirable darkish shades, it simply stimulates the lower desires, the animal feelings. However, it is a warm colour and for those who are old in years and in whom the circulation of blood is poor, the presence of pure red in the decorations and furnishings will help to keep them warmer. Orange will give the beneficial side of red and less of its negative side. Yellow is the colour of reason and helps to lift a man above his lower desires. In its pure golden sun-coloured phase, it is the colour of spiritual attainment, of the master who has achieved rulership over his emotions and body and passions. Green, which is Nature's colour, is restful, soothing, cheerful, and health-giving. The pure azure blue of Italian skies is associated by astrology with the planet Venus, the star of art, beauty, and sympathy verging almost on love. In its purest form it denotes devotional love, spiritual aspiration. It is not enough to know the meaning of colours; one must also know two other things about them: first, how to blend different colours and second, how to contrast them.
A view which offers pictorial pleasure helps to give those conditions which favour meditation.
The craving for a little natural beauty in their home, a flower, a tiny garden, which the humblest of families may have, is subtly nostalgic. Through Nature it is an echo of longing for the spirit.
Any object of decoration, furnishing, or other figure in our surroundings which helps to remind us of the Unchanging Goal in this changing world is desirable.
Why should the wish to live in physical comfort be opposed to the wish to live in mental calm? It is indeed a blind form of asceticism which does not see that the two can be kept in a harmonious equilibrium.
If the philosopher--in contrast with the ascetic--calls for beauty, refinement, even elegance in his surroundings, this is not a weakness for luxury or a pandering to vanity. It is a genuine response to aesthetic feeling, a sense of its value.
A refined, artistic, simple way of life, such as the more cultured Japanese have practised for centuries, is a fitting accompaniment or prelude to the philosophic way.
A simple environment, even an austere one, is understandable and acceptable in the case of those who have outwardly renounced the world, as well as of those who try to live in the world and yet be inwardly detached from it. But an ugly environment, even a drab one, is neither understandable nor acceptable in the case of those who profess to worship the Spirit. For its attributes are not only Goodness and Truth, among others, but also Beauty. To cultivate an indifferent attitude toward material possessions is one thing, but to show an insensitive one toward beautiful creations and to feel no repugnance toward ugly ones is not a spiritual approach; it is anti-spiritual.
Sacred mission of art
When, as often, I mention art as having a high mission, a sacred one, I do not necessarily mean the portrayal of anecdotes from the history of any particular religion.
The mission of the artist is to admire and embody the beautiful, so that others may be brought into the admiration and appreciate the beautiful too.
There is a two-way possibility in art. It can lay a pathway to the divine for the untalented seeker, and it can become a manifestation of the divine in the hands of the talented artist.
The technique of art is important, but the mission of art--to communicate and awaken the intuitive feeling of Beauty--is still more important.
It is the business of an artist, poet, or writer (of the more serious kind) to lift a man out of himself, his little ego, by presenting beauty, truth, or goodness so attractively that the man is drawn and held by it to the point mentioned--of forgetting himself.
It is the proper business of an artist to find the highest beauty in Nature and then to reveal it, through his medium, to others. But this he cannot really do until he has first found it within himself.
The higher mission of art can only be fulfilled by a higher calibre of artists. They must look to something more than skill for results, must prepare themselves to be worthy of being used as channels.
Those who are able to bless society with a talent or gift which is truly inspired and uplifts people are themselves blessed in its use and uplifted in turn. With this comes a responsibility to purify themselves and thus bring the work to a higher level.
The artist may work to earn his livelihood. But if he is also to consult his conscience, he must at the same time strive to become a servant of the Holy Spirit.
What is the final call of true art? Not to the work which expresses it but to the spirit which inspires it, the divine source of which it reminds us.
Ever since art separated itself from religion there has been confusion about art's relationships. Ought it preach, teach, propagate a message, be moral, be amoral, or only stand aloof from these things? The answer is that it can do or be any or all of these things, so long as it does not forget that primarily it is art, wedded to the Beautiful, and only secondarily, indirectly, concerned with religion, morality, and the other things. Let people make their own sermons from the mental pictures they are presented with, draw their own morals from the stories they read, and provide their own religious moods from the musical sounds they hear. Such work the artist ought not do for them.
Whether it be applied in the home (furnishing and decorating), expressed through sound in music or paint in pictures, in poetry or prose, drama or dance, the mission of art is to create images of beauty which attract man to refinement ever-increasing.
Art can take the place of and be a substitute for religion only when it is truly inspired.
When they fulfil their highest mission, painting and sculpture try to make visible, music tries to make audible, prose literature tries to make thinkable, poetic literature tries to make imaginable the invisible, inaudible, unthinkable, and unimaginable mystery of pure Spirit. Although it is true that they can never give shape to what is by its very nature the Shapeless, it is also true that they can hint, suggest, symbolize, and point to It.
An art production whose form derives from spiritual tradition or symbolism, whose content derives from spiritual experience or understanding, is at least as worthy of veneration as a religious relic.
If art has only an ornamental value, if it is merely something with which to decorate our clothes and our homes or to titillate our senses of sight and hearing, or if it is an escape in order to forget the burden of our cares, it has justified itself. But it has not found its highest mission, which is achieved when men are so affected by it, by the feeling of refined beauty which it awakens, that they accept the clue thus offered them and follow it up until it leads them deep within to their higher Selves.
Art, like spiritual cults, is infected with charlatanism. The truly beautiful in art and the really noble in cults are too often missed because the quacks are more aggressive.
The inspired mission, the higher purpose of art is not only to create in us the heavenly mood, but also to celebrate it, not only to tell, but to tell joyously.
Art is a channel to the lower or the higher, to ugliness or to beauty, to the gross or to the spiritual. When inspired, it is at its best level, but it can not be self-sufficient. Even art must fit into a place in the Whole, must not remain the sole fulfilment of life.
It is open to the artist, as also to the man of thought, to use his work to uplift himself--quite apart from the question of what it may do for others. When he was twenty-one years old, and as he prepared himself for his first post as a minister, Emerson wrote in his diary, "My trust is that my profession shall be my regeneration."
Whoever accepts the higher mission of art and comes nearer and nearer to it through his creative activity, will then go on from art to the Spirit deep within his own self.
Art and poetry must rouse the most delicate feelings, must enchant us, if they are to fulfil their highest mission. For the highest state of man's nature is a mysterious feeling, blended though it is with understanding, knowing--that is, intelligence. But when art and poetry titillate only the sensual side of man they fail to render this service.
Art succeeds in its true mission and highest objective when its quality is technically developed enough to induce concentration in the recipient, and spiritually profound enough to awaken inspiration in him.
Only those artists and writers, priests and gardeners who are authentically inspired can give us real beauty. Only work born from such a state of grace fulfils art's loftiest mission.
The artist, and especially the writer, who is sensitive and talented to a high degree will have to choose between working to please the mass taste or working to please his highest idea of art and literature.
It is sometimes said that the artist who clings to his ideals and refuses to degrade both his aims and his art at the bidding of a harsh commercialism will most likely find scorn and starvation for his lot. I am not inclined to accept this statement, although I know well that it is partly true. It is not fair to make such a hasty, all-sweeping generalization. I think it fairer to say that the genius often has to content himself with some crumbs gathered by working for the appreciative few, rather than earning a better subsistence at the expense of the wider clientele which naturally prefers mediocrity. Nor is the latter always to be blamed.
The inspired artist, the inwardly-led writer, does not have to see the effect of his production upon others. It is really enough that he has brought this addition to the world's cultural wealth into being. But if these others feel this effect, and if some among them recognize its beneficence, they will be willing to pay for the service rendered--and thus help to keep him alive for further work!
Art is a form of communication; it is not and cannot be (if it is true to itself) an end in itself. It is a way of imparting to others what one thinks or feels about anything. Whether it be music or poetry, sculpture or literature, art presupposes an audience.
Wallace Stevens once wrote, "I am the necessary Angel of Earth, since in my sight you see the earth again." He thus unconsciously described the mission of philosophically inspired educators, composers, artists, poets, and writers.
If an artwork engenders some kind of elevation, if it extends the recipient's consciousness, it has fulfilled art's highest purpose.
The artist who has left his audience, beholders, or readers as much the victims of their little personality as they were before, may have amused, interested, or titillated them, but he has not rendered them any higher service by the capacity in him to create.
Whoever produces an idea which penetrates another man deeply and brings him a new sense of harmony and peacefulness is one of that man's benefactors. But this can only be so if the idea is a true one, not a misleading fantasy ending nowhere or, worse, a mischievously false one.
The picture in art and the word in literature may be dark hindrances to truth or real helps. It depends on how much illumination, or how little, there is in the artist or writer.
We may find that the arts too may enlighten our way because they may give us glimpses and not just bring everyday life to its full refinement of culture. And out of these glimpses--with the purification and uplift they give--we may be led to the supreme way of liberation, redemption, and peace.
A composition--be it written or painted, played on instruments or carved in stone--has done its most vital work if it opens our hearts to the rare feeling of tranquil harmony.
Behind the work of a poet or composer true to art's higher mission is this hidden power of his own higher self. It bestows the inspiration which permeates his work.
Only as art lifts man to higher concepts of beauty does it fulfil its best service to him. For it then lifts him to spirituality too.
The artist susceptible to fine shapes and lovely colours or to whispering, melodious, and exultant sounds, or to words which transform the mind by alchemy, fails himself, his best self, unless he rises to this high service of holy communion with Overself for us all.
To be creative, to bring something new, better, or worthwhile into the world, is the privilege of inspired persons. To bring something beautiful into the world is the inspired artist's mission.
In the squalor of Verlaine's personal life and the beauty of his poetry we see a startling contrast. It illustrates the need to remember that however grand the higher mission of art is, it does not quite attain the goal of human existence; it does, however, rise to the level next below that goal. It is a genuine spiritual path but not the ultimate final one.
The real worth of an artistic production, a piece of writing, a painting, or a song is attained only if it succeeds in giving others a Glimpse. Otherwise it is merely a form of entertainment, a passing pleasure, or an escape to kill time.
If art fulfils itself when communicating beauty, it transcends itself when the communication lifts a man into ecstasy.
Criticism of ``modern art''
The new modes in art have attracted and excited some people, especially younger people, but others have found them ugly and undisciplined and repulsive. Is modern art as insincere as its critics claim? Is it pseudo-art? Whatever else it be, it certainly shows the spirit of ferment in this period.
Those artists who are truly dedicated and occasionally truly inspired will not be found in the contemporary mass movement of those who mistake their bizarre subconscious nonsense for sublime creation, their excessive mercenary motives for an authentic mission.
It is not abstraction itself that is objectionable and insufferable but ugliness and meaninglessness.
Ill-informed persons or those with confused minds have produced pieces of work under the heading of abstract art or of avant-garde poetry which they allege to be mystical productions following a tradition of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian mysticism, when in fact they are nothing of the sort.
We may grant that colours have their own independent offering to make to us. We can understand that, in a search for being different, forms and images derived from the world are rejected and that, in a revolutionary protest against enslavement by the past, chaos and anarchy seem preferable, even though most of us would emphatically disagree. But who can understand why so many people have come to accept and live with modern abstract art in the numerous instances where charlatanry and commercialism masquerade so blatantly under this title?
We are promised a meaningful intellectual perception and an emotional experience if we continue to study these spatterings which pass under the name of non-objective or abstract pictures. We are told that the intuition will be awakened, since the painter created his or her work by intuitive direction, and we shall receive even a mystical revelation. But although all this would certainly be true if the painter were actually illumined and inspired by the Overself at the time, it is quite untrue if he or she were not. The fact is that almost all these artists are undeveloped souls with confused minds, quite incapable of receiving inspiration because unfit for it.
The "art for art's sake" school wanted beauty and form even when they rejected intellectual meaning and spiritual purpose. But today's abstractionist school wants none of these.
Most of this modern abstractionist painting is done from the head and not from the heart. Its claim to be uncontrolled subconscious automatism is a self-deluded one. Its ugly splashes and smears, its crude splotches and stains fitly belong to the machine age, but totally lack the symmetry, the rationality, and the elegance which are not seldom found associated with the modern machine.
When song and melody go out of poetry in the name of liberty for the poet, of freedom from rules, laws, and systems, poetry itself becomes a half-mute, its spell half gone.
With all their insanity and futility and ugliness, these modern movements in art possess a dynamic spirit, a youthful vigour, a readiness to discard the debris of the past, a forward-looking attitude which knows that the artist cannot remain creative if he or she stops rigidly with the copying of old petrified forms.
The aesthetic aberrations which are offered to the public as works of art show, first, a misuse of language; second, a blatant commercialism; third, a soulless materialism; fourth, an affinity with lunacy; and lastly, a cynical contempt for all the finer ideals of humanity.
Painters who reject all the training of the schools but make no effort of their own to replace it are like pianists who reject the mastery of their instrument. The confused noises which would be played out by such pianists' fingers are paralleled by the absurd pictures such painters offer.
So much modern art lacks both design and beauty, that its frequent failure to command respect is understandable.
The free creativity which may follow inspiration will be none the worse if it is expressed through a training in the art concerned, if it is disciplined by traditional forms. It need not be limited entirely by them, but it cannot do without them without losing its power of proper communication. Those who reject such education entirely not only reject art itself but exhibit a touch of madness. There is a case for pointing out the danger of inspiration's being suffocated by too much pedantic and academic erudition, but the young rebels not only overstate the case and make it sound ridiculous: they destroy it.
Abstract art, which reproduces nothing to be found in Nature, or represents no meaningful concept, may have its place. But it is not exempt from the primary responsibility of all art: to lead mankind along the path of beauty. If abstract compositions are ugly they no longer come under the category of art. They belong elsewhere.
It is true that interest in bold new ideas and experimentation with daring new procedures have accompanied the artistic and intellectual work of our time. But they have also accompanied its disintegration and deterioration.
Those modern artists, writers, and composers whose productions seem utterly senseless confound the irrational with the inspirational. They regard the two terms as interchangeable.
It is a common mistake among artists and writers to regard inflammation as inspiration, and to take inflamed feelings for inspired revealings.
An art which, in the name of intuition, non-objectivism, and non-representationism, substitutes meaninglessness, chaos, anarchy, and ugliness and rejects form, order, beauty, and discipline is only a pseudo-art.
We may say of this kind of pseudo-art what Santayana said in another context: "It is not true that deformity expresses the Spirit."
Be original, yes, be creative, but not at the price of becoming insane and spreading insanity.
Why go back to the primitive peoples for models to copy or to be inspired by when they were either the deteriorated remnants of earlier Atlantean-Lemurian races or the beginnings of our own later ones--both living in Nature like half-animals or semi-savages? Why ignore all the creditable history of art, culture, aesthetic taste, refined perceptions, and intellectual quality which has been our glorious possession and memorial through the work of seven thousand years? If some of this new art led to a higher degree or a further improvement of what we now have, it would justify its existence. But instead we see only a horrible deterioration. Its fruits are ugly monstrosities which can have only a bad influence on its beholders. Let us welcome the less advertised but more sincere work of those among the moderns who, while remaining faithful to art's lofty mission as illustrated in so many classics, yet have not hesitated to let the spirit of the times touch their hand, throw out the unsuitable debris of the past, and open their eyes to fresh visions which shall guide their creations.
The modern Western art movements such as cubism and non-objective painting have used geometrical forms in an ugly way. If anything attractive has ever appeared in their pictures, it has come through the colours used. The Oriental Muhammedan artists and architects have likewise used geometrical forms, because this was the restriction laid upon them by the prophet Muhammed; but they have used them in a beautiful way. A mosque is a thing which is a joy to see whatever one's religion may be. What further comment need be made?
Whether it is a book, a landscape, or heard music, whatever it is it provides us with an opportunity to discover our own higher self--but it can do so only if it is itself functioning on that higher level. This is why so much of modern art, most of it in fact, fails to fulfil the best mission of art. Nature's value to us as observers depends upon our reactions to it. Feeling is as necessary as thinking, but it must be positive or intuitive feeling, not negative or materialistic.
I have tried to indicate the importance of art and to plead for the artist; but in these days not so many know what art really is, nor do so many who claim to be artists understand what they are claiming. At the very best most of them are craftsmen, technicians, even mechanics, but this is not the same as being artists. At the worst they have no technique, no talent, no sanity.
Let these new art forms take their place for those who are attuned to them, who want them; let these forms coexist with the older ones. But let not the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the past be thrown aside and trampled on by intolerant innovators.
If the art forms of today contain much that is worthless, they will pass away unregretted with time. If there is excess and absurdity in them, there is also vitality, youthfulness, and often colour.
Those alleged artists who are interested only in technique and not in content, whose avoidance of representation has become an obsessive mania, whose horror of meaning has run so far as to run into madness may, if they are sincere, which many are not, be experimentalists or technologists--but they are not real artists.
The freedom which allows greedy, mercenary, or sensualist persons to poison literature, theatre, and other arts by stimulating lust, is unethical and unhealthy. Its victims, whether young or old, are stupefied by their own animality.
Modern art has exiled beauty and forgotten, not fulfilled, its mission.
Much modern art and poetry, music and literature is derived from sources that have nothing to do with genuine art. Neuroses, psychoses, imbalances, and decadence itself are often its roots.
Those composers, playwrights, novelists, and painters who use images of other people's horror render a disservice to their audience. The result is a harmful flow back into their own selves.
When unpleasantness is called entertainment, when excessive sadism, extreme violence, murder, homosexuality, promiscuity, adultery, and pornography are the nourishment of leisure hours, then values are very low. Audiences demand such strong sensations, the purveyors claim: they are uninterested in moral innocence and find no attraction in calm characters. But it is not less true that the entertainers deliberately set out to stimulate these decadent attitudes.
The artist, the poet, or the musician who gives nothing beautiful to the world may give everything else, may titivate, excoriate, narrate, or adumbrate, may entertain or thrill, but he has failed to fulfil the higher in the mission of art.
Note to PB: Investigate the possibility that the hidden and real origin of abstract art--where it is genuine and drawn from the Unconscious as is usually claimed, where it is not produced by the ordinary conscious methods to profit financially by a current fad--is in past evolutionary prehistoric periods, especially those which Subud meditations and LSD drug-taking reveal.
The artist who degenerates into a sloppy, dirty, and slovenly way of living which he or she calls "bohemian" possesses no aesthetic sensitivity, no refined feeling, and is unworthy of the name. True art requires a feeling for beauty which in turn requires the artist to follow a finer, more fastidious, way of living than the average. Filthy surroundings, a dirty body, and soiled clothes are not the appurtenances of such a way. True bohemianism is simply the disdain for the conventional pursuit of money and luxury at the cost of higher ideals. It is the willingness to live a simple life rather than sacrifice those ideals.
Those among the surrealist painters and poets of last century and the non-objective artists of this one who wanted to break away from the materialist representations of their time merely discarded what they found: their approach was negative and destructive. They could not arrive at the farther step because they lacked the vocation, the dedication, the character, and the knowledge. They could not enter the real source of inspiration and beauty, the abode of authentic silence, but only too often the drug- or alcohol-born caricatures.
To call such ridiculous productions art is to misuse language and misguide the young. They are more properly called non-art, even anti-art. They display a complete failure to understand the purpose of art. It would be a waste of time to comment further upon them were it not for the unbelievable number of spiritually minded persons who have been falsely led to regard them as manifestations of the spiritual intuition! They are as miserably negative as a true art is firmly positive. A single painting of a countryside scene by Constable, derided as being "representational" by talentless pseudo-artists, will be esteemed and honoured long after their worthless productions are thrown away into the rubbish-can where they belong.
We have heard much of the polluting effects which applied science and technology have brought into modern life. We have heard less of the polluting effects which television's portrayal of violence, the theatre's portrayal of sexual animality and perversion, and literature's portrayal of all these, have brought into mental life.
Poetry without rhythm, music without melody, prose without meaning, non-representational pictures without form, and everything without beauty grace or charm never touch the source of inspired art.
Contemporary artists, writers, and poets who violently reject the old forms and denigrate the great names of the past, who find wisdom and beauty and genius only in their own times (and even then only in their own particular coteries and partisan movements), are merely trying to be different, and to be themselves. That is, whatever their physical age may be, this is really one part of their general attempt to assert their freedom from adolescence. They are emotionally young and intellectually immature persons who lack the experience and balance to form sound judgements.
Writers and painters, musicians and sculptors who are devoid of craftsmanship, technique, skill, care, and training take eagerly to these contemporary movements which reject the need of such things. Consequently their works lack form, orderliness, rationality, meaning, health, beauty, charm, melody, and sanity.
An art which does not open the fountains of beauty but instead releases decay, violence, destructiveness, negativeness, nihilism, sickness, nastiness, and disease has missed its way, has lost itself.
Far too much of modern artistic production finds its ultimate roots not in inspiration of any good kind, but in deliberate commercial greed. Even the discussions, arguments, and interviews purporting to expound the theories of the various groups have a hollow insincerity behind them.
Even the untalented, the semi-literate, the incapable, the untrained avoid the necessary disciplines of art and literature on the excuse of completely free self-expression. This is mere verbiage.
What contemporary thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre say about "the loneliness of man" refers to there being no God to keep him company, which is a false belief.
There is no attempt to evoke beauty, simply because there is no capacity to do so.
The contemporary impertinence which flouts Nature in order to present its own repulsive ugliness, which rejects the Real in favour of the insane, will and inevitably must pass away into oblivion, as it deserves.
Abstract painters lack direction yet glory in the lack. Where this is just a means of hiding their lack of skill, it is understandable but unpardonable. Where they have the skill, which is uncommon, it is to be deplored as a surrender to unbalanced or unworthy influences.
Much of this pseudo-art suggests not the primitivity which is perhaps intended, but a kind of insanity!
The false feminine prettiness which cosmetic manufacturers and considerable advertising have created, the pretense of beauty where there is little or none, is another symptom of the sickness of our era.
Out of African jungle-orgies there came to Europe by transmission through, and modified by, Harlem and New Orleans a dance or symphonic music which was intended to arouse erotic impulse, which was a vulgar aphrodisiac.
To look at the pictures of criminals on television or cinema and to follow their doings, just as to read about them in novels, is to associate with them. To do this day after day is to keep company with low debasing persons.
In these days when so much of art is nothing of the kind at all, when true aesthetic and poetic inspiration becomes rarer and rarer, it is more needful not to desert the best of the past while welcoming or seeking fresh living creativity in the new.
Out of the gutters and sewers of human existence has come a generation of writers, mostly working-class, who were never taught any better because their parents knew no better, who take delight in using filthy language or telling dirty stories. They reproduce in literature and drama the only kind of society--quite a low kind--which they know. There are unpleasant necessities connected with animal bodies, such as that of excretion. The proper way to deal with them is taught in private to properly brought-up children. They are not openly referred to in public among adults with the slightest claim to manners. Yet these novelists and playwrights, who degrade the name of artist, constantly use in literature words which pollute it by their coarseness, vulgarity, and ugliness, or oaths which "take the name of God in vain." Restraint, refinement, and good form are personal qualities unknown to these writers. They claim to make transcripts from life. But to picture the lowest levels of life serves no good purpose, only bad ones.
When artistic taste and human dignity are missing, we are left unmoved or unhelped.
It is all to the good that the younger writers and composers, painters and sculptors seek to produce new and different work. But when they have to force their technique into unnatural arbitrary and senseless forms, the result is only new and worse work from which a sensitive taste must turn away in disgust.
How far down has that man himself sunk whose work is intended to stimulate animality, shock conventionality, or propagate hostility, who has lost sight of the higher mission of art, which is to uplift and not to degrade mankind.
It is not art but a trick: each tries to outdo the others in devising new tricks.
Art ought to be conducive to beautiful feelings, graceful living, and sensitivity to Nature. If we do not find much of this in modern art, we must look at the artists themselves to understand why this is so.
The exclusive concern of so many writers and dramatists, novelists and film-makers, with sexual looseness and perversion is unhealthy. The effect upon readers or audiences can only be to breed unhealthy emotions leading in some cases to undesirable action.
A production which carries aesthetic irritation to those who behold it is not a true work of art.
Mixed-up and confused as the minds and feelings of so many artists are, the meaninglessness of their productions may yet be a far-off precursor of a newer and truer art to come.
The Notebooks are copyright © 1984-1989, The Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation.