Art and Hermeneutics Part 2

Hermeneutics, performance art, and shamanism. Plus a journey into the style of “fusion” music which took shape in the 1970s, including a video interview with Mahavishnu John McLaughlin.

In Part 1, I began discussing hermeneutics as a theory of art — not a dry theory, but something helpful and practical. I hope you had fun watching the different videos; and while the emphasis was on fun, the point is that hermeneutics is concerned with helping us understand art, finding ways to overcome the historical and cultural boundaries we may face when trying to comprehend art from another time or culture, or art partaking of such far-flung influences.

To summarize from Part 1: Hermeneutics looks on art as something that we like because it’s a part of our lives and a part of human civilization. We understand it by connecting with it and asking good questions. We try not to abuse art by approaching it with a wrong understanding or no understanding at all. If we don’t understand it, an honest question to ask is: have we engaged with it and taken in those things which are helpful to understanding? Or are we standing coldly aloof from it, and does this create a barrier to understanding?

The word “hermeneutics” also comes up in discussions of performance art, and performance artists are sometimes called “hermeneutists.” This might seem puzzling until we learn that in Greek mythology, Hermes was the son of Zeus and the messenger of the gods. The gods don’t speak directly to human beings, so Hermes acts as their interpreter. This makes Hermes the patron saint of hermeneutics (notwithstanding his lack of quaint parades in third world countries).

According to this line of thought, performance artists are interpreters of the culture in which they live, or perhaps all of human civilization. They’re seen as living messengers (though of what, it’s not always exactly clear).

So how does shamanism enter the picture? (“By the back door,” would be one clever retort.) From a modern secular point of view (which I don’t happen to embrace), shamans might be said to perform incomprehensible rituals which have a theatrical component (like performance artists), and which are intended to transform them and their audience (or participants in the shamanic ritual).

Performance artists are interpreters of culture who perform a kind of intense personal magic which may possess transformative power, provided the audience enters into dialogue (or identifies) with them. Not surprisingly, the performance art community stresses the connection between performer and audience far more than one would find at, say, an exhibition of Victorian upholstery. In some performance art, the distinction between performer and audience arguably disappears. The art is not delivered over a transom by the artist, but is created to a considerable extent by participants. In both performance art and shamanism there may be an element of spectacle. So does all this mean that

performance artist = shaman [???]

Not necessarily. Think of it more as conceptual mapping between two different traditions. Perhaps in a largely secular period and region (such as Western Europe at the start of the twenty-first century), performance art acts as a substitute for certain types of shamanic rituals, without genuinely approximating them, and without necessarily understanding what the original rituals entailed or signified.

As I see it, the shamanic tradition involves performing rituals which have some definite supernatural effect, such as putting the shaman or participants in contact with a supernatural force or entity, an altered state of consciousness, or a healing power (whether conceived of as internal or external). Most modern performance artists, on the other hand, strike me as engaged in a type of secular theatre which may imitate (or perhaps ape) the outer trappings of shamanism, but which neither intends to have (nor succeeeds in having) a supernatural effect. Rather, the effect is social, political, aesthetic, or psychological.

Of course, performance art has its critics and skeptics. A “cutting” satire on the genre is found in The West Wing episode “Gone Quiet”:

Writing in The Guardian on “How performance art took over,” Adrian Searle provides a more serious and balanced perspective, and will get you up-to-speed faster than some wholly credulous authors writing from within the performance art community. Searle opines:

The proliferation of performance in museums has a lot to do with both art itself and the changing role of these institutions, as well as the demands of an audience that wants to feel empowered, engaged and participatory. Today’s spectators demand a role, whether they are inventing their own performances in the gallery … or clamouring to take part in artist-led workshops such as the Hayward Gallery’s ongoing Wide Open School. We want to be active, rather than passive spectators. Perhaps this is merely fashion, but I suspect not. … Private rituals and public acts, catharsis and confrontation are the central strands of art as performance. The work is the beginning of a dialogue, not an end. It is something shared. We are all performers, even when we are playing at being spectators.

Ritual plays an important part in human civilization, human psychology. With the rise of secularism and the corresponding decline in faith-based communal rituals, people are looking to artists to provide them with rituals they can join in, but not believe in — or at least, where no particular beliefs are prerequisites for participation.

I’ve had lively discussions with Buddhists who claim that Buddhism is not a religion and requires no beliefs. I won’t recapitulate that argument in full, but some American Buddhists are refugees from strict Christian (or other) upbringings. Their particular style of Buddhism has a lot to do with rebellion, and rejection of beliefs they were force-fed. This is less true of Buddhism as practiced historically in India, China, Japan, Thailand, and Tibet. A distinct feature of some American Buddhism is its connection to American counterculture and rejection of formal requirements, its nonconformist, roll-your-own quality.

So, if there are differences between traditional Buddhism and modern American variants, can there also be differences between the shamanic tradition and the type of shamanism which Western performance art is said to emulate or ape?

Perhaps bad performance art = faux shamanism. There’s a saying in science fiction circles that alien tech is indistinguishable from magic (a variation on Clarke’s Third Law). Likewise, for people who don’t believe in the existence of God, gods, avatars, angels, spirits, or higher consciousness, performance art may be indistinguishable from shamanism, despite their seeming differences.

I think the underyling fallacy is that by imitating the outer form of something, the artist has captured its essence. In the 1986 film Saving Grace, British actor Tom Conti does a superb job of portraying the Pope, but that doesn’t mean he embodies all that the Pope is (or can be) in real life. For that he would probably need years of spiritual training, as well as a sense of calling or vocation.

There’s a darker side to some performance art involving self-harm, cutting, and so forth. This sub-genre creates a public spectacle of blood and pain, and is justified by theories concerning primitive cultures, endorphin production, and whatnot. The mere fact that an act is performed as ritual does not sanctify it. I think this type of performance art tends, whether consciously or unconsciously, to evoke the demonic, and does not have a truly healing spirit.

The extreme nature of some performance art may produce a forced increase in endorphin levels, but this need not indicate that anything spiritual (or even supernatural) is taking place. Also, those performance artists who do try to invoke some form of spirit being strike me as unconcerned with the nature of what they are invoking. With no clear grounding in tradition and no clear moral sense, they may easily become channels for dark and violent spirits. It’s like someone who built their own radio out of spare parts. They’re so eager to tune in anything at all that they may fail to consider the meaning, quality, or purpose of what’s “coming out of the speaker.”


A Saturday Night Live spoof of The Exorcist, with Richard Pryor as Father Karras

This is not to condemn all performance art or minimize its value, but simply to ask tough questions about what it is or claims to be. Those who have rejected (or never studied) rituals of light may be drawn to rituals of darkness. Any intense communal experience, even one involving violence and pain, may be mistaken for the spiritual. Indeed, one of the challenges of our postmodern world is that the meaning tends to slip off words like “spiritual,” so that almost anything might be defined as spiritual according to the experience and predilections of the individual.

Anecdotally, I recall from the mid-1970s a story being circulated about a friend who had once trained as a Christian brother, but had since embraced everything from Eastern philosophy to glam rock. Referring to a formal spiritual event where everyone sat in silence and meditated, another friend telling the story related: “He said that was the highest meditation he’s ever had — but then he also said that about the latest David Bowie concert…”

I’m an arts person, certainly not a political conservative, so my point here is not to rant about peculiar notions found in postmodernity. I’m trying to slowly lay the predicate for understanding how a particular scholar, Dr. Shrinivas Tilak, connects performance art as it exists today with the poet-seer or “kavi” of ancient India, who may be viewed as an authentic shaman within the Vedic tradition.

If performance art sometimes consists of artists imitating shamanic rituals, how would this differ from shamans practicing performance art?

Some time in the late twentieth century, high quality digital recordings of Tibetan Buddhist music began to be available to Western audiences, many of whom knew nothing about Buddhism. Some devotees of the avant-garde listened to Tibetan Buddhist music purely for its aesthetic qualities, largely divorced from any beliefs about Buddhism. Others, such as Phillip Glass, helped popularize interest in Tibetan Buddhist music out of a deeper understanding arising from Buddhist practice. Tibetan Buddhist ensembles began to tour Western nations,

and anyone from New York’s downtown arts scene was surely familiar with them.

One aspect of the New York School, broadly conceived, is the influence of Japan, China, India, and Tibet — not just in art, but in spiritual philosophy and practice. While the performance art scene includes some artists doing their impressions of shamanic rituals, it also includes some shamans whose authentic rituals converge with performance art — in the sense that their art is live, communal, participatory, and transformational.

The Peace Concerts given by Sri Chinmoy fall into this category. They did not include only musical performance, but could also include live painting, poetry recitation, multimedia, and chanting of AUM in which the public was invited to participate. Even within the purely musical portion of the programme, the styles might vary widely from moment to moment — from the traditional to the unmistakably avant-garde, from a Bengali song sung a cappella in a style evoking the depths of India’s hoary past, to a peaceful melody played on Western flute, to an avant-garde piano improvisation with no foothold in melody or harmony, but only a dynamic flow of energy and consciousness.

Can authentic shamans exist today, perhaps in parallel to secular performance artists? This question seems connected to hermeneutics, since it might be resolved by developing a “fusion of horizons” a la Gadamer. Jeff Clark writes:

The works of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) explain that ‘the modern concepts of science are not adequate to understand people and our experience of art and even communication.’ He developed a philosophical perspective in his work ‘Truth and Method’ and explained a process of philosophical hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is a process which helps interpretation and understanding things from someone else’s perspective. It can be applied to situations where we encounter meanings that are not easily understood but require some effort to interpret. He originally applied this to an interpreter and a religious text but in a later essay he describes ‘its (hermeneutics) fundamental significance for our entire understanding of the world and thus for all the various forms in which this understanding manifests itself: from inter-human communication to manipulation of society.’

When applying hermeneutics to the human process of interpretation Gadamer talks of a ‘horizon’ as a way to conceptualise understanding. Your horizon is as far as you can see or understand. Both patient and doctor go into a consultation with a horizon and out of this encounter both will leave with their own new horizon. Gadamer describes a horizon as ‘The totality of all that can be realised or thought about by a person at a given time in history and in a particular culture.’

Gadamer states that: ‘the concept of horizon suggests itself because it expresses the superior breadth of vision that the person who is trying to understand must have. To acquire a horizon means that one learns to look beyond what is close at hand – not in order to look away from it but to see it better.’

Understanding happens when our present understanding or horizon is moved to a new understanding or horizon by an encounter. Thus the process of understanding is a ‘fusion of horizons.’

— Jeff Clark from “Philosophy, understanding and the consultation: a fusion of horizons” in The British Journal of General Practice [footnotes omitted]

Since he’s a medical diagnostician, Clark tends to focus on the encounter between doctor and patient from which each ideally emerges with a fusion of horizons. But this concept can also be applied to the encounter between a shaman and those participating in the shamanic ritual; and to the encounter between a performance artist and audience-participants.

The encounter seems to be a shared factor in precipitating the fusion of horizons, whether in the realm of medicine, shamanism, or the arts. As opposed to merely being mildly influenced by something in a controlled way, the Gadamerian concept of an encounter suggests a collision with the other from which one emerges changed, with a genuinely new synthesis of views.

This encounter need not be a literal encounter with a person. In art appreciation, to enhance our understanding and enjoyment we may actively seek out texts or media which will lead us to a profound encounter with an ancient civilization or a contemporary culture foreign to our own. We, in turn, may respond to that civilization or culture by adding something of our own, so that the mutuality implied in the concept of a fusion of horizons is fulfilled. We join the “hermeneutic circle.”

In the 1960s and 70s, the term “fusion” came to be applied to the encounter between Western musicians studying Indian classical music, and Indian musicians interested in jazz. Take for example the piece “Vrindavan”:

It’s primarily an encounter between American keyboardist Stu Goldberg and South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam. Both are listening intently to each other and communicating across a cultural divide, so that genuine fusion takes place. Within that fusion, each is expanding and contributing to the possibilities inherent in the other’s mode of expression. The result is something both ancient and modern, both Eastern and Western, both acoustic and electric; and in this fusion of horizons there’s a tremendous sense of liberation. Such fusion can be deeply moving and inspiring.

According to Cynthia R. Nielsen of the Villanova University Ethics Program, “Gadamerian dialogue necessitates a willingness and openness to hearing the other’s ‘voice’ in a reharmonized key and to creating a new language together.” I think that’s what the musicians are doing in “Vrindavan.” Nielsen is fond of using musical analogies to explain Close Encounters of the Gadamerian Kind. Elsewhere she writes:

When a small jazz group — for example, a trio or a quartet — performs, each musician has an assigned part that contributes to the overall coherence of the group as a whole. The drummer keeps the rhythm steady and solid. The bass player also has a key role in the rhythm section, working closely with the drummer and, in addition, providing the low-range contours of song’s harmony. The piano player fills in the harmonic details, providing a spectrum of chordal textures and colorings as well as harmonic extensions and superimpositions. The saxophonist interprets the melody, which, compared to the other parts, is what ‘connects’ most readily with the audience. When all of these parts come together well, a unified, not to mention aesthetically-pleasing whole results. Each player does more than simply play his or her part as an atomized individual. Instead, the individual musicians must perform in a constant mode of attentive listening in order to play as a unified group. If one player decides to stick rigidly to a rhythm pattern or a harmonic progression while the other members have collectively developed new patterns, then the cohesion of the group is diminished.

Alternatively, the unity of the group is augmented when, for example, the saxophonist in a mode of attentive listening hears and responds to the pianist’s altered, superimposed harmonies and thus adjusts her solo accordingly. That is, as a skilled improviser listening empathetically she does not simply continue to play melodic lines that fit the original harmonic progression as if the former harmonies were the only proper way to play the tune; instead, she changes her lines to harmonize with the pianist’s new chordal colorings. By listening carefully to the pianist (the other), the saxophonist does not continue with her previous, as it were, ‘way of understanding’ the pianist’s horizon. Rather, she modifies her own horizon so that the pianist’s horizon is made intelligible and put in the best light. Given her broadened horizon, the pianist’s altered harmonies are not heard as mistakes — if they were, this would be analogous to forcing the other into one’s preconceived grid and thus distorting the other. Rather, a genuine understanding has been achieved through the communal creation of a new harmony analogous to a newly fused-horizon.

— Cythia R. Nielsen, “Hearing the Other’s Voice: How Gadamer’s Fusion of Horizons and Open-ended Understanding Respects the Other and Puts Oneself in Question” (PDF)

Music is far more instructive than, say, a polarized political debate for understanding the fusion of horizons. In the typical political debate to which we are subjected, two politicians with fixed points of view slug it out, neither hearing the other or learning from the other, and neither being changed by the other’s point of view. But music by its very nature requires the cooperative skills described by Dr. Nielsen. Rather than treating the other as the enemy, a sensitive musician fuses with the other and counters in a manner which presents the other in the best light.

A horizon is not a fixed point, and neither is an expanded “fusion of horizons.” The implication is that there is always more we can discover through encounters with other points of view (and the people who hold them). Thus, while Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics might initially seem dry, he actually helps advance the argument for openness, inclusiveness, and a progressive view of life in which change becomes possible. Nielsen writes that Gadamer’s horizons “are neither closed nor are their boundaries opaque. Rather, they are mutable, porous, and capable of reharmonization — that is, if one adopts an improvisational attitude and is willing to listen to and be changed and enriched by the other.”

Gadamer can help us understand the fusion of horizons which took place between two major figures in twentieth century art: Picasso and Matisse. They were friends, yet rivals; and while this might initially seem contradictory or imply that no such fusion took place, the contradiction is resolved if we recognize that a fusion of horizons need not entail complete agreement or the abandonment of those aspects of the self which result in uniqueness and dynamic engagement with others.

Some of the best evidence that Picasso experienced a fusion of horizons with Matisse is found in the former’s picture “Claude in the Arms of His Mother”:

While the two faces are clearly stamped with the style of Picasso, the mixture of decorative patterns surrounding them loudly exclaims “Matisse!” Picasso has not lost his Picasso-ness; his encounter with Matisse has simply allowed him to express his own identity more richly.

Picasso is a particularly Gadamerian artist in the sense that great swatches of his career were spent in reflective dialogue with other artists, including the ancient Greeks and ancient Egyptians. (See “Was Picasso Spiritual?” Part 1 and Part 2.)

A Gadamerian analysis might also be applied to Sri Ramakrishna, the Indian avatar who passed away in 1886, but whose life and teachings formed the harbinger for the coming century in the West, in which the oneness of all religions became an idea seriously propounded, and by some, ernestly lived. Sri Ramakrishna was a natural inheritor of Hindu spiritual practices, but in his quest for truth he also spent time practicing Christianity and Islam, concluding that these too were valid pathways.

Like the Neo-Vedanta philosophy of Sri Ramakrishna and his disciple Swami Vivekananda, Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics has a distinctly modern feel to it because it implies the abandonment of the fixed point of view clutched fiercely (and leading to strife or warfare). In its place, we are offered (as a people) the opportunity to engage in listening, dialogue and empathy, and to experience a fusion of horizons which allows us to understand what we had perhaps previously regarded with consternation, suspicion or hostility.

In this sense, Gadamer’s approach is well-suited to the global village. It is recognized as anti-dogmatic in nature and humble in its awareness that the other’s viewpoint may be equally valid. It carves out a helpful middle ground between absolutism and relativism, holding out hope that through dialogue we might gain essential insights that would allow us to live together, respecting diversity without obliterating difference.

Of course, a fusion of horizons is not embraced by everyone. In the field of religion, fundamentalism still afflicts some sects and causes them to violently reject the doctrine that Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all worshipping the same God, and should therefore live in peace and harmony. Less violently expressed is chauvinism in the arts, but it can still be a divisive factor.

Gadamer’s approach is surprisingly congruent with those spiritual philosophies which accept the doctrine of reincarnation or rebirth. As described in such philosophies, the purpose of rebirth is not to acquire scientifically objective knowledge, but to gather experience of life in all its contraries. We are (as Sri Chinmoy puts it) writing God’s autobiography, with the infinitude of possibilities that would imply.

Nielsen says: “Because concepts, entities, and individuals stand in a complex interrelation with one another, they can be described from ‘nearly inexhaustible viewpoints’ (Wachterhauser 1999, 87). This complex interrelated net of relations into which all of reality is implicated gives rise to multiple perspectives and (legitimate) multiple and diverse meanings…” If so, it may take many rebirths to assimilate such multiple perspectives.

Gadamer can help us make sense of a figure like Sri Chinmoy (if indeed any are like him), who may seem incomprehensible at first because he’s a spiritual teacher, but also an artist, poet, musician, and athlete. We understand such an astonishing polymath in part through openness and dialogue with his surviving works, and with the organizations he founded. We stop clutching our fixed point of view, and try to “disappear” into the music or the artworks, which possess the necessary magic (or yogic science) to teach us how to listen, view, and appreciate.

In his article “The Transformative Art of Sri Chinmoy,” Dr. Shrinivas Tilak tells the story of his own Gadamerian encounter with Sri Chinmoy’s art. He explores the relationship between the traditional poet-seer or “kavi,” and the modern performance artist. What’s especially fascinating is his suggestion that Sri Chinmoy straddles both categories.

Here in Part 1 and Part 2 of “Art and Hermeneutics,” I’ve been laying the groundwork for “Put a Bird on It! Part 3,” where I hope to explore Sri Chinmoy’s art in relation to hermeneutics, shamanism, and performance art, with the help of Dr. Tilak’s article. I know I needed to write these preliminary articles in order to clarify my own thinking. I hope the reader will also find them useful.


Sidebar: Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and L. Shankar

Earlier, I cited the piece “Vrindavan” as an example of a fusion of horizons between American keyboardist Stu Goldberg and South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam. A fitting corollary is this 1978 episode of The South Bank Show featuring British guitarist Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and South Indian violinist L. Shankar (the brother of L. Subramaniam):

At around 15:09, McLaughlin discusses how he began to discover spirituality. He describes listening to John Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme, but not quite being able to grasp it. Still, he entered into a kind of Gadamerian dialogue with it. Having encountered music he didn’t understand, he looked for a text and found a poem on the back cover which gradually helped him zone in on what Coltrane was doing with his new style, which was deeply influenced by spirituality and meditation.

As the spiritual dimension opened up for McLaughlin, this led him to ask a core question shared by both religion and philosophy: “Who am I?” He began studying meditation with Sri Chinmoy, and soon enrolled in Wesleyan University’s Karnatic (South Indian) music program, where he studied with Dr. S. Ramanathan and met violinist L. Shankar. This eventually led to the formation of the group Shakti, whose original name (given by Sri Chinmoy) was Turiyananda Sangit. Some portions of this history are recounted in greater detail by Peter Lavezzoli in his book The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. But getting back to the South Bank Show

As with Goldberg and Subramaniam, this collaboration between McLaughlin and Shankar shows how listening, dialogue, partnership and empathy can foster a fusion of horizons. Underscored too is the concept of “play” in Gadamer’s philosophical aesthetics. For Gadamer, play is not restricted to the creators of an art work. The viewers, listeners, spectators, or audience-participants are drawn into the play like attendees at a festival or participants in a ritual.

Indian classical music is a far more participatory medium than Western classical music. In Indian classical music, the audience must count along with the musicians in order to understand what they are doing and appreciate the subtleties. After an extended passage of improvisation which plays with musical lines of different lengths, when the musicians and audience finally arrive together on the Sum, this is a deeply shared communal experience.

In “Play, Festival, and Ritual in Gadamer” (PDF), Jean Grondin writes:

The play of art will never be conceptually grasped; we may only participate in it to the extent that we allow ourselves to be moved by its magic. When we hear a musical work, we are at the same time inextricably invited to sing along and to dance. We cannot avoid an inner humming along, a tapping of fingers or foot, a following along, almost an accompanying “directing.” In any case, we play along when we hear music. The most authentic mode of execution for music is, therefore, to dance along. In just the same manner we recognize ourselves in a poem or painting; we are captivated by a novel or tragedy. It concerns us; it speaks to us. Gadamer’s thesis concerning the concept of play is that this going along with is not external to the work, but belongs to its statement: it is “art” only if there is this addressing. Every experience of art is one of answering to the address of the work.

— Jean Grondin as translated by Lawrence K. Schmidt

One exceptional feature of the duets played by McLaughlin and Shankar is found in the final piece which begins at 22:05 of the video. At 23:35, they break into konnakol, a form of vocal percussion which every student of Karnatic music learns as an aid to timing and rhythm. Because McLaughlin (raised on blues and jazz) has studied Indian music, and Shankar (raised on Indian music) has studied jazz, their play together reaches the level of genuine fusion of horizons.

Dedication: I offer this post as a birthday tribute to Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007). A very happy 86th birthday to the master!


Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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2 comments on “Art and Hermeneutics Part 2

  1. Pingback: Art and Hermeneutics Part 1 (with Fun Video Clips) | Ethics and Spirituality

  2. Pingback: Latest Tragedies in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas | Ethics and Spirituality

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