* * *
Sri Chinmoy’s birthday was always a joyful occasion, a perfect opportunity to celebrate. The celebrations continue, although he passed away in 2007. He lit a bright torch, carried it for many years, and taught others to hold it aloft. So many people around the world are celebrating on August 27, 2018, the day when Sri Chinmoy would have turned 87.
My way of celebrating was to make this video as an introduction to Sri Chinmoy’s music world:
I say “music world” because Sri Chinmoy is a world unto himself, and his music is best understood by listening with an open heart, rather than theorizing with a critical mind. Listening brings its own rewards and leads to understanding.
I say “music world” because inside Sri Chinmoy’s music is his art — his painting and drawing. All his creations emanate from a deep spiritual well, and one can approach that well from many directions, like a circular fountain which has a myriad of little footpaths leading up to it.
Music, art, concert posters, and photographs are all ways of making inroads to reach that centre of consciousness from which Sri Chinmoy always acted. But the divine secret is that this centre of consciousness does not belong to any individual, but is our collective consciousness, to be realized. It is the Supreme’s consciousness of Light and Delight.
It is fitting, then, that the music mix begins with “Supreme Chant” — a melody which Sri Chinmoy composed to the word “Supreme” — and that it ends with Sri Chinmoy chanting the word “Supreme.”
In between, we can begin to glean something of the vastness of Sri Chinmoy’s musical oeuvre from the main selection, which is a medley of his songs performed by Gandharva Loka Orchestra, culminating in a magnificent counterpoint. Truly, his music is “vaster than the sky,” and a thunderous pipe organ improvisation from Riverside Church punctuates this point.
There are many facets to Sri Chinmoy’s musical manifestation — so many that we can only catch a fleeting glimpse in the 38 minutes of this video. I hope to create other videos which bring out different aspects. A great wealth of Sri Chinmoy’s music is available online at Radio Sri Chinmoy. Special thanks to them, and to the musicians, photographers and videographers who made this non-commercial production possible.
A very happy birthday to Sri Chinmoy! Wishing peace and joy to everyone around the world who is celebrating this day!
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
For the second time in less than a month, the U.S. Congress managed to shut down the government late Thursday night, by failing to fund it. Then, by about 5:30 a.m. both the House and Senate had passed the necessary funding bill for Donald Trump to sign when he woke up — in between defoliating his eyebrows and sticking new pins in his Katy Tur doll. (What that mean, what that mean?)
At one time in the hoary past, Congress harboured the quaint notion that it was their duty to pass carefully crafted budgets. More recently, they’ve taken to making do by passing a series of stopgap funding measures known as continuing resolutions or CR’s. These are hard to fathom, stuffed with pork, and no one reads them anyway. The whole process has become farcical (thus steering it into my natural territory!).
Since they were up all night having adventures, I guess congresspeople were glad to finally adjourn and beat it out of town for the weekend. They are legendary celebrants of nothing if not POETS day, i.e. “Push off early, tomorrow’s Saturday.” While celebrants in Britain and Australia consider it proper to depart by 3:30 p.m. Friday, the U.S. Congress leaves nothing to chance. A Friday train disaster or invasion of midgets might derail their plans for the weekend, so best leave on Thursday and not come back till Tuesday next. Their departure reminds me of this bit of doggerel I penned a few years back:
The moving finger writes O Lord,
And having writ takes five;
So as this Congress now adjourns,
We thank God we’re alive.
We’re glad you didn’t strike us dead
Or cleave our tongues in two;
So many things you could have done,
But kindly didn’t do.
But most of all, O Gracious Lord
We thank you for the pork
Which thanks to CR feeding time
Now drips from every fork.
The rumours reach us now and then
Of hunger in the streets;
But we’re content to roam these halls
And milk the public teats.
I think it would best be recited in a deep, serious basso profundo like that possessed by Senate Chaplain extraordinaire Dr. Barry Black:
Here’s another good basso profundo:
And while we’re on the subject of politicans, scandalizing, and backbiting, here’s one from Bessie Smith:
Moving forward a few decades, how about John Coltrane: “Spiritual”
There’s a Church of John Coltrane which has survived for nigh on fifty years, but is threatened by gentrification. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if their goal was to pray ceaselessly, to make praying as natural as breathing. This brings us full circle, back to Dr. Barry Black:
Another basso profundo with a slow and steady delivery was the late Sen. Everett Dirksen. In an unusual cultural inversion, he was so square that he actually become hip:
Well, we’ve wandered a bit, but wasn’t it worth it? Wasn’t it fun?
These different connections create what’s sometimes called a “tangled hierarchy.” Sen. Dirksen praising The Monitors in a sci-fi flick from 1969 is an inflection point where we can stop and ask ourselves what the topic-at-hand is. The answer is that there really isn’t one. The fun is in the connections or kaleidoscopic movement of different elements hitting off each other, creating some kind of multidimensional pattern that’s too vast to describe or explain. We can only experience it.
Populist media often use framing to manipulate us and force us down a narrow pathway. Buy this! Vote for that! But when we connect media sources more freely, they begin to act as frames for each other. Reality begins to look like a rich, multi-layered tapestry woven of many kinds of fabric, in which we can yet perceive certain shared themes.
The truth that can be told simply and easily in a 30-second cable news segment is a dumbed-down truth — hardly a truth at all. In their richness, the arts have the potential to reveal more profound truths.
The 1960s comprised a new phase in the history of civilization in which many cultures, many views of reality, collided. It’s no coincidence that this gave rise, in the arts, to collage forms where it was up to the viewer or listener to respond to the sum total of what was being presented — not necessarily with a logical conclusion, but perhaps simply by giving himself/herself over to the experience of it.
This is related to a field of study which I’ve tried in my way to comprehend: hermeneutics. At its simplest, Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics implies that we each see reality through our own horizon, but that we can collide with other realities, other horizons, other frames, and so become more deeply aware. This stepping out of ourselves to become the whole universe and all of history is at once an aesthetic and a spiritual experience.
To express this in art is not always easy, and may result in dense, difficult works which require some effort to understand, such as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.
Back in the early 1970s, I remember hearing composer Eric Saltzman’s avant-garde work The Nude Paper Sermon — a multi-layered sound collage (he disputes this term) in which different kinds of music and texts are superimposed. In its way, it’s like a modern multi-track version of Finnegan’s Wake. In the original liner notes for the Nonesuch recording, Saltzman writes:
The Nude Paper Sermon is about the end of the Renaissance — the end of an era and the beginning of another.
Therefore it is about old and new means of communication, about verbal and non-verbal sound, about the familiar and the unknown, about human activity and the new technologies. It is not a “neo-classic” work nor is it a collage; rather it is “post-modern-music, post-modern art, post-style,” a multi-layer sound drama that is itself an example of the kinds of experience which it interprets and expresses: the transformation of values and tradition through the impact of the new technologies.
Recording technology makes all possible musical and sonic experiences of the external world raw material and even, increasingly, part of a common culture. Multi-track, multi-layer experience becomes the norm: Ravi Shankar, John Cage, the Beatles, Gregorian chant, electronic music, Renaissance madrigals and motets, Bob Dylan, German Lieder, soul, J. S. Bach, jazz, Ives, Balinese gamelan, Boulez, African drumming, Mahler, gagaku, Frank Zappa, Tchaikovsky, Varèse . . . all become part of the common shared experience. Recording technology also transforms that which it communicates: it makes all music part of the present and in so doing changes it. There is nothing inherently good or bad about this; technology can liberate and it can oppress. But there is no running away any more; we must master what can oppress us, learn how to use it to create and liberate.
The words of the piece are taken from John Ashbery’s Three Madrigals (texts for soloists and chorus) and The Nude Paper Sermon by Steven Wade (texts for actor). The latter, produced especially for this work, is written to suggest the contemporary verbal barrage, that endless language stream of all those who use words to manipulate others: preacher, politician, TV personality, professor, newscaster, even poet. The actor’s part is a kind of scoring imposed by composer and performer on fragments of text that are used emotively and as a kind of symbology. At times words dominate, at times they are submerged, at times a precarious balance, interaction, or interweaving is maintained.
By and large, printed texts would be beside the point; spoken language — heard and overheard, comprehensible and incomprehensible, clear, elusive, simple, complex, logical, mystifying — is the subject matter here. Perhaps one printed text is in order, however: that part of one of Ashbery’s madrigals which has a traditional structure but is made out of a series of word images and verbal snapshots. It occurs near the very beginning of the work and is set as a kind of Renaissance ruin — real fake Renaissance music (“why don’t composers write like that any more?”) overlaid with electronic graffiti:
Not even time shall efface
The bent disk
And the wicked shores snore
Far from the divining knell!
Read the full liner notes here: The Nude Paper Sermon and Wiretap – Booklet for the CD reissue (PDF)
Parts of the John Ashbery poem stuck in my mind forever: And the wicked shores snore/ Far from the divining knell! So true, but what does it mean?
Forgive the tangent, but people tend to assume there is either sense or nonsense. Yet, beyond what makes logical prose sense, there are infinite gradations and colorations of abstraction. This is easier to understand in the visual arts than in language arts. A painting is, by its very nature, an abstract representation of something; though admittedly, some painters tried to do little more than capture their subjects with lifelike realism.
Still, it’s easy to imagine how painters, in a new era of photography where they no longer needed to be slaves to realism, could gradually relax their grip and drift by degrees toward abstraction. But because we use language almost entirely for practical purposes, we may be quick to dismiss any impractical formulation of words as simply “nonsense.”
John Ashbery’s poems are not nonsense. They often contain exquisitely crafted passages which verge on meaning, and tend to create pictures in the mind, but ultimately defy logic. That is their charm.
In dreams we visit many places, many states of consciousness. Some dreams are like parodies of reality itself, from which we wake up laughing. It’s so much like those wicked shores to snore, being as they are, far from the divining knell…
By the late 1960s, not all sound collages and abstract poetic constructions were confined to an audience of avowed avant-gardists. As Robert Worby points out in this Guardian article, borrowed texts and sounds from short or long-wave radio became part of the new language explored by the Beatles and their producer George Martin. A classic example is the song “I Am The Walrus,” which owes some of its expressiveness to a closing collage with bits of King Lear nicked from an AM radio tuned to the BBC.
Musicians are fascinated by sound, influenced by sound, view the world in terms of sound, and (according to David Amram) symphony artists often have voices which resemble the instruments they play.
Eric Saltzman passed away in 2017, and his New York Times obit included this passage:
Mr. Salzman, among his many side interests, was an avid birder, and particularly favored the song of the elusive hermit thrush.
“The other thrushes are baroque artists, constantly elaborating, reworking and adding to their showy repertoire,” he wrote on his website. “The hermit thrush is a classicist, working on the principle of less is more, multum in parvo. Constantly changing variations appear within a simple, firm musical framework. Complex chords and high overtones climb and resonate between the tree trunks to create a sense of space and depth: a song in three — no, four — dimensional space that seems to speak of eternal things.”
To the mystic, everything is God; to the composer, everything is music; to the painter, all reality a collection of shapes and colours. That is as it should be. And to the collage artist (or maker of home brew mashups), each media source has greater meaning when it collides and refracts with other media sources. The ultimate meaning is supplied by the viewer or listener.
This post isn’t really about Congress, or gospel music. It’s more a survey of reality, reflecting on different media sources which may have something in common. Seeing the connections between things is often more interesting and satisfying than trying to wring out of them some trite prose conclusion about which one can say: lesson learned. How much more enjoyable to say: experience noted!
Backtracking to planet earth and the prosaic meaning of this post, I admit that my poem takes a rather bleak and sardonic view of Congress. In truth, there are some good people there — people of integrity without whom things would be far worse than they are. In between Congressional baseball games and Congressional turkey shoots (the two are sometimes combined for efficiency’s sake), Congress does occasionally turn its attention to doing the people’s business. (Some committees specialise in minding other people’s business. Trey Gowdy, do not ask for whom the bell tolls! What’s that committee called? The House Overbite Committee? “There’s been some backbiting goin’ on.” Meanings refract and collide!)
I’m trying really hard to close by saying some good things about Congress, but am not in the proper mood. Okay, when push came to shove, they actually did manage to nearly impeach Richard Nixon. (Hint, hint.)
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
Michael Stanley: “Poet’s Day” (lyrics here)
Van Morrison: “Summertime In England” (lyrics here)
The Church of Saint Coltrane:
Gandharva Loka Orchestra: “Ai, Ai, Ai Chandra Taraka” (lyrics here)
* * *
In ordinary conversation, to enlighten is to inform. I enlighten you on the latest box scores, and you enlighten me about the spaghetti dinner at Luigi’s. The president enlightens us about his subterranean homesick penthouse blues. His daily tweets remind us of his unenlightened state.
In the field of spirituality, enlightenment has a deeper meaning: to receive abundundant light which is all-transforming. Spiritual enlightenment can be a sudden burst of light which lasts for a few hours or a few days, or, in the case of a great spiritual figure, it can be an ultimate enlightenment which does not fade. Having learned the truth of life, this truth is not forgotten or eclipsed. The spiritual master remains in a permanently enlightened state from which he conducts his day-to-day activities.
In Entertainment versus Enlightenment, Sri Chinmoy recounts traditional stories in a humorous vein — some about the great Mogul Emperor Akbar and his minister and court jester, Birbal:
Once Akbar asked his ministers and the others present in his court, “Tell me frankly, who is superior: Indra, the Lord of the Gods, or I? Be very frank.”
Everybody was shocked, and nobody dared to answer. If they said that Indra was superior to Akbar, Akbar would be displeased. And if they said that Akbar was superior to Indra, it would be a real lie. So they all kept silent.
But finally Birbal came forward and said, “I have the answer.”
“Then tell me,” said Akbar.
Birbal proclaimed, “You are superior.”
Akbar was outwardly amused and inwardly pleased. “Prove it,” he said.
“That is very easy,” replied Birbal. “When the Creator created you and Indra, He put both of you on a scale. On one side He placed you, and on the other side He placed Indra. Just because you were heavier than Indra, you dropped down to earth and Indra remained up in Heaven. So you see, you are superior because you are heavier. You are more fulfilling for earth. That is why you have become the Emperor of the earth.”
Akbar was very happy. He thought, “Indra remains high because he is light. I came down because of my superior weight. That is why I remain on earth.”
Everybody was happy with this answer. But poor Akbar did not get the point. He did not understand that Birbal really meant that Indra was superior. Akbar thought that just because he was heavier in weight he had more power.
In the spiritual life, a seeker sits on the scale every day. God places him on one side of the scale and his ignorance on the other side. The seeker always finds that his ignorance is heavier, much heavier than his knowledge and wisdom. Then he feels miserable. So he tries to pray, he tries to meditate, and gradually he increases his knowledge and inner wisdom. Simultaneously the other side of the scale, his ignorance, becomes lighter and lighter.
Finally a day comes when he has only knowledge. His ignorance has all been devoured or illumined by his inner knowledge. When there is nothing on the other side of the scale, the knowledge side drops down to earth again and the seeker enters into the world to work for mankind with his newly acquired wisdom. With this wisdom-power he tries to conquer the ignorance of the world.
— Sri Chinmoy
In this passage, to enlighten means to lighten the side of the scale which represents ignorance, and to acquire wisdom which can transform the world.
Douglas Hofstadter is a college professor who first achieved recognition with his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach. He evinced great intellectual curiosity about the Japanese zen tradition, and the teaching stories which often mystify the unenlightened, but may act as a catalyst to enlighten those seeking after enlightenment. In Chapter IX, Hofstadter serves up this zen story:
Hyakujo wished to send a monk to open a new monastery. He told his pupils that whoever answered a question most ably would be appointed. Placing a water vase on the ground, he asked: “Who can say what this is without calling its name?” The chief monk said: “No one can call it a wooden shoe.”
Isan, the cooking monk, tipped over the vase with his foot and went out. Hyakujo smiled and said: “The chief monk loses.” And Isan became the master of the new monastery.
What I take from this story is that enlightenment is not simply more information, or even a different way of thinking. Enlightenment is a radically different perception which breaks the mold or overturns the vase in which we had previously stored a host of unenlightened perceptions and experiences. To enlighten is to palpably vanquish ignorance. Enlightenment is made of different “stuff” than information or ideas. Information and ideas about enlightenment are only “pointing at the moon,” but are not the moon itself.
One might venture to ask: “Can one enlighten and entertain at the same time?” In Sri Chinmoy’s case, clearly the answer is yes. If his own prodigious ventures in the arts were not proof enough, he explicitly addresses this question in his writings:
The ultimate aim of the spiritual life is enlightenment. But we must not have the wrong notion that enlightenment excludes entertainment. Enlightenment does include entertainment. Real entertainment is not and need not be restless, vital excitement. It can come from an innocent, spontaneous feeling of joy from deep within and be the simple expression of this inner, sweet, tender, soulful feeling. This kind of innocent entertainment gives the rest of the world the same kind of spontaneous, childlike innocent joy.
* * *
Everything is in seed form in the inner world first, and then only can it become manifested in the outer world. The embodiment of thought-reality, which is manifested here in the form of art or in any other form, first existed in the inner world. Never see anything with your mind’s eye. See everything with your heart’s eye. Then you will see that everything is beautiful. Art is meant for man’s understanding. It is meant for man’s blending with the inner life’s inner ecstasy.
— Sri Chinmoy
Art charms and entertains us, but if it is spiritual art it also enlightens us or points us toward profound inner truths.
The views expressed are those of the author, and do not represent any other person or organization.
* * *
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.”
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.
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.
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!
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
* * *
Today I’ll be musing about art and hermeneutics, hopefully in a fun way that’s not too dry. I’ve been working on Part 3 of my Put a Bird on It! series, about the art of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy. (See Part 1 and Part 2.)
In one sense, Sri Chinmoy’s art is the essence of simplicity; but the arts community (and especially art critics) sometimes prefer it when art is analyzed intellectually and placed in historical context.
By the same token, Sri Chinmoy is in one sense completely unique. Yet, people who have a hard time understanding his art may benefit from viewing his bird drawings in relation to Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, and his abstract paintings in relation to the New York School (which got underway in the 1940s, but continued to evolve through the 70s and 80s).
The late Paul Jenkins studied meditation and spiritual philosophy with Sri Chinmoy. Jenkins’s style of painting combining meditation and movement was certainly influenced by Sri Chinmoy. This is broadly characteristic of those New York School painters, poets, and composers who studied Eastern philosophy and incorporated it into their work.
In beavering away at Part 3, I collided with the topic of hermeneutics — much as a bull collides with crockery (not to mix animal metaphors). When I hear the word “hermeneutics” I think “egghead,” “Ph.D.,” and “above my pay grade.”
Hermeneutics, simply defined, is “the art and discipline of interpretation.” In art criticism, hermeneutics is not so much a single theory as a way of approaching art. This approach stresses entering into dialogue, striving to understand a work rather than standing coldly aloof from it and making iconoclastic pronouncements. See “Gadamer’s Aesthetics” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — an article which I find challenging but informative. (“You see, the phenomenological reconstruction is connected to the cognitive dimension, and the cognitive dimension is connected to the hermeneutical aesthetics. Now hear the word of the Lord.”)
The art we seek to understand may be from another time or have different cultural roots, so in entering into friendly dialogue with it, we may discover the limits of our own knowledge. Hermeneutics is concerned with how we know what we think we know and what cultural assumptions we bring to the table. The dialogue between a spectator and a work of art may occur over a great historical and cultural distance. We can try to see a cave painting through the eyes of its creator, or we can view it through the lens of modernity; or we can look at it both ways — moving backwards and forwards in time to have a more fulfilling and illumining experience (no TARDIS required).
These different views from different cultural and historical perspectives are sometimes called “horizons.” When we delve deep into a work of art, seeing it from different perspectives (both ours and other people’s), the net resulting view is sometimes called a “fusion of horizons.”
Another step in developing a fusion of horizons entails moving between different levels. We might understand some things about a painting by examining the brush strokes in detail, and other things by taking in the canvas as a whole. (Reductionism vs. holism, if you will.)
One might say that hermeneutics has two different but complementary functions: One is to help ensure that people’s interpretations of art are not merely whimsical, anecdotal, or based on personal or cultural bias. This a limiting function. The other is to foster a depthful connection with art based on dialogue, ideally leading to a fusion of horizons which comprises understanding. This is an expansive function. Still, hermeneutics is not a science; Gadamer said in a 1978 lecture that it’s a gift, like rhetoric, and that one of its components is empathy.
Another feature of Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics is the idea that both artist and spectator are involved in a form of play which brings people together in the manner of a festival. To understand a work of art is not to come away with a crib sheet summarizing its salient points, but rather to lose oneself in it (along with other spectators, perhaps from different times) and to be transformed by it. But this doesn’t signify an end to the game, since further revelations are always possible.
We may encounter references to the “hermeneutic circle.” In hermeneutics, we try to understand one thing by means of other things, much as Plato and Aristotle did. Even a simple English sentence can contain a number of symbols which need to be interpreted in relation to each other, and in relation to the world of physical things and abstract concepts. That’s why it’s so hard to teach computers to understand natural language. Take the following sentence:
Time flew by, and John felt sad that the beautiful butterfly disappeared into the sunset.
An infant computer might ask: *Is time a butterfly? What is sadness? Why did John feel sad? What makes a butterfly beautiful? How could it disappear?* In Star Trek lore, when Commander Data creates an offspring named “Lal” (which can mean “beloved” in Hindi), the child Lal asks similar questions:
These questions cannot be answered all in a day. When we immerse ourselves in a major work of art rich in symbolism, personal expression, cultural significance, and historical allusion, we are drawn into a hermeneutic circle which may be unique to that work of art, or to works of that genre. As we enter into dialogue with it, we ourselves may become part of the hermeneutic circle.
From a spiritual point of view, we might say that hermeneutics is related to our limitations as human beings. Most of us lack use of our third eye or ajna which sees things at a glance, and most of us do not have our heart centre or anahata open so that we can instantly identify with a thing. Therefore, like a blind man (or infant computer) we have to begin by building up a picture of the thing piece by piece. We don’t initially know what an ankle bone is, but as in the song “Dry Bones” (embedded earlier), we gradually figure out that “ankle bone connected to the shin bone” and “shin bone connected to the knee bone,” etc. (Perhaps Ezekiel was the first physical anthropologist!)
Comparing the piece-by-piece operation of the mind with the identification power of the spiritual heart (anahata), Sri Chinmoy writes:
When we say that the mind is not good, that the heart is better, we are speaking of the physical mind which does not allow us to expand ourselves. It always says, “One at a time, little by little, piece by piece.” The mind seems to go very fast, but you have to know that the mind thinks of only one thing at a time. It does not want to embrace existence as a whole.
The mind sees things part by part. If Infinity appears before the mind, the mind will take a part out of the whole and say, “This is the truth.” It will take a portion of the Vast rather than accept the Vast in its own way. It will try to scrutinise Infinity itself to see if there is any imperfection in it. But the heart will not do that. As soon as the heart sees the Vast, it will run to it like a child runs to embrace his mother or father.
— Sri Chinmoy, from Mind-Confusion and Heart-Illumination, Part 1, Agni Press, 1974.
As a spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy taught the “path of the heart,” so it follows that his art would be heart-centred rather than mind-centred. This can pose a stumbling block for viewers and critics unwilling or unable to shift gears to a heart-centred mode of art appreciation.
Some art presents a kind of historical or stylistic puzzle which we have to carefully piece together. Such art appeals to critics who are inured to what can sometimes be a dry intellectual exercise — a rattling of bones. Other art (especially Asian art and spiritual art) may be more simple and direct, and appeals to our sense of intuition and identification. To quote the master:
This kind of art may get short shrift from Western critics due to underlying bias in the art world.
Hermeneutics actually helps us understand why such bias can occur. If a work of art tends to draw us into its own hermeneutic circle — its symbols, time period, cultural influences, and charismatic proponents (e.g. Andy Warhol) — then certain styles of art may give rise to particular communities or social cliques — some more glamorous than others. Critics who specialize in medieval and Renaissance art may be of quite different temperament and lifestyle than those who specialize in Pop art. Even in the same city, there can be an “uptown” and “downtown” arts scene.
People can be passionate about art and culture to the point of open warfare, as with the Mods and Rockers in mid-1960s Britain:
When asked whether he was a Mod or Rocker, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr replied that he was a Mocker.
Painters and sculptors rarely come to blows, though Alec Guinness and Michael Gough nearly do so in a famous scene from The Horse’s Mouth:
(My kitchen sometimes says “Mother earth and her dead.”) Anyway, let’s have fun by entering into dialogue with this short “Suzuki Beane” TV pilot made in 1962:
Since it was produced about fifty-five years ago, depending on our age and cultural experience, we may have a hard time making sense of it. We get that it’s cute and satirical, but we may not be quite sure which elements are satire and which are direct reportage. Did some people (the Beats or “beatniks”) really talk and act that way? Still, without catching every reference we probably sense the struggle between a free spirit who values expressiveness, and ossified structures which tend to penalize it.
When invited to visit her friend’s dancing class on East 64th Street, little Suzuki explains that her parents Hugh and Marcia don’t believe in anything above 14th Street. Even in 1962, some folks living in Montana or Taipei might not grok that below 14th Street signifies Greenwich Village, an area homesteaded by Beat poets, artists, and musicians; while East 64th Street is part of the Upper East Side, an area with a quite different socio-economic feel. So what would people make of this charming cultural artifact, stumbling on it a thousand years hence? Would its essential spirit still shine through?
If we go back another fifteen years, we can unearth Song of the Thin Man, which, like most good detective yarns, treats the viewer to a tour of different strata of society. (See also this post about the Costa-Gavras film Z.) Nick Charles is a private detective and regular guy who’s married to a society dame named Nora. Along with their fox terrier Asta, they solve murder mysteries together. In Song of the Thin Man they find themselves immersed in the subculture of jazz musicians from the period. Veteran character actor Keenan Wynn, perhaps best remembered for shooting a Coke machine in Dr. Strangelove, gives Nick and Nora a virtuoso earful of the musician’s slang known as “rebop”:
The farther away we get in time and cultural distance, the harder it is for us to know whether jazz musicians in the forties really spoke that way, or what percentage of this lingo is being served up as satire. There may even be a racial (or racist) component. Are some of these white actors poking fun at black musicians, who are notably absent from the film? The piano player seems to be riffing on Fats Waller.
When we first hear a Shakespeare play performed, we may not grasp the subtleties of language, and may miss the jokes (some of which turn out to be rather ribald). For the latter reason, Shakespeare texts used in primary schools are often expurgated.
British humour — from Carry On films to Monty Python — often depends on the collision between high culture and low culture, or in this scene from Carry On Teacher, between Shakespeare and inner city youth:
Whether or not he ever saw it, I think Gadamer would have enjoyed this clip, because it is dialogical in nature and underscores a point he made in a 1978 lecture:
[A] work is something that is detached from its maker; even the craftsman is not sovereign over against his fabrications. The consumer of it: he can use it and abuse it; he can treat it correctly; he can destroy it quickly.
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, entered into its hermeneutic circle, and taken in those things which are helpful to understanding? Gadamer says:
If you decide to make the effort to read, when you read you will not deconstruct, but you would learn to construct.
This doesn’t mean we have to like every work, agree with the artist’s intentions, or how he or she realized them. But hermeneutics does stress such concepts as listening, dialogue, partnership and empathy. Gadamer also says something very striking which he does not, perhaps, fully explain:
[T]he ideal of real, natural and not deformed hermeneutics is to disappear.
Though he does not use such mystical language, I would guess he means that to become one with a work of art is to experience it directly, its essential nature, not filtered through one’s own conceptions or collection of experiences, but as it naturally exists. The inspiration behind a work of art struck the original artist, and it can strike us too. At that moment, we are egoless and have no opinions. We simply experience the essence of the thing. This is the ideal way to experience Sri Chinmoy’s art.
These are just some random musings which would hopefully get you thinking about the process by which we understand art, and concepts like cultural distance and developing a “fusion of horizons” constituting unified understanding or gnosis. At least, if you later read Part 3 of Put a Bird on It! and encounter the word “hermeneutics,” it won’t come as a total shock to you. Who said hermeneutics can’t be fun? I can easily picture housewives across America holding hermeneutics-themed Tupperware parties, and dancing to the music of Herman’s Hermits:
(Well, at least now you know something about the Big H.)
In Part 2 of “Art and Hermeneutics,” I hope to tackle the connection between hermeneutics, performance art, and shamanism, and how this relates to the art, music, and poetry of Sri Chinmoy. Stay tuned.
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
Should you have any trouble viewing the short clips embedded in this post, you can view them individually on the sites (DailyMotion, YouTube, Vimeo) where they reside:
Delta Rhythm Boys – Dry Bones
Objet D’Art (Doctor Who)
Star Trek TNG – Lal
Mods, Rockers and Moral Panics
Painters and Sculptors (The Horse’s Mouth)
Rebop! (Song of the Thin Man)
Shakespeare in the Classroom (Carry On Teacher)
Herman’s Hermits – What a Wonderful World
Some links may go bad over time, but I’ll try and keep them current.
* * *
I did these quite a few years ago, using Painter 5, Photoshop 5, and Paint Alchemy. It was nice to be reminded of them by an old friend — the husband of Margaret and father of Gillian, who also took the original photos.
Please do right-click, open in a new tab, and click again to see each image full size, where the interplay of colours and textures becomes more evident.
The question has arisen: How seriously do mainstream art critics take the art of Sri Chinmoy? The words “mainstream” and “seriously” tend to cloud the issue; but the simple answer is that some critics do take Sri Chinmoy’s art very seriously, especially those interested in Asian art and spiritual art, and those who are curators of peace museums. He would not have had numerous gallery exhibitions if there were not some corners of the art world which deeply appreciate his visionary approach.
In the postmodern period, there is nothing resembling a single centralized authority on art. A successful artist is one who enjoys an audience which values his or her art, and which includes some favourably disposed art critics. Sri Chinmoy certainly achieved these things, as is borne out in the following video:
Deeper and more meaningful questions might be asked, such as:
– What is valuable in Sri Chinmoy’s art?
– How should we understand it?
– What is the connection between spirituality and art?
– How does he himself speak about art?
I will endeavour to answer some of these questions — not that my answers will be in any sense definitive, but they may at least shed some light and lead to other more interesting questions…
Sri Chinmoy is not the product of Western training in art, and is not responding to trends in European art. He’s not answering Picasso or Warhol or Rothko or Rauschenberg, or commenting on the century of death which was the twentieth century, or protesting by going on an art strike. He’s doing something quite different.
More than anything else, Sri Chinmoy’s work represents a magnificent outpouring of joy which bypasses the intellectual mind. Yet, we should not mistake his art for the naïve. He had a fantastic capacity to absorb different influences and to make them his own. Some of his major works can be most easily classified as abstract expressionist.
To hone in on the details, we can turn to this video (produced by Kedar Misani) of the original painting:
There is clearly a worlds within worlds quality as we move through the different sections; and while most of it is abstract, bird forms do emerge amidst a riot of colour and texture which is yet not chaotic, but reflects a balance between freedom and harmony.
One thing art critics do appreciate is an enduring vision carried out prolifically over a multi-year period. This is one of the ways Sri Chinmoy distinguished himself. What’s often overlooked is that Sri Chinmoy is (in part) a conceptual artist. In addition to his abstracts, he drew millions of birds, and was the original put-a-bird-on-it guy, as I discuss in Part 1, which includes videos of large gallery exhibits.
Sri Chinmoy was a gentle soul, yet in his art he has something to say and is extremely persistent and insistent on saying it. This makes him worth listening to. Just seeing a handful of his works in small format on the Internet hardly does him justice. In Asian art and spiritual art, we often find a convergence between the gallery space and the sacred space. It’s in the gallery space that Sri Chinmoy’s art really comes alive, creating a universal sacred space whose deity is joy. (We all need joy.)
It’s one thing to draw a few birds; it’s quite another to draw literally millions of them, so that they remain (for all intent and purposes) countless. Only when one sees those rare gallery exhibits where there are thousands of his works on display on multiple levels does one begin to get a sense of how vast his vision was, and how deeply he believed in the essential message which underlies his work: Life is beautiful! If it isn’t, put a bird on it! (Yet, even large gallery exhibits can only hold a fraction of his work.)
Most often exhibited are his paintings and drawings on canvas or paper, but he was also fond of drawing on objects such as those he encountered in his travels. While visiting Bali in 2001, he transformed ordinary objects into objets d’art by adorning them with his characteristic bird forms.
There is often a sense of playfulness in Sri Chinmoy’s work, and this playfulness is meant to disarm the viewer.
The latter work may make us smile and remind us of the Dada artists. In a world of mass-produced commodities, Sri Chinmoy adds his signature element — his consciousness — to something that was extremely ordinary, thus transforming it. Mass-produced cats vs. hand-drawn birds!
There are deep parallels between art and spirituality. The secular non-art space we routinely inhabit and traverse tends to numb us and make us unaware of the artistic and spiritual dimensions of life. The secular media space of news, traffic, weather and sitcoms — as well as the physical space dominated by rectangular office blocks and subways filled with trash — these things constitute a pervasive environment which shapes our perceptions while also numbing us. That’s why environmental psychologists are fanatics for creating parks and odd-shaped spaces which liberate our perceptions and give us back our humanity.
It’s no wonder that someone with a new message to communicate may go up on a mountaintop or take followers out into the desert in order to create a liminal space — a place where change becomes possible. Society tolerates all kinds of ideas as long as they don’t lead to real change. But historically, the typical reaction to anything producing real change has been one of hostility.
Ideally, a sacred space such as a church or temple should be a place where change is possible; but this is not always the case. In Jesus’s time, the temple had become ossified and was not the best place to present a blueprint for creating a more compassionate society.
A museum can be a sacred space. Critic and curator Germano Celant wryly observes:
Art is the new religion of today. When you go [to an avant-garde museum], you don’t understand, but you trust. That’s what the religion is about — you have to trust because it’s in the museum!
BBC presenter Michael Wood notes:
Our works of art appear to have become ruins. Only our perception is real, and our senses are bombarded with the images and sounds of media which inform us, but do not transform us. In a society saturated with data, the function of the artist is no longer to depict events, but rather to reawaken our perception.
This reawakening of perception is a shared concern of both artists and spiritual teachers.
When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, people got something from this which they weren’t getting from their temple at the time. The temple had become a commercial space due to the activities of the money-changers. There, it was business as usual. In the physical space of the temple, Jesus did not find the openness or suspension of disbelief which would have allowed him to create a sacred space. Therefore, he spoke upon a hillside. Had there been a museum handy, perhaps he would have chosen that!
Like a great music that puts to shame lesser musics, the sacred space is innocent in itself, but reveals by contrast that which is profane or devoid of true meaning. The truths we encounter in the sacred space — whether we call them spiritual truths or artistic truths — may put us in conflict with the conventional and mundane. This is so because the conventional and mundane is not actually a passive or neutral environment, but rather a place where messages are being blared over loudspeakers, only we have grown deaf or numb through constant exposure.
Insipid elevator music is propaganda, smoke-filled rooms are propaganda, political speeches which say nothing are propaganda, commercial advertisements are propaganda. Together these things speak of an existence ruled by production, consumption, procreation, entertainment, technological enhancement, and miracle drugs. It makes no sense, yet there is little time to ponder it. The space for artistic and spiritual enlightenment either does not exist, or else has been banished to some remote location we must consciously seek out. I would say the latter is the case.
This is the subtext of François Truffaut’s vastly underrated film version of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. There, in the mainstream everything has become topsy-turvy: Instead of putting out fires, firemen burn books. The only remaining option for people of refined sensibilities is to seek out an alternative community which still values art, literature, and spiritual insight.
There’s a paradox here: On the one hand, we need only look within. On the other hand, it’s difficult to find support for the inner journey while fully ensconced in the noisy hubbub of the mainstream.
In Marshall McLuhan: Theoretical elaborations, Gary Genosko writes that “McLuhan sees art as creating a conflict which results in making things intelligible. He even suggests at one point that environment is propaganda until dialogue begins…”
When the artist does something new and unexpected, this initially creates confusion and conflict; leading to protest and condemnation, but eventually to dialogue. Finally, in the course of trying to understand the artist, we do get an intelligible picture. We gain insights previously lacking because we were stuck in an environment which constantly (but invisibly) reinforced a trite, propagandistic view of reality. But by creating an “anti-environment” (or sacred space), the artist ultimately liberates us. This is similar to the spiritual teacher who challenges our preconceptions and ultimately ushers in a new consciousness.
Genosko writes: “The question becomes whether the hateful contraries are in a work or whether a work forms a hateful contrary to [conventional] reality.” This is similar to questions asked by sociologists about new religious movements. Most movements do not intentionally advocate some contrarian ideology for the express purpose of entering into conflict with society. Rather, like the artist, they offer a fresh perspective which is interpreted with hostility by the mainstream because it’s different, not immediately understood, and viewed as threatening. We can consider the Sermon on the Mount in this context. The ideals Jesus commended were not hateful in themselves — far from it! But they threatened what was then (and to some extent, still is) the established order. The order of the day remains self-interest; most individuals and nations continue to pursue it single-mindedly. Still, there has been some progress.
Gary Genosko also writes: “Humour and even amateurism become anti-environmental modes for McLuhan in The Medium is the Massage. Humour and amateurism both apparently undercut the ‘official’ and therefore take the present environment, which is invisible, and suddenly make it visible…” We can use this concept to better understand painter Henri Rousseau — and via Rousseau, Sri Chinmoy.
Rousseau was neither a member of the official school, nor a true member of the avant-garde. But he was embraced by the avant-garde because his works had a slightly humorous, amateurish quality, yet were filled with freshness and originality.
Unlike the core of the avant-garde — who were rebelling against things they had learnt — Rousseau was not schooled in the official style. He was a self-taught painter who followed his own visions and inclinations. His originality does not speak of rebellion, but rather a charming naïveté. He achieves uniqueness not by rejecting something, but by being true to his inner self. As his friend and fellow painter Robert Delaunay said: “He didn’t establish his style by comparison or out of obedience to style. It came from his spirit. His art is old, and also very modern.”
The same can be said of Sri Chinmoy’s art and music. He was not schooled in any Western tradition, and is not rebelling against anything. Rather, by being uniquely himself he manages to create an experience of extraordinary power for his audience — always depending upon their receptivity and openness. (I will enlarge on this shamanic aspect in Part Three.)
In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, there’s a send-up of the Sermon on the Mount in which a bunch of quarrelsome stragglers at the fringes of the audience fail to get much beyond “Blessed are the cheesemakers!” Yet, one cannot judge the underlying value from such stragglers. To understand what an artist or spiritual teacher is saying sometimes requires preparation, study, and (of course) interest and eagerness. Sri Chinmoy writes, “A life with no imagination is a life of imprisonment. With the wings of imagination, we must try to fly into the Beyond.”
One aspect of the contemporary avant-garde is directness of expression, and a willingness to explore new techniques to achieve it. If one views videos of Sri Chinmoy improvising on piano or pipe organ, one sees that his technique is quite avant-garde, including liberal use of fists and elbows. When one opens one’s ears and one’s heart to his music, one discovers unparalleled directness of expression. The great leap for the listener is to catch a glimpse of what Sri Chinmoy is trying to express. Then one can never doubt his genius.
It is the same with his painting. By being uniquely himself and expressing a rare vision with directness, he manages to go beyond easy categories. Frances Morris — curator at the Tate Modern — says of Rousseau:
He can never be confined to any of the conventions or avant-garde structures that surround him. So, although he aspired to be an academic painter, he wasn’t an academic painter; although he was in some ways appropriated by the avant-garde, he was never really an avant-garde painter; nor can he be confined by terms like primitive, or naïve, or a Sunday painter. And therefore, he’s never been put to bed. And in a way, each generation, I think, can and has rediscovered Rousseau for themselves.
Like this, Sri Chinmoy has the potential to be discovered by successive generations. One of his aphorisms is “Simplicity is an advanced course” (shades of Picasso). He delighted in drawing his signature bird forms on ceramic plates, clocks, children’s toys, and seashells:
He didn’t do this to be froward or puckish, but because it brought him (and others) innocent joy. His art encourages and fosters the same type of consciousness which is also open to receiving profound spiritual teachings — not profound in the sense of “difficult to understand” (like Schopenhauer), but profound in the sense that they reflect an enlightened awareness. Paul Jenkins, interviewed about Sri Chinmoy’s art in 1975, said:
Was Monet a beginner? Was Picasso a beginner when he was about to die? The artist is always rediscovering the child. I don’t mean that he is childish, I mean he finds the child aspect. And we must remember also that Freud said that to be creative is to be prodigious. And that’s one thing that is misunderstood in the art world. Everybody feels that the fewer things you do the better you are. Not from Freud’s standpoint. To be creative means to be prodigious.
Sri Chinmoy’s art reflects “beginner’s mind” — a much sought-after quality which is difficult for most of us to achieve because it entails unlearning so much of what we had learned previously. When we contemplate his art we are shaping our consciousness to comprehend the sublime truths which he also expressed in poetry:
No more my heart shall sob or grieve.
My days and nights dissolve in God’s own Light.
Above the toil of life, my soul
Is a Bird of Fire winging the Infinite.
I have known the One and His secret Play,
And passed beyond the sea of Ignorance-Dream.
In tune with Him, I sport and sing;
I own the golden Eye of the Supreme.
Drunk deep of Immortality,
I am the root and boughs of a teeming vast.
My Form I have known and realised.
The Supreme and I are one; all we outlast.
— Sri Chinmoy, from My Flute
A very happy 85th birthday to Sri Chinmoy, whose legacy continues on after his physical death.
Sri Chinmoy sometimes preferred giving concerts, art exhibitions, or live demonstrations of painting to giving talks on spiritual philosophy; and I suspect this is related to the ability of art and music to bypass our ordinary, prosaic thinking and create a sacred space which gives rise to poetical perceptions.
Renaissance artists like Da Vinci and Michelangelo believed that to create a Divine work of art, they first had to transform their human minds into the Divine Mind. Then the Divine Mind would shape the clay, chip away at the stone, or place the ideal colours on the canvas to create a Divine work of art. Sri Chinmoy offers a similar theory of poetry:
“In order to write a poem, the poet must transport himself to the sphere of the Muse and lose himself there. He has to be like a flame that burns away everything but itself.”
Henri Matisse said:
“I don’t know whether I believe in God or not. I think, really, I’m some sort of Buddhist. But the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer.”
Sri Chinmoy said:
“If my paintings are beautiful, then it is because I am trying to keep my heart always beautiful. My paintings are the outer expression of my heart’s prayer-beauty.”
He grew up in an ashram setting where music-making was a natural activity in which everyone could participate according to his skill. The subtext of his free concerts is let us discover together. His heart is in the audience, for the audience; and the audience gets the most joy from opening their hearts to his many modes of musical expression — discovering along with him. He says similarly of art:
“Most of the time when I paint I get a kind of inner joy and a kind of inner discovery. When I paint, I discover something which I did not know before.”
Claude Monet says:
“Every day I discover more and more beautiful things.”
Henry Ward Beecher says:
“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.”
Albert Einstein says:
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
Sri Chinmoy says:
“God the Musician is divinely and eternally mysterious. Man the musician is humanly and temporarily marvellous.”
The reader may observe that I speak of Sri Chinmoy’s music, art and poetry somewhat interchangeably. I do not do so out of carelessness, but because they are intimately connected. When one enters into Sri Chinmoy’s sacred space, one finds bird forms, bird references, and bird imagery everywhere. He sometimes opened concerts by playing the dove ocarina — a flutelike instrument in the shape of a dove. His was blue ceramic.
There’s a distinction between the subject/object distance sometimes found in European art music, and the communal experience of music growing out of the Vaishnava tradition and the Indian music schools. One way of understanding the more communal view comes via the concept of “Trilok,” explained here by Brooklyn-based arts organization Trilok Fusion:
Trilok in Sanskrit means three worlds. In Indian mythology the three worlds are heaven, earth, and the world beneath the ocean. As artists we consider the three worlds to be the world of the performer, the audience, and that abstract space where the performer and the audience meet to achieve a sense of harmony.
Here again, the concept of the sacred space — which is not a static space, but an active environment where learning and growing takes place.
One imagines that when Plato taught the “Metaphor of the Cave” to students, he did not ask them to copy it by rote, but rather opened up a sacred space in which their minds might grasp the possibility of life beyond the cave.
Peace Park, Hiroshima is a sacred space. It’s also a counter-situation made by artists. Marshall McLuhan quotes early twentieth century metaphysician and curator A. K. Coomaraswamy: “We are proud of our museums where we display a way of living that we have made impossible.”
As the world is ravaged by war, peace becomes something we find in the museum. In the age of the electric, outside and inside disappear. The global community of artists and seekers dedicated to peace becomes a museum without walls. We bring Peace Park home with us, cleverly hidden somehwere near our aorta, unattested to by customs declarations. We recreate it where we are.
Someone once inquired of a Far Eastern Zen master, who had a great serenity and peace about him no matter what pressures he faced, “How do you maintain that serenity and peace?” He replied, “I never leave my place of meditation.” He meditated early in the morning and for the rest of the day, he carried the peace of those moments with him in his mind and heart.
— Stephen R. Covey, from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
There are many ways of understanding Sri Chinmoy’s art, not least of which is to approach it directly, or to encounter it in its natural habitat — that is to say, the sacred space. But for those who prefer a more traditional art history approach, once can begin to understand some facets of Sri Chinmoy’s art via Paul Jenkins.
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently quoted a Mexican proverb which says: “Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are.” Those who walked with Sri Chinmoy were often fellow poets, musicians, and artists who shared an interest in meditation and Eastern philosophy.
One of these was Paul Jenkins (1923-2012), the American abstract expressionist painter, who studied with Sri Chinmoy in the 1970s, and appears in two short films about Sri Chinmoy from the period. In one, he discusses Sri Chinmoy’s painting; in the other, he talks more about Sri Chinmoy and meditation, as well as demonstrating his own style of painting at the time, which was a type of action painting (or pouring) guided by meditation.
In 1973, Jenkins created Sri Chinmoy, a silkscreen which uses a photo of the guru as its core element, to which Jenkins adds patches of super-saturated colour:
One could draw arrows (albeit disjointed arrows) from Jackson Pollock, to Paul Jenkins, to Sri Chinmoy. Yet, Pollock and Chinmoy represent polar opposites whose approach to abstract expressionism differs greatly in both philosophy and practice.
Pollock was an innovator, but also a volatile personality who struggled with alcoholism and tragically died in a car accident in 1956 at age 44. There’s a sense in which he broke painting wide open in the late 1940s and early 50s, but his style of “action painting” could be difficult to control, and by its nature did not offer an obvious route to further development. In some ways Pollock’s style was a violent reaction to conformism in the era of the gray flannel suit.
Paul Jenkins befriended Pollock and learned from him; but Jenkins was of different temperament. He gradually came to explore the connection between meditation, movement, and painting. He relished freedom and the chance meeting of paints on canvas; but unlike Pollock, Jenkins preferred to paint in smooth, flowing motions, acting from a calm, meditative center and guiding the flow of poured paint with his cherished ivory knife.
Sri Chinmoy was not explicitly an action painter, since he did not typically drip, pour or splatter paint. Yet, he often worked with tremendous speed, completing even large works in one concentrated painting session with not a single misstep or erasure. The significance of this approach is given in a quote from Helen Frankenthaler:
A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once. It’s an immediate image. For my own work, when a picture looks labored and overworked, and you can read in it — well, she did this and then she did that, and then she did that — there is something in it that has not got to do with beautiful art to me. And I usually throw these out, though I think very often it takes ten of those over-labored efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute.
As a meditation master, Sri Chinmoy is king of the beautiful wrist motion synchronized to head and heart. This shines through in both his abstracts and his more calligraphic bird drawings. The latter were also done with great rapidity, so that what we see especially toward the end of his life are great clouds of birds or bird gestures, drawn with such fluidity and rapidity of motion that they seem ready to fly off the canvas.
Returning to the earlier referenced 1985 acrylic, we can say that on a local level Sri Chinmoy uses techniques similar to those of action painters to achieve fortuitous collisions of colour and texture, and to create a sense of driving energy and synthesis. Yet, looking at the painting as a whole, it’s not a collision or explosion, but rather reflects a calm guiding hand.
In Sri Chinmoy’s abstract expressionism we find a tremendous outpouring of emotion, but never any violence. He is not obsessed with filling the canvas to maximum density through collision, but with orchestrating local areas of chaos into a symphonic whole. There is movement but also stillness; density but also space. Comparing details of his 1985 acrylic with Paul Jenkins’s Untitled I (1983), we can see similarities in the broad gestural brushstrokes and areas of textured paint.
Western civilization has tended to progress through violent trends and counter-trends. The artist is often expected to be a rebel who explicitly sets himself in opposition to society and flouts even its most basic conventions and requirements.
Yet, in much of Asia art is understood to be a natural part of life, as is spirituality. The spiritual artist need not act out a stereotypical role as rebel. His goal is not to destroy society, but to gradually transform and enlighten it.
In recent centuries, one division in Western thought has been that between the intellectual and the spiritual. The art world is not unaffected by this division. Because Sri Chinmoy is a spiritual artist who values spontaneous expression of the heart, his work may seem less accessible to those critics for whom art is primarily an intellectual pursuit (and a secular one at that). This may contribute to the view that Sri Chinmoy is a non-mainstream artist.
But Sri Chinmoy did what artists do: He continued to devote a huge portion of his time to painting over a period of decades, produced an astounding number of works which reflect his unique vision, and gathered a community around him which is eager to see his work in galleries and contemplate its meaning. Sri Chinmoy also taught: not painting, but meditation and philosophy of art. Here Paul Jenkins explains what he takes from Sri Chinmoy:
(If the embedded video doesn’t play, view on DailyMotion here.)
The art world has its trends, such as secularism. None of the articles I’ve read about Paul Jenkins mention his studies with Sri Chinmoy or the 1973 silkscreen. But these things clearly exist, and have their own life and meaning apart from what anyone says (or fails to say) about them. The same is true of Sri Chinmoy. As a spiritual artist, he may sometimes be marginalized by segments of the secular art world, but this in no way detracts from the value of his work, of which Edith Montlack said:
As an artist, I do admire very deeply his sense of colour, the rhythm in his strokes, his lovely compositions, the sunny light that emanates from his canvases. I feel that his art has a tremendous way of inspiring and uplifting the viewer. So from that point of view I do feel that his art is extremely important in this twentieth century. And I think it will leave a very great mark in the world of art for the future.
As trends shift over the centuries, I believe Sri Chinmoy’s work will be rediscovered at a time when society has found a more beneficial balance between the secular and the spiritual. Future generations who are more keenly aware of the significance of spiritual art (and the genius of simplicity) will treasure that which some of Sri Chinmoy’s contemporaries have passed over far too quickly.
In the meantime, those who appreciate spiritual art today will continue to bask in Sri Chinmoy’s glorious achievements.
Special thanks to Kedar Misani, without whose videos and photos of Sri Chinmoy’s artwork this article would not have been possible. Visit Kedar’s YouTube page here.
Profuse thanks also to Priyadarshan Bontempi, chief curator of SriChinmoyLibrary.com, which houses an extraordinary collection of Sri Chinmoy’s writings, as well as a growing number of book covers. Visit Sri Chinmoy Library and you’ll always discover something new!
* * *
Countless are the birds of the air, and countless are the fish in the sea. We call something countless because — even though it has a finite number — it defies our human capacity to quantify. We could start a project to count all the birds in the air, but it would take generations and by that time there would be new birds in the air not counted previously. There would be innumerable technical challenges, and who would fund such a study?
Of those things which are countless, the most countless of all is infinity. When I was growing up, math teachers liked to recommend George Gamow’s book One, Two, Three…Infinity as a way of grappling with deep concepts. It was entertaining and profound at the same time, explaining how there could be differently sized infinities. But even Gamow (half-jokingly) admitted that when you expand your thinking beyond a certain point, you’re no longer dealing with Math or Science but Divinity:
There was a young fellow from Trinity,
Who took the square root of infinity.
But the number of digits, Gave him the fidgets;
He dropped Math and took up Divinity.
— George Gamow
The Upanishads say:
Infinity is that.
Infinity is this.
From Infinity, Infinity has come into existence.
From Infinity, when Infinity is taken away, Infinity remains.
After reciting this passage in a 1971 Yale lecture, Sri Chinmoy continued:
Creation is the supreme sacrifice of the Brahman. Creation is by no means a mechanical construction. Creation is a spiritual act, supremely revealing, manifesting, and fulfilling the divine splendour of the Brahman. The divine Architect is beyond creation, and at the same time manifests Himself in and through creation.
— Sri Chinmoy, The Upanishads: the Crown of India’s Soul, Agni Press, 1974
On earth, we are limited by the finite. We cannot create anything which is literally infinite. But by knowing the infinite, we can speak of the infinite in our creations. We can point to the infinite, approximate the infinite, give a taste of the infinite even within the finite.
The last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony runs about 26 minutes in human time. But within that time, worlds within worlds open up for the listener, and the experience of infinity becomes immanent, palpable.
Gustav Holst, in the closing strains of his orchestral suite The Planets, was likewise able to convey a sense of countless years in the life of the planet Neptune.
In his poems, Sri Chinmoy often speaks of infinity, and of endless days with “no dole, no sombre pang, no death in my sight.” He writes:
At last I know my age.
My age is Infinity’s page.1
Above the toil of life my soul
Is a Bird of Fire winging the Infinite.2
He also writes:
Birds have a very special significance; they embody freedom. We see a bird flying in the sky, and it reminds us of our own inner freedom. Inside each of us there is an inner existence we call the soul. The soul, like a bird, flies in the sky of Infinity. The birds we see flying in the sky remind us of our own soul-bird flying in the sky of Infinity. While looking at the birds, feel that you yourself are a bird; you are your soul-bird flying in the sky of infinite Light, infinite Peace and infinite Bliss.3
This connection between birds, flight, and infinity is a pervasive feature of Sri Chinmoy’s artistic oeuvre. It’s also present in his music — particularly his piano and organ improvisations which are filled with a maelstrom of notes that would be nearly impossible to transcribe, and which call forth a sonic impression of infinity.
Yet, we may fail to notice infinity in his bird paintings and drawings due to the inherent limitations of the formats in which they are presented. On the Internet, we may see a few of his works, or perhaps a short video showcasing more still. And while such presentations may communicate both spiritual and decorative elements, they stop short of communicating the conceptual nature of his art.
It’s one thing to draw a few birds; it’s quite another to draw literally millions of them, so that they remain (for all intent and purposes) countless. Only when one sees those rare gallery exhibits where there are thousands of his soul-birds on display on multiple levels does one begin to get a sense of how vast his vision was, and how deeply he believed in the essential message which underlies all such paintings and drawings: Life is beautiful! If it isn’t, put a bird on it!
Sri Chinmoy traveled widely and often used native materials in his art. His Oslo exhibit displays a riot of iridescent colour, while the one in Kagoshima reflects a more sparse, calligraphic style, well-suited to zen meditation:
In Bali, he amassed an amazing collection of objects on which to draw, including a cheap knockoff Charlie Brown & Snoopy clock:
Here are a few more videos which hint at the countlessness, vastness, and infinitude of Sri Chinmoy’s art:
It’s clear from these videos that though Sri Chinmoy created countless paintings and drawings, he did not do so mechanically but from a state of rapt creative attention, investing himself fully in each brushstroke.
Collector Robert Scull (1916-1986), interviewed in 1975 at the Jharna-Kala Gallery on Mercer Street, said: “It’s an incredible output, and I think that that amount of paintings done in two months must be coming from a deep autobiographical well of images and feelings.”
Artist Paul Jenkins (1923-2012), interviewed on the same occasion, said: “The abundance! Yes, there are many watercolors, but what’s here is an abundance of color, abundance of images, abundance of things that come through your mind when you meditate. And I don’t look at them with a tough eye, say like an artist art critic. I look at them for what they are: for his joy.”
In presenting Sri Chinmoy with an award from Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts in June 1976, the late Brian F. Gormley described his work as “art cleansed of all the ambitions and desires that we too often see in the art world.”
Sri Chinmoy died in October 2007, and a few years later the comedy series Portlandia created a stir with its “Put a Bird on It!” sketch, gently satirizing the artistic spirit informing some good Portlanders. That concept re-echoed through the blogosphere in March 2016 when a Portland rally for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was unexpectedly visited by a “sparrow to believe in”:
But Sri Chinmoy was the original put-a-bird-on-it guy:
During a peace ceremony in Malta in 1991, he released doves into the air as a symbol of the commitment to world peace made by the leaders assembled on that day:
In his concerts, he performed on an ever-changing variety of instruments, including the dove ocarina. Sumangali Morhall describes a concert she attended in September 2005:
The maestro arrives, and the hush finds new depths. The opening meditation is a silent overture, creating most seemly and serene environs for new sounds to take flight.
The blue ceramic dove is first as always, like a sweet ethereal invitation to another realm, then the esraj with its seamless husky call; one note yearning for the next. A western flute somehow echoes in a bass octave, doubling its mellow melting warmth, yet still mirroring the surrounding silence. A dance of strings: the curled smiling sunny tones of the sitar follow those of smaller things responding brightly to Sri Chinmoy’s touch.
Delight is not just in the sounds themselves, but also in the physical beauty of each instrument, and in the grace with which they are handled to draw forth their truest, sweetest, and most powerful voices. Sri Chinmoy’s image on the screen portrays the depth of meditation holding the source of every note. How haunting the harmonium; the notes hanging as backdrops in the air, and then Sri Chinmoy sings… I feel only heart then; one vast affirmative in that striking yet mellifluous flow of sound and expression.
— Sumangali Morhall, “Sri Chinmoy’s World Harmony Concert, Hamburg”
Although it’s possible to count the numerous concerts Sri Chinmoy gave over a lifetime of service, these concerts were made up of countless spiritual moments in the lives of seekers — experiences which are recorded on the tablet of their hearts. As striking as were Sri Chinmoy’s outer achievements, they are nothing compared to his inner achievements, which can never be quantified.
When we think of infinity, we tend to be overwhelmed and not to think of beauty in the same breath. But in Sri Chinmoy’s song “O Beauty-Infinity” (here performed by Blue Flower), these two qualities go together:
Sri Chinmoy taught that God is infinite; but perhaps more important to the many persons of artistic temperament who gathered around him, he taught that God is “beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful. Beauty unparalleled in the garden of Eden.”4
In the inner world, beauty and infinity make two most charming companions.
Special thanks to Kedar Misani of Switzerland, who has posted many excellent photos and videos of Sri Chinmoy online. Visit his YouTube page here.
1Sri Chinmoy, “My Name, My Age, My Home” from My Flute, Aum Classics, 1998 (1972)
2Sri Chinmoy, “Revelation” from My Flute, as above
3Sri Chinmoy, from Sri Chinmoy Answers, Part 36, Agni Press, 2004
4Sri Chinmoy, “O My Lord of Beauty” from My Flute, as above
“A Magnificent Obsession” by Dr. Vidagdha Bennett
“The Strange Birds of Ottawa” by Chidananda Burke
“Spiritual leader draws seven million Peace Birds” by Julie Gunther
(updated link to follow)
“United Nations Displays Sri Chinmoy’s Paintings” – Newsweek
1975 Documentary on Sri Chinmoy’s Painting and Philosophy of Art
“Bird Imagery in Secular and Sacred Music” (group discussion)
* * *
In Part 1, I embedded a video of Picasso and the Circus, where a little girl named Elena views Picassos in the museum, with cutaways to a modern-day Parisian circus. I closed by saying this makes me think of many things…
I sometimes listen to Hour of the Wolf, the sci-fi/fantasy radio programme started by the late Margot Adler, and hosted lo these many years by Jim Freund. I remember Jim saying that he loved the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis as a child, but when he reread them in adulthood the magic seemed to be gone.
Aha! I thought to myself. The books are the same, but what has changed? Consciousness has changed! This ties in very nicely with Picasso, who famously said that “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Unless we consciously try to cultivate childlike qualities, those qualities become lost to us — and with them so much beauty and joy!
Students of Sri Chinmoy put on their own amateur circus which has all kinds of crazy and colourful acts meant to bring out childlike qualities:
It’s called the Madal Circus, based on Sri Chinmoy’s childhood nickname “Madal,” which means “kettledum” in Bengali. Of the Madal Circus, Sri Chinmoy said:
Dear ones, Madal Circus gives me the utmost joy, purer than the purest joy. Our philosophy is progress, progress, progress, progress. Let us not change our philosophy! I am begging you to remain young, young, young. Only the young in spirit will realise God.
— Sri Chinmoy, from His compassion is everything to us
Sri Chinmoy drew millions of birds, including this green one which graces the cover of one of his songbooks:
She has escaped her cage, and desperately wants to fly. But she can’t fly away and join the circus, because she is too awkward. She remains trapped in the urban world like a marionette with tangled strings.
— The Green Bird, Cirque du Soleil press kit
This could easily describe certain former seekers I know who lost their childlike qualities and became spiritually “bankrupt.” 😉
Moving on… Sri Chinmoy wrote this song about a green bird which he translated into English:
O green bird of the blue sky,
Tell me, will you go with me, brother?
I am afraid to go alone
To my Mother’s Home
Which is on the other shore.
No capacity have I
To swim across the river of destruction.
Will you follow me?
Will you help me fly like you
To the other shore
Where my Eternity’s Mother is?
— Sri Chinmoy, from Supreme, Teach Me How To Cry songbook
See also this discussion thread on “Bird Imagery in Secular and Sacred Music.” (I like connecting different sources like this to see what may be discovered by shifting from one frame of reference to another.)
Jim Freund, if you’re out there, I wonder if your frequent guest Genevieve Valentine — author of Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti — would enjoy this post. Her character Elena is perhaps darker and more dystopic than Elena Day’s Green Bird character, but it’s always fun to compare circus motifs and see how they pan out among different artists and genres. Reviewer Abigail Nussbaum notes that Mechanique opens with these lines:
The tent is draped with strings of bare bulbs, with bits of mirror tied here and there to make it sparkle. (It doesn’t look shabby until you’ve already paid.)
This forms a contrast with The Truman Show, which I recently wrote about. If we think of the faked city of Seahaven as a media big top, its illusions are rather high tech compared to those of Circus Tresaulti. In Truman there’s hope that one might escape from conformism and find a world more real, while the dystopic nature of Mechanique suggests that travellers in a dingy, post-apocalyptic world find little ultimate solace in the steampunkish illusions of Circus Tresaulti.
A memorable line from Mechanique reads: “You do strange things out in the world before you join the Circus.” Circus performers tend to live on the outskirts of the city, the outskirts of society, the outskirts of morality. Colourful characters who feel marked by difference may take refuge in a circus subculture where difference becomes a livelihood, a way of life, and ultimately the new norm. It was natural for a bohemian like Picasso to take an interest in the circus.
I’ve written before about Chinese bohemian San Mao, and about the album Echo, which was a collaboration between San Mao, Chyi Yu, and Pan Ywe Yun. That album actually opens with a song which has a circus motif:
Of course, once one begins to tally up all the film, TV, music, and literature which dallies with some variation on the circus theme, the possibilities are endless. Only yesterday I happened on an old Outer Limits episode where a birdlike alien takes charge of a space ride and sends the ticketholders on a longer journey than they’d planned.
The no-star cast and noirish photography are refreshing in an age of overproduced technicolor extravaganzas.
Potent Outer Limits quote: “Maybe young people are the only ones who listen and understand. You can’t reach a closed mind.”
Have you ever wanted a way to show children that art can be interesting and fun? Today just might be your lucky (Elena) day!
Picasso and the Circus is a short film produced in 1981 by the National Gallery of Art. A little girl named Elena with an intelligent, artistic face is exploring the museum, spinning ’round and staring up at the rare and gigantic:
She begins eyeing early Picasso paintings and drawings depicting circus performers. Her museum explorations are intercut with footage of a modern day Parisian troupe (the Cirque Gruss) — replete with trapeze artists, equine riders, harlequins, and costumery that’s often little changed from eighty years earlier.
Even though I’m rumoured to be an adult, I love this film because it makes me feel like I’m wandering through a museum, seeing things through a child’s eyes of curiosity and wonder. It makes me think of many things — but more on that in Part 2. For now, Shut up and eat your Picasso… 😉
I closed Part 2 by saying that it would be easy to subject Picasso the man to a variety of political and spiritual tests — some of which he might fail. But this doesn’t negate what’s spiritual in his work, to be discovered through a careful process of selection.
Have we then settled the question of whether Picasso was spiritual? No, we’ve only scratched the surface! In art, it’s the question and the asking which are often most important. Answers are dull and tend to tamp down enthusiasm for further research. The quest to understand art, spirituality, and life is endless!
What we have discovered is that there’s a spiritual pathway through Picasso’s works. Because his works are so numerous and diverse, we each have the luxury of creating our own personal pathway through them.
To critics of Picasso I would freely admit that the pathway I have chosen is intensely personal. One could just as easily assemble a gallery of his least likeable and most self-indulgent works — an undertaking for which I have no patience.
To those who were determined from the outset that we should judge Picasso harshly and find him unspiritual I would say this: He was an artist, not a spiritual figure. To locate spiritual elements in his work is not to elevate the man beyond his faults, nor to suggest that he should be emulated as if he were a saint. Artists are explorers, and it makes sense to look for what’s valuable in their explorations, what reflects lasting truth.
A quite different type of criticism of Picasso comes from those modernists obsessed with the Holy Grail of abstraction. For them, Picasso is not truly modern because his works are always based on people, animals, and things. He never cuts the cord and embraces pure abstraction. He’s emotional, political, and biographical. This makes him less spiritual in the eyes of those who equate spirituality in art with the abandonment of content and the emphasis on purely formal elements.
I cannot agree with what on careful inspection turns out to be an elitist view of art. The advances made by modernists are impressive, and the search for truth must needs include not only form, but also the formless as well as the interzones. But it strikes me as foolish if, in evolving some taxonomy of art, we should quarantine Picasso from modernism and chide him for painting what he loved — goats and owls, pigeons and Madonnas. He moved modernism forward by leaps and bounds; and modernism (if I may so suggest) is not the rejection of everything which came before, but the inclusion of everything which has become possible.
Especially in their youth, artists often want to “burn the Louvre” (whether literally or figuratively); and indeed, for an artist unsure of his own identity the past can seem like an oppressive weight he cannot crawl out from under. The solution is not to destroy or disinherit the artistic past, but having learned from it to go beyond it with tremendous strength of mind, and a visionary quality which hastens the arrival of the future.
Abstraction is simply another mode of expression, another way of seeking the truth, another way that art can be. It’s not inherently superior to other modes and other views. The extreme view which extols abstraction as the ultimate in spirituality is incompatible with the view we have arrived at via Picasso that “the art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.”
It’s absurd to speak of Picasso “betraying” cubism during his neoclassical period, or to suggest that his ceramics celebrating antiquity detract from his reputation as a modernist. Modernism goes hand in hand with freedom of expression, and this includes not only the freedom to paint or sculpt unconventionally, but also to make use of such conventional elements as one finds helpful in expressing what one wants to express.
The human condition is one of social interdependence, and an art which insists on total abstraction runs the risk of becoming not spiritual, but rather dehumanized. This is not to say that the ideal of an art purged of all human concerns and reflecting purely formal elements is entirely without merit; but it should not become an obsession or exclusionary high tower.
I’ve purposely avoided getting bogged down in the sub-question of what is spirituality, because that would have led away from the works themselves. Modern artists often create works which do not explicitly affirm or commend faith, but which do point to some higher beauty which exists, and which might be said to come from the mind (or soul) of God.
When we lose ourselves in a work of art, this can be a spiritual experience in which we transcend mundane categories that ordinarily separate art, artist, viewer, and consciousness. The experience of oneness and insight which art can foster is a spiritual experience, even if it sometimes lacks religious icons or explicit affirmations of this faith or that. Perhaps what we’re really talking about is art as a way of seeing reality. Reality itself is non-denominational.
In a world that’s often as dull as a railway timetable, the ability to imagine and create speaks of something spiritual. Fixing the exact location of that spiritual something is notoriously difficult, like a problem in quantum mechanics. The closer we get to it, the less it looks like something small, finite, within ourselves, and more like something universal which we can all potentially tap into, colouring it with our own experience. In this sense, we are each writing God’s autobiography. For more on this, see You, a series of guided meditations by Sri Chinmoy.
One last painting I here offer is titled Still Life With Bull’s Skull, though its psychological effect on me never had anything to do with bulls or skulls.
It always reminded me of a child sitting up in bed and waving, after a dream in which he experienced something which could never be expressed in words. “I’m impossible, yet here I am. I exist. Hi!” the child seems to say.
Picasso famously said that all children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once one grows up. I’ll end as I began, with a snippet of poetry:
I had a black upright piano
with yellowing keys
it was sometimes in tune
a friend once played Bartók
but I doodled modally
and tried to learn counterpoint.
Degas, Miró, Chagall
a pole lamp bounced warm light
up at the ceiling
when dawn searched charcoal rooftops
it found me in Van Gogh’s Room at Arles
I was Picasso’s Guitarist
my arms grown long thin and bony
fingers curved around a fretboard
hair white, sculpted head held akimbo
poised for a lifetime of unemployment.
* * *
Note: A limited number of digital reproductions of Picasso’s works are included here for educational purposes and to promote awareness of his contributions as an artist. Some or all such works may be copyright Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Special thanks to the Masterworks Fine Art Gallery of Oakland Hills, California, which has many exquisite Picasso ceramics and linocuts for sale.
I ended Part 1 by suggesting that in his ceramics Picasso was moving toward simplicity and timelessness. This is a side of Picasso not sufficiently appreciated: one who admires the qualities of Greek and Egyptian art and takes joy in emulating it, making it a part of his own oeuvre. Not a mere nod to the past, but a genuine recognition that the past remains with us.
The public has a limited tolerance for complexity, and tends to fixate on certain facets of an artist’s work to the exclusion of others. Some of what’s good about Picasso may be hidden in plain sight because it fails to jibe with our expectations, and so goes unnoticed. If our stereotype of Picasso is that of the cubist, distortionist, and painter of exotic nudes, viewing his ceramics and linocuts reveals a quite different picture:
The accompanying music forms a counterpoint both fitting and ironical. “Aspri Mera,” sung by Greek-French chanteuse Nana Mouskouri, means literally “white day,” and here signifies an idealized day when everything is put right. The singer, who could easily be one of Picasso’s mistresses, says in part:
I will water with a salty tear
the weather, bitter summers
I learned to be close to you
The dawn gave to the sky
pigeons without life
I will come back as a sad Madonna
Goodbye, don’t cry for the sorrow…
As if by magic, pigeons and Madonnas appear on cue! (Translation adapted from one by Korina found here.) There is perhaps some danger in sentimentalizing Picasso, but one should view this slideshow as chipping away at ideas about him which have become fossilized, set in stone. Some people mistake his ceramics for the merely decorative, not recognizing that their simplicity is a profound form of artistic statement, for as the great Sri Chinmoy remarks: “Simplicity is an advanced course.”
This earthenware plate with its near-smiling face introduces us to Picasso’s “happy boy” icon — a big, round moon-face with minimal features, placid and showing no signs of modern anxiety or angst. Some of that simplicity-inspired-by-antiquity is also visible in a painting from 1946:
Picasso could communicate with great clarity and directness, as in this red clay study from 1964 reflecting Egyptian influence. It’s an immensely tactile portrait — as our eyes travel over it, we can almost feel the ridges:
Picasso knew everything that was happening in modern art. As a colorist and stylist, he could easily make Chagall or Matisse his own. Certainly one is reminded of them in this lovely and poignant piece from 1948, Claude in the Arms of His Mother, which rivals in expressiveness any Madonna and child done by the old masters:
At times, Picasso could be obsessed with form, line, and colour to the exclusion of empathy for his subjects; but not so with the above picture, which shows tremendous love.
Another domestically-inspired work hails from 1954:
It’s not as tender, but is wonderful in its form and looks almost like a still from an animated film. (The Picasso Summer, a 1969 film based on a story by Ray Bradbury, does include an animated sequence where figures from Guernica come to life.) The more sombre tone of Claude Drawing reflects the fact that Françoise had left Picasso by this time and taken the children with her.
Picasso painted some of his most traditionally beautiful portraits of women back in his neoclassical period, which came after his first major excursion into cubism:
It may be said without fear of contradiction that no one could make a bust of a woman like Picasso (but see feminist implications further down). After such a feast of beauty which does not challenge, we may be shocked to view his less representational works, where he interpolates his subjects through cubism, abstract sculptural forms, and psychological profiles. Despite its passionate title, Female Nude (I Love Eva) takes more work on the viewer’s part to discern the emotion. I know someone who swears he can spot three presidents:
This next one might be billed as Pig Wearing a Suit of Green Armour:
Another might be called Portrait of a Hatstand with Stained Glass Attachments, and has a bit of a Doctor Who feel to it (“Are you my mummy?”):
There’s something Moorish in this painting from 1952. No, not the Spanish Moors, but Henry Moore:
Picasso stretches reality and exaggerates certain features (here the long neck, hair, and act of curving the body), distorting the form to better communicate the essence. Another painting plays with the trope of the woman who’s mysterious and sphinxlike — by turning Jacqueline Roque into something Egyptian, carved in stone:
There’s an episode of Northern Exposure in which a hair technician describes her expert machinations as “shovering and balloonifying.” That’s certainly what Picasso does in the example below, and there are others where the models are suspended in air like floats from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade:
If this ode to modern inflation is cheerful, his Weeping Woman series evokes a universal archetype of suffering, but is also personal to Dora Maar:
Picasso said, “For me she’s the weeping woman. For years I’ve painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure, either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was the deep reality, not the superficial one… Dora, for me, was always a weeping woman… And it’s important, because women are suffering machines.”
Nevertheless, like most male artists of the twentieth century, Picasso used the female body as raw material for his visions of what art could be. The results were not always complimentary or respectful by today’s standards. This clip from the 1958 film The Horse’s Mouth gives something of the prevailing attitudes towards artists and models at the time. Look for Michael Gough as a sculptor obsessed with evoking “mother earth surrounded by her dead,” while the poor model shivers and cramps:
I will grant you that in order to pronounce Picasso spiritual one has to ignore a lot and put up with a lot. He never seemed to question the inherited setup whereby a woman’s function was to pose for male artists. Art historian and feminist Griselda Pollock addresses this issue pointedly in Art of the Western World, noting that “male avant-garde artists have staked their claim as ambitious modernists on the bodies of women.” For further discussion, see her “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity”.
It would be easy to subject Picasso the man to a variety of political and spiritual tests — some of which he might fail. But this doesn’t negate what’s spiritual in his work, to be discovered through a careful process of selection. Much that the critics herald may be safely rejected in seeking after the spiritual Picasso.
I have tracked this elusive beast as far as I safely could on foot, and having no motored vehicle, must leave it to the reader to proceed further, according to what he or she may consider prudent. Yet our journey is not quite done. In Part 3, I’ll ponder what we’ve learned and discuss Picasso’s (sometimes disputed) place in modernism. Naturally, there’ll be more pictures, photos, videos, and poetry. I hope you’ll enjoy hearing Françoise Gilot tell the story of how Picasso rescued a baby owl and nursed it back to health, and how she fed it mice from the publisher’s downstairs.
* * *
Note: A limited number of digital reproductions of Picasso’s works are included here for educational purposes and to promote awareness of his contributions as an artist. Some or all such works may be copyright Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Special thanks to the Masterworks Fine Art Gallery of Oakland Hills, California, which has many exquisite Picasso ceramics and linocuts for sale.
When Picasso visited Montparnasse
He ate only oranges
Or maybe it was the orangutans who
ate all the oranges
I am not a historian, but a
I color the orangutans magenta
Picasso I cut into small numbered strips
Assigning a color to each according to the
Which are not from Montparnasse
But I understand the birds there
Remind one of saxophones.
So begins a poem about Picasso. But was Picasso spiritual? The question is simplistic and could easily be answered yea or nay based on arbitrary criteria, facts marshalled, or works cited. A more interesting question is: What is there that’s spiritual in the works of Picasso? He was an extremely prolific artist, so this could be the subject of a book-length manuscript. Let’s examine a few facets of his work.
I’ve always loved his Old Guitarist ever since I first acquired a cheap print of it as a teen. I don’t suppose I’m much of an ascetic; still, I used to practice guitar until my fingers sported calluses, which was a status symbol among the crazed guitarists of the period. If you claimed to be a guitarist, other guitarists would grab your left hand and examine the fingers carefully. “Yeah, you’re a guitarist,” they would grudgingly admit, as if granting entrance to a secret club whose members all bore the same tattoo.
The Old Guitarist is from Picasso’s blue period, but I never found this picture depressing (if that’s what blue means to some people). I do find it ascetic in an admirable, spiritual sort of way. The shapes and colours create their own world, and the figure seems to move counter-clockwise in an elongated oval, with remarkable harmony and balance. By being nobody, this guitarist somehow manages to be in tune with the universe. He’s lost himself in the music to such an extent that there’s nobody home anymore, just the music — a state of zenlike abandon. To be precise, he has no frets (as Douglas Hofstadter would say).
His head could easily have been stolen from a crucifixion picture, and I doubt this fact was lost on Picasso, who some claim was as Catholic as the Pope. (If so, he hid it well.) Picasso is a complex character, and any one theory purporting to explain him is bound to be superficial. Yes, there’s an element of autobiography in many of his pictures, but not always the most interesting ones. Something like The Old Guitarist is pure art — a world to be entered into and experienced, an object of meditation not idle speculation. On that basis, I pronounce it spiritual.
Others have tried to cast it as an icon for clinical depression. On the Undernews blog, an anonymous commenter recalls a PSA in which the subject got treatment and got happy:
“This [debate] reminds me of an old (well, maybe mid-eighties) PSA that used to air hawking treatment of depression: displaying a reproduction of Picasso’s ‘Man With Blue Guitar,’ the voice-over suggested that had modern treatments for depression (i.e. happy pills) existed in the artist’s time, he might never have experienced the melancholia that caused him to paint the pictures of his ‘blue period’ — never mind, of course, that some of Picasso’s greatest masterpieces emerged from this period. As I recall, the figure in the painting would morph into the animated image of a cheery oldster with a big smile on his face, suddenly strumming a happy tune on his now rosy instrument. Gaghhhh!”
Introspection, and awareness of suffering as part of the human condition, may be essential elements of both art and spirituality. If so, a society which insists on turning every frown upside down may be a shallow one, coming to resemble Huxley’s Brave New World. (“A gram is better than a damn.”)
Picasso was modern art’s man of a thousand faces, many of them masks pinched from other artists. There’s the decorative Picasso, the social Picasso, the political Picasso, the Picasso working out his various obsessions, the cubist, neo-classicist, and even minimalist Picasso. Here’s the social Picasso wowing us with a beach scene painted in 1956, during filming of Le mystère Picasso:
Picasso the dramatique shows us “the truth revealed from within.” He darkens the sky and brings out the stars. He’s profoundly unhappy with the first version of the painting, but uses it as a springboard to create a second (much different) one. Comparing the two is like a mini-seminar in modern art. Picasso crams the first with conventional detail, then reduces and simplifies so that the second communicates more pure emotion. The blue of the sea and orange of the sun are reduced to patches of colour, and the joy that people feel is personified by male and female stick figures who dance with joy and are united.
This is not unlike the writing process, where a writer may stuff the first draft with superfluous detail, then prune away much, keeping only that which is expressive and essential, even leaving some things unsaid — for the reader to fill in.
This also makes a familiar (but important) point about painting in the age of mass-produced photographic images: A travel brochure can acquaint us with the physical details of the beach at La Garoupe, but it takes an artist of Picasso’s calibre to make us feel the pure emotions so intensely.
Picasso’s first version is like a collection of ideas about the beach all jumbled together and not producing much emotion. Only when he eliminates the clutter and discovers what’s important to him does he create a work of lasting joy. As he says in the film: “Now that I know where I’m going, I’ll get a new canvas and start over.” If the composer of the film score really understood the difference between the two paintings, he would have scored the second very lightly — perhaps a sparse flute trio rather than an overblown orchestral honk.
What Picasso actually achieves in the second painting is a feeling of lightness and joy; but the film ends with a noir sequence that makes him out to be The Incredible Painting Man — freakishly good, and the possessor of a frightening artistic legacy. Such histrionics probably helped inflate the price of paintings.
Just as his daughter Paloma became a designer of fashion accoutrements, Picasso himself was by the late 1950s a designer brand prized by the rich, and he knew it. This didn’t stop him from doing some good work; it made it possible for him to move in any direction that he pleased. Still, by the late 1960s he had ceased being a stylistic innovator, and was content to continue working with styles and techniques he had already mastered.
Picasso was keenly aware of the modern dilemma faced by artists in all fields: on the one hand, tremendous freedom and opportunity; on the other hand, no rules or clear idea how to proceed. Picasso’s response was to ransack history for every conceivable style that could be of use to him, then go beyond them, creating new styles.
The late period Picasso already has enough tools in his toolkit and is intent on using them, recombining them in different ways according to the needs of the moment, creating a synthesis. Still, his work from the 1970s may strike us as less appealing, less relevant, too much the product of a sheltered existence. This example is an exception in that it appeals to a conventional sense of beauty more than most of his works from the same period:
Picasso differed from most modern people in that the work/leisure dichotomy hardly seemed to apply to him. He loved to work, and his work was his play. He never conducted dry research, but tried out new possibilities in a spontaneous way, working things out on canvas after canvas (as the film shows). In his 1923 “Statement To Marius De Zayas,” Picasso says:
I can hardly understand the importance given to the word research in connection with modern painting. In my opinion to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing. Nobody is interested in following a man who, with his eyes fixed on the ground, spends his life looking for the purse that fortune should put in his path. The one who finds something no matter what it might be, even if his intention were not to search for it, at least arouses our curiosity, if not our admiration.
Among the several sins that I have been accused of, none is more false than that I have, as the principal objective in my work, the spirit of research. When I paint, my object is to show what I have found and not what I am looking for. In art intentions are not sufficient and, as we say in Spanish, love must be proved by deeds and not by reasons. What one does is what counts and not what one had the intention of doing.
We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know how to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies. If he only shows in his work that he has searched, and re-searched, for the way to put over lies, he would never accomplish anything.
The idea of research has often made painting go astray, and made the artist lose himself in mental lucubrations. Perhaps this has been the principal fault of modern art. The spirit of research has poisoned those who have not fully understood all the positive and conclusive elements in modern art and has made them attempt to paint the invisible and, therefore, the unpaintable.
They speak of naturalism in opposition to modern painting. I would like to know if anyone has ever seen a natural work of art. Nature and art, being two different things, cannot be the same thing. Through art we express our conception of what nature is not.
I also often hear the word evolution. Repeatedly I am asked to explain how any painting evolved. To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was. Art does not evolve by itself, the ideas of people change and with them their mode of expression. When I hear people speak of the evolution of an artist, it seems to me that they are considering him standing between two mirrors that face each other and reproduce his image an infinite number of times, and that they contemplate the successive images of one mirror as his past, and the images of the other mirror as his future, while his real image is taken as his present. They do not consider that they are all the same images in different planes.
The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution, or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting. All I have ever made was made for the present and with the hope that it will always remain in the present. When I have found something to express, I have done it without thinking of the past or of the future. I do not believe I have used radically different elements in the different manners I have used in painting. If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression I have never hesitated to adopt them. I have never made trials or experiments. Whenever I had something to say, I have said it in the manner in which I have felt it ought to be said. Different motives inevitably require different methods of expression. This does not imply either evolution or progress, but an adaption of the idea one wants to express and the means to express that idea.
Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that in his ceramics, Picasso was evolving toward greater simplicity, even as Matisse was with his late period cutouts.
To live in the present moment, to create art in the present moment, and to recognize that all past ages are with us — these are ideas which point to something spiritual in Picasso. The present moment is, perhaps, not a mere second in time, but more like the prow of a ship cutting the water towards the future, but carrying with it (in the body of the ship) all the past ages which are part of the present moment. One unbroken moment in time encompassing all history, but always in the present.
We’ll talk more about Picasso’s ceramics next time, as well as surveying paintings from different periods in his artistic life. I do hope you’ll click on Part 2, which is the heart of this three-part series. It has the most pictures, slideshows, video clips, and reveals the most striking contrasts between works.
* * *
Note: A limited number of digital reproductions of Picasso’s works are included here for educational purposes and to promote awareness of his contributions as an artist. Some or all such works may be copyright Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Special thanks to the Masterworks Fine Art Gallery of Oakland Hills, California, which has many exquisite Picasso ceramics and linocuts for sale.