Happy 87th Birthday, Sri Chinmoy!

Remembering the beloved spiritual teacher, musician and artist with a joyful music mix and slideshow

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.” Continue reading

The Gospel Truth About Congress

Celebrating POETS day with an ode to our underworked legislators, and blues, gospel, and jazz. Musings about art, media collage, and the nature of reality.

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: Continue reading

Enlighten

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. Continue reading

Art and Hermeneutics Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art and Hermeneutics Part 1 (with Fun Video Clips)

Everything from Sri Chinmoy to Doctor Who, Star Trek, Suzuki Beane, The Thin Man, Carry On Teacher, and Herman’s Hermits

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.”) Continue reading

Margaret and Gillian Series

Three recoloured photographs from my archives

Margaret and Gillian 1

Margaret and Gillian 1

Margaret and Gillian 2

Margaret and Gillian 2

Margaret and Gillian 3

Margaret and Gillian 3

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.

Put a Bird on It! Part Two

Examining the work of Sri Chinmoy, including his abstract expressionist paintings and bird drawings. Plus, learning what he himself says about art.

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. Continue reading

Put a Bird on It!

Artist and spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy drew countless birds — not just on paper or canvas, but on clocks, seashells, glass, fabric, and children’s toys.

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. Continue reading

Picasso and the Circus, Part 2

Connecting Picasso and the Circus with Sri Chinmoy, Elena Day, Jim Freund, Genevieve Valentine, and The Outer Limits

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! Continue reading

Picasso and the Circus, Part 1

A child’s introduction to Picasso

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… 😉

Was Picasso Spiritual? Part 3

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. Continue reading

Was Picasso Spiritual? Part 2

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: Continue reading

Was Picasso Spiritual? Part 1

 

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
   crayon-colorer
I color the orangutans magenta
Picasso I cut into small numbered strips
Assigning a color to each according to the
   yarrow stalks
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.

Pablo Picasso, "The Old Guitarist," 1903

Pablo Picasso, “The Old Guitarist,” 1903

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. Continue reading