Plato claimed that we are drawn to some higher reality of which we see only darkly, and St Augustine spoke of the god-shaped void in man. In my pursuit of art I have gradually realized that some inner urge or inspiration directs my choices of painting. “Concept Art” elaborated on this, saying that art is in this seminal idea and not in the execution. George Inness said “The true artistic impulse is divine.”
I’m sure you’ve asked, “Why am I here?”, “What is my purpose?” “What should I do with my life?” I’ve probably spent some hours searching for an idea for a painting, for a purpose in your art. My point is that our art is an attempt to transcend the daily grind of reality and logic and to experience that god-shaped void. I’ve discovered that the fundamental spiritual question is “What is the nature of god?” Likewise, oft asked, “What is art?” challenges us to contemplate the essence of existence. You may have found that there are an infinite number of answers to these questions, all of them true.
When we discuss painting, we usually refer to techniques and execution. Rarely do we speak of the original impulse which is more difficult to describe. This impulse reveals itself in two extremes and everything in between. One artist is spontaneously smearing, the other meticulously detailing. Which is the true artist? Regarding the spiritual path, there are those involved in charismatic or meditative practices, others concerned with the interpretation of law. The Tao resolves this paradox by acknowledging both – the ying and yang. There is no right way to be an artist, or a person for that matter.
We each have our own spiritual path and personal inspiration. There are infinite revelations to be found – the beauty of nature, the sacred in everyday life, exhalted ideals, the delicacy and colors of flowers, the harsh reality of city streets. Each artist is inspired by his or her private muse.
How do we describe spirituality? What are the signs – devotion, ecstasy, love, mental discipline, inspiration, purposeful behavior. How like the practice of art. When painting I often feel that I could just as easily be composing a hymn, prayer or poem to the beloved subject. Studying the Masters is akin to studying the lives of saints, each revealing a different face of god.
In gothic times, biblical stories were exhaulted to better tell the good news. During the renaissance, the artist allowed one to feel really present in the scene. As men gained more control of their environment, they paid homage to great events, persons and principles. Leonardo devoted himself to a feminine smile. Some artists were devoted to the rich and powerful, gaining esteem as courteurs. Others, like Goya, David, Millet, Henri, etc. began to protest the inherent unfairness of a class system and to honor the common man.
Impressionism was arguably the great awakening in art, mirroring changes in society. No longer was the artist ruled by the upperclass but was free to stand alone as an annointed prophet. God was to be found outside church, as Asher Durand wrote, ” I do not attend the church service the better to indulge reflection unrestrained under the high canopy of heaven.” This freedom found the ultimate expression in modernism where the artist’s inner impulse and the audience’s immediate impressions are celebrated. For Pollack his inspiration came from the non-verbal subconscious. Yet modernism is a cloistered practice and unintentionally excludes the average viewer. We could go on and on, and that’s what makes the study of art so amazing, enlightening, revealing.
If god is at work in history, he is revealing himself in more individual, free and unique ways, the better for each one to experience goodness. If you indulge in art or some creative activity, wherever you are on the path, whatever your personality, you are part of a grand and transcendental tradition. Whether it be the crayon mark of a child or the feather touch of Leonardo, it is your creation, your communion with the divine. Someone may look at your work and be transported to a different place, see something they haven’t seen. It’s like you have pointed your finger at something (or no-thing) and said, “look here!” And they will look and see your god emerging from the plane.