[God as Architect, by William Blake - 54 KB] 
     "God as Architect", by William Blake


Art and Spirituality

 

by Veronica Brady

Genuine spirituality, like art, is open and dynamic...both are the hope of a world so badly in need of transformation
 
The world is charged with the glory of God
It will flame out like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil
Crushed.  Why do men then not reck his rod?[1]

Spirituality is at once very simple and very misunderstood.  As these lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins tell us, the world is "charged with the glory of God", shot through with beauty and terror.  But all too many of us are blind to this, preoccupied with what D H Lawrence called "the business of money-making, money-having and money-spending", and the pursuit of power and pleasure, "distracted by distraction from distraction".

This means that all too often 'spirituality' is profoundly misunderstood, becoming just another commodity, a source of pleasure or power, a way of making us feel superior to others, secure and exempt from the privilege and panic of existence, a kind of cosmic Linus-Blanket.  Interestingly, the definition in the Oxford dictionary, implies something like this.  Here 'spirituality' is defined as "concerned with sacred or religious things; holy; divine; inspired; refined; sensitive; concerned with the soul or spirit, etc..., not with external reality" - in other words, something somehow apart from everyday life.

Spirit in the Midst of Life

For me at least, this represents a profound misunderstanding.  As I see it spirituality is not something apart from everyday life.  It is an experience that occurs in the midst of, and gives depth and integrity to our lives as people who live in a particular culture, in a particular place and time.  As one writer puts it, it holds "on to the 'spark' that glows beneath all deep structures, beneath all social structures and beneath all physical existence, and which catches fire in communication with a divine nucleus of existence."[2]

It is also essentially dialectical.  "God is thought of as God", according to Eberhard Jungel, "only when thought of as a God who reveals himself"[3], as the Other who breaks into our lives.  The best short definition of God may thus be as interruption, an experience which ruptures the surface of the common place to reveal new intensities, new splendours and terrors, new possibilities within us.  So Martin Buber reflects:

By definition therefore, spirituality involves challenge and transformation and is thus the opposite of belief in a 'God' who is in effect the projection of our emotional, social and even political needs.  The religion Marx called the "opium of the people".  But, to return to where we began, our culture does not encourage interruptions of this kind, interruptions which depend on authentic and deeply personal experience.   Media society depends on the manufacture of mass imagery dedicated to a culture of consumption and instant gratification, "the exaltation of signs based on the denial of the reality of things."[5]  This is why art offers a way to a genuine spirituality.  All art, I would argue, represents a radical empiricism.  Even the abstract artist takes the raw material of physical existence , rearranges, shapes and intensifies it, concentrating experience into a point, making us aware of the sheer 'is-ness' of things.  Thus a flag is no longer just a flag, or a number simply a number in his art, Jasper Johns tells us.  Similarly, the avant-garde composer, John Cage declared, "We must set about discovering a means to let sounds be themselves", going on the instinct that: It also links us to existence as a whole, since it is part of the "reflective perspective" James Hillman describes which: It is this image making and openness to existence which makes the world holy, shot through with the beauties and terrors, challenge and tender cherishing of the Divine.

What makes a major artist, I would submit then, is the sense of self and life as dialectical, not one dimensional, open to the interplay of what is other, what cannot ever be fully put into words.  Hence Rimbaud's enigmatic "Je est un autre" (I is another).  Hence, too, the novelist Patrick White's description of the musician, Moraitis, playing the cello in The Aunt's Story:  "he wore an expression of sleep and solitary mirrors.  The sun was in his eyes, the sky had passed between his bones".  Perhaps the most vivid expression of this sense of self as somehow from time to time swooped upon, claimed by an otherness which transfigures and breaks open the ordinary is Robert Adamson's Drawn with Light.[8]

The poem begins with the image of an owl swooping low over the city, hooking a rat from a lane, "owl-eyes adrift, drawn by moonlight".  But the eyes and the moon fuse into an image of fire, a sense of some "silent language" beyond us in an "age of precious mumblings", of "clever emblems" of advertisers and politicians, of:

Beyond all this, however, beyond the "Streets of homeless, suburbs of living dead", we are drawn to some frightening power and intensity for which the owl becomes the symbol, the power and intensity of art: What is powerful in this poem is not just what it says but what it points to, something unspeakable, a silence beyond words, what one cannot say but can only become.  Wittgenstein was aware of this.  "We should not try to communicate the incommunicable", he wrote, "That will be futile.  That which is unsaid in what we have said will manifest itself by its silence."  It can perhaps only be spoken in the silence which a poem like this makes around itself, the break with and the intensification of everyday language, transforming sign into symbol. The world thus becomes multiple, not single.  Not that art is thus other-worldly.  If there is another world, as Paul Eduard says, it is in this one, in its intensification.  Nothing is necessarily commonplace or boring since, to quote William Blake, "everything that lives is holy", full of possible significance - as indigenous cultures have always known.  "Cursed be he (or she)" Blake said, to whom a "line is merely up and down."  Or, as Shakespeare's Hamlet has it, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in a merely materialistic philosophy.

Understanding of this kind is the other side of scepticism, of disbelief in the crowding preoccupation with property, power and possessions.  One begins to know what Jesus meant when he said that unless we "become as little children" we would not "enter the Kingdom of Heaven".  Children know, as all art knows, that what we call 'real' is what we agree to do so, and that this 'reality' depends on the stories we believe in.  As Nietzsche remarked, therefore, "we possess art lest we perish by the truth."

Art reminds us that life is stranger, more beautiful, demanding, joyous and painful than common sense knows.  The holy then, is mysterious.  It underlies the vision of tragedy and, indeed of any good novel which gives us a glimpse into the mysteries of the human condition.  Far from being unworldly or abstract, this mystery exists in the midst of our lives as a wonderful passage in Margaret Attwood's Alias Grace makes clear.  Grace comes into the kitchen early in the morning.

But he is beyond any question or control of ours: So a genuine spirituality, like art, is open and dynamic, opening out truer possibility.  In this sense both are the hope of a world so badly in need of transformation.

References

  1. Gerard Manley Hopkins, A Selection of His Poems and Prose, 1954, Harmondsworth, Penguin. >
  2. Olsen Steggink,  "Study in Spirituality in Retrospect", in Studies in Spirituality, 1:1, 1991, p21.
  3. Eberhard Jungel, God as the Mystery of the World, 1983, Grand Rapids, Eerdmass, Michigan, p158
  4. Kees Waaijman, "Spirituality as Transformation", Studies in Spirituality, 1:1, 1991, p31
  5. Jean Baudrillard, Revenge of the Crystal, 1990, Sydney,Pluto Press, p63.
  6. ibid, p83.
  7. Karen Claire Voss, "Mysticism and Exotericism", Studies in Spirituality, 6, 1996, p107.
  8. Robert Adamson, The Clear Dark, Sydney, Paperback Press, p60-61.
  9. Margaret Attwood, Alias Grace, 1997, London, Virago, p367.
  10. ibid.

Sister Veronica Brady is a writer and commentator on media, culture and social issues.  She has just completed an authoritative biography on the poet Judith Wright.  She is an associate Professor in the Department of English, The university of Western Australia.


This article was published in New Renaissance magazine Vol. 8, No. 1
(c) 1998 Renaissance Universal, all rights reserved.
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