Volume X - Sufi Mysticism
ART, YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
The art of painting is as ancient as the human race. It has existed in all ages, though not in the same form as today. There was a time when the Tibetans and the Chinese produced the most wonderful paintings. In these paintings, the principal motive was to give a form to abstract thought; and therefore very often, especially in Chinese painting, there are forms which we do not recognize. They were meant to be the personification of power, of compassion, of joy, of sorrow, and of similar concepts. They pictured joy or sorrow as an animal; the imagery of the Chinese artist even went so far as to create the form of a new creature to represent a certain idea. Thus the Chinese dragon represents power, and is at the same time a conception of the Almighty. The Chinese dragon is also a symbol of unity, for it has the tail of a fish, the wings of a bird, the fangs of a lion, and the face of a mythical animal, together with the eyes of a man.
This shows that all the different aspects of living beings together make one being; and one being means the oneness of the whole of manifestation. It is a lesson in unity taught by the symbolism of the Chinese dragon.
In India, the upper end of the sacred Indian instrument, the vina, was often carved in the form of a dragon's head. The reason for this custom was to remind the listeners that when a musician played his music and they heard it, they should not think that it was the artist who played and that the instrument was only a vina. Rather, their impression should be that it was the music of the whole being, of the divine Being, so that music might be considered not as a kind of pastime but as a source of elevation.
The most wonderful aspect of Chinese art has always been its drawings. The more one studies Chinese art, the more one admires the fineness of the line. The greatest artists of China could give an impression of the sky in only a few lines. It is a wonderful art, a very suggestive art. And how very effective it is, the making of something beautiful in just a few lines, drawn with inspiration and intelligence, and suggesting a certain form, with the artist only indicating the detail!
Japan followed China. The Japanese are an artistic people, and they have tried to produce even better things. What is good about their art is that they love daintiness and fineness; everything that comes from there is very delicate and refined. But even that will only continue for a certain time; the present condition of the Japanese shows the great interest they have in the things of the world, and this will increase. Even what little art is left there now will disappear. It is one thing to be an artist, and it is another to be materialistic; these two do not go together.
The Tibetans have the same kind of art as the Chinese, but not as developed. The reason is that in China there was an empire, and there was luxury, appreciation of art, and a high ideal; in Tibet there was only religious thought. And in all periods and all countries, if religious thought alone has been the central theme of life, then it has hampered the progress of art. Nevertheless, Tibetan art has always had the same depth that the Tibetans have in their character. One may take any Tibetan picture and one will always find that there is magic hidden behind it. And the use the Tibetans made of color is magic in itself. It is not only the fancy of the artist; it is the attempt of the artist to express the mystery of the object through color. In ancient paintings from Tibet, however primitive, the color or the form always expresses a certain mystery of life.
Ancient Egyptian art developed in its own way, and in accordance with its own character it reached a great height. No doubt as the people of that time were more psychic, more mystical, they did not give the same attention to detail and to the things of the earth as is done today – although the coloring of the old Egyptian objects is exquisite. Color meant a great deal to ancient peoples. They chose color as a medium of expression in a way that is no longer seen. But in order to appreciate the art of the ancient people, we must look at it from their point of view.
The Indians did not develop the art of painting in the same way as the Chinese or the ancient Egyptians. They were more drawn to other aspects of art, to sculpture, music, and poetry. Nevertheless, there are to be found ancient Indian paintings where the colors are expressive of the five elements. Everything expressed by these pictures, every idea or color, has something to do with the five elements. Yellow represents earth, green represents water, red represents fire, blue represents air, and gray represents ether.
It was in Persia that art first developed into something finer and more beautiful than in India. But when Persian art was later brought to India, it became richer in color. The pictures of the Mogul emperors and of their families, sometimes painted on ivory, show how conscientious were the artists in reproducing every little detail. Even in the smallest picture, one sees that every detail has been painted in. The combination of Persian and Indian art achieved very wonderful results. At the time of the Moguls a picture was a luxury, and that is what the Mogul paintings were.
Nowadays there exists a school of art in Calcutta under the direction of Abanindranath Tagore; this school tries to produce work in the same style as that of the ancient Mogul school. The modern versions that come from this school, however, cannot be compared with the old pictures. Yet when we compare them with other modern conceptions of painting, we find many things which are quite different. There is at least an extreme fineness about the pictures, a great delicacy of color, and much attention has been given to the line; one discerns an attempt to reach perfection through delicacy. But by all that is said above, I do not wish to indicate that ancient art was necessarily superior to modern art; I have only tried to point out what was good in it.
An interesting development in the Western world was the introduction of the idea of light and shade into painting. The ancient artists did not apply this, and it brought a new life to the world of art and made art more natural. But in modern Western art, it often happens that an artist gets hold of an idea and thinks that it is the only idea there is, and that there is nothing else besides it. He does not realize that any idea is a part of other ideas, and that many ideas together will make a whole. This has resulted in artistic movements such as cubism, which is derived from a certain impression one may get from light. Light strikes out in straight lines and forms angles; and so these artists wanted to paint all the different planes of their pictures in angles. They painted as if the whole world was made like that, in angles.
Other artists say that in painting only color is important, that it is color that must make the form. This also is unnatural. However beautiful color may be, it is not sufficient; the picture cannot be complete when it is painted in that way. It is again stubbornness, obstinacy on the part of the artist. He wants to paint something which will strike us, and no doubt color will strike us; but art is not only for striking. Art is for giving some beautiful impression, for uplifting our soul; it is for inspiring, not for striking. In painting, form is more important than color; the color is an addition to the form. No doubt color touches the emotional side of man, but that is a different thing and is very material. It is not the mission of art to bring man down to earth.
All this shows that the world of art today is in great confusion. The souls of the artists want to bring something new to the world, but at the same time the artists are looking for this where it is not to be found. It is like looking for the moon on the ground. They are eager, they are striving, and they are in earnest; yet they are looking for what they want in the wrong direction. Even if they worked for a hundred years like this, one can be sure that there would be no progress.
Are they wrong in their ideas? No, they are not wrong; but they are limited. They have gotten hold of one idea; it may be a very good one, but they have pinned themselves to it. They cannot go forward, because they are limited to their own idea. Whether people like it or not is irrelevant to them. Besides, though art can be most charming it can also be most deluding. If an artist is strong-minded and convinced of the quality of his own art, he can make people believe that he has invented a new form of art. But where does this new art lead us? What is the mission of art? Is it to delude us, to produce confusion? If there is no beauty, no harmony, no deep feeling, then what is its purpose? If it only strikes our emotions and our passions, or if it only strikes our eyes, then ultimately it has nothing to do with art.
No doubt there will come a time when the modern artist will be frightened of his own pictures, and he will awaken to the fact that he must find something else – that this is not the road to follow. The greatest example we can follow is before us both night and day, and that is the work of God. What can be better than God's creation itself? And the artist who bears in mind that he should imitate the creation of God, is the one who will produce beautiful things.
When God's creation seems to be going to the North and the artist going to the South, the artist thinks he is creating new things. But they are not new; they are merely wrong. Suppose there came a new wave of musicians who said, 'We are not going to accept the seven notes as they are, we are going to make other notes.' Perhaps they will have a following. Some will say, 'How interesting, it is something new!' And yet it will not be beautiful, it will not be exalting, it will not help humanity.
The peculiar state of the world today is due to spiritual poverty. It is this that causes all the restlessness and confusion. The extremes in modern art are the result of lack of balance. The soul wishes to express something, but if the soul cannot express what it wants to then there is no contentment, and there will always be suffering. The more a person works, the more he suffers; he suffers because his soul wants to express something but cannot. That is why in the lives of artists, there is always so much suffering – because their souls have been born on earth with some ideal which has made them artists; but when they cannot produce that ideal before their eyes, then the soul goes through torture. Until they come to that stage where they can produce their art to the satisfaction of their own spirit, they will always fall short of the ideal.
The artist has a great mission in the world. He cannot be compared with other human beings, for he is the instrument of God. His mission in life is to create something that will inspire people and will elevate humanity; his work should be an education for the world.
It seems that the general trend of the artist's mind is to become more and more fanciful. No doubt this is natural; yet it would be well if it were remembered that nature is perfect in itself, and that the greater the art, the more natural it is. The best art is the simplest. For instance, one might point out that Egyptian art makes use of symbols that are not natural at all. But the ancient Egyptian civilization was flourishing at a time when the world was still in a very primitive condition, and therefore we cannot compare the art of that time with modern art that is supposed to be much more evolved. When we look at the pictures of many Indian gods and goddesses, for instance those of Sarasvati and Lakshmi, we see that they have four arms, which is certainly not natural. Yet there are no angles, and no attempt is made to produce something unnatural; every attempt is made to show that even with four arms, they are natural beings. In this they are quite different from modern art, where even a man with two arms seems to be most unnatural.
Symbolism is the mature or ripened aspect of art, and if symbolism is used at a time when art is only beginning to develop, it is a drawback; then this art will not flourish. When art is in its infancy, it should not touch symbolism, for symbolism should appear as the result of a natural development. It is an inspiration; it becomes natural when the artist becomes natural, and everything he does has a symbolical meaning. But when the artist begins by thinking, 'I must apply some symbolism', then he destroys his art. Symbolism should come by itself. It is not something that one can study or learn; it is nature's language, it is spiritual inspiration, it is in itself revelation. And when a person has spent his life developing his thought and feeling, it springs forth naturally, since it is a divine spring of beauty. Then and then alone, the artist is entitled to produce symbolism in his art.
Symbology expresses ideas that are complex and on which one has to ponder, but it has nothing to do with deformity, for deformity will never bring us higher thoughts.
No doubt when there is a continual striving to produce something new, this will sooner or later have a result and will bring art up to a higher level. Perhaps that will be a step forward in evolution. But it will not come very soon. Evolution sometimes takes a wrong direction, and sometimes a right direction; though in the end, it will surely reach its destination. At the same time, the artist could find a way to bring about the result sooner, if he would only keep his thoughts more in the spiritual realm.