Volume X - Sufi Mysticism
ART, YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
The Ideal of Art
When we study the art of the Middle Ages and the psychology behind it, it seems that the principal aim of the artist at that time was to produce an object of worship. Restricted within the laws of conventionality, having a deeply rooted belief in the sacredness of the artist's task, he considered his art as the expression of his greatest devotion. And any sensitive person will certainly feel that the art of the Middle Ages has an atmosphere, a feeling, and a magnetism that grows day after day. No doubt one can only appreciate this art if one does not compare it with the art of today. As Majnun said, 'To see Laila, you must borrow my eyes.' So we must borrow the eyes of the people of the Middle Ages, the feeling of the people who lived at that time, and then look at their art; for in its primitive development there is a mystery hidden, which could not be reproduced today.
When we think about the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, we observe that the wave of inspiration coming from ancient Greece to Italy brought new life; yet the art which was once made for worship was then made for admiration. Art rose to great heights, bringing the spirit of classical antiquity into a new realm of expression. Nevertheless, one can say that in the Middle Ages art was directed towards God, that in the art of the Renaissance, God was included; but that afterwards it was produced without God. And without God, essentially there is no art. The gulf that we find between our time and the time when art was in its greatest glory exists because the art of today is without God. The artist of the Renaissance had not given up God, but afterwards God was forgotten.
Painting, sculpture – any form of art – if it is not directed towards a higher ideal, it must go downward; it cannot rise because there is no ladder. It is the ideal that helps everything to go upward. Without the ideal, everything goes downward. One can see the reason why people become more materialistic: beauty naturally belongs to heaven. On earth, it is only reflected; and when the connection with the heaven is broken, when the back is turned towards heaven, then the eyes become focused on the earth and slowly, gradually beauty begins to disappear. Thus, in a way, the divergence between the Renaissance and our time has been caused by materialism, by commercialism, and by the lack of heavenly inspiration.
No doubt the need that has been felt in the hearts of the lovers of beauty has been working on the inner planes, and now it is beginning to show itself. But how is it becoming apparent? Not in the form of beauty; it is the absence of beauty that is now beginning to be felt. The result of this is that the artist thinks there should be a new start in the world of art, that a new standard of beauty should be found, a new expression; but when he tries to find it, he mostly misses the mark. For when inspiration is lacking and the work of art is forced by effort, what is produced is merely mechanical. One artist thinks, 'Everything must be in angles; that creates a new beauty.' Another says, 'No, everything must be just colors; everything must be expressive by itself.' Another artist says, 'Everything must be just lines without any detail; everyone should find out for himself what it represents.' And again, another says, 'Everything must remain in an unfinished state; that is very artistic.' In this way, it is like many horses trying to take different directions in order to arrive at a certain place.
There seems to be no ideal today – but the day when the ideal again directs the hand of the artist, art will progress more rapidly, and the promise of the art of the future will be fulfilled. That something, which begins with a promise of touching the heights, of manifesting in perfection, has another voice. It has another soul and another expression. Today the artist is striving for it, his soul is longing for it; but he has not yet found it. And the very reason why he has not found it is that he is thinking too hard. Art does not require hard thinking, nor does poetry or music. True art always comes with ease, with relaxation; it comes naturally. The artist should not be fighting with beauty or struggling with inspiration.
What is most to be deplored at the present time is the unconscious and yet predominant commercial influence that hovers like a cloud over the art of today. There is a general feeling that every month a new fashion must arise. There must be a new fashion in everything; and this inclination, saturated with commercialism, destroys the roots of natural and beautiful art. Why strive for something new? Life is always new and always old. It is always the same and yet it is always new.
To think that we must forget, overlook, and destroy all the thought of the past is a still greater error. When artists start with this error, wanting to make something new, then they make commonplace things, things that are far removed from beauty. And the admirers of art, those who buy, do not mind as long as it is new. Most of them only acquire a work of art because it is the fashion, not because it is beautiful; and thereby a great load of responsibility is laid upon the artist as well as upon those who present his work to the world. It is this pressure which spoils the work of artistic souls, who should have time to think about beauty and who should have leisure to feel deeply. Instead of this, anxiety is thrown upon them, and responsibility is forced upon them to bring out something new. On the day the world of art forgets the word 'new', a new life will come into it.
It seems a pity that one aspect of art is much neglected nowadays, the making of frescos. It is to be hoped that one day it will be developed again, and will take a more prominent place in the world of art. But fresco painting should be finished as any other way of painting is, as the great masters in Italy who did not leave anything unfinished did it. In any form of art, there should be a desire on the part of the artist to finish his work, not to keep it unfinished, which is against perfection. The lack of desire to finish something reflects only laziness, lethargy, and negligence. All of us, as human beings, have our limitations. It is very easy to say, 'It may be unfinished, but just look at it, it is beautiful!' But it is still not right. Everything we do, we should wish to finish to the best of our ability, even though it will always remain unfinished when we look at it from the point of view of beauty itself. We do not need to keep it unfinished on purpose; it remains unfinished without our trying, when compared with perfection.
Contemporary decorative art seems to represent a new step towards the unknown. No doubt the aim of decorative art should be to produce an impression without going into detail. But all the same, it should first be produced in the depths of the artist's own heart, and then he should put his thought-power into the lines that he draws. If an artist only wants to make an effect externally, by trying to make something attractive through making it different, it will never look beautiful – and it will never suggest what he wants it to suggest.
Today, when an artist tries to express an idea in decorative art, he tries to avoid all details and depict his subject by only a few lines. But when those lines have not sprung from the depths of his heart, when they are not inspired, they do not become a universal language. They do not make another person feel at once that this is the idea which the artist intended to produce. It must be given extra thought, so that the lines are not only lines, but that they express something, are suggestive of something, are living; then they instantly produce the meaning of the artist in the mind of the one who looks at them. If an object in decorative art is not made with this inspiration, it is not complete. It does not suggest anything, but is bewildering and will confuse many people. And at this time, if even art is confusing, where else can one go? There is nowhere else. Art should be revealing and inspiring instead of confusing.
There was a time when decorative art was highly developed – for instance in China, where it reached its zenith. When the Chinese artist wished to decorate an object with a picture of the sky, he drew it with one line; and one can feel it. Where does that come from? Does it appear from a mental effort? It comes from inspiration. It is one thing to think about an idea and another thing to feel the idea, and once the artist begins to feel the idea he is able to express it. Even if it is not finished, it is finished in the feeling of the artist, and that completes the lines. Those who want to will see the truth of it, they will be able to read it; they will know the object of the picture.
There is a new aspect of art nowadays, which is called 'clairvoyant,' 'mediumistic,' or 'spiritualistic' art. One may speak of the bewildering effect of art, but this is the most bewildering of all! One day a person put some colors on paper, and showed it to me saying, 'People cannot understand this deep idea, but you will understand it. It is very deep, it has come from some clairvoyant source.' I looked at it; there were many colors, that was all one could say. They were not even blending harmoniously with one another; they were only striking. The person who had painted it looked at me and waited for my opinion. He asked, 'What do you think of it?' So I replied, 'It is a picture of the end of the world.' And he was very pleased with this answer. Some people who claim clairvoyance try to paint what they call 'the other side,' but to do this they would have to bring the paint and canvas from the other side too. The clairvoyant cannot paint the other side with the brush of this world; if he tried it would be a mistake.
Very often, people also produce confusing patterns in decorative art. Maybe within that pattern there is a flower, and perhaps that flower looks like a man's face; and if one looks at that flower from another angle, it is like the face of a monkey or of a tiger. If this is not confusing, what is it? And such patterns are often commercialized, and used for wallpaper and other decorative purposes. It is this confusion of the artist's mind which commerce has taken over and made use of. And if confusion is used for commercial purposes, then where are we going if not towards confusion, greater and greater confusion helped by so-called art?
The combination of inharmonious colors has very often an inharmonious effect on the nerves, on the thought, and on the mind. This gives scope to those imaginative artists who are, however, without beauty, without art, without knowledge of life; without any psychological conception of it whatsoever. It makes their art popular: by claiming that it is quite different from anything else, they can sell their art better. Art should be simple, it should be expressive. It should also be inspiring and revealing.