from The Theosophist Dec 1987

(Artistic Experience of Theosophy)

The Voice of Art

Hugh Shearman

In the declared objects of the Theosophical Society there are named three approaches to the pursuit of truth - religion, philosophy and science. Out late President, Mr C. Jinarajadasa, used to urge the value and importance of a fourth approach, the way of art. He did not propose that the objects of the Society should be changed to incorporate art formally as one of the Society's specialities; but he did recommend that members should informally try to discover themselves through art. He even advised them to try writing verse, so long as they did not ask him to read what they had written.

But art had for him a much wider scope than the picture on the wall or the tinkling of a piano before one of the Society's meetings. He gave at many places a lecture with the title "Are we not all artists?" And one remembers that Madame Blavatsky once defined Theosophy as "the science of life and the art of living".

Aristotle in his Poetics described all forms of art as based on mimesis or imitation. Today we should tend more to use the word "expression". But expression of what? Sometimes we speak of self-expression. But what self? At its best, art conveys intimations of a pure world, of which our personal world is only a reflection or a secondary effect.

Many people, of course, do not believe that there is this pure world, this more comprehensive order of experience. Yet even they in their moments of innocence or lucidity, can often express something artistically which, for those who can respond to it, will convey some intimation of an order of experience different from the calculations of our separate personal existences and carrying some subtle sense of the numinous.

But religion, philosophy and science are all busy, in their distinctive fashions, making their statements about primary reality and a wider context which comprehends us. Why, then, should we need the statement of art as well, and how is art different from those other three fields of endeavour?

What seems to make art different is that it does not attempt to explain. Philosophers and scientists certainly try to explain, and men of religion engage in what St Paul called "the foolishness of preaching" (I Cor.1, 21). But the artist does his "thing" and leaves it with us unexplained. Perhaps there will be critics who will rush in to explain it, but the artist himself may well be sceptical and even resentful of those explanations. There is also an inferior art whose products can be explained because they are only contrivances of the mind.

But there are artists who are so aware of the nature of what they are doing that they are not eager even to give a name to what they create. When Rodin, the French sculptor, completed a work, he looked at it and sometimes consulted other people about what he should call it, since, for catalogue purpose, it was expected to have a name. Then later, perhaps, some visitor might comment that the work looked more like something else, and Rodin would then quite affably discuss this and was often happy to change the catalogue name. There were some of his works which acquired quite a succession of names, for he just did not take names and descriptions very seriously.

There is a good reason why it is not the business of the artist to offer explanations or "place" his work in any scheme of things by name and description. If a work of art carries an intimation of a perception that even slightly transcends our everyday personal order of experience, this represents a movement of consciousness in a direction where the mind which deals with the personal things is no longer able to contain it.

The mind's standard of reference is always a comparative one. From our personal centre, we think of things in terms of their contrasts with other things. But consciousness in a pure order of experience is glimpsing all as one comprehensive whole, an "epiphany", not analyzed and evaluated down into that state of fragmentation and departmentalization which our everyday minds find it so hard to outpass or transcend. The statements which art makes omit those limitations which the discursive personal mind keeps demanding.

Whether the artist's statement is in the form of a poem, a picture, a statue, an oratorio or whatever, it cannot be merely factual. It is a symbol or an intimation, not a merely objective record. Even if a work of art is an accurate portrayal of a scene or a person, it is the subtle intimation that it conveys which makes it in some respect a work of art and more than just a factual record.

Obviously some of the intimations which certain works of art convey are relatively shallow, not particularly elevating or captivating. The art of "protest" necessarily involves sometimes conveying more hostility than compassion, a divisive rather than a unitive message. But great art conveys some flavour of a higher order of experience. A Renaissance writer said that "aught which hath a temporal fairness is, as it were, a mirror of the divine beauty". That must apply to nature as much as to art; but while nature seems to express something unconsciously, art is to some extent self-conscious. In art, consciousness is discovering itself.

The voice of art is at some level, often perhaps a humble level. What Madame Blavatsky called, " the Voice of the Silence". It speaks to the intuition, the capacity in us which can respond to a situation as one whole. The assessments of the mind, which break each situation in life into separate parts, are not enough. The great heresy that the discursive mind commits is to hold to the notion that the unity of life and the final value of things lies in self-consistency, in the capacity of all aspect of life to be reconciled with one another within the scheme or limits which that mind unknowingly imposes. In terms of that discursive mind's methods of functioning, reconciliation is impossible. As that mind sees it, truth cannot be reconciled with falsehood, approval with disapproval. Its dualistic nature and antithetical mode of working cannot cope with a state of unity or lead to a unitive experience.

Thus, if we approach the various forms of religion as statements of fact, they can never be brought to a mutual tolerance. In the very early days of the Theosophical Society a statement was issued to the effect that the Society was "opposed to all forms of dogmatic theology". By the very nature of things, this is bound to be so, not because the Society takes a hostile or confrontational attitude, but because such mental expressions of religion become irrelevant to the intuitive understanding that we seek.

If we look upon the various forms of religious expression and activity as works of art, conveying intimations and intuitive hints rather than factual statements or definitions, then we can respond to them more sympathetically. In that case we must be prepared to claim no more than an artistic validity for any religious expression that we engage in ourselves.

There is a level of activity at which the discursive mind can work quite usefully. There is a level at which Cartesian dualism is true and Newtonian physics can be found to work. But those pursuits of the spirit which involve a unitive experience cannot be contained in that way. This is always irksome to those who think that every human pursuit has to be valued according to some explanatory content or conceptual argument which it is supposed to carry within it.

There have been controversies at times within the Theosophical Society itself, just as there are warring sects within most of the major religions. The topic of rites and ceremonies can, for example, become quite a divisive one. But if we are prepared to regard what others do as forms of art, we can become not simply more tolerant but more appreciative.

In everyday life, the world of art is by no means free of jealousies and contentions, but it has also a certain broad tolerance. Each has to do his own things.

To go round propounding some new dogma about art or impose new definitions on what we do would only be to fall into the old heresy. But if we ask, "Are we not all artists?" we can see ourselves and all the people round us as attempting to do their own "thing' or trying to discover what their "thing" is. Most of us perhaps do it rather badly, for the artist in us is only attempting to emerge and has by no means come into his own yet.

Some, down the ages, have suggested that, when the artist comes more into his own in us, we shall find that in a mysterious way it is the one Artist who, with infinite resource and ingenuity of expression, has been emerging in all of us. But we shall not discover whether that is so if we let ourselves go on thinking that the art of living is limited to the proliferation of concepts, opinions and explanations or to writing books and giving lectures.


Dr Hugh Shearman of the Belfast Lodge is an Additional Member of the General Council of The Theosophical Society.