Art, at its best, is an asynchronous dialogue between the soul of the artist and the soul of the viewer.
It is a conversation of the soul, because what moves the artist to create and the viewer to respond comes from a deeper level than the mind. No amount of technical expertise can move the viewer at a soul level. The most that can be achieved with proficient technique is to provide an effective means for the soul to express itself. If the soul’s expression is absent, you have an exercise of technique, but not art.
It is a dialogue, rather than a monologue, because the artist’s soul can “hear” the response of the viewers even as he is creating the work. It is like a stone being dropped into a pool, creating ripples. Imagine that the ripples arise spontaneously with the stone, not as a consequence of it striking and distorting the surface of the water. The simultaneous nature of this experience allows artist and viewer to coexist in the creation and the reception of the art.
The experience of ourselves as individuals leads us to assume that we have individual souls as well. While this is true in one sense, there is also a sense in which all our souls are one soul. This one soul, deeper than our individual self, exists outside of space and time and so does not experience things in a sequential manner. To this deeper soul, there is no cause preceding effect – rather it all happens now, in one cascading event. The artist’s expression is as impacted by its relationship with the viewer as the viewer is by the finished work of art, even if this work is viewed many years after the artist’s death.
When we stand in the presence of one of Mark Rothko’s tremendous doses of raw color, our soul engages with the soul of the artist. We become a part of the dialogue which is both generated by this work of art, even as it generates the work through the artist. It is this soul level experience that lifts us out of our very limited sense of self as mind, and into a much greater self which we share with all those who stand before this work – including the artist. Through this shared experience of creation and reception, we come to view the world from a broader perspective, with different expectations and greater appreciation.
Many art historians and critics have attempted rational explanations for why certain pieces of art become masterpieces. I’ve read any number of these attempts and have yet to be satisfied by their very cogent explanations. This is because they miss – or perhaps avoid – the essential reason behind art itself. Were the artists who painted the walls of the caves at Lascaux trying to improve the aesthetic quality of their surroundings? No – they were expressing something for which there were no words; something rising from their soul’s relationship with the natural world and with the divine presence of that world. It is clear when you observe these paintings with a sense of openness, letting go of thoughts and allowing yourself to rest in a meditative state, that there is more going on here than representations of animals. The figures are icons of a deeper experience, expressed through the artist, received through our soul and into our minds.
This same urge to express the soul motivates all artists, whether they realize this consciously or not. Technical proficiency – or perhaps raw talent – brings this urge forward more clearly, allowing the viewer’s soul to engage powerfully, irrationally and completely. In this way, those artists who have the gift of expressing their soul, combined with a talent for putting this expression into an evocative form – the Picassos, Rembrandts and Leonardo Da Vincis of the world – converse with us through the medium of their work – and the soul.
Another vivid example of soul level art is the work of Egon Schiele, a Viennese artist who helped to establish the expressionist aesthetic with his intense and provocative figure studies. When gazing into the atmospheric depth of one of Schiele’s figures, we are encountering the artist’s own experience, and thus expanding our own experience, of the human condition. By opening ourselves at this level, we enrich our souls and our minds, for our minds partake of this soul level dialogue when we either create or view art. This is our interface with the non-temporal nature of the soul.
One could even imagine a spiritual practice of viewing one excellent work of art each day; engaging deeply in that soul dialogue, and then taking in what arises from that into the conscious mind.
My Tai Chi master tells me that “you can always tell good Tai Chi, because it’s not boring to watch.” The same is true of good art. Good art engages us, beyond our understanding. And it is that quality of engagement which makes it art.
Kenn Day is a working shaman who attended CCM and DAAP. His latest book, Dance of Stones: A Shamanic Road Trip, addresses the role of the shaman in our post-tribal culture.
An utterly brilliant dissertation on the very complex relationship between mind, spirit and art. I love the way you described the connections between the selves. Well done sir!
Yes. I agree on all of the above. I’ve especially enjoyed learning, over the years, how to disengage my cognitive responses to art (and other things) and engage my soul instead. In doing that, art effects me in lovely ways that I never expected it to do.