What is it in an artwork that enables it to transcend the limitations of the culture in which it was created, giving it a universal appeal? Why do the works of Shakespeare, Michaelangelo or Mozart have the ability to move audiences so powerfully, hundreds of years after they were produced, in a culture and society with vastly different values and preoccupations to that of their original audience?
It has been argued that works such as these have a depth and subtlety of expression which enables them to transmit the artists' experience of the sublime, or the divine. In fact the emminent psychologist Carl Jung has said that the "ability to reach a rich vein (the unconscious/sublime) in such materials and to translate it effectively into philosophical literature, music or scientific study is the hallmark of what is commonly called genius." Definitions of this subtle quality are limited in their value, for this quality by its very nature eludes the limitation which definition implies. Despite the elusive and somewhat ethereal nature of this phenomena, it has been recognised and described not only by artists of genius throughout the ages and across the cultures, but those arch sceptics and rationalists the scientists.
Auguste Rodin, the great French sculptor of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, recognised this subtle quality as the crucial element in great art, arguing that "Great works of art say all that can be said about man and they convey that there is something more that cannot be known. Every masterpiece has this quality of mystery."
The great Russian abstract painter Wassilly Kandinsky, described what is essentially the same quality Rodin refers to as the "stimmung" (roughly translated as the sentiment) of an artwork. He conceives this "Stimmung" as "the lofty emotions beyond words" that enables artworks to "fulfil their purpose and feed the spirit."
Both Kandinsky and Rodin speak of "mystery", of what "cannot be known", and what is "beyond words", evoking the elusiveness of the quality they are describing in very similar terms. Such terms appear again and again in the attempts of artists to describe this subtle quality. The "something more" of Rodin, and the "lofty emotions" of Kandinsky are strongly suggestive of the higher realms of consciousness associated with spirituality, and communicated through the unconcious. Indeed Kandinsky expressly refers to the nurturing of the spirit as the main purpose of art.
The Japanese Zen system more explicitly recognised the connection between art and spirituality, referring to what Rodin called "mystery" and Kandinsky "stimmung" as the "Yugen" or "Void" quality of an artwork. The work was said to have limitless profundity if it demonstrated the Yugen. The monks of the Zen religion believed that this quality would only appear in the artwork of an artist who had personally experienced the state of Zen, the 'zero', or emptiness in which one is said to touch on absolute reality. Art which expressed such sublime beauty through this direct experience of the divine was called "Zenga", and was prized far more than any artwork created by an artist of superior technical skill who lacked such personal experience of enlightenment. Thus it is contact with this eternal, absolute divine source which artists of the Zen school see as enabling the painting to demonstrate this subtle quality.
This idea of the artist as instrument of the divine, or acting with divine inspiration, has been an archetypal theme espoused by great artists attempting to express the processes of their work. Kahlil Gibran, the great 20th. century mystic poet and artist touched on two of the metaphors of antiquity, to describe the process of an artist's creation in writing, "Am I a harp that the hand of the almighty may touch me or a flute that this breath may pass through me?" Gibran perhaps unconsciously, refers to the Ancient Greek metaphor of the Aeolian Harp and the Hindu myth of Lord Krishna's flute which powerfully illustrates these peoples' understanding of the role of the artist. This harp is a mythical harp which is said to be so finely strung that it is able to be played by the subtle currents of the divine breeze of the holy spirit, creating unutterably beautiful music.
The Aeolian Harp represents the artist, whose finely tuned and sensitive soul responds to the divine breeze of the Holy Spirit as it blows through the strings, turning what is invisible and intangible to most, into beautiful enchanting music to move the minds and hearts of those who might be otherwise insensitive to the movement of this divine force.
The artist is similarly conceived as a musical instrument in an Ancient Hindu myth. Radha, Krishna's consort envies the flute which is always pressed to her beloved lord's lips, and asks the flute how it gained such a blessing. The flute replies that it is completely hollow and surrendered to the will of his Lord Krishna (who represents God) as it passes through him in the form of breath. The great artist is conceived as the hollowed-out instrument of God, emptied of egoism and selfish desire, and thus able to transmit the experience of their union with the divine through the enchanting "music" of their artwork.
The idea of the artist as an agent of a higher power is not confined to the ancients, but is expressed in the writings of 20th. century artists. Paul Klee wrote "My hand is entirely the instrument of a more distant sphere." Yet Klee does not see the role of the artist as entirely passive either. Klee, in his famous lecture of 1924 titled 'Modern Art', used the image of a tree to describe his understanding of the artist as a medium for the "transformative process of nature". He observed that, "From the roots the sap rises up into the artist, flows through him and his eyes. He is the trunk of the tree, seized and moved by the force of the current, he directs his vision into his work."
The 'sap' is something else the image of the sap is analogous with the breeze or breath of the Harp and Flute metaphor; coming from that "more distant sphere yet so much a part of the being his life depends on it as a tree it's sap. The artist is "seized and moved by the force of the current" of the sap and at the same time directs his vision simultaneously mastering and being mastered by this "transformational process of nature" as represented by the sap. There is a sense of merging, or oneness with this force that strongly echoes the ideas of the artists' spiritual union with the divine, which the Zen artists and artists of antiquity believed were necessary to produce sublime art.
All of these metaphors and ways of understanding the process of creation bear a similar theme of emptying; the zero or emptiness of the Zen state; the hollowness of the flute which allows the divine breath to flow through; the availability in the tree for the sap to pass through.
They are evocative of the ultimate state of enlightenment of the Buddhist 'Nirvana', meaning no wind, again implying a state of complete emptiness. All are suggestive of the artist becoming a vessel for the reception of what has, like the subtle quality spoken of earlier, been called by many different names; Rodin's "something more", Kandinsky's "lofty emotions beyond words "the Zen monks" absolute reality, the eternal, the sublime, the divine; God. Jung has perhaps come closest to enabling us to understand what these artists were expressing through there artwork in delineating what he called the Unconscious.
Jung described the Unconscious as the part of the psyche in which all our experience and memories which cannot be contained in the limited scope of consciousness are stored. Yet not only the memories of an individual exist in the unconscious but symbolic representation of ancient understanding of human nature; a kind of race memory which transcends cultural border and transmits the common psychological inheritance of mankind. Jung suggests that if an individual is able to integrate the activity of the unconscious, with its powerful animating ideas into his conscious activity and understanding, it acts as the muse of ancient Greek mythology; guiding, inspiring and enabling the artist to create artworks which express the power and complexity, the numinosity or holiness of the ancient insights into human nature.
Jung concluded that the unconscious was the main stimulus behind human expression, and the health or pathology of that expression depended on the capacity of the individual to integrate the imaginative and creative insights from the unconscious into the conscious.
Indeed, the action of the unconscious is particularly evident in the production of thoughts and ideas that have never been conscious before. Many artists, scientists and philosophers claim that their most ground-breaking discoveries and inspirations appeared spontaneously seemingly out of nowhere, many attributing them to mystical experience roughly corresponding to Jung's description of the processes of the unconscious.
The action of the unconscious in producing such discoveries is illustrated in the experience of a number of notable scientists.
The French chemist Kekule owed his discovery of the Benzene ring, to a dream of a serpent with it's tail in it's mouth, an age-old symbol which can be found in ancient texts dating back thousands of years. Similarly the French philosopher Descartes and the mathematician Poincare also owed important discoveries (as they themselves admit) to sudden pictorial revelations from the unconscious.
It is significant that it is in the field of science that such experiences were reported because it is the scientific and rationalistic outlook which has lead to the devaluation of such experiences, particularly in the 20th. century.
Jung further observed that in the 20th. century we have been blinded by our scientific and technological achievements so that we have forgotten the age-old idea that God speaks through dreams and visions.
Albert Einstein, universally recognised as the greatest scientist of the 20th. century concurred with Jung, believing that "ideas come from God" tacitly acknowledging the role of divine revelation in his own great contribution to science, the theory of "relativity".
Similarly, Pablo Picasso, the most famous artist of the 20th. century, in spurning the literal, technical and intellectual interpretation of painting which has become so fashionable said ".....you should be able to say that such and such a painting is as it is, with it's capacity for strength because it is touched by God."
Thus we can say that many great artists and scientists attribute their greatest creative works and discoveries to realms beyond the field of their ordinary consciousness and see themselves, to a greater or lesser extent as instruments through which the inspiration of the divine works.
The process of discovery in science and creation in art can therefore be seen not only as mirroring each other, but paralleling the experience of the Prophets throughout the ages. Their discoveries and creations after much conscious labouring are often seen to be brought forth spontaneously from a higher source for the advancement of the society and the enlightenment of the collective awareness.
Hildegard of Bingen the great 12th. century German mystic artist strongly advocates the prophetic role of art. She saw artists as prophets, as people who "........illuminate the darkness. They are people who can say God has illumined me in both eyes. By them I behold the splendour of light in the darkness. Through them I can choose the path I am to travel, whether I wish to be sighted or blind, by recognising what guide to call only day or night." The artist-Prophet is seen as a guide to those who cannot see, enabling them to move towards the light of divine experience. As in the metaphors of the harp and the flute the artist is able to lead the otherwise unaware audience to perception of the infinite.
Kandinsky, writing 8 centuries later, concurs with Hildegard on what he called the "nobler purpose of art." He described painting as "......an art, and art is not a vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power that must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul," This he believes can only be done by an artist who is willing to "search deeply into his own soul, develop and tend it, so that his art has something to clothe and does not remain a glove without a hand."
As the 20th. century has progressed however there has been a growing trend away from this "nobler purpose" towards the kind of art Kandinsky covertly attacks, the ".....vague production, transitory and isolated" expressing a subjectivity both esoteric and exclusive, which needs to be explained or even defended intellectually." It is the art of the Andy Warhols and Paul Koustabis, who rely on some intellectual fashion or gross sensational elements to generate controversy that exites the jaded palate of their audience.
Such art has gone progressively further in a bid to excite a response from an increasingly desensitised audience, until there is a situation where performance artists will perform artworks involving urine and faeces, nudity and sex, even going to the extent of cutting themselves up to elicit a response from the audience. In the established galleries works like the "Piss Christ", a sculpture of Christ suspended in a glass frame filled with urine, or Mapplethorpe's studies of homosexual men engaged in sado-masochistic sexual activity and have attracted huge audiences, through the controversy these artists have deliberately sought to cultivate.
These examples though extreme illustrate the extent of the trend away from the nobler purpose of art which Kandinsky has described. The artist who directs his art towards this nobler purpose helps raise the awareness of humanity toward perception of the infinite, reminding human-beings of the "....something more ...about man ...that cannot be known" as Rodin describes it; the potential divinity which resides within all human beings and which is forgotten in the grind of everyday life. Works such as Mapplethorpe's and Warhol's seem to move us in the opposite direction, exalting what is most ignoble and gross in human nature, and appealing to the baser appetites of their audiences.
The idea of the eternal in art has been espoused by artists of genius throughout vastly different cultures and epochs, from the Ancient Hindus', to the Ancient Greeks, to medieval Germany and Japan, to great artists of the modern era from different disciplines and schools. From Rodin the master sculptor to Picasso and Kandinsky, the masters of the modern era. All have recognised the subtle quality of art to express the eternal or divine as the mark of great art, regardless of technique or style. The purpose of such art is summed up by Kandinsky in asking "Whither is this lifetime tending.?" In answer to his question Kandinsky quotes Schumann "To send light into the darkness of men's hearts, such is the duty of the competent artist."
Max Lieberman & Michael McFadden