Sunday, February 25, 2007

Spirituality and Art

Decades on, I find I now appreciate art more than at any time since I was a young child. From about age 10, I think I deliberately severed my connections with things artistic. Partly it was because my mother would compliment me (as all mothers compliment their children) by saying "You should be an artist!" which I regarded as a threat to my plans to become a "nuclear physicist-scientist-astronaut".

My thinking about this connection began when I saw the movie Shaolin Soccer, which I called "a very spiritual movie."

Traveling in atheist circles, one has to be careful how one uses the word spiritual. Even when one is careful, one can still be misconstrued as talking about 'woo' and hocus pocus. The commonly suggested alternative, transcendence, isn't the right word.

There are many ways one can transcend one's self. One can learn a new skill, a new language, or a new craft. One can try to get a sense of what is it like to be someone else, and to feel what they feel. Transcendent experiences alter the boundary of the self or aid in seeing that boundary.

However, there is a significant distinction to be made between transcendence and the feelings which surround it.

Take 10 seconds to think about each the following ideas:
  1. Think about learning a language.

  2. Think about languages you love to hear.

  3. Think about how much your sphere of possibility would expand when you become fluent in a new language.

  4. Think about being able to speak any language with fluency.
Learning a new language (1) is an act of transcendence as I have defined it. I can only speak for myself, but when I think of learning a new language, I think of hard work, and my embarrassment at making mistakes. Not feelings I like to dwell upon.

However, the other three ideas stimulate pleasurable feelings. When I think of Italian, I think of romance. Ciao Bella! (Thanks, Eddie Izzard!) If I were fluent in Italian, Italian culture would be far less alien to me, and a visit to Italy would be as comfortable as a visit to London. And if I could speak any language, I could connect with many more people at a much deeper level.

I consider my feelings towards the latter three thoughts to be spiritual. They are feelings about the results of transcendence of my self.

When I think about acts of transcendence, as opposed to the results, my brain becomes bogged-down in technical analysis, and that obscures the ultimate pleasure of extending the boundaries of my self.

So where does art come in?

First, art creates images of my transcended self in an abstract way that subtracts out the specifics. It's a way of looking at the results of transcendence without looking at the technical details.

It's difficult to visualize myself speaking Italian. I don't know much about the language, and don't know much about Italian culture. I have had a taste of that culture, and I can associate certain images and symbols with it, but I cannot be more specific until I have gone through the process of learning the language. However, I can be motivated to do the hard work of transcendence by focusing on the symbols and archetypal images that I associate with the results of learning the language. Photos like this one perhaps.

I found a recent example of abstraction in a sculpture by Alexander Archipenko called Struggle (right).

The sculpture seems to depict a struggle, and this was apparent right away. But when I try to go from the abstract to the specific, I can't unambiguously see what each part of the sculpture represents. I can't tell which arm belongs to which person, nor can I tell precisely where the heads of the combatants are, if they are even people at all.

This work is interesting to me, but not because the concept of a Struggle resonates with me spiritually. It is interesting to me because it tells me something about myself and my perceptions. It tells me something about how I perceive the world, and that tells me more about myself.

I find that, to appreciate art, I need to look at works and ask what the work says about transcendence. Not every work is going to appeal in this way. Some works just look like rubbish to me. I think that's normal and this doesn't say anything bad about me or the work or the artist. We each have unique selves, and unique identities, so we should expect that transcendence means something different to everyone.

Art can also be the agent of transcendence. For art to transform me, I have to be introspective about my negative reactions.

Corset, a photo by Rahim the Photographer, has several things that I found initially disturbing. I've never much liked tattoos and piercings, and often regarded them as attempts to get attention or fit in with a clique. So, at first, the idea of a corset formed of ribbon threaded through piercings struck me as a neurosis taken too far. But then I stopped reacting with fear, and started to reflect on my reaction to the image. I tried to see her beauty as she would see it.

I generally see my physical and mental self as unified. An imposition on my self is an imposition whether it's mental or physical. I can't read her mind, but the model in Corset seems to have a strong mind-body dualism. It's almost as if she sees her physical and mental selves as independent. She might even be alienated from her physical form. At the same time, she obviously sees herself as beautiful, and regards her body as a work of art.

I don't claim to fully understand the model, but her photograph opened my mind to a part of the world I would otherwise have shut out or dismissed (body modification). It tells me something about myself, and about how my circumstances warp my view of reality. It redefines the boundary of my self by recalibrating my perceptions. I also create a transcendent bridge between my own thoughts and the mindset of the subject.

I think that spiritual feelings are feelings about the results of transcendence. Such feelings often require me to visualize transcendence while obscuring the out the technical details, and this abstraction is something art can do very effectively. Finally, when I open myself to it, art can directly change my perceptions.

I hope to refine these ideas in the coming months. They're still a little... abstract... at the moment.


Robin Zebrowski said...

Really nice read, doc(l). Thanks :)

I'm quite fond of this: "It tells me something about myself, and about how my circumstances warp my view of reality."

Just FYI, that line alone puts you miles ahead of most other analytic philosophers because it is the single most overlooked or intentionally ignored philosophical insightfrom that camp. It's one of the things that validated much continental philosophy for me.

Doctor Logic said...

Thanks, Robin. I'm relieved that my post was intelligible. :)

Was there a particular claim from the analytic philosophy camp that irked you? Or was it just an attitude?

Robin Zebrowski said...

Drat, your blog swallowed my post again! I thought I had overcome that!

Let's see, shortened version of my last post: I still quite like analytic philosophy, but the one thing almost universally missing is the fact that in all of the references to a "god's eye view," no one wants to acknowledge that we could never actually know what that would be. Our circumstances limit us WAY more than much analytic philosophy likes to admit.

Stupid post-swallowing software!