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Vision and Mission
It is the first vision that counts. Artists have only to remain true to their dream and it will possess their work in such a manner that it will resemble the work of no other artistfor no two visions are alike, and those who reach the heights have all toiled up the steep mountains by a different route. To each has been revealed a different panorama.
Albert Pinkham Ryder
My earliest childhood memories of art are of watching my father draw. His large hand would hold a pencil and its tip would skate across the surface of a perfect white sheet of paper. That pencil was like a magic wand to me, because from its tip were conjured creatures and objects that had not existed just moments before. My excitement made my hair stand on end and I would delightedly dance in place as I watched new worlds emerge from his pencil. My first drawing attempts were not more than scribbles with legs, from around age three. But under the spell of my father and enraptured by my own embryonic ability to draw, I felt I was an artist. Almost every child must.
I was fortunate that my kind mother saved some of my childhood drawings and presented them to me a few years ago. Sorting through the box, I came across several drawings of skeletons and references to death done within my first five years, which seemed oddly predictive of my life's work. Much of my later work has revolved around the subject of mortality. I even worked in a morgue for five years. My paintings include detailed images of the human anatomy, andskeletons continue to be the foundation of my art.
One of my best works from around age five was a somewhat detailed skeleton watercolor. The proportions of the skeleton are appropriate to a child of five, with its big head in relation to the rest of the body. There is also a bird like a magic power animal, attached to the arm of the skeleton, a coffin shape, and a happy gravestone. From age six to twelve I became obsessed with drawing monsters and cartoons, typical mythic imagery for a child of that age. Among the monsters I drew at around age ten was a death's head with the cowl and grin of the Grim Reaper.
By the age of seventeen I was enrolled in art school, and one of our assignments was to study the anatomy. This was my favorite subject, and I spent a lot of time observing the reference material and carefully rendering and labeling the bones. I was in greater command of my drawing skills by then and could rationally dissect the subject. In 1984 I drew and painted an X-ray type of praying figure, with bones surrounded by flesh and vital energies. Praying expresses a more spiritually oriented worldview than the earlier works by alluding to the higher dimensions of subtle inner light and sacred language. By 1990 I was still using the skeleton as the foundation of my figurative work, and again focused on death, but this time from the vantage point of the dying subject, as the ectoplasmic wisp of a soul leaves the top of the head and ascends through a tunnel of infinite awareness toward a clear white light.
One can see definite stages of consciousness development in the trajectory of these artworks, which span thirty years of my life. An artist progresses from the primitive scrawls of childhood to magic-mythic imagery onto disciplined reasoned skill and clever ideas then potentially onto works of creative and spiritual depth. As a child's brain and mind grows, and it gains social experience, its self-image and vision of the world changes. The first artistic marks a child makes are little more than scratches and jots, with an occasional handprint. For the young child, the world can be a magical place, where Santa Claus seems plausible and invisible playmates abound. Likewise, the child's drawings may mirror a crudely defined magical world. The older child tends to see life dominated by mythic power figuresmommy, daddy, teacher, and so onas the child struggles for both approval and independence. Many children from age six to twelve become interested in cartoons, monsters, superheroes, and supervillains. Drawing these fantastic characters allows children to draw power from them, to assimilate them in some way and assemble a cast of mythic personae in their unconscious psyche.
The adolescent's developed mental and physical capacity drives him or her toward independent expression, desire for recognition, and sexual gratification. The adolescent artist's improved eye-hand coordination results in more skillfully done works and original ideas. The graffiti artist is usually young, and tagging an alias is both a gesture of social defiance ("defacing" or "beautifying" property without permission) and an inventive bonding ritual within a gang or graffiti crew.
For most adults, reason dictates a level of behavioral conformity within a social group and adoption of common beliefs. For most artists, this means using the conventional approaches of the art world of their culture. Certain individuals evolve beyond the group mind; they excel and develop their own special vision of life. Development of the individual artist can both recapitulate and foretell the evolution of art. An original artistic vision is both acquired from the surrounding culture and attained through a depth of personal experience and introspection. When artists give form to revelation, their art can advance, deepen, and potentially transform the consciousness of their community.
Art and the Evolution of Consciousness
Art spans human history, from prelinguistic cavedweller to postmodern city dweller, and stands as witness to an ongoing creative process, an evolution of worldviews, a historic unfolding vision of nature, humanity, cosmos, and consciousness itself. Every work of art embodies the vision of its creator and reveals a facet of the collective mind. Artists offer the world the pain and beauty of their soul as a gift to open the eyes of and heal the collective. In order to produce their finest works, artists lose themselves in the energetic flow of creation, become possessed by an art spirit. Art history shows each successive wave of vision flowing through the world's artists. Like the seers and oracles of old, Art sings and shouts from the axis of truth to wake us up to who we are and where we are going.
The genesis of art is a mystery buried deep in the psyches of our prehistoric ancestors. At least forty thousand years ago people started to draw, paint, and sculpt, and probably to make music. What is this deep need that drives humans to symbolize their feelings and ideas? Art can transfix and exert a strange influence over us; we freely and curiously give it our attention. Art seems to be a spark of the eternal coalesced with a distinct historic moment, driving artists to do something that witnesses their depth, that expresses their most personal and universal insights. Artists compose music, perform theater, paint pictures, sing songs, write poems and books, make cartoons, videos, websites. They somehow make their mark, and their art asks us to open our senses and take in the world anew, to experience and appreciate the full range of life in all its terror and glory, its strangeness and beauty. Art helps us maintain our creative excitement about life, and at its best, art can inspire and transform us. The mission of art advances as individual artists express their culture's view of the world, in a personally hewn collective vision.
I painted the Vision Crystal, (reproduced on the back cover) after seeing it during a meditation. It appeared as a multidimensional living crystal, glowing and growing, continuing to sprout facets with eyes seeing in all directions. Each eye in each facet of the Vision Crystal seemed to symbolize a worldview represented by an artist's work. The vast history of art opens us to multiple views of self and world, and this transcendental object pointed to art's continuing capacity to expand our minds and hearts. In the center of the Vision Crystal is the fulminating, energizing sun of universal creativity, the source of all visions manifested as the eye of God. Each artist is a facet of God's unfolding infinite vision, refracting the light of awareness in his or her own particular way. The shallows and shadows and terrors of life are just as much a part of the Vision Crystal as views of abstract beauty, spiritual heavens, and our precious endangered planet are.
The history of art is a vast record of tens of thousands of artists and their acts of disciplined passion bringing vision to form. Such a program of passionately committed actions could be called a mission. Yet the mission of art cannot be limited or strictly defined with words. It is much as Lao-tzu said of the Tao, "the way" of enlightened wisdom: The Tao that can be put into words is not the real Tao, not the ultimate eternal Tao. The artist's mission may not ever be reduced to words or rationally understood, but its invisible magnetizing presence will infuse an artist's work completely. The goals and visions of artists will vary greatly, depending on their temperament, their nationality, and the epoch in which they live and work. For each culture, artworks come to embody and communicate insights that help to interpret life and take action in the world.
We all organize and interpret life according to a unique psychological filter or lens, our worldview. This psychological context, the way we hold the realities of life, including who we think we are, mostly goes unnoticed. Our mind and body use it somewhat automatically. In order to notice our own worldview, we have to think about the way we think; we have to rise above our habitual thought patterns and notice that they are habits. We have to question who we think we are. This happens only when our worldview is sufficiently challenged, when new visions collide with and unsettle our existing vision of life. If the challenge is great enough, our worldview and sense of self will dissolve and either regress, break down, or transform to a higher and deeper vision. Art history is a record of such breakdowns and breakthroughs.
How has the mind-set or vision of humanity, as shown in its art, been seen to transform over the course of millennia? Anthropologists, psychologists, and philosophers have mapped out the evolution of human consciousness and noted the following progression: (1) primitive prelinguistic mind, embedded in nature, absorbed with foraging for physical survival, (2) magical mind with early stages of language, focused on worship of animal and nature powers, (3) mythic mind absorbed in the appeasement and avoidance of the taboos of goddesses and gods, (4) self-conscious reasoning mind and empirical inquiry into nature. Broadly, we may say humanity has progressed from a mostly prerational magic-mythic worldview to a more rational worldview.
The earliest human records show rudimentary tools and basic survival skills within harsh surroundings. The use of fire to cook food and create warmth suggests how making marks and drawing with charcoal could easily come about. Some of the earliest "artistic" evidence from Australia, up to forty thousand years old, shows scratches, organized jots, and handprints on cave walls. Later paleolithic artists, from 30,000 BC to 10,000 BC, painted bison, horses, shamans, and sculpted fat goddesses in the bowels of remote and nearly inaccessible caves. The many faceless figurines of goddesses likely functioned as a way of honoring and aligning with the "Great Mother" and the magical forces of human fertility and nature's fecundity. The masterful cave paintings of animals were likely to have played a part in some ritual hunting magic. The scratches and handprints on some animal images could have been the result of an initiation of new hunters or the bonding rituals of a clan. Cro-Magnon animal paintings, which are found in caves throughout Europe, most certainly honored the human-animal bond and provided a magical participation with the subject. A unity with and even a mastery over the subject is still a fundamental motive for making art.
The next great phase of artistic development after the Paleolithic was the portrayal of mythic power beings. Agriculture began to supplement nomadic foraging and hunting for food, which brought people together in larger groups, enabling them to build houses and temples. People interpreted their lives and fears of the unknown as subject to the control and intercession of external Goddesses and Gods. From Mesopotamia to Egypt to the Aztec culture, the proper worship and supplication of these tribal animal-human hybrid deities demanded offerings and sometimes bloody human sacrifices to maintain the harvest and social order. Paintings and statuary of idols became the focal points of worship, a means to make communal contact with these animal-human power fusions. As the artistic representations increased in size, so their power assumed greater proportion in the minds of the people. Think of the Egyptian Sphinx. The artists and craftsmen engaged to build the various mythic monuments throughout the world were anonymous and sometimes cruelly exploited laborers.
The new vision of Greco-Roman art began to shift away from the fusion of human-animal deities and focus more on ideal and naturalistic human forms. Naturalism corresponded more with the ascending worldview of rational investigation and description of nature (including human anatomy), which was the beginning of organized scientific and medical inquiry. Realistic art tended to focus artists on the human dimension and on themselves as potential subjects of their art. The sculptors of Greece were no longer anonymous craftsmen; we remember the names Praxiteles and Phidias. The increase in self-portraiture from the Renaissance onward reflected the tendency in human consciousness toward increasing self-awareness. The invention of a singular style or approach, to demonstrate an individual artist's originality, became a premier value in Western art.
As the nineteenth- and twentieth-century human psyche matured into the analytical rationalism of objective science, the moderns turned their attention to analyzing the formal characteristics of painting and sculpture itself, reducing the natural world to essential and nonrepresentational shapes. The search for unique and personal approaches led artists to increasingly clever explorations of abstract, surreal, and nonobjective painting and sculpture. Each "ism" signified original insights and inventions of the artists: impressionism, fauvism, expressionism, cubism, futurism, dadaism, constructivism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, pop, minimalism, conceptualism. Thanks to Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Judy Chicago, Josef Beuys, and Louise Bourgeois, among many others, there is no need for the contemporary artist to acknowledge idol or regime, as artists were forced to do hundreds of years ago. The artists of ancient and even Renaissance culture had no choice but to conform to preestablished myths and traditions. The freedom to invent whatever kind of art one could imagine was modernism's hard-won freedom, yet it came at a bitter price, the alienation of the artist from society and the general "meaninglessness" of modern art for the public. So here we stand today: the magic-mythic "superstitions" of most cultures have been displaced by the modern worldview of rational objectivism, which is the current measure of truth for most of Western and Eastern intelligentsia, and artists are free to do as they please.
Today's culture of high rationality has been dubbed postmodern, because we have deconstructed reason and language itself, finding that there are always multiple points of view on any subject. Any attempt to comprehend a "whole" or "higher" truth must take the cacophony of individuals, each with his or her own opinion, his or her own "truth," into account. This fragmented, multiperspectival climate has lead some thinkers to the conclusion that there can be no linguistic basis for truth at all. Postmodern doubt has replaced the confident trajectory of invention and progress which characterized modernism. European and American (mostly male) artists dominated modern art, favoring and reinforcing a belief in their self-importance. An overemphasis on ego-driven artworks has lead to a culture of narcissistic spectacle and nihilist fragmentation. Yet because postmodern pluralism embraces so many maverick points of view it can help generate tolerance toward cultural difference. This is an important step toward a more global understanding and renewal of art.
The current cultural situation is calling for individuals to transcend the fractured vision of postmodernism and awaken to some transpersonal and collective spiritual basis for truth and conscience. At this transitional time it is inevitable that artists will reflect regressions into romantic mythic fantasies and nihilist nightmares. Yet can we use the wisdom gained from each stage of consciousness and artistic epoch and transfigure our minds and our art into a new integral vision, honoring the truths of both objective and subjective worlds, and save the planet while we're at it?
The Mystic View
The next great phase in the development of human worldviews began more than two thousand years ago, with the appearance of certain avatars, or enlightened teachers, who claimed not that God was an outside force demanding obedience but that the "kingdom of heaven is within you." Their message was that Buddha-nature or Christ-consciousness, the perfection of wisdom and compassion, is our inherent potential and can be experienced and realized. This radical message is still being implemented only slightly, even though great religious institutions and beautiful religious art have been created over the past two thousand years. The great sages' vision was so beyond normal comprehension that the sages themselves were considered the new mythic "gods" and worshiped in the usual way with supplicative prayer and appeals for worldly assistance. The sages' transformative spiritual exercises were used by only a few dedicated practitioners, the yogis or spiritual geniuses who penetrated to the heart of the avatars' message, the mystics.
In the mystics, from Plotinus to Padmasambhava, from Madjig Labdron to Saint Teresa, we see states of consciousness that point beyond the separate self to transpersonal states, transcending yet integrated with the physical, emotional, rational, and subtle psychic worlds. The mystics encountered multiple dimensions of reality, making visionary contact with infinite levels of meaning and being. Their teachings report a boundless ground of absolute reality, our true identity, which is beyond yet nondualistically at one with the objective world. Described variously as ultimate reality, God, infinite love, primordial awareness, our true nature, the Tao, it is from this view that the meaning of life is realized. The mystics did not regress to previous childish mythic tribalism but ascended beyond their personal reasoning intelligence, uniting with transcendental truth. Some artists have engaged in spiritual practice, gaining glimpses of these higher states, and reflect this transpersonal awareness in their artworks.
I feel that the example of art history shows that human consciousness has been evolving through different worldviews in a direction toward the transpersonal. This is mirrored in the microcosm of the stages of development and understanding that many artists undergo. A progressive revelation is unfolding. The art of every people has responded to its unique historic call. And now we are called toward a new spiritual vision and conscience.
How can one claim that human consciousness is evolving and going in a transpersonal direction when the twentieth century has witnessed such distressing carnage? Let us also remember that the twentieth century has been the time of great liberation movements, recognition of racial and sexual discrimination, and awakening ecological awareness. Although human greed, hatred, and ignorance have led us to the current crisis of our overpopulated and polluted world, the question is, Can enough individuals personally awaken to a reverence for life, as Schweitzer called it, and then, through their creative actions and interventions, redirect the tendency of society away from self-destruction? When people stare death in the face, they begin to question the direction and motivation of their lives, their worldview, and their priorities. There is greater potential now for people to realize our fragile global interdependence and access transpersonal truth. In the twentieth century we see the common features of the world's great wisdom traditions pointing toward ethically responsible action. The availablity of these teachings lends support to the activation of human spiritual potential. The exoteric dogmas that separate world religions are not the shared esoteric truths at the core of these traditions. At the core is a concern for the common good and loving-kindness based in the unshakable knowledge of our deep unity with each other and the cosmos.
Art and the Soul
The artist's mission begins with full-bodied enthusiasm. The passion and delight of making art seduces a young artist into unknowing alliance with primal forces of creativity. The collective consciousness of a spiritually malnourished humanity seeds the artist's soul with countless images. The artist's soul is a psychic antenna tuned to the needs of the world soul. Mostly, artists remain unconscious of the nature of the creative forces operating through them, except to feel the tormenting drive and joyful satisfaction of their work. Creation is the Mystery itself. Wise artists respond to the call of creation by peering into their own hearts.
In the heart of the artist is a studio. The soul works constantly there, shuttling between heaven and hell, spirit and matter. Each moment, every sound, vision, taste, smell, and feeling, is a brilliant creation, dynamically colored with emotion and meaning. In reverie, the artist enters the studio of the heart and is awed by the soul's work. The artist then labors to bring these revelations into tangible form. Angels and demons compete to lift the artist's hand. Each artwork is possessed by the unseen forces that motivate its creation. The artist becomes a prophetic witness of the truth of the time and a messenger of the timeless. By touching our deepest center, great art transmits the condition of the soul and awakens the healing power of spirit.
Art is communion of one soul to another, offered through the symbolic language of form and content. An artist creates a sensible form, through harmonious use of the medium (paint, clay, music, and so on), which expresses content, by subject and feeling. We absorb metaphysical sustenance from the balance of formal means and expressive ends. Art expands the appreciator's consciousness by providing a glimpse into the hearts and minds of strange beautiful humanity. Art is nutrition for the soul. The soul cannot thrive on junk food.
Many artists develop technical skillsthey can draw, paint, or play an instrumentbut seem to have little that is fresh, original, or worthwhile to say. Other artists really have something important to express but lack the skills or courage to express it. Rare is the artist with skill who offers a significant statement.
The only way to formal inventiveness and technical ability is to work and work, studying and perfecting the craft. Artists discover unique features of their medium that contribute to actualizing their personal vision. A well-crafted work of art requires discipline. Devotional labor lavished on a work of art radiates love and care to the viewer.
On the other hand, a work that only affirms inherited or preexisting forms and techniques lacks an essential ingredient of the highest art. Technique is just the way to arrive at a statement. Great art is a concentration of transformative insight into skillful and original forms.
Art and Time
Of course, it is not the quantity of time spent on a work that determines its greatness but the quality or intensity of the time spent. A Japanese Zen monk named Jakuchu contemplated a bamboo tree, became one with the bamboo tree, and in twenty minutes with ink, brush, and paper completed a "timeless" evocation of the essence of the tree. Van Gogh went out painting and completed a canvas in one long day of furious concentration. The rhythms of the cosmos are perceptible in van Gogh's undulating landscapes and portraits. Ivan Albright worked for eleven years on a portrait painting of a friend, an old man. The sitter died and was buried during that eleven-year period, yet Albright continued to work on the painting. Called The Vermonter, the painting has a subtitle that hints at its power: If Life were Life there would be no Death. The subject appears to dissolve into the cosmos. One gets an uncanny sense that Albright was really able to immortalize his friend, to al-chemically find a way of cheating death by transmuting life into art. Art can have the magical power to arrest time. When we gaze into great works, mundane thoughts dissolve for a moment and we stare into Spirit's timeless presence.
There is something of the quest for immortality, or at least "life extension," that fuels art. A well-made work of art will usually outlast its maker. Artists are in a race with time to try to extract from their depths a significant body of work before they die. The fear and anger at the injustice of death cannot be underestimated as a catalyst for creation. A close encounter with illness and death, the death of a loved one, or the viewing of an accident or disaster puts one face to face with mortality. Frequently the quest for spirituality or serious pursuit of art begins in earnest only after facing death. The Buddha states in the Dhammapada that the greatest meditation is on impermanence and death. When we realize our limits, we take our commitments to life more seriously, using and appreciating whatever time we have left.
How does an artist maintain the intensity of his commitment to a subject for as long as eleven years or put enough intensity into making an important and moving work of art after working for only twenty minutes? In order to create anything of importance, artists must be expressing their vision, their authentic outlook on life, the creative source or wellspring, the issues, the ideas, the matrix of meaning that keeps their mind and work alive and flowing. The nagging questions that act like a piece of sand or grit in the oyster shell of the mind can be the source of the vision pearl. The worldview of artists may be indicated by their strong or indescribable inclination toward a subject, a color, a sound, or a texture, or possibly their distinctive way of making marks. For some people, their understanding of self and life is drastically altered by a full-blown mystical experience accompanied by searing mental imagery.
In 1976 my wife, Allyson, and I had an experience that changed our lives and our art. We sacramentally ingested a large dose of LSD and lay down. Eventually a heightened state of consciousness emerged in which I was no longer aware of physical reality or my body in any conventional sense. I felt and saw my interconnectedness with all beings and things in a vast and brilliant Universal Mind Lattice. Every being and