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This is the sixth installment in my new series, The Art of Wisdom, a study of art from the world’s wisdom traditions.
I started this series thinking I wanted to uncover the wisdom that spiritual art had to offer. I even had specific questions in mind: What is life? Who am I? Who are you? What is this world around us? What is the purpose of living? (Isn’t it funny how we can seem so naive to ourselves even after just 6 months?)
Now, after having written 6 essays on this topic, I’m realizing those questions are not really the point (and the answers are definitely not the point). We can read something wise (perhaps the classic: Treat Others As You Want to Be Treated) but until you experience that wisdom yourself—either by acting it out yourself, having someone act it out towards you, or even the absence of it—we can’t really understand it.
And so it seems, that’s where art comes into all this. I write a lot about why I (and others) make art. And ultimately, over many years and essays and explorations, the answer I’ve developed is something like this:
We make art because we feel a strong urge to contemplate, understand, and share our human experience.
In other words, we wanna sit around and draw (or write or dance or whatever) our thoughts and feelings in an attempt to maybe-kinda-sorta figure out what the heck is going on in our heads, with the assumption (or hope) that there must be at least one other person out there we can connect with who is having similar thoughts and feelings.
Also, maybe we tend to be introverts and have a hard time voicing these things out loud to other people by, you know… talking.
Making art is a method of making sense of our inner world and the world around us. As artists, we pay attention (maybe too much attention?) to our inner world and to the world around us, but we don’t just sit on all that data and info. The mere acknowledgment of how we are feeling is not enough for us. And moreover, half the time we don’t even know how we are feeling and we have to draw or write about it to figure it out. Beyond being able to tell someone how we’re feeling, we long to think deeply about it, to contemplate it, and to DO something with it.
So, we make art.
And that process of contemplating and creating art often leads to some kind of conclusion or insight about life. Sometimes it’s a small realization, and sometimes it’s big, but either way, it shifts our mindset and perception of the world a bit.
And so, making art is not just a way of hearing those insights (wisdom) but is instead a process that allows us to uncover the insights ourselves and experience them. It’s a show and tell, a give and take, it’s interactive between us and… something else.
I’m reading a book right now called, The Great Within: The Transformative Power and Psychology of the Spiritual Path, and I’m basically highlighting the whole book. The author, Han F. De Wit, is a psychologist and Buddhist and he aims to lay out the connections between scientific psychology (like psychotherapy, cognitive psychology, etc) and what he calls contemplative psychology.
He describes contemplative psychology as “insights acquired through the systematic practice of contemplation, mediation, or introspection.” As you might expect, the wisdom traditions and religions of the world have a lot to say in the realm of contemplative psychology. And that’s basically De Wit’s whole bit: that psychologists (and people) have a lot to learn from spiritual traditions, and that they shouldn’t be written off so easily.
But what else do humans do that you could call a dedicated practice of contemplation and introspection? Spoiler alert: It’s art, y’all.
Early on in the book, de Wit dropped this familiar-sounding nugget:
“Interestingly, another tradition also has a connection to the contemplative appoach: art. Like the scientific and religious traditions, this tradition attempts in its own way to explore and clarify human experience. We could, of course, view art as a purely aesthetic matter, but it also involves trying to make something visible. Whether this occurs through the visual arts, music, or literature, there is an aspect to the process besides an aesthetic one: a truth seeking aspect. In one way or another, the artist attempts to make something clear, to arouse and communicate a certain perspective, a certain kind of experience in which something is revealed so that the audience looks at things in a different way, even if just for a moment. This is an important motivation for the artist. Art reveals or clarifies something. Thus, it is not amazing to find that in many cultures art is practiced in connection with religion.”
Aha! Sounds a heck of a lot like what I wrote at the end of a previous essay, Should Art Answer Questions Or Ask Them?: “But ultimately, the point of art isn't to provide you with the answer, anyways. Instead, the artist prepares you and encourages you to explore, unpack, and answer the question for yourself.”
So perhaps that’s the goal of contemplative art: encouraging the artist (by making the art) and the viewer (by seeing the art) to look at things differently, even if just for a moment. To experience a change in mindset and a shift in perception. To begin a transformation.
Thanks for reading y’all.