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Art as a Hidden Message

A Guide to Self-Realization
by Swami Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters)



Chapter One—The Arts as Communication

In the center of a complex of little shops on the island of Kauai, a configuration of huge painted pipes twists its way upward within the framework of a wooden tower. The pipes are prevented from further upward growth, not by any logic of esthetics, but simply by the presence of a platform at the top. They look like some complicated sewage system, or perhaps like the water supply for a suburban housing development. In any case, it is clear that they are too massive to serve the little complex of boutiques and souvenir shops that huddle around their base, and over which they loom like some medieval dragon awaiting its daily maiden so that it can get on with its dinner.

I endured the sight for two or three visits to the island. Finally I asked one of the shop owners, "When are they planning to cover those pipes?"

"Cover them!" he cried indignantly. "Why, that's sculpture!"

"You mean—they actually serve no practical function?"

"That's right," the island patriot replied proudly, his tone implying, "You see? We got everything here! Culture, too."

Okay, okay. But to me even so, those pipes are—well, to put it delicately—unlovely. Their size is disproportionate to the little, box-like shops over which they brood. They are completely inappropriate to what one must assume to be the natural theme of such a shopping complex. In fact, they seem perfectly pointless.

The real issue at stake here, however, is not whether this particular product of an artist's lunatic fancy is really as ugly, inappropriate, and meaningless as it appears. Rather, the issue is whether I have any right to pass my own judgment on it.

I may be within bounds in calling those pipes ugly. Many people, however, would say that I had overstepped my limits even here. For to call them ugly is to imply they ought to be something else. The artist may have actually wanted to express ugliness. Maybe ugliness, for some private reason, was the statement he intended. If so, is it my place to tell him he shouldn't make such a statement? Perhaps not. In this case, however, I must add that the souvenir vendors might be wise to consider whether the artist was not, just possibly, holding up their pretty little displays to ridicule.

When I go on to suggest that heavy pipes, amid all those flowered shirts and picture post cards, lack a certain appropriateness, there are many who would tell me that I am pitting my purely personal taste against that of the creator of this great, or at least, massive opus. Again, what right have I to do that? None, perhaps. Certainly not, in fact, if the artist's commentary was deliberate—though I doubt that it was. Anyone subtle enough to intrude satire into this twist of plumbing would have been clever enough also to be more artful about it.

No, I'm afraid I am able to see no higher purpose in this work. It serves as a satire of itself.

But it is when I call the work meaningless that I really demonstrate myself capable of almost any crime.

"Why should a work of art have meaning?" (I can imagine the outraged demand.) And: "Why do you want it to make a statement? Why can't it just be itself?"

Well, I didn't say its statement had to be something one could put into words. Many great works of art contain no explicit message. Consider the Mona Lisa. Even though that painting makes no open statement, it says something beautiful to me, and to enough other people besides, for it to have been ranked among the greatest paintings of all time. Nobody has ever accused Leonardo of having created something meaningless, even though his admirers have been trying, unsuccessfully, for centuries to decipher the Mona's mysterious smile.

I call a work meaningless if it not only says nothing to me, but seems incapable of saying anything to anyone else, either. Sometimes I am mistaken in my judgment. (We all have our blind spots, after all. Even our own tastes vary from time to time.) The point here is: Where does the artist's personal statement end, and the public's right to understand it begin?

It should be self-evident that if a work of art is put on public display, the public ought not to have to shrug it off as the artist's personal secret. His work should represent at least an effort on his part to communicate something to someone.

I don't mean he has no right to protect his privacy. Although personal experience has probably been the inspiration for most great works of art, there are aspects to every such experience that can never be shared if only because they are too particular to the artist's own life and circumstances. These aspects ought either to remain personal and be kept from public scrutiny, or else translated into terms that others can relate to their own lives.

I've learned the importance of such "translation" when answering questions after a lecture. If anyone's question concerns some matter that is too particular to his own case, I try to universalize my reply so that others in the audience will be able to relate to it also.

The English poet W. H. Auden, on the other hand, limited the audience for some of his poems so drastically that, in my opinion, he kept his own stature to that of a minor poet. I once asked a friend of his for help in understanding a poem titled, "Letter to a Wound." The friend replied, "It's about something so personal that only two or three of his closest friends know what it means, and they've promised not to reveal his secret to anyone." I ask you, is it fair to offer a work of art for our inspection with the deliberate intention of leaving us baffled?

Even our most intimate joys and griefs contain some aspect that can be shared meaningfully with others. Most people, for example, can participate in the grief of bereavement, provided the experience isn't depicted for them in terms that are too exclusive.

People generally are more interested in their own affairs than in anyone else's. An artist ought to reach out, therefore, and touch them where those interests lie, and not merely impose on them his own interests. Pointless self-revelation is a sign of immaturity. Works of art that are universally considered great reveal a degree of maturity that we associate with human, and not only with artistic, greatness.

You've no doubt heard the grand statement, "Art for art's sake." Jesus Christ spoke pertinently on a similar theme. When people criticized him for healing a sick person on the Sabbath, he replied, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." The arts, too, were made for man, and not man for the arts. "Art for art's sake" is an attempt to justify artistic irrelevancy. What "sake" can art have, that we should honor it? It is man's sake we are talking about in any valid discussion of the arts.

Frank Lloyd Wright, the great architect, insisted that buildings should be responsive to the demands of their environment. Is it possible that a natural environment really demands anything at all—except, perhaps, not to be intruded upon in the first place? When we try to depersonalize art, as people do with the slogan, "Art for art's sake," and as Frank Lloyd Wright did with his attempt to subordinate human demands to those of the environment, all we do is kid ourselves.

Years ago I built a geodesic dome for my home in the woods. My next-door neighbor built a rustic wood cabin. Both the homes revealed an attempt at attunement with our environment, though in very different ways: My neighbor's blended with the trees; mine reflected the over-arching sky. His home suggested the security of living in a surrounding of protective trees. Mine suggested an aspiration to rise above earthly enclosure and embrace infinity. Who shall say which of us better expressed our environment?

From this simple dichotomy of tastes we see that the design of a home cannot but begin with the needs of its owner: with his outlook on the world, and with his philosophy of life.

Art must begin with a personal outlook before it can embrace the impersonal. Without the personal, art is merely depersonal, and fails even at that because it is impossible for human beings to eliminate human nature completely from their equations. The most abstract equations of physics cannot but filter reality through the understanding of the physicist. The ideal, then, is not to depersonalize art, but to expand it beyond the personal to the impersonal. With an impersonal outlook comes a loss of focus on selfishness and egoism, and a growing interest in communicating effectively with others. With a depersonal outlook comes, not deep insight, but a starved and scraggy perception of reality that rather resembles a fowl during a famine.

Every artist must learn for himself how best to achieve a balance between the expression of personal feelings and effective communication. The important point is that there must be a conscious effort on his part to communicate his feelings. If he makes no such effort, then the public's time ought not to be wasted in trying to figure out what his art is all about.

If what I have said is true, and if a work of art offered for public consumption ought to represent a sincere effort at communication on the artist's part, then we see removed automatically from the stage an incredible amount of work that has passed for art in modern times. For if there is one thing that marks whole schools of artistic thought nowadays, it is the belief that communication doesn't really matter. We might go so far as to add that, if there is one thing that marks a great deal of art in modern times, it is a deliberate attempt on the part of artists to confound their public.

I attended a piano recital a few years ago during which the pianist offered several compositions of his own, along with a selection from a more standard repertoire. I was amazed, listening to his works, to note the lengths to which he had gone to impress his listeners by mystifying them. It was as though he hoped through unpredictability alone to demonstrate his originality and, thereby, his creative genius.

There was no sense of fitness in a single melodic line, chord progression, or rhythmic sequence. Just when the listener expected, and wanted, the melody to go in one direction, it would veer off in another as if to say, "Ha! Fooled you, didn't I? See how clever I am?"

Just when a succession of dissonances cried out for resolution in some friendly harmony, disharmonies would scatter off to every point of the compass like an unruly mob. It didn't seem to matter where they went, so long as they left behind them a wasteland of confusion.

Rhythms that succeeded finally, after undisciplined beginnings, in grouping themselves together into some coherent pattern would be ordered peremptorily to "break rank" and stagger about uncertainly again, as if in search of some new, but forever undiscovered, territory.

Obviously, the whole effect was deliberate. Possibly the composer's intention was to educate our musical tastes by shocking us out of our "bourgeois" expectations. Apart from the intense dissatisfaction each of his pieces awakened in me, however, all I felt was his desire to impress us with musical choices that could not but be, to us, unfathomable. He seemed to be saying, "Lo! Am I not inscrutable? Does not my inscrutability make me wiser than you?"

Artists frequently offer incomprehensibility on a tray of silver—not only to confound their public, but to trick everyone into thinking that their lack of clarity is proof of their profundity. Artistic incomprehensibility is, I think, usually an attempt on the part of the artist to conceal the fact that he has nothing to say.

At no time in any golden age of art has unpredictability been equated with originality. Still less has it been considered a proof of genius. One of the profound satisfactions in listening to a Beethoven symphony, for example, is its perfect fitness. It isn't that Beethoven is boringly predictable, but only that everything he does is so self-evidently right. It is what we ourselves might have wanted to do, had we possessed his genius.

I don't mean that for music to be great it must have a familiar ring to it. Sometimes, indeed, an artist—particularly one who is out of step with tradition—will make us work hard to tune in to what he is saying. If he is indeed saying something worthwhile, however, and if he is clear himself about what he is saying, people will come to learn his language in time, and to love it.

Normally, the test of greatness in the arts is the ability to state deep feelings and perceptions simply, clearly, and well.

Tolstoy, whose War and Peace has been acclaimed the greatest novel ever written, considered the simple folk tales he wrote during his later years more valid artistically than his complex novels. Their artistry lay in their understated simplicity.

Understatement is, indeed, the essence of true art.

A certain famous writer made it a practice to read aloud to his father any new piece that he'd written. His father, though not a literary man, was endowed with down-to-earth common sense.

"I don't understand that passage," he would sometimes object.

"Well, what it means is . . ." and the son would explain.

"Then why didn't you say so?"

The writer claimed that his work was always improved for his father's insistence on clarity and simplicity.

Indeed, it may well be said that until a person can express a thought clearly and simply, he hasn't yet fully understood it himself.

It often happens that, when we communicate our feelings and ideas to others, our very effort to do so clarifies them for ourselves. A sincere attempt at communication brings into the open thoughts and impressions that, previously, were not yet completely clear in our own minds. Schoolteachers have often remarked on this phenomenon in their teaching.

Unfortunately, obscurity is the vogue nowadays. The artist feels superior to his public when he can get them to admit that they haven't fathomed him. He feels further sustained in his self-esteem if a handful of esthetes, anxious to demonstrate their own sophistication, claim to "sense" what he is saying. It is all an ego game, not unlike Hans Christian Andersen's story, "The Emperor's New Clothes."

I remember a man whose habit it was to make obscure remarks, then chuckle significantly at his own wit. I never got the point of those remarks, but assumed that I must simply be missing something.

Then one day I understood what it was he was chuckling about. To my astonishment, it was utterly banal. His other statements, I then realized, must have been equally so. In fact they'd always seemed so, but I'd allowed myself to be hoodwinked by those knowing chuckles.

To offer the fruits of one's inspiration to others, in the form of art, is one of the best ways for removing blocks to clear perception in oneself. This is a final justification for returning to a genre of art that seems almost forgotten nowadays: art that can be cherished, not merely endured.

Unsophisticated humor often says it best. A couple of rustics once visited a modern art gallery and were chuckling at the exhibits before them.

"Say, Zeke," said one, "why did they have to go and hang that one?"

"I guess," Zeke replied, "it was because they couldn't find the painter."

Sooner or later, I suspect, someone—perhaps only a little child as in "The Emperor's New Clothes"—will exclaim, "I see now what all the fuss has been about. Those artists were only trying to stir up a bit of excitement. But they haven't really been saying anything at all!"



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