First published in Next Future, an e-magazine of Sri Aurobindo Society (July 2016)
“The first and lowest use of Art is the purely aesthetic, the second is the intellectual or educative, the third and highest the spiritual. By speaking of the aesthetic use as the lowest, we do not wish to imply that it is not of immense value to humanity, but simply to assign to it its comparative value in relation to the higher uses. The aesthetic is of immense importance and until it has done its work, mankind is not really fitted to make full use of Art on the higher planes of human development.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 1, p. 439)
These words of Sri Aurobindo from his series of essays titled National Value of Art speak of a profoundly high and deep vision for Art and the Artist. In a later part of this series he speaks about how an aesthetic sense can facilitate human development by raising and purifying conduct, by facilitating an ethical-moral development, by purifying emotions and by training the imaginative and creative sides of intellectual capacity. He further writes, “But beyond and above this intellectual utility of Art, there is a higher use, the noblest of all, its service to the growth of spirituality in the race” (p. 450).
As I contemplate on the Master’s words a question begins to form — what does this vision of a spiritual purpose of art say about the role of a person who views and appreciates art, someone who is not an artist but is one who would be called a ‘consumer’ of art in the modern parlance?
In other words, if an artist’s highest purpose is to express and reveal the Spirit through his or her art, as viewers or audience do we also share with the artist this purpose of seeking the Spirit through beauty? As a non-artist how do I develop a sense of perception or vision so that I can access or relate to or somehow connect with the sense of divinity that the artist is trying to reveal or attempting to discover through her or his work?
Aesthetic values in general are not really spiritual values, what may seem beautiful to an individual’s aesthetic sense may not lead him or her to connect with the Spirit, the Invisible. This can be true both for the artist as well as the viewer. Cultivation of an aesthetic sensibility that can begin to transform aesthetic values into spiritual values is required of the art-lover just as it is required of the artist who wants to make art his or her sadhana (spiritual discipline).
Ananda Coomaraswamy, in his classic work, The Dance of Shiva, writes:
“The vision of beauty is spontaneous, in just the same sense as the inward light of the lover (bhakta). It is a state of grace that cannot be achieved by deliberate effort; though perhaps we can remove hindrances to its manifestation, for there are many witnesses that the secret of all art is to be found in self-forgetfulness. And we know that this state of grace is not achieved in the pursuit of pleasure; the hedonists have their reward, but they are in bondage to loveliness, while the artist is free in beauty” (The Dance of Shiva: Fourteen Essays, p. 39-40).
What strikes me in this passage is that he seems to be giving an answer to my ponderings about the viewer’s seeking for the Spirit through art. His answer seems to be: practice self-forgetfulness so as to be in a state of grace. The self-forgetfulness Coomaraswamy speaks of is not a casual mindlessness, but rather a practice of going higher than the realm of mind where the mental, vital self is forgotten along with its incessant demands, desires, expectations, and preferences.
It is in that state that one begins to experience a sense of quiet oneness with that real ‘self’ which is spontaneously and freely identified with the objet d’art one is creating as an artist or even experiencing as a viewer. That, according to Coomaraswamy, is the secret to experience beauty, similar to the secret known by the true bhaktas (devotees), true lovers – namely, to experience that Divinity within that unites, in absolute freedom, the lover with the beloved, the devotee with the Lord, the Beauty with the Beautiful, and makes them One (or Two that are in Truth One).
This takes me to that afternoon in August 2012.
The afternoon when I simply stood there. In awe. In front of That. Couldn’t move my eyes off That.
And in a few seconds it happened.