WHAT'S SPIRITUAL ABOUT THE ARTS?



There are works of art in all the artistic disciplines that take us into the profound purposes behind their creation. They open us to deep meanings that involve a metaphysical dimension.


This is not about ‘spiritual art’, which is a misnomer. There’s religious art, yes, but more germane to the artist is the spirit in which they work. The nature of that ‘spirit’ and how artists have approached this elusive quality in their artworks reveals an imaginative, inspirational and intuitive world within human consciousness available to every artist in any field. Inherent in this is the understanding that this dimension, inaccessible to ordinary sense consciousness, is as real as anything physical.


The value of the arts as I have come to understand them is that they create a bridge between the physical and metaphysical worlds. A work of art gives us a genuine feeling for things beyond everyday consciousness, things that could not be conveyed in any other way than by symbols expressed in images, colours, sounds, shapes or movements.


Art critic Alexander Eliot wrote that if great art is deeplyunderstood, then we no longer gather on the surface of beautiful things (I would add humorous and dramatic things). Instead, what we experience is a ‘succession of gateways’.

If we encounter a work of art in a living way, our experience enables us to move through those gateways and to follow new inner paths as they open up. Whether we are making or receiving art, our perception will become clearer. The ultimate experience will be to perceive the spirit underlying the outer realm of the senses, to enter it through feeling and to know it for what it is.


Genuine art honours that commitment to the portrayal of truth, whatever the form or method. Someone with artistic consciousness, whether innate or learned, attunes to what others miss in the world around – the fascinating shadow dances in a building or patterns made by a series of rivets; the shape of a partly overheard conversation, its intriguingly arrhythmic pauses and interruptions; the way sun on leaves creates light shows, or how the clarion music of distant birdsong interweaves with traffic’s thrumming bass and percussive jolts.


Such things fuel the work, and in its creation the artist’s imaginative thinking transcends the temporal and lifts vision beyond the short-lived and perishable. For example, when a visual artist takes a moment in life, freezes it, so to speak, it becomes an eternal moment accessible to others. This is what led visionary painter and theorist Paul Klee to say that ‘Art does not reproduce the visible; it makes visible.’


Even in art that ostensibly depicts something ordinary – Claude Monet’s waterlilies or Jeffrey Smart’s urban landscapes are examples – the content is less important than the inner life revealed. Likewise, a building has the potential to enrich us through the living essence within the form; or in a dance, although temporary and transient, we can discover eternity.


Music, the most non-representational of art forms, has the same potential to ‘make visible’. So Claude Debussy, in his musical compositions depicting natural phenomena such as the sea, clouds, or a moonlit night, sought not to imitate but to unveil in sound the transcendent essence. This unveiling is why listeners are so deeply moved by the voice of Australian singer/composer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu and well-travelled pop stars like Sting (who performed onstage with him) speak in wonder of Gurrumul’s singing that brings us into a realm beyond the everyday world.


Artists can be our role models. Their creative activity can show us how to work with the elusive spiritual within the soul. But there’s a proviso. Without drawing on the higher dimensions of self, there is only the subconscious to draw on. The resulting art is all too common today. Yet the arts have enormous potential in this increasingly secular world. A society that does not value the arts is an impoverished society. We see around us the devastating impact of the few socio-political systems that do away with expression through the arts.


Because of the arts’ distinctive nature, I agree with countless practising artists who believe that artistic expression can play a redemptive role, helping in lifting us out of the mire of our deeply troubled world, where even the suffering earth is crying out for us to seek transformation.


We all can find value in the artistic way that plays such a vital part in the transformative shift towards the greater awakening we need. Without such a shift our world will continue its fall into total materialism and separation, a dystopian world in which a human being is seen as no more than a cipher, a soulless mechanistic thing, where each fragmented and isolated person is bound down without joy.


Art has the power to help us step aside from such disaster because it is a unifier. On the highest level the redemptive beauty of art draws human beings together into the most profound communication.

That’s why the arts are for everyone. They are not only for those rare and gifted people who are the creative prophets of the future. The creative process involved in making and experiencing genuine art comes from a wholehearted creativity we can all apply in every aspect of our lives.


We can be true artists of life – with an attitude of open expectancy that looks with clear vision upon the world, uncluttered by prejudice or preconception, that explores possibilities with love and empathy, that embraces life and reaches towards the wholeness which is its deepest essence. That is the way of spiritual creativity. It brings the pure joy of being into the world.


In this post I wanted to share some of the thoughts I explore in my book Prodigal Daughters - a New Vision of Spirituality and the Arts, because this distinctive means of expression is a mighty gift to human beings and human consciousness. I would love us all to understand and embrace the rich and diverse meaning of this gift.



(The article contains selected excerpts from Prodigal Daughters which is available through this website and online booksellers.)

Picture: In the Beginning by Paul Klee


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