A paper presented by Antares at Sidang Seni 2001, Galeri Petronas’ first annual conference on the arts, March 24-25, 2001
ONCE IN A WHILE it helps to sit back and think about things like Art – and what it actually means to be called or to call someone an Artist. We could think about the earliest evidence of human artistic activity, found before the outbreak of the First World War in southern France: the famous paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux, more than 30,000 years old, which largely depict the primal mystique of the hunt. The scholar Joseph Campbell, in Primitive Mythology, describes these prehistoric artists as shamans: medicine men and women who worked as intermediaries between the mystical and practical worlds, whose private visions - projected into public ceremony and ritual - could effect profound change in our lives by impinging upon our perceptions.
Then, as now, the shaman-artist served as a visionary of the sacred, a medium connecting the various dimensions, a transducer of spirit into matter and vice versa, a vital link between metaphysical and physical. His ability to merge the inner world of dreams and symbols with the outer world of the hunt made him a healer and a seer, gifted with initiatic and prophetic authority.
Australian aboriginal creation myths speak of archetypal ancestors, closely linked to specific animal lineages, singing the landscape into being as Songlines. The spiritual world is a vibratory essence which can materialize itself by lowering its frequencies. Physical reality is but a shadow of the metaphysical.
Interestingly, this idea of earthly existence as a shadow-play is the central metaphor in Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave, wherein he describes the unawakened consciousness as a prisoner chained in darkness, kept enthralled by an illusory pageant of animated shadows enacted by an invisible priesthood. Precisely the technique employed in the Wayang Kulit tradition, still practised in former colonies of the Majapahit Empire.
The imaginative interplay of light and dark creates all drama – a word associated with dreams and nightmares.
From Plato’s Cave to Wayang Kulit to the Magic Lantern and George Lucas’s Industrial Light Magic is a mere progression of technological sophistication. A father amusing his child by creating animated shadows with his hands is drawing on a very ancient artform.
These days the same father (especially if his name happens to be George Lucas or Steven Spielberg) would have access to computer-generated digital images which enormously enhance his power to project his imagination to a remote audience of millions. The art of entertaining and enthralling an audience is akin to hypnotism (or to an ancient Javanese magical practice known as pukau, by which means the victim is involuntarily put into a paralytic trance, thereby allowing the practitioner to do as he will as long as the spell lasts).
Disregarding the superficial changes in the technology of art, the primary tool of the artist will always be his imagination. The secondary tool of the artist might be a stick with which to draw figures in the sand, a brush with which to paint, a chisel with which to chip away stone, a flute on which to blow, a lute on which to strum, or a computer with which to sequence an electronic fugue. Technology, after all, is essentially the evolution of tool-making and using. A gripping tale can be told with only an eloquent tongue – or with an extravagant panoply of son et lumière effects. Without the artistic imagination, Creation itself would not exist, nor would the concept of a Creator. We have been told that God made man in his image; the artist intuitively knows that the reverse equally applies.
To imagine is to create an image on the screen of one’s mind – and this act of imagination, when focused through the clear lens of willful intent, is a magical performance which can effect a transformation on all levels. Thus the artist-shaman-magician has always been a source of fascination and fear. His powers of creation and projection make of him a god or demon, depending on his mood and inclination. And indeed, in days of old, the visionary power of the artist-shaman often gave him tremendous influence over his tribe. It was only recently – in the last 13,000 years or so – that brute strength gained ascendancy over mind, and the warrior muscled his way into dominance. The gradual erosion of archetypal pantheons and monarchies has facilitated the rise of the merchant-entrepreneur, whose crude Time-is-Money credo rapidly became the ‘Bottom Line’ over the last few centuries.
Commercialism and industrialism now threaten, alas, to turn Art into just another economic activity – and the Artist’s ceremonial and magical rôle into a purely ornamental one.
No doubt a certain superstitious awe still attends the artist’s endeavors; but in the Age of Consumerism, the artist-shaman’s contribution to the success of the hunt has been reduced to churning out effective advertising and public relations for the vulgar new gods of materialism - or fashionable new trends for the children of the privileged.
AT THIS JUNCTURE, we must examine the complex interactions between the inner and outer self of the artist. Paradoxically, what begins as a unique experience ultimately transforms itself into a universal truth through the exercise of the artistic imagination and will.
A personal encounter with grievous loss and emotional distress, for example, can be transmuted into art – in the form of a novel or a symphony or a painting or sculpture - and thereby shared with society at large. The skillful selection of linguistic, visual, auditory, olfactory or tactile symbols that will compress a complex experience into communicable or transferable form is what constitutes the inner technology of art.
The word technology itself derives from technique – which may be classified as “hardware and software” in modern parlance. Tools are hardware and, as such, are utterly useless unless one is also equipped with the necessary knowhow, the software. A simple case in point can be seen in the evolution of writing utensils - from chisel or quill or brush to chalk or crayon or ink pen; from manual to electric typewriter, to electronic word processor – all in the course of a mere 6,000 years.
And yet, the use of a high-powered computer does not provide any creative edge over the use of a goose quill. Would Shakespeare or Mozart, for instance, have done more inspired work if they had had access to “better” tools? Indeed the sonnets and plays of Shakespeare have survived the centuries better written in ink on parchment than they would have as digital code on magnetic disks – just as Mozart’s masterpieces have better lasted the centuries on paper than they would have on acetate or vinyl or optical disk.
Perhaps a digression is in order here: when politicians speak of “Smart Schools” they invariably have an image of students being plugged into a network of expensive computers. The big budgets are reserved for the acquisition of high-tech hardware rather than human software (in terms of dedicated and conscientious and innovative educators). This is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse, of valuing packaging above content, of idolizing form devoid of spirit, of exalting style above substance.
The unfortunate fact is that, in the last 500 years, businessmen and bureaucrats have quietly forged themselves into a freemasonry of secular authority – wresting control of human destiny from the sacred visionaries, the healers and the seers, the artists and philosophers.
No one can stop the pragmatic businessman or bureaucrat from having visions – but it is almost inevitable that their pragmatic visions would tend towards the ridiculous rather than the sublime, the crude rather than the subtle, the ugly rather than the aesthetic. Instead of making public the private, their basic instinct is to make private the public, thus spawning an atmosphere of hypocrisy and secrecy conducive to criminal conspiracy rather than creating the climate of openness and trust necessary to greater social cohesion.
This is the great quandary in which the modern world finds itself. Industrial society’s pursuit of Quantity has blinded it to Quality; the entrepreneur-merchant’s quest for and obeisance to the “lowest common denominator” makes him favor the numerous above the numinous, the secular above the sacred.
Democracy is misconstrued as being allowed to choose from a wide range of political candidates or consumer products.
The ancient nobility has been rudely supplanted by a clamorous cadre of status-seekers who have no qualms about using ignoble means to achieve their myopic ends. A newly ascended plutocracy of soulless materialism appears to have usurped the traditional aristocracy of spiritual values.
Perhaps this was an inevitable development. The artist-shaman is acutely individualistic and on the human level is more prone to ruinous competitiveness than any athlete or warrior. Could it be that the golden age when art and philosophy reigned triumphant abruptly ended when artists and philosophers became too isolated in their ivory towers and lost direct contact with the grassroots? Is that why there has been a pronounced swing towards community arts as a new context in which the artist can once again feel connected with his or her tribe? Contributing positively towards greater cohesion and healing is possibly the most creative option available to the artist-shaman at this point in evolution.
As human consciousness becomes more engrossed with density, darkness and discontent, the urge to destroy grows more compelling than the urge to create.
Hindu mythology offers us a helpful metaphor by postulating the archetypal trinity of Creator-Destroyer-Preserver – Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. The dynamic principle of 3 defines many processes, even in the atomic world of nuclei, electrons and protons.
The eternal quest for truth is ultimately three-pronged: Science represents the left brain, Art the right brain, and Spirituality the heart. Only a creative convergence of all three prongs can lead us to self-mastery and wisdom. In the biological world the trinity of Mother, Father and Child underlies all life cycles. What the Mother creates, the Father destroys, and the Child preserves – even as we emerge from the past into the present, and project ourselves into the future.
The conclusion we may draw from this is that our greatest hope now resides in the upcoming generation: whether it has the ability and agility to avoid growing up like the corrupt and morally bankrupt Father and propel itself an octave higher in aesthetical and ethical awareness, attaining the mystical baraka or Heaven’s Grace - and regaining thereby the artistic key to a new paradigm of paradise on earth.
Antares © March 2001
“Art is a means of connecting two worlds, the visible and the invisible, the physical and the spiritual. The area of our consciousness where culture has its roots lies in the uncontrolled mind of every individual: in the moment when it is given space to make a creative leap. Artists, scientists and spiritual masters alike have great respect for that particular faculty of our human potential. It is in the realization of each individual’s intuitive creativity that everybody would agree with the statement, everyone is an artist." ~ Louwrien Wijers
“art as awakened warriorship... art as a dynamic agent of planetary transformation... art as a foundation for global peace...” ~ José Argüelles
“Culture is shared meaning in which everybody participates.” ~ David Böhm
“Our true capital is our creativity.” ~ Joseph Beuys
"It's far too late for anything but magick, as the future is clearly up for grabs." ~ Antero Alli
[First posted 4 October 2008]