Artistic Practice

by DT Strain


Tibetan sand mandala

Aristotle said that ‘art takes nature as its model’. Art has always been intimately linked with our search for truth, and with the values we hold most sacred; and for many good reasons. Artistic Practice is about creating art as a form of spirituality; be it dance, music, poetry, crafts, film, the visual arts, or otherwise. This is contemplative art and why the Society dedicates an entire section of its member archives to collecting inspirational art, music, and poetry.

Tibetan monks create elaborate and highly precise sand mandalas by pouring tiny bits of colored sand into ornate patterns, turning the creation process into ritual. Once they have completed them, they ritually destroy these works. This emphasizes that it is not the finished product that is always the point, but rather the experience we have in the present while creating art. Other forms of transient art, such as ice sculptures and sand castles, have a similar nature to them, emphasizing the creation process over product. In more general terms, they remind us of the importance of the moment and our conceptions of impermanence. Destruction of an artwork is not always necessary, as the finished artwork could also serve a purpose on altars or similar roles during future rituals. However, these examples illustrate the significance of the experience of the creation process as the focal point.

This appreciation of the creation process is consistent with that capacity in Nature to create new and complex forms (which I like to call the Divine Fire). But celebration of the Divine Fire through creativity is not merely ritualistic; it is also practical. Creative exercises stimulate our ability to recognize connections between things that may have seemed unrelated previously, and this is a key to genius. This is why many scientists, inventors, philosophers, and others have had some of their profound insights come to them when they are at their most creative; such as in music or in dreaming. That kind of interconnected, holistic, thinking is also useful in understanding ideas, philosophic concepts, and new perspectives. Integrating helpful perspectives and ideas into art can be a staging ground or practice for integrating them into our lives.

Further, the mathematics and geometry common to art and music are informative regarding the underlying mathematical harmonies in Nature. Things like the golden ratio, fractals, and so on illuminate the nature of relationships and these provide, not merely analogies to philosophic concepts, but refer to the same universal principles on which all knowledge are founded.

Highly focused artistic activity can also serve as a form of meditation (the subject or artwork in place of the breath as focal point, for example). Mindfulness is required for careful artwork, and can be accompanied by a sense of flow. Combining this experience with common challenges in art such as composition, design, and form can allude to organic structures and processes. Thus, artistic activity can be a gateway into deeper understanding of the nature and flow of the world – which can aide in such things as Wu Wei. Jazz musician John Coltrane said, “All a musician can do is get closer to the sources of nature, and so feel that he is in communion with the natural laws”.

When it comes to artwork that is representative (a picture or sculpture of something, rather than a more abstract design, form, or sound), it is not always important that the subject be particularly or overtly spiritual – it can even be very mundane. But representative art requires us to pay close attention to what we see in the world, the very essence of mindfulness. We must see beyond our assumptions and get to know the difference between what we think we see, and what we truly see (even Epoché plays a role). And, in this highly focused attention to our subject, we can sometimes discover the beauty of even sad or dark things, or the sacred in the mundane – important life lessons.

Art can often be a form of communication and expression too. Thinking about our ‘message’ and ‘finding our voice’ in art can help us to know ourselves more intimately. As communication, art also helps use relate to one another. Both of these, self knowledge and relating to one another, are crucial parts of a healthy spiritual practice.

Lastly, we cannot forget the role of the viewer in art. Often the full meaning of an artwork is not solely within the artist or even within the piece, but is completed when the viewer brings their own ‘baggage’ to the piece, concluding the whole unique experience. As communication, this underscores the very notion upon which meaningful metaphor (sacred tongue) is based. This is why art so often has the ability to transcend the capacities of technical, linear communication in terms of richness. Art can more robustly convey concepts involving the visceral, or involving awe and wonder. This is why experiencing the art of others can be a pathway to profound experience, which plays a precise role in the Spiritual Naturalist journey.