Humanity finds itself moving rapidly into a new era, strikingly different from the preceding one, and with certainty we may expect marked changes in the forms of art expression. Much confusion arises, however, when artists attempt to create a new art based on supposedly new principles. A truly great art of the future must employ universal ideas, as in all illustrious periods of culture in the past, for the deepest intuitions of a people are expressed in the distinct forms of their art.
In the understanding of this intuition lies the inspiration for the art of the future, and we must reach the heart of these grand ideas before we can grasp the fundamental basis underlying all art principles. These truths, expressed in symbolic language, need not be locked secrets for us today. Certainly there is no more fascinating study than that of comparative symbology, wherein is evidence that all the peoples of the earth once understood the same universal teaching.
Symbolism and myth were not born of fear of nature's forces at all, as has been stated by some researchers, but simply constituted the language of those who had been taught some of the secrets of the universe. Symbols are universal and express reverence and understanding of nature. Today we are in touch with the whole globe in an outer sense, can hear the voices of those in remote lands and learn about their daily lives; but the ancients based their kinship upon the teachings of the Mystery Schools which provided an inner communion of thought.
In former times art and religion evolved side by side, as parallel lines of expression of man's soul life. The classic period of Greece for instance was absolutely responsive to the needs of the spiritual development of the people. Their art presented man in heroic or godlike form, whether the subject was historic or mythological, only its quintessence was embodied in a severe and conventionalized style. The ideal Greek statues were not primarily illustrations of mythological stories, but revelations. We know how the Zeus of Phidias was regarded. Dion Chrysostomus said: "So much light and godhood had the artist wrought into Zeus that at sight of the statue even the most miserable of mortals forgot his suffering."
Democritus struck the keynote when he declared beauty to be perfect measure, free from deficiency or excess: the ethical ideal embodied in this esthetic formula. The Greek idea of the fundamental principle of harmonious proportion and measure was applied to their architecture, their entire art expression and likewise their understanding of the building of worlds, because they never thought of themselves as separate from the universe.
As we survey the history of ancient peoples we are often fascinated by their art, which like a flower springs from the soil of esoteric wisdom. Today nearly every outstanding artist has a deep regard for the art of ancient China, and every gallery and studio has its precious treasures from the old masters of the far east. There is a significant promise in the present enthusiastic interest in Chinese art, from artist to layman.
With the prevalent interest in oriental art, let us note a parallel in the opening of a new epoch in our present cultural life. The trend of art, among our nature loving people, has something of that grand reverence for universal nature which inspired the Chinese. Abstractions, surrealism, and many other more or less short-lived art impulses are searching in the same direction as the mystic who paints out-of-door themes as a hymn of praise to the inner divinity that lies at the heart of all things. The surfeit of sophistication and surface interests is the keynote that emphasizes a growing hunger for spiritual values in art and in life.
It is not difficult to recognize soul quality in art, and to see that the rare simplicity found in the vital living rhythm of the old dragon tiles made for Chinese tombs, or those Chimeras in sculpture which suggest mystic ideas in living forms, is rooted in life-giving truths of the ancient wisdom. We believe the cruelty portrayed in the forms of some of the ancient bronzes was inspired by a realization of the danger of the elemental forces present in the cosmos, also found in the lower aspects of man's nature: forces which may lead him into destruction if not curbed by his higher nature. Another example is the Chinese dragon as an emblem of the higher man released from his body.
We find the same penetrating understanding of cosmic truths in a small stone sculpture of a three-faced deity, the Hindu Trimurti. It is significant first because of its beauty, its innate expressiveness of those qualities that we associate with the thought of divinity: serene but vitally living Splendor, the great Silence, the Sacred Flame, the Radiant Presence. No student of the ancient teachings would mistake this three-faced figure to be a personalization of deity, but would recognize in it a symbolic reminder of the primal, universal substance manifest in three aspects — Brahma, from the Sanskrit root, Brih — meaning to grow, to expand; and Vishnu from the root Vis — to pervade, being infinite space of which the gods, the Rishis, the Manus, and all in the universe are the simple potencies; and then there is Siva, the resolver, the regenerator. Modern scientists might find a relationship to the three-faced deity in their expanding and contracting universe.
It is very difficult to attain the fullest possible appreciation of the art of old India and China without making a study of the philosophy which inspired it. But the keys to an understanding of the language of symbols are relatively simple and will carry the student far. The over-ornate decoration often found in the East is sometimes criticized, because the motive and symbolism of the design is not understood by the westerner. There exists today a highly decorated gateway to a Stupa which must have stood at Stanci, India, in very ancient times. There were four of these gates placed around a circular structure, the whole of which was symbolic of the structure of the universe. At the ends of the cross-pieces of this gateway we noted on each a concentric circle with seven spirals. The gateway itself suggests man's placing his feet upon the mystic pathway, and the three cross-pieces implies that only those of the third degree of initiation were taught there. The concentric circles are identical with those wrought on gold disks which were found in the tombs of ancient Greece, and also inscribed on the boulder blocking the entrance to a cave temple in Ireland. The symbol of the concentric circles tells all who may read it that within this temple were taught the structure of the sevenfold universe, the nature of man, the races of humanity, and the secret teaching concerning the planets.
The Greeks suggested the planes and hierarchies of existence by the various characters in their myths, each character recalling to those wise old students the fact that man may progress step by step to the place where he blends his nature and understanding with that of the cosmos and becomes godlike. The Babylonians hinted of the cosmic planes in the structure of their temples with their seven or ten steps; and sometimes many more.
Ancient Mayan artists carved a series of four faces, one above the other, on the headdresses of their monolithic statues. These heads represent the four monads or souls of man, and link with the fourfold division known in Vedic India.
The Aztec calendar stone now in the National Museum of Mexico City illustrates a tradition and calendar system of great antiquity. In it we may find evidence that the Incas, Mayas, and Aztecs have the roots of their culture, not in cave men and crudity, but in an ancient wisdom and divine knowledge that links their civilization with that of the Orient. They knew astronomy and other sciences by a process of initiation into their mystery schools. One noted American archaeologist says of the calendar stone:
It clearly determined, once and for all, the sequence of the days; the relation of all classes of the population to each other and to the whole, and set forth not only the place each group should occupy in the market place, but also the product or industry with which it was associated and the periods when its contribution to the commonwealth should be forthcoming to regular rotation. The stone was therefore not only the tablet but the wheel of the law of the state, and it can be conjectured that its full interpretation was more or less beyond the capacity of all but an initiated minority, consisting of the elders, chiefs and priests.
The grades of social and political life were similar, according to the old records, to the early civilizations of Hindustan in the Vedic period. In both Central America and India the population was divided into four grades: the agriculturist; the commercial man; the administrator, warrior, king or prince — in short the world of officialdom; and the fourth grade the Brahmana or the philosopher, sage or initiate.
The four grades or castes of humanity are said to have taken their origin from the four paths which have been known in the Orient from time immemorial — the paths of consciousness by which man works out his own salvation through the circling years.
Some scholars consider Mayan art the greatest in America, comparable with those monuments of the Orient which were reared in the golden ages of the past, when entire nations glimpsed something of the inner splendor of life and built magnificent temples, pyramids, and towers. Karnak in Thebes, the sun-temples of Mexico, the monuments of Peru, Java, Cambodia, Athens and down the Nile, were all reared by peoples who paid humble tribute to deity. Each is universal and impersonal in significance, without the slightest trace of sentimentality.
With abounding vitality, the mysterious megalithic structures the world over speak the same mystery language as these ancient temples, yet in tones that often seem to echo from a far greater antiquity. Wherever we find them they are so similar and so amazing; the old Peruvian walls, of which the Sacahuaman fort is typical, the stones often weighing 300 tons, yet so carefully finished and put together that they have better withstood earthquakes by their very irregularity than by a rigid wall.
The amazing statues found at Akapana, Tiahuanaco and Lima, cut in intensely hard stone, are often twenty feet in height. These stone statues of America lead one in thought to the great platforms of Easter Island, the masonry of the Great Pyramid of Egypt, the circle of Stonehenge, the Dolmens of Scotland, and the carvings and paintings discovered in the caves of Spain. Many of these belong to an antiquity greater than science is ready to admit, but decade by decade the horizon is pushed back as our knowledge increases.
The following quotation from the writings of the Old Emperor Taitsong challenges us to widen our vision: "By using a mirror of brass, one can see to adjust one's cap; by using antiquity as a mirror, one can learn to foretell the rise and fall of empires."
As we take stock of our present status with a breadth of vision that encompasses pre-history and probes the future, we see in our United States the development of a unique architecture, that of the skyscraper erected to the god of commerce. On the other hand, the formation of our state and national parks embodies a tribute to nature that is noteworthy in a young civilization, so buried in material living and thinking that, as yet, it cannot compare in certain ways with older cultures this same land has known.
Many of us love the art of the American Indian because of its simplicity as an expression of children of nature who, having learned from the mountains and trees and sky, love silence and communion with nature above all else. Here is no brain-mind fakery of childlike naivete, but an intuitive sense of balance and rhythm which is characteristic of the repetition, accent, and dignified tempo of their music.
Indian arts are closely allied with the humble necessities of life: pots of clay to cook with, baskets to gather acorns, rugs to protect from cold, arrows to provide food and kill the menacing enemy. The creative imagination is given full vent in the elaboration of gay garments, headdresses, moccasins, deerskin suits, and jewelry. It is in the decoration of these simple necessities of life which they, even more than the white man, love to have beautiful that the Indian outlook on life is symbolized. In rugs, pottery, and baskets may be seen the patterns of clouds, rain and lightning — all those valued associations with thunder storms that make the corn grow. The colorful cubes built into stepped designs suggest the distant mountains toward which their gaze is directed as they work.
Tassels on the corners of rugs represent the four mystic directions, the four seasons of the year. The familiar squash blossom design is the emblem of maidenly purity, wrought in a silver necklace or in the embroidery of a dress. The Thunderbird design is almost identical in significance with the Chinese Dragon; both represent the spiritual power whose home is the mists and clouds of heaven, both are the life giving power of the rain.
Truly Indian art possesses its tranquil dignity because it is above all intuitive.
Lawrence Binyon further completes our perspective and helps us to understand where we stand in the scheme:
In the East, not the glory of the proud human form, not the proud assertion of human personality, but instead of all these, all thoughts that lead us out from ourselves into universal life, hints of the infinite, whispers from secret sources — mountains, waters, mists, flowering trees, whatever tells of powers and presences mightier than ourselves.
All this tells us plainly that since the Periclean age, since the beginning of its decline, we, as a western people have, to use the Chinese saying, "Lost the way to Heaven." We turn to the art of the West and search in vain for magnificent monuments comparable to those of antiquity. Cathedrals, yes, built under the shadow of a dark and restricted understanding of life — art is there indeed, for now and then an artist broke through to a universal point of view. But may we not hope for something greater as we grow and learn?
There is hope in our being an out-of-door-loving people, for this in itself may raise our eyes to a more penetrating understanding of nature so that we may not be altogether submerged in a borrowed sophistication. Nature, art, and civilization must ever go hand in hand if we use the mirror of antiquity to make our prophecy. In the landscape painting of America, we sometimes catch the impersonal subtle mysticism of the great old Chinese landscape painters, who are held by deep students to be the greatest artists of all time, insofar as we can know today.
The Theosophical ForumTHEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE