The Theosophical Forum – October 1947

MODERN ART, A MIRROR OF HUMAN PROGRESS: II — Hazel Boyer Braun

[Note: page numbers cited for The Esoteric Tradition are to the 2-vol. Second Edition and do not correspond to the 1-vol. 3rd & Revised Edition.]

We all know that there are certain goals and ideals in the arts. The study and careful analysis of them can present the most revealing light on the subject both for the education of the artist and the art lover. Why is it that so many individual aspirants cannot grasp these ideals and bring their work into conformity with them? Perhaps it is because the whole question is really a matter of consciousness. Man himself is a stream of consciousness, the complexity of which explains the varying degree of illumination. Each takes what he can get, making his work a mirror of his progress in evolution. A work of art is truly a bit of the very consciousness of the artist, a record of a portion of his thoughts, the quality of his taste, refinement, and character.

If we look into it seriously we find art, like all universal subjects, full of paradoxes and very fascinating. There are some trends in modern art which come in for intensive criticism but are not always remembered for their contribution in the direction of real progress.

We all know that the particular style of expression should not affect the standing of a work of art. If something of reality is felt in an apparently mechanical performance, something vital and alive carried over from the artist to the beholder, then the sincerity in expressing a deeply felt truth may overcome other difficulties.

Among our intellectual artists there is often great emphasis on subject matter. The truth is that a mountain landscape, some fruit or flowers, a bit of everyday life, serves the purpose of art only if it transmits some glimpse from a world that has no limits, embracing infinity of space and eternity of time. It should speak to the soul of man and uplift him.

There is a growing realization that one of the weaknesses of the art of many schools, whether they be modern or conservative, is too much dependence upon technique and too little worthwhile experience. However, we can at least thank certain trends in modern art for doing much to kill our sentimentality and triviality.

We are living in a sophisticated time, and unfortunately the sophistication that we see about us is the result of human living in which convictions about the great things of life play a small part. Sophistication is something that permits more than one interpretation and there are many who raise the question, whether or not it is the means of culture? We often find a group of young — very young artists who call themselves "The Sophisticates," but they never last long under that banner.

We all agree that everything depends upon what interpretation we place upon this word which is rooted in the Greek Sophists. They were originally men of culture, of acknowledged or professional skill — philosophers, poets, artists, musicians. Later the term seems to have come, in about the fourth century b.c. to be applied to those who were proficient enough to teach the higher branches of learning. Because times change and individuals conform to varying ideals, Sophists came into disrepute. Aristotle defines them as "men who make money by sham wisdom."

If we associate the word with the thought of thorough and honest achievement, and the genuine ability to conform with the correct conventions in every emergency, always with sincerity and perfect taste, it has a place in the evolutionary enfoldment of the culture of a race. Yet we are faced with the reflection which is grounded upon the fact that each great culture, such as the Greek or the Egyptian, has broken on its crestwave of sophistication. Through its striving toward the perfect it has departed from naturalness, becoming empty and artificial.

Non-objective and Surrealist works of art always provoke great bewilderment among the uninitiated. It is asked why these art forms should have gained sufficient attention the world over so that most critics are afraid to condemn them even though they say they have no idea what they are about. There are probably two reasons, the first being pure human gullibility. The other may be found in the somewhat pathetic fact that many persons feel the breaking up of old traditions, old manners of thinking, and feel that we are moving into a time when we should be turning our thoughts away from complete absorption in the objective world. Therefore, they reach out to these paintings that are supposed to be soul experiences.

If they would heed the admonition of the Delphic Oracle: "Man, Know Thy Self," they would recognize that there is no more authentic soul satisfying message in these than one might find in a dream, in automatic writing, or any other manner of negative reception of contact with inner worlds.

We are moving into very dangerous times because, along with the development of intuition, which is direct perception, a flash of spiritual understanding, the psychical nature is also developing, and it is this that is largely responsible for both these trends in art.

Surrealism is the outgrowth of a direct effort to get esthetic ideas from the "sub-conscious mind." This theory presents a much misunderstood picture of man's intermediate nature. The deeper psychologists now say "super-conscious mind." The Greeks would tell us that it is "Nous," the higher mind, that aspires and contacts the spiritual Self, rather than "Psyche," the lower aspect of the brain-mind. The latter is responsible for many of the absurdities that appear under the guise of new art.

We catch a glimpse of the dangers and the realities of these new art methods when we read Dr. de Purucker's book The Esoteric Tradition, from which the following quotation is taken:

The cubism and futurism of modern art, or the animal-pictures engraven on the tombs and temples of ancient Egypt with their beast-heads, as instances in point, all come from the same cosmic picture-gallery. Even the symbolic art of the Chinese is affected strongly by the same source. In themselves all of these instances imbody symbolic ideas, deliberate attempts to suggest truths. These symbolic ideas are all more or less transformed by their passage through the Astral Light. In themselves they are creative thoughts, but they become clothed with astral characteristics because of their passing through the ranges of the Astral Light in order to reach the human brain, and then in the human brain become still further modified. — p. 1014

We all know we shall have empty jazz in music and art as long as we are contented with fakery, artificiality, superficiality, and remain caught in this rush and hurry. Modern science, hand in hand with the ancient philosophers, indicates to us that the rhythmic beat of life decreases as we go outward from our material selves, out into the movement of the stars and planets. When our thoughts find their inspiration out there, the ordinary mental load of non-essentials has to be thrown away.

It is possible that some of the artists who belong to the so-called Primitive school of art are striving to express a certain primal urge, a thirst for something truly spiritual which goes deeper into man's own nature. The longing for beauty and harmony is native to every human being; it is akin to our aspirations for truth and peace, for those qualities belong to the inner man. They are a part of him, that portion of him which is linked with the hierarchies in which he is an atomic entity, the Solar Cosmos where order, rhythmic movement, and silent serenity are inherent.

The artificiality so often criticized in modern art has also existed in other schools and is due to separating art from nature, yet this trend has perhaps helped to overcome the inclination to copy nature which never produces art. Nevertheless, where shall we find those inner qualities of the soul if we fail to know the heart of nature? Where may we find color to express a sublime idea if we fail to observe the beauty before us?

We get a broader vista of the great plan when we grasp the thought of an old Chinese Taoist philosopher:

We fit as naturally into this beauty around us as a tree or a mountain. If we can but remain so always we shall retain the feeling of our own well being amid all the great workings of the world system. So much has been said about human life, and scholars have created such an endless labyrinth of theories! And yet in its inmost kernel it is as plain as nature. All things are equal in simplicity and nothing is really in confusion, however much it may seem as though it were so. Everything moves surely and inevitably as the sea.

Let us hope that we are moving out into a general state of consciousness that could never express itself in violence, crudeness, nor ugliness, no more than it would in sentimentality, emotionalism, nor empty technique. We are just beginning to take note of and truly appreciate the ancient and grand old art of China with its symbolism which was so expressive to the people of that land. They understood its inner meaning which was the soil out of which it grew. May we not hope that our recognition of the spiritual glory of it may be because we are moving into a kinship of consciousness? We cannot see beauty until we have beauty within us.


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