Human beings have been creating art for 50,000 to 75,000 years, if various regional claims can be settled; the Europeans with their beautiful cave drawings at Lascaux, France, being especially dismissive of the rough petroglyphs of the Africans and Australian Aboriginals, as you might expect. They have a good shot at the record for music, however, with a bear thighbone flute recently discovered in a Slovenian cave and dated to 50,000 BC.
Anthropologists call primitive art “the dawn of superfluous beauty” and so by extension we could certainly call this earliest music “the dawn of superfluous noise,” as we have concrete proof that this is what it has become today. Bothersome Muzak now plays everywhere, even in parking lots.
Not An Exclusively Human Endeavor
Until the 1960s when an English chimp (or one living in England, anyway) named Congo (1954–1964) created more than four hundred paintings, art was considered an exclusively human endeavor. Recently, one of Congo’s untitled canvases set an auction record for nonhuman art at $25,000 (posthumously, of course). And while there are elephants throughout Asia that paint and even one named Nellie in Los Angeles whose works include “Serengeti Passion” and “Kenyan Skies”—yes, not just some loud trumpeting sound—what set Congo apart was his passion.
For while the pachyderms don’t seem to care if they pick up a paintbrush or a mahogany log, Congo, if not allowed to paint, would go berserk; and if his canvas was removed before he felt it was finished, would go completely bananas. Yes, he seemed an artist in every sense—his hygiene was already quite characteristically poor.
The idea that a chimp’s creative output could be considered art upset many religious scholars; for they held that true art was a function of the soul expressing a divine urge and since only humans, in their opinion, had souls, Congo the chimp could not be expressing a divine urge and thereby creating art.
According to Mysticism
Mysticism has no such problem with Congo or with the divinity of any of our other simian brothers and sisters. In fact, if mysticism has a problem, it’s trying to figure out what doesn’t have a soul: A dog? A bee? A house? A tree? And what doesn’t embody a divine urge, since according to mysticism the entire creation is the direct result of The Divine Urge which is nothing more than the Creator’s own inspiration to self-expression, the Universe and all its inhabitants being, in essence, God’s art.
So for mysticism the degree to which an organism can create art, can express a divine urge, is not a function of whether or not it has a soul, since most everything has one, but the degree to which that particular soul can express itself through that organism. The higher, more evolved organisms, such as ourselves, having the capacity to be more conscious of their inner realities, therefore becoming better candidates for soulful, artistic, self-expression. This is also why we are not completely surprised when a chimpanzee, our species’ closest relation (we share 99 percent of the same DNA), albeit an exceptionally “gifted” one named Congo, not only wants to paint but is as obsessed as was van Gogh.
Art From the Soul
Recently I was invited to a friend’s art exhibit, the final part of his master of fine arts degree from a famous New York City art college. He specializes in “installations”—not paintings or sculpture, per se, although it could include those—but created environments. The show was held in a loft in Greenwich Village that had been hastily cleaned out and included many other installations as well. My biggest problem that day was trying to figure out what were the works of art and what was intended for the dumpster, the only clue being the little signs with titles and attributions next to each exhibit, making those placards found near the piles of leftover construction materials, the janitor’s closets, or especially the restrooms, particularly daunting.
I bring this up not to be smug but to say that even if we side with the religious scholars and say that only humans have souls and thereby can create art, it is still a stretch to say that whatever is expressed by us comes directly from our souls. Though recognizing what does is no simple matter.
Openness; That Artistic Genius
Michelangelo, arguably the finest sculptor ever, said that creating art for him was simply a matter of chipping away all that wasn’t part of his statues; Mozart, considered by many the greatest composer, just a matter of transcribing the music that he already heard fully formed inside his head. The power, beauty, and fecundity of their output (Mozart lived only thirty-five years and had nearly seven hundred symphonic, choral, chamber, and operatic masterworks) tells us that creativity and especially creative abundance is not cunning but openness; that artistic genius, in the artists’ own words, is not contrivance but revelation; is, what is called in New Age parlance, “channeling.” And this is exactly what we would expect if we became aware of the infinite in us; if we became conscious of our soul. There is no better example of this than my own mentor, Sri Chinmoy, who created more than two hundred thousand paintings, fifteen million drawings, and composed more than twenty thousand songs.
When Mozart was twelve and visiting the Sistine Chapel in Rome he heard Gregorio Allegri’s famous Miserere—a complicated work for nine-part choir, which distribution or publication of was punishable by excommunication. That night, back in his hotel room, the young prodigy wrote the entire thing down from memory, perfectly, note for note. (At that age I was sitting with a record player and a guitar trying to figure out the chords for Beatles songs and getting them mostly wrong.) When Michelangelo was fourteen he was already hard at work on commissions from Italy’s greatest patrons, the Medicis.
Soulful, Profound and Prolific Self-Expression
So, is soulful, profound and prolific self-expression only for these few and a handful of other super-gifted persons throughout human history? The answer is no. (Does life distribute talent fairly? I’d rather not say.) Could any of the rest of us ever sculpt the Pieta or pen Eine Kleine Nachtmusik? The answer is also probably no, since it was these individuals’ unique combination of extraordinary abilities that could have done that. Could a person of “normal” abilities, such as the one who created a sculpture at my friend’s exhibit with a screw gun and a bunch of leftover pieces of two-by-fours—which looked for all the world like late the night before she had cobbled together whatever hadn’t yet been thrown out—be expressing her soul and creating art in this mystical sense? The answer, believe it or not, is possibly. How could one tell? It is a matter of “consciousness,” a spiritual term that has its own essay below (coming week 3!) but can be presently defined as “what one is conscious of.”
Look at Art Inwardly Not Outwardly
If I were fully aware of my soul, whatever I touched would be imbued with soulfulness and therefore I would be creating art in this mystical sense. Let’s look at it another way.
Jesus was the son of Joseph, a carpenter. And while we don’t actually know if he ever took up the trade, I think we can safely assume, given that occupations in those days remained almost exclusively with their respective families, that he might have tried his hand at it once or twice, especially during his “Lost Years.” Now for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that he was the worst carpenter ever, producing things that did not even remotely qualify as furniture or whatever else it was that the family normally made (let’s hope they didn’t make crosses!). Would it matter? Wouldn’t anything from his hand, because of the inner reality, the consciousness, of its creator, be considered by millions the most precious thing ever created and thereby more treasured than any art by anyone else, including Michelangelo or even Mozart?
Of course, you could make the argument that we are no longer talking about art at all but about relics (someone once said that you could build an arc with all the “authentic” pieces of the cross found in Christian churches), but I think a strong case can be made that this is what modern art is already asking us to do: to look at art inwardly not outwardly; at its energy, its resonance. At the inner state of the artist himself as opposed to the outer appearance of the work itself; at its consciousness.
Humans are “Clever Monkeys”
Humans are “clever monkeys”—as a friend of mine is fond of saying—and can create things for any reason they want: to soothe or to shock; to comfort or to confront; to be as beautiful as possible or as horrific; to defy convention in an attempt to prove that art has no meaning at all, is merely superfluous, as was previously stated, though this last task is not so easily accomplished.
For I think you will find that most people are eager to hear or see or even read something that will speak to them on some deeper level; will reconnect them with their souls, the living portion of God within. And even if we beat them over the head, telling them not to expect anything beautiful, powerful, illumining, epiphanic, revelatory, or in any way meaningful, dilettantes and philistines that they are, they just can’t help themselves; can’t stop from hoping.
Look for the next topic, Beauty, next week! Can’t wait to until then to read more? Order The ABCs of Enlightenment: A Mystical Primer today.
Jeffrey Baker was a student for more than forty years of Sri Chinmoy, who named him Kalatit (Kal, time; atit, beyond). Called “our preeminent humorist” by his teacher, he was a frequent contributor to publications and events in his spiritual community and elsewhere. A card-carrying Baby Boomer, he attended the Woodstock Festival, performed in various rock-and-roll ensembles, and has a degree in ecology from The University of Connecticut. He’s been a gardener for the Rockefellers in Pocantico Hills, New York, and “the piano tuner to the stars” working with artists such as Billy Joel, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Richard Goode and Andre Previn. He has composed more than one hundred works in the classical as well as the theatrical genres. (https://www.reverbnation.com/jeffreybaker) His The Music of the Zodiac, has had more than 40,000 downloads. His corpus of philosophical treatises, Eat My Dust, Martin Luther, as well as a collection of epigrams, 1000 Pearls of Wisdom, and a group of essays on contemporary subjects, Blah, Blah, Blah, are available as e-books (Amazon) and in paperback (Createspace).