One year, my wife and I attended several plays in the Fringe Festival in Dublin, Ireland, where we were living. I remember especially a favorite of mine, Play, by Samuel Beckett. We squeezed into a small storefront along with just 20 others to watch a bare-bones production of a bare-bones play by a usually bare-bones playwright. In it, three people stand in tall urns, only their heads showing, and they speak only when a light shines on them. They talk fast about an affair they had when they were alive—in their urns they appear to be in the afterlife reflecting on a painful episode.
Some of my friends think I’m weird to like Beckett and a play like Play. The unnatural sight of people in urns appeals to me. I also like the ritual sound of the characters speaking at a clip. I want art to take me up and away from the expected and the normal.
To me, it’s the first phase in a spiritual journey toward the great mysteries.
In modern times, we sometimes tend to be literalists and sentimentalists. We may not like to experience penetratingimagination or emotional challenge. That’s why our culture has become so secular and our spiritual arts, often, tepid. We prefer the natural and realistic to the surreal.
But good art always deliteralizes the world to some extent. Georgia O’Keeffe painted the skulls and landscapes and flowers around her New Mexico home, but she pushed them beyond mere representation to a level of useful distortion—another ambiguous word for the art process.
Ordinary people not usually drawn to abstraction can appreciate the transcendent and the sublime revealed in O’Keeffe’s altered natural forms. They find them beautiful. She said that she first painted natural objects in the ordinary way and then did her “dream thing,” after which the paintings would “come nearer reality than my objective kind of work.”
This second phase went beyond the ordinary and the literal, allowing her stunning flowers and clouds and skulls to touch an observer’s soul. Without being obviously religious, they have a spiritual impact. O’Keeffe was interested in mysticism and religion, although she didn’t follow a particular tradition or go to church. She was a natural, secular mystic who had a gift for expressing spiritual truths in her art.
In turn, those of us interested in spirituality might appreciate the role of sophisticated distortion in the working of an image, so that the archetypal or eternal shows through. We might also discover that art is a powerful route to spiritual awareness. It can initiate us to another level of experience and teach us important lessons in how to understand spiritual teachings and how to develop a taste for spiritual language and ideas.
Unfortunately, not all spiritual art reaches depth or the sublime. Just the opposite, some of it purposely aims at holding you in a safe place, offering emotional comfort without challenge. Instead of distortion, it may offer a sweetening of the reassuring normal and naturalistic world.
Developing taste in art can help bring intelligence and discernment to your spirituality. Through education and exposure to a range of styles, you may become more sophisticated about life and spirit. You may gain a deeper perspective, partly because you move away from the generic taste of the masses. You come into your own and discover for yourself what life is about and how it works.
In therapy, when I watch a person deal with painful memories and disturbing emotions and then stand on the brink of self-discovery, I recommend that they bring art into their lives. As they learn how to see and watch and listen, their perspective deepens and grows sharper. Art doesn’t automatically create a more intelligent spirituality, but it can be a major instrument in that process.
Art allows us to see the invisible layers of meaning that we experience in our everyday lives but are hidden or subliminal. In that way, art reveals to us important secrets about ourselves and our world. It shows us what is usually felt but invisible, experienced but not heard. It serves spirituality and sometimes even seems to be an essential part. Sometimes artfulness is more important than mindfulness.
Thomas Moore is the author of Care of the Soul and 20 other books. He has been a psychotherapist for over 30 years.