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9 minutes reading time (1847 words)

Art—A Mirror Beauty


The other evening, I was reading from an interview with Joseph Campbell about myth and ancient cave art. In the discussion, he mentions the beauty of bird calls. He asks:

"Is the beauty of the bird's song intentional…or is it the expression of the bird, the beauty of the bird's spirit, you might say?"1

In other words, birds' songs are beautiful not because they are trying to create something beautiful, but because they, themselves are beautiful. It might even be possible that birds give vent to songs to express the beauty of being alive.

Artists should find this reassuring. Drawing an analogy to bird songs, musicians, writers, and painters, for example, ought to begin with a sense of inner beauty that needs to find an emotional expression, such as a heart-rending melody in music; a character's maturation through dreams and losses in writing; or choosing the exact colors, shapes and material that seem to reflect the subject of a painting or sculpture. The finest works of art begin when an exterior or interior wave of beauty overtakes the artist and calls out for a habitat in the form of a musical composition, a poem, or a painting, to cite three possible means of expression. On the other hand, it's easy to fall into the aspect of "trying" to create something beautiful—a pattern of symbols, an interesting plot line, a chord progression in music, a web of motifs, to construct a labyrinth. I would define this as a structural beauty, more intellectual than emotional. But when form and content synchronize, a special beauty is born—one that integrates the nature of birds' songs, which Campbell describes as an instinctual expression, with an intentional, intellectual beauty.

Carl Jung in his memoir, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, wrote that the experience of life is like sitting by a river, or a gentle stream, watching cherry trees come into bloom.2 So many people wish to do something with these buds, with this beauty, to grab hold of it and use it for something rather than just looking at the flowers, at the water. In the creative arts this is paradoxical. To be an artist is to create—to do something with those cherry blossoms. Paint them, muse upon their existence or origins through a mysterious nocturne, for example. But creating art is a kind of witnessing. A more active form of sitting by the stream looking at the cherry trees blossom. The mind-state that Jung hinted at relieves artists of pressures that stem from a certain degree of self-consciousness. We don't always have to outpour what we take in. Some things can be reserved for ourselves alone. Art is a sharing of those moments, a reflection of memories, dreams, landscapes. By allowing ourselves solitary, reflective moments which are free of thoughts such as "How can I absorb this and make it into beautiful art?" a window within us opens revealing a beckoning light. Later, when we are creating art or interpreting a piece of music, that same light sparks our emotional world. It is then that our art bypasses the question of "what to do," and embraces the world of beauty.

In this respect, the thesis of Seymour Bernstein's book With Your Own Two Hands finds especial weight—and that is that life and art are interconnected and can exist in a cycle of perpetual fulfillment, each nourishing the other. Bernstein writes extensively about how our artistic self influences our personality in life beyond art, and how a diligent approach to our creativity leads us to deeper self-discovery and a realization of our full potential. With regard to music, he writes: "Productive practicing is a process that promotes self-integration. It is the kind of practicing that puts you in touch with an all-pervasive order—an order that creates a total synthesis of your emotions, reason, sensory perceptions, and physical coordination."3 Art, then, is not separate from our lives. Everything we do holds influence.

So how can these ideas be applied to artistic creation and re-creation? Directly enough, the application comes, again, through the conditions of one's state of mind. To be like the bird and reflect beauty is simple. On one level, it begins with not being too concerned with approval, denial, acceptance, or rejection from either yourself or from others. When practicing a musical instrument, for example, it is natural to measure your progress, to assess perhaps the technical accuracies or your rhythmic precision. In short, to seek and to weigh the emotional qualities of musicality in some form.

It can be tempting to ask, in hoping to validate your efforts, "Is this good enough?" or "Will other people find this moving, too?"

As the composer George Rothberg said, "You can't fool the central nervous system. It knows when something is beautiful or not."4 And even if you're unsure, it helps to stop asking questions or trying to measure or track progress. Let it be as it is, even if it's not perfect. Thoughts concerned with levels of success, validation, and even definitions of success, often get in the way of unique artistic expression, namely, expressions that belong to you alone. 

Of course artists are naturally concerned about acceptance and rejection. But when they are obsessed with one or the other, the vision and spirit of creativity grow clouded. In the case of receiving praise, it's easy to begin to feel triumphant, fulfilled, superior, and in some cases godlike. This can lead to feeling that you have to keep that level up all of the time in order to avoid letting yourself down or others down. You might also worry if you'll ever be that good again or why people accepted you in the first place. When rejected, you can feel you have to prove something to yourself or to others in order to win over their acceptance. When rejection goes deeply enough, you may feel that you don't deserve to play an instrument at all, and that you aren't sufficiently talented. In either case of  acceptance or rejection of your art, consider what Joseph Campbell said about birds. Their songs reflect their spirits. The Art we make reflects the spirit from which it sprang. Because we are all different, there cannot be one state of being that is essential to creative productivity. For some, personal disarray and general chaos ignites the creation of art. For others, harmony and an order defined by a type of symmetry spark their art. Whatever the case may be, it helps to recognize our motivations and, in some cases, keep them in check.

We are often defeated by seeing polished pieces from revered artists in their finished forms without acknowledging the struggle that gave birth to the completed stage.

If we lose ourselves in trying to prove ourselves or compete with others, it follows that the very spirit of faint hubris becomes reflected in the art produced.

Consider the novice artist who writes a section of music that he finds transcendently beautiful, and even a break-through in his artistic development. Then a year or two later, after studying composition and theory in greater depth, he realizes how trite and cliché and otherwise un-compelling his initial attempt really was. The veil is lifted. How can he trust himself to judge and "measure" the beauty of current and future compositions? Won't they, too, only lead to further disillusionment upon future maturity? A folly of creativity is thinking that when you make something it must last forever and be revered like other great masterworks of art.

It's difficult to speak in generalizations about creativity. But often, our talents are recognized, even if only by a friend, or by ourselves alone. In this vein, artists have a right to be proud of their achievements. Even if that very pinnacle crumbles a year later under the demands of keener discrimination, that doesn't negate the importance of it at the time. This isn't an excuse for laziness and automatic approbation of efforts. It is a pass to allow us to embrace the process of development without becoming obsessed with further or prior stages. We are often defeated by seeing polished pieces from revered artists in their finished forms without acknowledging the struggle that gave birth to the completed stage. It would take one glance of Beethoven's sketch book to assure us that even one of the great geniuses of all time struggled to give birth to his masterpieces. Besides, we often are too hard on ourselves

Part of the process of fostering instinctual beauty comes with a recognition that the beauty within the art form awakens a similar beauty within yourself. When artists express their inner beauty it awakens an inner beauty, partially mutual, within members of the audience. Ultimately, this becomes a spiritual recognition in which we each realize the shared individuality of ourselves, of the collective unconscious, and of the natural flow and way of the universe called Tao.

When creating art, it doesn't matter so much where your emotions and feelings come from so long as they are there. In exploring various emotional states, there arises a paradox. What we feel is part of us—it is us—and at the same time it is detached and we are simply observing feelings moving through ourselves. A part of us beyond—witnessing. A recognition of this inner duality, of experiencing and creating at the same time, helps us to see "across the field" without bias. In a sense, being so objective fuses aesthetic,  intentional beauty (as Campbell calls it) with natural, instinctual beauty (like the bird). The intellectual and emotional aspects of ourselves begin to synthesize.

Art can be any number of things. How you go about creating it has no right or wrong answer. However, certain practices and a reframing of how you approach creativity and re-creativity accomplishes several possibilities. Giving full credence to your instinctual beauty, and to work in tandem with intentional, intellectual beauty, can result in a clarity of artistic vision. Our goal isn't to have one form of beauty—intentional versus instinctual—triumph over the other, but to let them interplay. After all, intentions can become instinctual, just as our instincts have their own form of intentionality. In other words, very often you can experience an epiphany whereby intellect and emotion first clash and then synthesize in a harmonic balance. In short, form and content become one. This aspect comes alive in any artistic medium. In performing a piece of music, for example, we gain an ability to interpret the composer's intentions convincingly, as well as strengthening our ability to have our own interpretive responses. We can glimpse the whole amidst the parts, and vice versa. Perhaps most importantly, working this way leads us to the truth of our convictions. Things we write or interpret flow with a greater sense of breadth and depth, without bias. We sharpen our ability to channel and take on with authenticity pure emotional states devoid of destructive voices of insecurity. Our mirror reflects clarity.

1 Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 85
2 Carl G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, trans. Richard Winston and Clara Winston (New York: Random House, 1965).
3 Seymour Bernstein, With Your Own Two Hands (Portland, Maine: Manduca Music Publications, 1981), 9–10.
4 Seymour Bernstein, Monsters and Angels: Surviving a Career in Music (Portland, Maine: Manduca Music Publications, 2002), 185.

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