Spirituality and Art

A priceless living bridge between mind and spirit

Posted Dec 02, 2017

The foremost reason that artists create, and the rest of us value their art, is because art forms a priceless living bridge between the everyday psychology of our minds and the universal spirit of humanity.

It's important to make a clear distinction between art and merchandise, and to emphasize the wisdom of avoiding materialist contamination of true art. By "true art," I mean artistic creations that reflect spiritual principles and values like beauty, creativity, honesty, generosity, discernment, patience, and perseverance. To situate art in the marketplace can easily result in spiritually impoverished ephemera, the production of which is governed by worldly priorities like profit, success, power, status, and fame.

The 20th-century monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton (whose parents were both artists, and who was himself a notable poet, calligrapher, and photographer) wrote in a letter to Boris Pasternak in October 1958: 

I do not insist on this division between spirituality and art, for I think that even things that are not patently spiritual if they come from the heart of a spiritual person are spiritual.

This is the thing: art comes from the heart and, likewise, speaks to the heart; but this asks something of the witness, too, a kind of emotional and spiritual sensitivity with which to receive the generous gift of the artist.

I remember, some years ago, standing transfixed before a self-portrait of an older Rembrandt in an exhibition in London. It was hot and crowded in that dark, airless space. I was aware of people coming and going beside me, but I stood there in a kind of timeless personal bubble, filled with fascination and wonder. I also recall a similar experience when, as a teenager on a family holiday in Spain, I heard on the radio for the first time Rodrigo’s magnificent "Concerto de Aranjuez." I was entranced, delighted, and awestruck for the entire duration of the piece, and did not want it to end. These were not simply aesthetic experiences — moments of pleasure. They were, I would say, spiritual experiences, because they were in some small way transformative. I was not entirely the same person afterwards. I was somehow better connected, through the art and the artist, to the entirety of humanity and the cosmic whole. And the proof is that the most vivid memory of these and other similar experiences has stayed with me ever since.

In my book The Psychology of Spirituality, there is a chapter on "Spiritual Practices" that people might engage in regularly, according to preference, to further their journey on the path of spiritual growth and development towards maturity. Meditation and prayer feature, and so too does appreciation of the arts and engaging in creative activities. Also listed are contemplative reading of literature, poetry, etc., and listening to, singing, and playing sacred music. All art forms contribute to our spiritual wealth and development.

Sacred does not have to mean religious, although it might; but I would include, for example, any music capable of releasing something profoundly emotional — some sadness, perhaps, or great joy — that has been imprisoned hitherto by excessive attention to worldly concerns and the busy pursuit of secular activities. Rhythmical and repetitive dance (like that of the Sufi dervishes) and chanting (whether Gregorian or the kirtan and bhajans, for example, of the sacred Hindu and Jain traditions), by powerfully harmonizing the left and right halves of the brain — similar to the effect of meditation — form another powerful bridge between a particular form of art and spiritual experience. Furthermore, people coming together to engage in such practices, as when playing in an orchestra or singing in a choir, may well experience enhancement — through sharing it — of the potential for spiritual gain.

This is further evidence, for those who need it, of the principle that everyone is connected to everyone else — from the past, living now, or still to come — through the spiritual dimension of experience. "We are already one," as Thomas Merton once wrote, "But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity... What we have to be is what we are." Art can help us do that.

Copyright Larry Culliford

For information about my books Much Ado About Something, The Psychology of Spirituality, and Love, Healing & Happiness, visit my website.

My next book, Seeking Wisdom: A Spiritual Manifesto, will be published in Spring 2018 by the University of Buckingham Press.