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Reimagining the Arts in a Material(ist) World

Christopher Bamford

This article is an edited transcript from the first morning of Vanishing Art: An Intimate Festival of What May Be, Thursday, August 25, 2011.

Do we live actually in a dualistic world, a world of matter and spirit, mind and body? To treat matter as separate already makes it so. Matter, as we know it, is the matter of materialism (egotism, dualism). Yet it really didn’t come into being until Descartes divided the world into res cogitans and res extensa, thinking things—minds—thought of as spiritual,  and extended things—bodies—thought of as mechanical. Then the thinking things, which were thought of as inside, developed a sophisticated way of attacking the extended things, which were thought of as outside, with a view to understand and modify them.

With science, thinking things enveloped the extended things to understand them; with technology, they tried to change them. Thus arose the idea of matter, body, as something separate and opposite to mind or spirit. Although now contradicted by modern quantum physics, this view still haunts our ways of being, thinking, and doing.

Before Descartes, the situation was different: what we call matter and spirit—essence and substance, Purusha Prakriti, nama-rupa, Heaven and Earth, quantity and quality, were two complementary aspects of a single reality, the two hands of the one being.

To reimagine art in a materialist world therefore requires overcoming materialism—all the conscious and unconscious habits that make us live in a dualized, oppositional world, the egotistic world of res cogitans, ruler and master of all that it surveys.

Habitually, as a culture, following Descartes, we still reify the experiences of our psychological consciousness into objects, things—the commodification of the world. This gives us the illusion of distance and the fantasy of material causation, of ownership, of a matter independent of us. And so we experience ourselves as distant from one another, distant from nature, distant from the stars. We find ourselves alone, perpetually “elsewhere,” rather than here. Distance in turn gives rise to violence and agression, to the urge to separate, dominate, control, manipulate, compete, possess. In other words, we lack intimacy—with the world, the divine, and ourselves. At the same time and for the same reason, we lack a spiritual understanding of the fundamentals: space, time, light, causation, gravity and so on. We have no understanding of the unity of consciousness and being, of thinking and being. Finally, we lack all knowledge of Life—not just of biological life, but also of the indivisible, invisible Life that animates us, nature, the world, the cosmos.

This is what we are up against.

Against this background, I want to ask briefly whether art is in fact already in the process of re-imagining matter, of overcoming materialism; and I want to give a few of my own practices for cultivating this process.

First, perhaps we can see the so-called visual arts overcoming materialism as it questions, as if for the first time, the phenomenological experience, the meaning and nature, of representation, perspective, the objectified retinal world, as well as line, color, abstraction, image, form and so on; as it works with the materiality of paint, stone, wood, steel, fat, felt, fur, oil, —and discovers that these substances have a life their own that is continuous with embodied human life, that is somewhow folded into it.

We could say the same of all the arts. Dance has has been exploring the body through movement in a similar way. Musicians and singers have been moving similarly into the exploration of sound, just as writers and poets have been penetrating language in a new way.

In other words, art is perhaps already teaching us to learn to think, be, see, act (what you will) in a new way.

But there is more to it. Perhaps to think of works of art as works of “art” is already materialism? As Marcel Duchmaps asks: “Can one make works that are not works of ‘art’?”

That thought has led to the dawning realization that art—human making—is much greater than we thought, that all human activities can become “art.” One of the things that has been happening is the rediscovery of art not as a thing, but a process, a craft, a skill, a way of being, always “working” in-between—in-between matter and spirit, subject and object, self and other, maker and witness—celebrating “the flesh of the world.”

Art then is a way of doing, working, seeing, making, thinking, mediating, speaking, acting, moving, and so on; not anything done, made, thought, and so on. Hence art as “invisible,” as a way of doing, not things done.

This is to learn to see image, object, performance, action not as something seen, touched, witnessed, done—but ways of seeing, making, thinking, doing.

If art in a materialist world is objectified, representational, on a proscenium stage, a commodity, narcissistic—reimagining would mean that it is non-objectified, an experimental experience, a kind of research, a gift, selfless—an activity of praise, perhaps.

If “the artist is the archetype of the 21st century,” and art is the place of freedom and creativity (the divine spark)—then art is not a paricular kind of work but a particular way of working (being).

To cut a long story short, one might say that art now includes, for instance:

1. Certain kinds of “environments,” installations, performances, actions, including those mostly invisible—not conceptual, but rather in interaction with invisble entitities.
2. Works that overcome representation (are what they depict); overcome the habitual Renaissance vanishing-point (dualizing, subject-object) perspective; embody realizations of continuity, wholeness, infinity.
3. Works that celebrate and penetrate and reveal the being of their matter—whether sound, words, paint, rock, canvas, wood, or color.
4. Works in which inutition, feeling, and will are inseparable.
5. Works in which creator, creation, and spectator (auditor, toucher, smeller, taster) unite and are indispensable each to the other.
6. So-called abstract works in all media in which creator, creation, and spectator (auditor, toucher, smeller, taster) unite beyond the senses.
7. In a word, which no one would use, an increasing sense of art as sacramental: visible signs of invisble grace.

As to my own practice as a thinker writer, I try to do the following:

1. Whatever I do, I do “in service,” in solidarity with the world, as a free gift.
2. I do so in response to a call, an intuition of the heart.
3. In other words, acting essentially out of love: for love of what is to be done and for love of my “matter,” which is language, thinking, intuition, inspiration—to shape these.
4. I try to cultivate what John Keats called “negative capability”—that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” For Charles Olson, Keats’ insights marked the return of human consciousness from the self-alienation first noted by Heraclitus when he wrote, “Humanity is estranged from that with which it is most familiar.”
5. Following the poet René Char, I try to live with the unknown always before me. I seek to welcome the unknown without detaining it.
6. I try, in the words of Maurice Blanchot, “to enter into the responsibility of a speech that speaks without exercising any form of power.”
7. In other words, positively stated, negative capability as a kind of feeling cognition: the thinking of the heart, that does not “try at it,” that does not think it knows.
8. With these guidelines, against this ground of unknowing, I try to glimpse and follow—to catch the bird in flight and fly with it, as Blake would say—what I am given, some glimpse of some truth, which welcoming the unknown without detaining makes possible. For as the Greeks knew, truth, aletheia, is a kind of unconcealment, disclosure, or clearing which at the same time conceals. There is always presence and absence, appearing and disappearing. In every opening to truth, truth simultaneously withdraws; it is veiled in equal measure as it is unveiled. The light is at the same time a darkness; as it comes toward us, it withdraws.

Simply put, it is as if, when we put ourselves aside, divest ourselves of the weighty burden of our habits, knowledge, and memories, we are free to make all things new.

Image: Vanishing Florals by Jeanne Cameron.

Vanishing Florals, meant to challenge our traditional view of beauty, was created as an installation for Vanishing Art: An Intimate Festival of What May Be.  Each flower was carefully chosen based on availability, within three phases of maturation—bud, full bloom/gently closing and seed pods—and then arranged within the installation to illustrate this natural progression. Throughout the festival the arrangement continued to evolve, showing a different side of beauty - a beauty inherent within all stages of the aging process.

Photography: Jane Feldman, 2011

Christopher Bamford is Editor-in-Chief for SteinerBooks and its imprints. A Fellow of the Lindisfarne Association, he has lectured, taught, and written widely on Western spiritual and esoteric traditions. He is the author of The Voice of the Eagle: The Heart of Celtic Christianity and An Endless Trace: The Passionate Pursuit of Wisdom in the West. He has also translated and edited numerous books, including Celtic Christianity, Homage to Pythagoras, and The Noble Traveller. An essay by Mr. Bamford is included in the HarperSanFrancisco anthology Best Spiritual Writing 2000 by Philip Zaleski.

Read more about Christopher Bamford

Comments (2)
  • A great reminder! In itself a wonderful proof of how the lines are fading - and how to welcome it. Many thanks!

    — Shahbaz on March 8, 2012

  • A truly inspirational article that resonates profoundly with every fibre of my being.  Thank you Christopher Bamford.  This is a masterpiece in communication of your heart and consequently and eloquently leads to the opening of other hearts so thirsty to receive the beauty of your wisdom.  Being Is Becoming.

    — Christina Masterman on May 12, 2012

7 February 2012

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revelation, Earth, love, unity, consciousness, science, divine, spirit, knowledge, heart, art, service, Vanishing Art, reimagination, materialism,
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