Art can have a universal quality to it that transcends language and culture. We react to art through an intuitive process, following the old saying, “I don’t know art, but I know what I like.” I would submit that we do know art, all of us. What we like about art is what moves us, what we connect with, which is the same thing that makes life mysterious and worth living. Not all art works for everyone, but at the same time there is always a market for art. We don’t know how to value it even though we find it of value. Art works at an intuitive level that we cannot define or categorize, bypassing our rational mind and working directly on our senses. At the same time, artists are said to be creative but we cannot define what we mean by creativity. Definitions generally center around such adjectives as “novel”, “original” and “unique”, but they also include the words “worthwhile” and “useful”. But we can’t define most of those words, either. A story that uses standard formulas for structure and plotting can be original if the words used to flesh it out challenge the reader in some way. If you retell the story of the three bears from the point of view of the bears, it can result in a wholly different perspective even though the story has been told and retold for ages. There is ongoing dispute about whether resampling of music creates a whole new work of art or is simply petty theft. In literature, the use of specific words is considered plagiarism but the use and embellishment of well-established ideas can be considered brilliant and groundbreaking.
And who decides whether a piece of art is worthwhile or useful? Does art have to have some use other than art itself to be useful? Can a chair or a table be a work of art? If so, what defines one as art and the next as simply a piece of furniture? Why does a Van Gogh sell for millions while an equally masterful painting by a contemporary artist languishes unsold at a fraction of that price? Do you have to die to be able to sell your paintings for a price you can live on? Book collectors sell original editions for small fortunes, but you can read the exact same words for a few bucks. What is it that makes some art more valuable, more “artsy”, than other art? What is it that makes art, art?
Is the universal quality that we see in certain works of art related to the universal quality that we respond to in religion or philosophy? Is there a universal quality of spirit that we sense, and that draws us into a painting or a symphony? If you stare in contemplation at a mountain or a flower, or take a quiet walk in the woods, you may achieve a sense of peace or energy that seems to flow into you from your surroundings. This quality or energy could be called spirit. Do artists somehow tap into the same quality when they create a successful piece of art?
You don’t have to be a mystic to sense that there is more to this existence than “stuff”. Contemplatives, scientists, philosophers and clerics alike speak of consciousness and its relationship to the phenomena we see and experience. Some go as far as claiming that consciousness itself, rather than being a quality separate from the physical world, actually causes the physical world. How are consciousness and spirit related? At some level, are they the same thing? When someone achieves a glimpse of enlightenment, are they experiencing something similar to the “aha” experience that happens with a creative act? After all, the creative act can be thought of simply as seeing the same thing in a new and different way, making a new connection between seemingly unrelated things. Is enlightenment simply the ultimate act of creation? Conversely, is artistic creation an unselfish act, an act in which the self gets out of the way and some sort of universal energy flows through the artist in the same way that a medium channels the energy of some long dead being? Does creativity come through us rather than from us? Certainly, many artists will describe just such an experience. Writers will often talk about characters taking over the story, going in directions that the author never intended. Does that direction come from somewhere deep in the subconscious of the author or from somewhere else entirely?
Call it spirit or consciousness or creativity, or even God within us, perhaps we tap into some universal energy to a greater or lesser extent in everything we do. Perhaps this energy is the very thing that gives us existence, and the degree to which we are able to tap into it dictates the quality of our existence. Whatever it is that allows us to exist as we are today, we know that the particular form of existence that we currently enjoy is fleeting. The animate body we inhabit will soon become inanimate. The physical sensations that we experience will no longer be felt. As to whether the spiritual knowledge, the energy and art and mystery we sense today will remain after the physical body has turned to compost – well, I’ll have to get back to you on that. Or not.