Art for God's Sake

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Art for God's Sake

daya dissanayake

Modern art is like a religion. Only the creator really knows the meaning of what has been created. The common man is unable to understand it. The Art Critics are like priests who explain the meaning of religious discourses. When the critics have different interpretations then it leads to the rise of various groups of the followers of the painting.

We could say what happened to world religions happened to art, taken over by the priesthood and the elite, who did not expect the common man to understand the message.

Today, in the modern art galleries, this is called conceptual art, when a specific concept or idea, often personal, complex and inclusive, takes shape in an abstract, nonconforming manner, based upon a negation of aesthetic principles. These conceptual artists proclaimed that "Art is dead", like we heard Nietzsche's comment "God is dead". Then the artists made their own Art into a mystery religion. Joseph Kosuth had said "Actual works of art are little more than historical curiosities". They wanted to eliminate the art object, saying that the idea itself is a work of art.

Yet in the pre-historic art galleries in the caves too, we could identify some of the paintings as conceptual or perceptual, depending on how we look at them. That is probably the reason for Paul Devereux to state that there was "Art before Art". Even though animals could also dream, it is only man who could bring out a work of art about his dream and express them in paintings and sculpture.

This was explained by a visitor to Sihigiri 1,300 years ago. "He (i.e. the painter) by (the art of) painting, fixes even the real nature of the very source of consciousness. Having seen, with (his) eyes, a long (strand of) hair, he paints and fixes diverse feelings of the mind" (Paranavitana translation)

Religion could have been the beginning of art, if we are to believe that primitive art forms found in caves occupied by pre-historic man were religious symbols and images. If on the other hand art was the beginning of religion then we could also consider that almost all religions have survived because of art. It was the artist who did the paintings, the sculptures and the symbols and who helped to preserve the religious faiths and practices, during all religious suppressions, forced conversions and anti-religious campaigns.

One possible explanation for the similarities we find in religious art is that the same painters and artists who had been engaged in the paintings of the existing religions would have been assigned the paintings of the new religious faiths. This could explain the Greek and the Gandharva styles of the paintings or carvings of the Buddha and the Apollonian style of Jesus in the Roman churches and even the Greco-Roman and Byzantine influence in early Islamic art.

However the paintings and the sculptures of Jesus Christ appear to be the same all over the world, unlike the figure of the Buddha, which takes on the features of the natives, wherever Buddhism spread.

When the Buddha tells the Bhikkhus that the true beauty of a painting is not in the painting, nor in the mind of the painter, but in the mind of the person looking at the painting, could He have meant that the person seeing it had to empathize with the painting? (Samyutta Nikaya, Gaddula Sutta). But here could be a conflict, a rasika here sees the beauty of the woman in the painting because of the aesthetic or erotic thoughts in his mind, and if he purifies his mind, then he will no longer see the beauty in the picture and he will no longer be a rasika.

What is sacred art for one man could be a pagan idol for another, or simply a work of art.

Art as a form of meditation is seen in the Kalachakra Mandala created by Tibetan monks, where 722 deities are portrayed within a circle of about two meters diameter. It is made of coloured sand. This work of art, prepared over a period of several weeks, is destroyed in the end as a lesson about the impermanence of life.

The paintings at Ajantha and the carvings at Ellora probably were a form of meditation exercise.

If we accept Dr. Raja de Silva's theory of Sihigiriya frescoes, then they too are Mahayana Buddhist paintings, and not purely aesthetic creations during the time of Kassapa. Then Prof. Senaka Bandaranayake's comment on the terracotta figurines found at Sihigiriya, as "Art from Art" would not be acceptable, because the figurines too could have been those of Goddess Tara.

Alexander Gottlieb Baumggarten, who has been considered as the father of modern aesthetics, had identified aesthetica artificialis and aesthetica naturalis, which brings us back to the struggle between nature and culture. No human being will ever be able compete with the art and sculpture created by nature, which is evident when we see the evening sky at sunset, the sunrise over Sri Pada, Grand Canyon, Niagara falls, the Maldive islands as seen from above, the giant icebergs, or even a butterfly or a ladybird. We have continued to destroy nature in the name of cultural advancement, and unconsciously making futile attempts to imitate nature, in introducing granite and timber into our buildings or fountains and rock gardens.

Once again we have to wonder, did the pre-historic man try to paint nature as he saw it, or was he already trying to give symbolic meanings to what he drew.

When we look at art as a religion it reminds us that it is the iconophile who creates the iconoclast, who could end up becoming a new iconophile.

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