Man is ruled by Spirit. In the desert I am worth what my divinities are worth.
~Antoine de-Saint Exupery
As a general statement, and with some exceptions, I tend to prefer art that is self-expressive to art for its own sake. I do not mean to characterize either approach as inherently better or worse, or as more or less important, than the other. I consider them to be different things, originating in different philosophies, and intended to accomplish different goals. This is a personal choice, rooted in the roles that art plays in my own life, as both a maker and a consumer of art. The primary reason for my preference is my belief that art is most useful in its power to elevate the living experience. I say this knowing that some contemporary scholars may bristle at the idea that art should be useful—it should not; I just happen to favor art that is.
Those things that elevate the living experience by intangible means often are considered as “spiritual.” Indeed, even at the semantic level, spirituality and art share an unfortunate similarity, which is this: discussions of both are at times so overloaded with platitudes as to be easily dismissed as trite and cliché. I think this is a shame, and I would like here to make the case for a spirituality that is rooted in knowledge, experience, reason and scientific exploration.Such a spirituality in my own life also is intimately associated with, and derived from, among other things, both the making and the consumption of art.
I also wish to share my opinion that such spirituality transcends, in its power to elevate one’s living experience, other manifestations of spirituality that are rooted, instead, in unquestioned myths or traditions, as by its self-correcting and adaptive nature, it is less susceptible to doubt and error.
Some consider spirituality to be antithetical of science. This belief is, regrettably, held by some scientists and also by some who consider themselves as spiritual. Both, in my mind, make the unfortunate error of favoring dogma over experience. Spirituality that denies facts will forever be mired in doubt and denial; while a purely materialist world view robs its holder of the profound awe to be found in mystery.
Let me explain what I mean by spirituality, starting with the distinction that spirituality may overlap with, but is not the same as, faith, or mysticism. Faith is what one believes to be true in the absence of knowledge or evidence. Mysticism is what one believes to be true regarding things that are unknowable. Spirituality, to me, is the meaning one derives from acknowledging one’s place within the grand tapestry of existence, accounting for the known, the unknown, and the unknowable; and for the fact that knowledge is not a fixed quantity.
A spirituality founded in the pursuit of truth is one that should be able to adapt with changes in knowledge. Better yet, it is one that gains in value with increases in knowledge. As it turns out, the more we learn about the nature of existence, the greater and more impressive its mysteries become. Albert Einstein referred to the mysterious as, “the most beautiful thing we can experience,” and Francis Bacon proclaimed it the artist’s job “to always deepen the mystery.”
To have spirituality, of any manner, and to have it factor into one’s attitude toward life, into the choices one makes and into one’s sense of what is important, is of tremendous value. It offers comfort and motivation in peaceful and troubled times; it alleviates anxiety rooted in concern for the future; in particular, it is also a means of contending with one’s transience and inevitable death. Such powers, however, are diminished if one’s spirituality is founded in conjecture, tradition or myth, and thereby inherently susceptible to doubt. The more one’s spirituality is validated by fact, knowledge and experience, the more confidently one may rely on in both the best and the worst of times.
Humanity’s journey of scientific advancement resulted in acquisition of profound knowledge. And as such, a spirituality informed by knowledge is intimately tied with the scientific process: the best tool humanity ever had for ascertaining what amounts to truth, or as close to it as we are able to get. Science took spirituality from the realm of speculation and myth and allowed it to become more defensible and less ambiguous. Science offers humanity a view of itself that to many is difficult to accept: our infinitesimal presence in the grand story of existence. Going by what we know, the universe we live in (perhaps one of many) is so astoundingly large and complex as to make our very existence inconsequential; our lives exceedingly short in comparison with other natural processes; and our demise certain and finite. Science has proven unequivocally that our concepts of time, space and material existence are far removed from what we may perceive with our senses and intellect, let alone abide by what we casually call “common sense.” Recent studies even suggest that consciousness is just a biological process evolved to improve biological fitness, same as digestion and breeding; and that it is quite likely we (as in: our conscious selves) are not truly afforded free choice, at least not to the extent we often believe we are. By any perspective, one’s conscious existence is meaningless, except for one: that of the individual experiencing the world within the short blip of existence he or she is afforded.
Despite all speculation and conjecture, it is quite certain that one’s identity, knowledge, memories and stories cannot persist after death. Whether consciousness remains in some form is yet unknown (and there is no credible evidence to suggest so), but even if it does there is no doubt that one’s perceptions of the world come from physical senses, evolved and adapted to the random conditions of life on Earth; that one’s memories and knowledge are encoded in physical structures within the living brain, as are one’s personality, temperament and sensibilities. We know this because we can disrupt and alter these qualities quite readily by affecting specific parts of the brain. The significance of such knowledge is immense: we each get one life, at least as the human animal we each consider our self. And what can make for a better argument to favor meaningful experiences over tedium, profound emotions to jadedness, knowledge to ignorance, joy to confrontation, beauty to wretchedness; more generally: time well spent to time wasted.
Any attempt to assign objective importance to anything we do falls apart eventually. We are made of atoms and molecules that some call “ordinary matter,” although there is nothing ordinary about them. All the atoms making all that we are capable of seeing and sensing, whether on Earth or on any of trillions of other planets and stars, and hundreds of billions of galaxies, account for just 4% of the mass in the known universe, and likely are just aberrations: fluctuations in an invisible field where things randomly pop in and out of material existence. Quantum mechanics: the most accurate science ever produced by humanity in its descriptions of reality also tells us that some knowledge will forever remain beyond our reach; made impossible to accomplish by the very laws of physics that make our existence possible.
Some argue that our actions may amount to what Chaos theorists call “butterfly effects,” potentially having significant consequences in some distant future. However, while such effects may “matter” within some prolonged span of time, they do not matter one bit from the perspective of the butterfly.
It may seem that such a system of belief may lead to hedonism and egoism, but such an assumption ignores the goal of elevating one’s living experience. Put another way, the reward for anything we do is best measured in degrees of happiness. Studies show that we are happier when we are kind and generous, rather than miserly and duplicitous; when engaged in creative activities rather than sloth or in performing mindless tasks; when free of threat and coercion rather than when engaged in conflict; when we are satisfied with what we have rather than wishing we had more. To elevate the living experience, it turns out, also means to be a peaceful, generous, compassionate and creative human being; and to fill one’s life with as much beauty as possible. It is here that art comes into play. While there is no denying the effect of beautiful art, less obvious is the effect of making expressive art. In expressive art, the artist seeks ways of symbolizing his or her own thoughts and feelings, rather than just employ craftsmanship; which makes expressive art among the most creative activities that one may partake in.
Taken a step further, when the things one seeks to express in his or her art are intense emotions and deep thoughts rooted in real, moving, inspiring, life-affirming, experiences; a constellation of spiritual effects converge: beauty, experience, emotion, creativity, knowledge and mystery. In surveying a landscape under particular conditions, my knowledge, however imperfect, of geology, weather, the physics of light, the processes of nature and the improbability of my conscious self being there to witness it all amounts to a spiritual experience of the highest order. But such experience is made yet more powerful when acknowledging mystery: what is yet unknown and what is patently unknowable. Without need for speculation, the very existence of mystery is humbling and liberating. It frees me from expectations: I can’t be perfect even if I tried, and the closest I can get to being right is to trust my own knowledge, instincts and reasoning.