Painting harnesses eternity       

—Van Gogh

All the achievements of the great painters, poets and composers are the activity of thought: the composer, inwardly hearing the marvellous sound, commits it onto paper. That is the movement of thought... Thought is responsible for all the cruelty, the wars, the war machines and the brutality of war, the killing, the terror, the throwing of bombs, the taking of hostages in the name of a cause, or without a cause. Thought is also responsible for the cathedrals, the beauty of their structure, the lovely poems...

 — J. Krishnamurti

Does the statement of Krishnamurti completely demolish the statement of Van Gogh? At first sight, it would indeed appear so. If the creations of art have the same origin in thought as the most destructive actions of war and terrorism, then indeed art stands condemned. In that case do we stop looking at and appreciating great paintings and other works of art, stop reading poetry and other great literature? If indeed we do that we may have to take out a funeral procession for the arts, as the musicians of Delhi are said to have done when Aurangazeb issued a ban on music in that city. Hence we need to examine what exactly is going on here.

By ‘thought’ we ordinarily mean ideation, abstract thinking, as opposed to emotion or volition. Thinking is supposed to be logical, abstract, representational, explanatory, ‘objective’, free from our subjective wishes, desires, fears etc. At least, thinking which claims to be truthful has to have these qualities. The sense in which Krishnamurti uses the word ‘thought’ is however, as we know, entirely different. By that word he means the entire content of consciousness, which is, all our memories, our sense of identity derived from these memories, all our emotions, our volitional impulses, projections of ourselves into the future, fears, hopes, desires and so on. Thought so described includes abstract, logical, explanatory and representational thinking but also includes much more. In fact thought is the entire content of that which we call our personalities, including our psychosomatic states—conscious and unconscious. And what Krishnamurti asserts is that both of what are usually called creative, and destructive activity have the same origin in the conflict-ridden content of human consciousness and psychosomatic states.

Now, is art indeed the product of this conflict-ridden personality of the artist, or does it have an ‘impersonal’ source which is truth or reality and which is free from the conflicts, idiosyncrasies and imperfections of the artist’s personality? And are artists, great writers, musicians, great scientists and other creative persons in touch with such a reality or truth? We know that in traditional societies such as classical Hindu-Buddhist India, ancient China, Medieval Western Christendom or Byzantium, art had, or was supposed to have an ‘impersonal’ origin in religious truths. What emanates from the great landscape paintings of classical China is the peace and harmony of the union of Heaven and Earth, the unheard music of the skies. The artist is nowhere to be seen; he has completely effaced himself. He had meditated, perhaps for years, before considering himself to be in tune with the Tao, to be able to produce the painting. In India too, the sculptor of the Sarnath Buddha would have meditated in order to free himself of the dross of his own personal impulses before considering himself to be in a fit state to envision the qualities of the Buddha and to embody them in stone. Somewhere in an obscure corner at the base of the Kailasanatha at Ellora is inscribed the wonderstruck question of the sculptor-architect who completed the structure: ‘Did I indeed make all this? How did I do it?’ The art of Western Christendom, of classical Islam, and of Byzantium too had an impersonal aspect. We do not know the biographies of the sculptors and architects who built Chartres Cathedral or of the painters of the Byzantine Madonnas and Christs. They were merely artisans and builders in the service of the truth of Christ. Who and what they were otherwise (even if they were master builders) and what the details of the personal drama of their lives were, was not of much importance even in their own eyes. What was sought to be expressed in all these works of art was not the individual personal vision of the sculptor or painter, but the Christian, Buddhist, or Taoist religious vision into which the individual personality of the artist is merged.

However, with the advent of modern times, generally understood as the ‘coming of the Renaissance’ in Europe, especially in Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, all this changes rapidly. We are in the age of humanism, of the expansion of the individual who desires to explore the outer world and to express his personal experience of it. This is the age of the individual genius, the age of Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Raphael—those larger-than-life figures. We know who painted the Last Supper, the Creation of Man in the Sistine Chapel, who sculpted the Pièta in St. Peter’s and so on. We know the life stories of these artists in considerable detail—about their conflicts with their patrons, and with other contemporaries, and their personal peculiarities. Interest begins to focus on the personal dramas of the artists’ lives and biographies of artists begin to be written. Even though the themes of art are still Christian, the stamp of the individual artist in them is now much more evident than in Medieval times. And the Mona Lisa is not a Christian painting at all, but is among the first of the great ‘non-Christian’ paintings that will be produced in Europe from now on.

As we come down the centuries from the sixteenth to the twentieth, art more and more becomes art which has the stamp of individuality. In each case it is an individual unique vision that is presented, not as in traditional societies, the vision of the religious faith of the society as a whole. The fact that art becomes more and more individualistic does not necessarily mean, however, that it loses in power and depth. We only have to glance at the great company of European painters down the centuries to realize this. Individually and considered as a whole, they, like that impulse from the vernal wood:

Can teach us more of man
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the sages can.

The canvasses of Rembrandt in his Biblical paintings take us into the heart of the Christian religious and ethical vision. His self-portraits are searing lessons in self-knowledge. Goya’s depiction of the horrors of the Napoleonic wars in Spain tells us more about the violence of man against man than all the tomes of history can. His painting ‘The Dream of Reason Brings Forth Monsters’, seems to detect the monsters lurking in the shadows behind the serene light of the eighteenth century European age of Enlightenment, Reason and Science— monsters that show themselves openly in the mass destruction and violence of the twentieth century. Coming down to the nineteenth century, from the Impressionist paintings of Monet, Renoir and Pissarro, and from the Pointillism of Seurat we learn, as if for the first time, to enjoy the great gifts of light, colour and translucent space. And Van Gogh does indeed harness eternity for us. In his paintings of the cornfields of Provence we feel that the transcendent is indeed made immanent in those golden yellow fields in harvest. His ‘Starry Night’ shows us the nocturnal face of eternity. The energy of being rooted in an authentic life speaks to us in his paintings of humble objects such as a chair or a pair of shoes, and in his painting of his simple living room containing only a cot, a table and a couple of chairs. Coming nearer to our own times, we find in Rouault’s ruined kings and tragic clowns symbols of intense spiritual suffering. Munch’s depictions of envy, jealousy, loneliness and fear confront us with our own shadow sides. Chagall’s gentle ironic spirit is a soothing balm.

For all these gifts we should be grateful and we could go on singing paens of praise. But here as we pause and take our bearings, we notice that along with the growing intense interest in the personal lives of the artists, there is another development taking place — a marked split between their lives and their art. Whereas in earlier, traditional societies, artistic expression is supposed at least in theory, to flow from the disappearance of the artist’s personality in his vision of the impersonal truth—of Christianity, Taoism Buddhism etc.—in modern times the personality of the artist becomes more emphatic and idiosyncratic. Earlier, art flowed out of, or was ideally supposed to flow out of, the union of the personal with the Divine, with which the artist was in harmony. In modern times however, the life of the artist is one thing, the work of art, another. There is not a unity but dissociation between the two. The work of art could express a great depth of feeling and vision, but the life could be, and many times was, anything but harmonious or serene. Often it was ‘scandalous’ with wild chaotic swings ending in disaster. Van Gogh led a ‘disreputable’ life, which ended in his cutting off one of his own ears with a razor and not much later, in his suicide by shooting himself. Picasso was ruthless in his ‘using’ those close to him for purposes of his art, and he told them clearly where they stood with him. Among writers, Dostoevsky’s life showed wild erratic swings of which compulsive gambling was only a minor symptom. It has now been revealed that the youthful Einstein was by conventional standards quite ruthless in his relationships with those close to him, while being single-minded in the pursuit of his scientific passion. We could multiply many such instances in the cases of a host of writers, artists and scientists, instances of a ‘contradiction’ between the life and the work. And in fact according to some psychological and psychoanalytical theories, art emerges through and as a result of these contradictions and tensions as a process of sublimation. And one of the great poets of the twentieth century, William Butler Yeats, seems to ‘legitimize’ this state of affairs.

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life or of the work
And if it take the second refuse
A heavenly mansion raging in the dark.

Van Gogh confesses that the intensity with which he paints does not in any way alter the ‘melancholy thought you yourself are not in real life... It is more worthwhile to work in flesh and blood itself than in paint and plaster.’ Still, he cannot abandon art: ‘Even this artistic life, which we know is not real life, appears to me so alive and vital that it would be a form of ingratitude not to be content with it.’ In 1897, the eighteen-year-old Einstein trying to foresee the future course of his life, saw it thus: ‘Strenuous intellectual work and looking at God’s nature are the reconciling, fortifying, yet relentlessly strict angels that shall lead me through all of life’s troubles... And yet, what a peculiar way this is to weather the storms of life—in many a lucid moment I appear to myself as an ostrich who buries his head in the desert sand so as not to perceive the danger.’ Both Van Gogh and Einstein seem to choose perfection of the work, not of the life. The depth of their perceptions and their single-minded passion for bringing the perception to fruition often, it seems, make creative persons oblivious to all things that are not relevant to this aim.

It is here that Krishnamurti’s challenge confronts us. ‘Who is that person whom you call an artist? A man who is momentarily creative? To me he is not an artist. To me, the true artist is one who lives completely, harmoniously, who does not divide his art from living, whose very life is that expression, whether it be a picture, music or his behaviour, who has not divorced his expression on a canvas or in music or in stone from his daily conduct, daily living. That demands the highest intelligence and highest harmony. To me the true artist is the man who has that harmony... But all this demands that exquisite poise, that intensity of awareness and therefore his expression is not divorced from the daily continuity of living.’

Speaking about the ‘creativity’ that comes out of tension and not out of harmony Krishnamurti says, more scathingly: ‘The greater the tension and the greater the capacity to express yourself—as a writer, as an artist, as a politician —the more misery you create not only for yourself, but for the public also... Being in a state of contradiction, if one has the capacity to write or to paint, then one creates greater misery for man and also for oneself.’

Now what is one’s response to a statement of this kind? Since politicians have been mentioned in the statement, let us take the case of one who has been considered to be one of the most significant and creative figures in modern times in the field of politics — Mahatma Gandhi. Now, Gandhiji was a person whose tensions, both external and internal, were monumental in extent. And his internal contradictions were well known as he chose to live them out in public. However, can we talk of him as a person who created ‘misery for man and also for himself’? He clearly said: ‘I am not a saint but a politician trying to be a saint.’ For Krishnamurti, this is a contradiction. For him both the person who is actually a politician, and the ideal of sainthood he is trying to achieve are tarred with the same brush. The potential saint who is trying to observe the actual politician in himself and who is trying to control him belong to the same movement of thought. The observer is the observed and the controller is the controlled. The ideal of non-violence, which is expected to prevail over the actuality of violence, is not, says Krishnamurti, psychologically different from the violence. Only when the bipolar unity of this pair is seen through an act of perception will the tension inherent in it collapse, and a truly creative awareness be born. That alone is total freedom. Otherwise, the essentially noncreative movement of thought will continue.

Now, on account of this can we afford to bypass Gandhi as a creative figure in politics? Surely that would be too facile a move on our part. Such a move would show scant respect for his revolutionary introduction of human encounter in the place of amoral power as the main principle in politics. The practice of politics in essence has meant the use, manipulation, control and domination of the opponent through the exercise of power. To this, Gandhi opposed the power of genuine human encounter, dialogue, engagement and persuasion—perhaps for the first time in history—and towards this effort he was prepared to ‘swallow the poison’ as Shiva did when the poison and ambrosia emerged out of the churning of the ocean by the devas and asuras. He was prepared to give up his life for it. This goes much beyond the principles of liberal democracy which involves toleration of or adjustment to the opponent. And here we need to remember that unlike in the case of many great artists, Gandhi’s daily living was all of a piece with his work, in his case, in the field of politics and ethics. For these reasons, the principles introduced by Gandhi in politics need to be understood and applied as they were for instance by Martin Luther King in his movement for the rights of the blacks in the United States, and will surely be continued to be applied creatively in future. They cannot be ignored on the ground that according to us they do not belong to the field of ‘total freedom’, which in any case is unknown territory.

To come back to art, let us ask, along the same lines, can we afford to ignore the great works of art, literature and so forth on the grounds that they do not belong to the field of ‘total freedom’? Surely that would be too facile a move. That would be to show scant respect for the perceptions and the passion which drive the artist. ‘The emotions are sometimes so strong that one works without being aware of working... and the strokes come with a sequence and coherence like words in a speech or letter.’ said Van Gogh about the way he painted. Surely this is an instance of a perception that is also an action about which Krishnamurti speaks. Krishnamurti however demanded not just such a perception in the field of the visible, out of which comes painting, or a perception in any other ‘special’ field such as music, or science or mathematics, but a perception in the totality of life. However, we cannot afford to devalue these creative movements for falling short of some ideal or fail to respect great creative persons on the grounds that they are not creative in the sense that Krishnamurti means. That would be just too presumptuous.

Again we may benefit from listening to Krishnamurti: ‘Great artists and great writers may be creators, but we are not, we are mere spectators. We read vast numbers of books, listen to magnificent music, look at works of art, but we never directly experience the sublime, our experience is always through a poem, through a picture, through the personality of a saint. To sing we must have a song in our hearts, but having lost the song we pursue the singer. Without an intermediary we feel lost; but we must be lost before we can discover anything. Discovering is the beginning of creativeness; and without that creativeness, do what we may, there can be no peace or happiness for man.’

Here, in a gentler mood, Krishnamurti says that artists may be creative, but he questions our relationship to them. If it is one of dependence, then there is no creative movement in us. We are not doing the work we need to do for ourselves. We cannot look at the paddy fields of the Kaveri delta with the eyes of Van Gogh looking at the Provençal cornfields nor at the Vindhyas with Cézanne’s eyes looking at the Provençal mountains. Everyone needs to be his or her own artist.

Instead of merely depending on great artists, writers, and other creative persons, we should acknowledge our immense debt to them for awakening us from our spiritual slumber, and for making us aware that it is possible to be open to reality. And from there we need to move on.