Search For an Art of Transcendence
From the museums of New York City
to the Latin Quarter of Paris, a young man
pursues the ultimate in creative expression.
YOGESVARA DASA, a devotee of Krsna for twelve years, is a contributing editor for BACK TO GODHEAD magazine. He is also head of Bala Books, which publishes Krsna conscious literature for children.
I came of age in the mid '60s, at a time when progressives and liberals held sway in American society and the mood was full throttle into the bright future of technology and the unlimited creative potential of man. Odd-kid-out in most social activities (I attended expensive schools on scholarships, which put me in a socially awkward position), I ended up spending weekends and after-school hours wandering through New York City's cavernous museums, filled with stone and canvas monuments to the Creative Animal. In one afternoon I could journey on foot from prehistoric cave paintings to Renaissance pietas, and from there to modern art and the latest in pop, op, and the psychedelic rest.
Of course, I visited not only the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, and the Museum of Modern Art, but also the Museum of Natural History. There I was struck by the apparent parallel between the evolution of art and the evolution of man. First came the cavemen, with their cave paintings rough, simplistic products of an obviously lower order of intelligence. Then, as man began wearing clothes, shaping tools, and tilling the earth, he produced the crude religious paintings and iconography of early civilization. Finally, as man grew more civilized, art grew more sophisticated, until Homo sapien was producing an artistic legacy as complex and unfathomable as his own neurological organs.
But this apparent parallel evolution of art and man was too pat; it left an empty feeling in my stomach. Though my own culture accepted such a parallel, some part of me disagreed with the premise that art viewed chronologically was synonymous with art viewed progressively. The free-floating Calder mobiles appealed to my sense of aesthetics, but did that place them somehow above the simpler works relegated to sections marked "Tribal Talismans"? The sensual curves of a Moore sculpture attracted my adolescent mind, but were they "better" than the three-thousand-year-old works designated "Hindu Deities"? The open-ended canvases of Jasper Johns made me think about how his work affected me, but did I feel any less affected by the delicate miniature encrusted with gold and labeled "Krishna: Indian Forest God"?
These exhibits were consistently arranged so as to suggest that objects of art were no more than cultural artifacts. The arrangement was no doubt the work of anthropologists, art historians, sociologists, and others, who had a vested interest in making culture central, who addressed themselves, it seems, to people unwilling to bring themselves to consider anything that might transcend human experience.
Yet despite my intimations of a higher criterion than cultural relativity for evaluating art, when I met devotees of Lord Krsna for the first time, in 1969, I still believed that art could change the world without recourse to transcendent realities. Universities' in Europe and the United States abounded with such courses as "Existentialism and Modern Art," "Physics for Poets," "Social Trends in Art History," "Picasso and the Collective Unconscious," "Music as a Force for Change." What these courses all had in common was, first, an insistence on the interrelationship of the arts and, second, the idea that art should be about a personal "inner vision" that judiciously avoids other-worldliness. Like the perfectly ordered historical art exhibits I had known during my high-school days, the university catalogs also treated art as one of the Humanities, as a subject that deals only with human meanings. Art, they too were saying, can be understood only within the context of culture.
The devotees, however, lived with an art that went beyond such notions. In those early days of the Krsna consciousness movement in France, readings from the Bhagavad-gita and group chanting of Hare Krsna took place on Sundays in the Latin Quarter, at a gray two-story hangout for students, artists, poets, and musicians. Perched precariously on a folding chair, in the corner of a room that sat about thirty, was a three-foot-high color poster of Gopala (Krsna), the Supreme Lord and the speaker of the Gita. The name Gopala means "cowherd boy," and in the picture Gopala was sitting gracefully, with His arm around a calf, looking off into the distance.
"Who's that in the picture?" I asked a devotee who stood peeling apples by the door.
"That's Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead."
"And the idealized setting in the background that's supposed to be heaven?"
"No, not heaven, but the spiritual world the really ideal setting, where everything is eternally full of knowledge and bliss."
I watched the devotees meticulously arrange the apple sections on a brass tray, offer the tray before the poster of Gopala, bow down, and then dance and sing before Him. After a few moments the ceremony stopped, and a young man in robes and a shaved head began reading from the Bhagavad-gita in French. "Krsna's nature," he explained after one verse, "is spiritual, God is not limited by material elements, as we are. His body is not subject to laws of decay and death. And since He is absolute. He remains spiritual in all His manifestations. His appearance in wood or stone or paint transforms the material medium into His own spiritual substance. We should not think that a Deity or painting of Krsna is an idol. It is Krsna Himself, graciously appearing in a form visible to us, to help us remember Him."
Unexpectedly, here was a challenge to my long-held belief in the cultural relativity of art. Extrapolating freely, I concluded that the Bhagavad-gita had this to say about art: Art can contain more than human elements; under certain conditions a work of art can serve as a vehicle for higher, transcendental forces, whose impact on the viewer or hearer (in the case of music, drama, or poetry) doesn't depend on intellectual grasp or cultural relevance. The mere act of seeing or hearing spiritual art produces a spiritually uplifting effect. Though one's intellectual awareness of the image or sound one's sense of its meaning or purpose enhances the effect, such awareness is not prerequisite. Spiritual art is like fire: potent, able to act on anyone who comes near it.
I began spending evenings with some of the devotees. The small room they shared was filled with posters, photos, and drawings of all sizes and shapes. There were depictions of Krsna with His cowherd boyfriends, Krsna in His various incarnations, sages and saints from the scriptural histories. None of it struck me as very developed artistry. The features were often naive, the composition unimaginative, the proportions out of whack. But the greatest travesty, in my eyes, was the lack of a challenge to the viewer. So little in any of these pictures left anything at all to the onlooker's interpretive skills. It was pure representational art. The spectator did not participate at all; he was a passive watcher. There was Krsna tending His cows in His village, Vrndavana, and there were the trees and flowers, all neatly dressed, best blossoms forward. It was clear that the artist had done his job quite well by painting exactly what he had seen or rather exactly what he had read in the scriptures the devotees were always quoting. The artist had painted, and now the observer had only to gaze.
But to the devotees, those pictures were windows on the spiritual world. Each morning they would sit for an hour or more, concentrating on them as they chanted Hare Krsna on their beads. It became clear that the artists' identities were of little importance to the devotees who sat entranced before these paintings. They had been done "right" (according to scripture), and that was all that mattered.
Many months later Srila Prabhupada, the founder and spiritual guide of the Krsna consciousness movement, visited Paris. By that time I had myself become a devotee of Krsna, and Srila Prabhupada's visit seemed a good opportunity to clear up some of my lingering questions about the role of art in spiritual life. I waited until I could meet with him in his quarters, and then I dove right in.
"What is the function of art in spiritual life, Srila Prabhupada?" He looked up and studied my face for what seemed a long time.
"It is to put things in their proper place for best utility," he said.
I didn't understand what he meant, but rather than ask the same question again, I said, "Some artists might disagree with you. Sometimes it is considered art to take an object out of its proper place and give it a life of its own. Some artists argue that a work of art is a reality in itself, that it doesn't depend for its 'being' on anything or anyone else. They say that art is most beautiful when accepted as a self-sufficient reality."
"Beauty and art are different," he corrected. "Beauty is something that satisfies my eyes. Your eyes may be satisfied by something, my eyes by something else. According to your idea of beauty, my beauty may be unacceptable. Beauty is a kind of sense gratification."
"Yet the object of our vision may be beautiful, even if we can't appreciate it."
"No. If I like it, then it is beautiful. If I don't, then it isn't. There is no such thing as a standard of beauty. Just like nowadays artists make 'beautiful' paintings" he waved an imaginary paintbrush wildly in the air above his head and laughed. 'I don't like it, but someone else may say it is very beautiful. So beauty and art are different. Art means arranging things for the highest utility. Beauty may satisfy but not have any higher utility. A picture, a poem anything is art when it serves the very best utility."
Utility was obviously the crux of his definition. "If someone's work fulfills that qualification of highest utility, is he an artist?"
"Yes. An artist is one who knows the standard of best utility."
I opened Webster's. "One definition the dictionary gives for artist is 'one specifically skilled in the practice of a manual art or occupation, as cooking.' If we apply that definition to spiritual life, a sincere laborer working for Krsna a carpenter or a cook is actually an artist."
"Oh, yes, anyone who performs his work for the satisfaction of Krsna, who knows His relationship with Krsna, is a true artist."
That was the moment when I at last understood his use of the word utility. He was defining art as any work that brings the performer, as well as all who come in contact with the work, away from the cycle of birth and death and closer to God. In other words, true art is yoga. By this definition of art as yoga, Srila Prabhupada was not denying the need, in painting, for rules of composition or balance in color and design. Rather, he was expanding the meaning of art beyond the traditional forms of painting, sculpture, music, drama, poetry, and so on to include every field of human endeavor a notion described in Bhagavad-gita (2.50):
A man engaged in devotional service rids himself of both good and bad actions even in this life. Therefore, strive for yoga, which is the art of all work.
In the simple acts of devotion the offering of foods to the Lord, the humble recitation of His holy names, the striving for a saintly life one can also perceive God. The same inspiration is communicated by the art of work as by a work of art. In effect, Krsna in the Gita exhorts all members of society to become artists by performing their work as an offering of love to Him.
"In other words," I asked, "would we say that anyone who works on behalf of Krsna, according to Krsna's direction, is an artist?"
"Yes. A devotee knows the standard of utility. He knows how to put things in their proper place to inspire love for Krsna in himself and others.
Srila Prabhupada stopped speaking, and a thoughtful silence filled the room. I began thinking back to my first days in the movement, when I had met a young Scottish devotee named Digvijaya. No one knew how to "put things in their proper place" better than Digvijaya. He was the cook in the old London temple. A simple country boy with a knack for detail, Digvijaya cooked liked nobody's business and kept an immaculate kitchen that boasted rows of pots sparkling from the hours of patient scrubbing he had put into them. Attracted by his fastidious habits and feats of cookery, I would sometimes go down to the basement work area and help him prepare an offering for the Deities.
"You like to work for Krsna in the kitchen, don't you?" I rather clumsily asked him one evening. Digvijaya looked a little flustered and went on with his cooking. Finally he looked up and said, "Actually, I don't consider myself advanced enough spiritually to serve Krsna directly. I'm happy just cooking for His pure devotee, Srila Prabhupada. And if he offers the preparations to Krsna on my behalf, I know they will be accepted."
This was a young man whose culinary skills could hold their own with many professionals', yet he was obviously humble about his work. During our talk he had revealed to me the secret of spiritual cooking: don't speculate. "The best recipes have been around for thousands of years," he said. "What Krsna likes has already been tried and tested, and then recorded in the scriptures. A spiritual chef," he had concluded, "is one who learns how to make a dish just as Krsna has always liked it, since time immemorial."
Now, two years later, Srila Prabhupada was confirming the same principle as the essence of spiritual art. Don't speculate. Your work is meant to be an offering of love for Krsna, not a product of artistic ego. So let Krsna guide your efforts.
"Real art, then," I said, "means simply to do something for Krsna's pleasure?"
"Yes," Srila Prabhupada replied. "That is also the definition of love: to do something for the pleasure of the beloved."
"But what about artists as a class of people? What about art as a specific field of creative endeavor art in the classical sense painting, sculpture, music? Does spontaneity play no part in Vaisnava [devotional] art? And how do the artists derive inspiration if everything is already laid out in the scriptures?"
"All these questions will be answered when you visit the artists who paint for my books."
Many months later I had that opportunity. At the devotee artist studios (then in Los Angeles), much was like what I had seen in dozens of other studios: paintbrushes, canvases, some reference books. But there were new elements as well. Music played constantly in the background devotional songs that set a mood for the work at hand. Sometimes two or even three artists at a time worked to complete a painting, each contributing his or her best effort, either in background design, facial details, jewelry, architecture, or whatever. The artists, in their discussions, constantly referred to one or another Vedic scripture. Clearly they had studied their subjects well, and they drew details for the work from the ancient texts.
I asked one young man where he had received his training. He had graduated from a well-known art school, he said, and after becoming a devotee he had gone to India. What was an artist's training like in India? "Oh, very intense," he said. "An artist in the devotional tradition never attempts a sculpture or painting of Krsna unless his teacher has sanctioned both the work and his readiness to execute it. The forms of Krsna are divine; when depicted by one who is not in the proper devotional mood, they are offensive."
I noticed a young woman prepare her brushes by washing them in a sink down the hall. There was a bathroom closer by, but, she explained, through the agency of these brushes Krsna would appear on canvas, and so she preferred not to wash them in the bathroom. Before applying the first strokes to her canvas, she folded her hands and offered Sanskrit prayers before a picture of her spiritual master.
The artists were trained technicians in their craft. In the sculpture workshop a heavyset man with a clean-shaven head applied filler to a bust of Old Age, a character in a diorama depicting birth, death, and rebirth. He looked at the bust, and, for my benefit, broke down the visual impression into colors, contrasts, perspectives, relationships, planes, and other aspects that had escaped my untrained eyes.
Yet beyond the technical prowess, these artists were seeing Krsna, not only in the immediate form of the sculpture or painting but also in the thousand and one details of life's every moment that escape the notice of materialistic men. These artists knew the true value of their resources. The very tools of their trade acted as an inspiration for their work. Krsna was in the earth and clay, in the water and paints. He was the light of the sun that illuminated their studios. Nothing in their work was separate from Him, and by His presence the work itself became transformed into an act of meditation and prayer:
I asked several of the artists what they felt was the most important part of their work. Though one or two spoke of abstract concepts like detachment from the finished product the majority agreed that the most important part of their work was a strong daily program of morning sadhana, the devotional and meditative practices that begin around 4:30 a.m. and end by 8:30 in every temple of the Krsna consciousness movement. Without that regularity of spiritual discipline, they all agreed, they could never put brush to canvas or chisel to stone.
Over the course of the last few years, my deepening appreciation for spiritual art has cast in a different light the culturally based ideas of art that I grew up with. Instead of a progressive development in the arts, the contents of our museums seem to evince man's increasing estrangement from his Spiritual roots. The further we divorce ourselves from the notion of a higher being and a life beyond matter, the more abstract and cerebral and sterile our artistry grows. And what usually passes as spiritual is in fact merely a negation of what we take to be material: form, personality, recognizable elements of creation. As a result, the spiritual reality a world filled with spiritual variety, spiritual form and personality remains hidden from our view. That spiritual reality, says the Bhagavad-gita, is revealed in proportion to one's renunciation of such concepts as "I am the creator" and "I am the artist" and one's acceptance of one's role as a servant of God.
No matter how innovative, lyrically spontaneous, or technically adept, the artist with no spiritual training or vision can never transcend in his work the limitations placed upon him by his alienation from God. Because such an artist is competing with God, he can never become a pure medium for the expression of God's infinite creativity.
On the other hand, even an untrained devotee artist can become such a medium. This is true because the transcendental quality of a work of art is a result not of technical skill but of the artist's purity of devotion, his desire to glorify God through his work. Properly guided, even an unskilled devotee artist can bring out the Supreme Spirit for all to see, as exemplified by the following anecdote told to me by one of the artists in Los Angeles.
Once, while traveling by plane, Srila Prabhupada chanted Hare Krsna around his beads with a drawing of Krsna pinned to the back of the seat in front of Him. This is a common practice among devotees who travel, but it was striking that Srila Prabhupada had chosen this particular drawing to meditate upon. It was done in crayon the straightforward, untutored work of a child. It had little aesthetically redeeming value. But to Srila Prabhupada it was finer than a Rembrandt, more meaningful than a Degas, more intriguing than a Picasso, because it was Krsna drawn by the loving (albeit naive) hand of His young devotee. In that simple sketch was abundant subject matter for Srila Prabhupada's artistic contemplation: devotion, sincerity, earnest labor, and a six-year-old's humble offering of love to God.