There has always been a very close connection between poetry and spirituality. Many poets have been very spiritually developed individuals, living in a heightened state of consciousness – for example, Wordsworth, Shelley, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, D.H. Lawrence, Ted Hughes and Mary Oliver. And many mystics, gurus and spiritual teachers have also been great poets, such as St. John of the Cross, Sri Aurobindo, Vivekananda and Thomas Merton. Poetry is the natural expression of spiritual experience, which transcends the limits of ordinary language.
In this enlightening – in both intellectual and spiritual senses of the term – book, Patrick Howe shows that the same is true of art. He describes how many of the greatest artists in history were spiritually ‘awake’, and how their ‘wakefulness’ was the source of their art. Artists like Constable, Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, Thomas Cole and George Inness perceived the natural world with a heightened intensity. Whereas most human beings perceive their surroundings through a veil of familiarity, with a functional automatic perception, they saw it with the freshness and first-time vision of children. Rather than experiencing a sense of duality and separateness, they felt a powerful sense of connection to the world. And just as Wordsworth and Whitman had the literary skill to convey their spiritual visions and insights through poetry, these artists had the ability to convey the wonder and intensity they experienced through their paintings.
Arguably, this applied to most of the great painters up to the 20th century. It is certainly true of impressionists like Monet, Pissaro, Renoir and Van Gogh. To look at some of Van Gogh’s paintings is to see the world in a mystical state of consciousness, with spirit-force pervading the sky, the stars and the whole of the natural world. It’s true of Patrick Howe’s own artwork too. As he writes of his own perception, ‘All I have to do is look out any window, walk in any park, study the cooking utensils on any kitchen counter top, or look in almost any direction and I see the beauty and peace of the world.’
One of the great pleasures I’ve had while reading this book is to break off periodically to look up the paintings of some of the artists. As a European who isn’t particularly well-versed in the history of art, I wasn’t familiar with some of the American painters Howe discusses. I had never heard of George Enniss, for example, and looking up his paintings was a delight. He’s become my new favourite painter, alongside my old favourites, Van Gogh, Monet and Turner. I love the way Enniss paints the sky, with just as much as emphasis as the landscape, with the clouds as prominent and beautiful as rocks and trees. It resonates so much with me, because I often see the sky that way too. (I wrote a poem called ‘A world that moves too fast to map’ about the sky in my book The Meaning.)
Throughout this book, Howe shows how the artwork of individuals relates to the culture they are a part of. For example, he suggests that the Romantic movement – in poetry, art and music – was part of what I call the ‘trans-Fall’ movement. (In my book The Fall, I describe this as a movement beyond ego-separateness towards re-connection to nature and the human body, a movement beyond egocentricism towards empathy and compassion.) Howe also makes the important point that, until this time, artists had been in the service of kings, emperors, aristocrats and the church. Their subject matter was always circumscribed by the demands of their benefactors and employers. But in the 19th century, artists became independent for the first time, free to express their emotions, to explore their imagination and perception.
In many ways, the ‘trans-Fall’ movement of reconnection has continued through the 20th century and into the 21st , leading to the environmental movement, increased equality and women’s rights, a spread of democracy, an increased sexual openness, an explosion of interest in spirituality and self-development, the and so forth. But particularly in the last few decades, much European and American artwork has turned against this trend. Modern art is in a very strange position. At least amongst art critics, artists who attempt to convey beauty or a sense of awe or transcendence are seen as redundant. In a climate of post-modern self-consciousness, it has become unfashionable to express any genuine emotion – to do so is to be accused of ‘romantic sentimentality.’ Art has become divorced from reality, and overtaken by the intellect. The word ‘conceptual’ – as in conceptual art – is very apposite. As Partick Howe puts it, ‘Much of art today has lost its “mythic power”…Most art is made for the market and the critics and makes no effort whatsoever at being transformative.’
Rather than a creative ‘right-brain’ pursuit, art has become an intellectual ‘left-brain’ one. In spiritual development, the conceptual mind is seen as a hindrance to overcome. Concepts are the conditioned ideas and cognitive habits we have developed through our upbringing and experience. Through meditation and other forms of spiritual practice, we attempt to quieten the conceptual mind, to weaken its structures, and gain access to a pure, unconditioned consciousness which it can obscure. So in this sense modern art is anti-spiritual. It reinforces the dominance of the conceptual mind. It’s designed to make us think, to shock and provoke, rather than to transform our consciousness and our relationship to the world.
In many ways, then, the sad state of modern art mirrors the worst aspects of our culture, and of ego-consciousness itself – divorced from nature, narcissistic, entangled in theories and concepts, rather than in connection with the present, and the world itself.
But true art is always bigger than the intellect. It always stems from a mysterious transcendent source, rather than from the puny thinking mind. As Patrick Howe points out of his own work, sometimes paintings seem to flow through him without conscious control, so that he doesn’t know what he’ll end up with. Artists in other fields have made the same point. Musicians and poets usually don’t think songs or poems into existence, they come into their minds. They hear the music in their head and transcribe it. In the same way, lines or phrases come to poets in moments of inspiration. Once the kernel of piece of music or poem is there, then the artist can use his or her intellect, to chisel it into a rounded and finished piece. But without the initial non-rational inspiration, there is nothing to work on. (Interestingly, this applies to science too. Many famous scientific discoveries have arisen from unconscious inspiration rather than logical thinking. For example, Niels Bohr won the Nobel Prize after ‘seeing’ the structure of an atom in a dream. One of the triggers of the industrial revolution was the idea of a separate condenser for the steam engine (to stop it losing heat), an idea which spontaneously formed in James Watts’ mind while he was walking across a green in Glasgow.)
In the Awakened Artist, Patrick Howe attempts to re-connect art to this transcendent source. Even without realising, spiritual artists have been part of what he calls ‘the one art movement’, whose role is to encourage the flowering of human consciousness. The artist is both of channel of heightened spirituality, and an ‘agent’ of evolution, helping the rest of the human race to develop the same awareness.
For me, another great thing about this book is how it reminds us that you can’t separate spirituality from other aspects of life. Spirituality isn’t a separate category, it’s a potential quality of every category of life. ‘Spiritually awakened’ individuals aren’t just – or even primarily – monks, gurus or spiritual teachers, they may be painters, poets, musicians, athletes, and so on. They may not even be anyone or anything – just ‘ordinary’ people living in obscurity, doing nothing of any note. They may not even know that they are ‘spiritually awakened.’
So if you are interested in either art or spirituality, this book will be wonderfully inspiring reading. But it will also make you aware that in reality there is no either/or. You can’t separate art and spirituality, in the same way that you can’t separate waves from the sea, or my essential self from yours.