Artists: Notes on Art Making

What then is the message of the East? In its most universal form it is still that message which the West has for nineteen centuries ignored : The kingdom of God is within you : Look within --Thou art the Buddha : Thou art that. As the message of the West has been one of diversity, analysis, and the separate self, so the message of the East is one of the unity of all life, of synthesis, and the Universal self.

Art, philosophy, and morality are greater than empirical knowledge in as much as they transcend the physical order of the world in space, time and causality. "The investigations of the scientific," says a modern German writer, [1] "are always in definite relation to the knowledge of their day… On the other hand, we can ascribe to the work of the great philosopher, as to that of the great artist, an imperishable, unchangeable presentation of the world, not disappearing with time… Which of the merely scientific has felt in himself an un-conditioned comprehension of all men and all things, or even the capacity to verify any single thing in his mind and by his mind? On the contrary, has not the whole history of the science of the last thousand years been directed against this?" It is the dharma of the artist to present to us this timeless vision of the universe, conceived not as an external phenomenon, but as a picture within himself.

Genius may be metaphorically described as a permeability of the diaphragm, or a thinning of the veil, which, as it were separates the conscious from the super-conscious self. It is a remarkable characteristic of genius that ideas (`inspiration’) seem to come altogether from without the consciousness. They originate in part in a region external to the mere intellect, being apprehended by the reason (buddhi) acting as a sixth sense organ (intuition). It is characteristic of the ideas thus apprehended, that they are apprehended as a whole. A great poem or picture or musicaI. composition is thus first more or less clearly 'seen' or ‘heard' as a unity. By concentration, the details of this presentation may be developed, like the image on a photographic plate. The greatest genius is one in whom this process of development is most perfectly accomplished, or who sees or hears, and is able to retain, the presentation most completely.

Talent, per contra, is a matter of physical aptitude, combined with that 'infinite capacity for taking pains which is so inaccurate a description of genius. This talent is necessary to the adequate expression of genius: it is essential to the process of giving visible or audible form to the ideas thus apprehended in a manner independent of succession in time. The talented genius is a prophet; the genius without talent is like a pacceka Buddha, of service only to himself for the time being. The man of talent without genius has, again, his due place and work, which are only when, as is now too often the case, he rejects the help of tradition and attempts the work of creation, of which genius alone is capable. Of course, this rigid distinction between genius and talent is artificial. No human being can be wholly devoid of either, and the various proportions in which the two exist vary infinitely. Both may equally be strengthened by those who are prepared for the necessary practice, subjective and objective respectively.

It has never been supposed by oriental artists that the object of art is the reproduction of the external forms of nature. Such a conception, as we have seen, is only the natural product of a life divorced from beauty, for which a substitute has to be supplied. The exact imitation of nature, indeed, has been seen by all true artists and philosophers to be both impossible and unnecessary. "For why", says Deussen "should the artist wish to imitate laboriously and inadequately what nature offers everywhere in unattainable perfection", - viz. individual, and, in so far, limited, manifestation of ideas?

In the realm of nature, we see the thousand-fold repeated reflections of ideas in these individual manifestations. It is the business of the artist by yoga, that is by self-identification with the soul of these reflections, to fully understand them and reveal their inner significance. "Guided by an insight into the nature of things which fathoms deeper than all abstract knowledge, he is able to understand the 'half uttered words of nature', to infer from what she forms that which she intends to form, to anticipate from direction she takes the end she is herself unable to reach." It is further possible by Imagination-the first and indispensable quality of genius, to apprehend ideas which, though subsisting in the cosmic, and more particularly in the race-consciousness, have not yet assumed, and may never assume (save thus in art) a form visible to the physical eye. The forms of Gods or nature spirits, flowers or animals of 'otherworlds' are illustrations of this possibility. So also with personifications of abstract qualities and natural forces. Lastly, and far from least, we have the presentation of the imagined forms of legendary heroes, in which the race-idea finds its most complete expression.[1] Our individual belief in the 'real existence', past or present, of all or any of these is more or less irrelevant, for all of these alike possess an ideal being subsisting in the race-consciousness.

With this race-consciousness, the ideas may seem to die, more strictly to pass into a subconscious region: or passing beyond the bounds of race, they may attain a deathless life in the imagination of the whole world. It is not otherwise with the forms of God--for these are not His forms, but the forms through which we apprehend Him. He 'takes the forms imagined by His worshippers.' It is these forms which subsist in the race-consciousness and are imitated by the artist. Ideal art thus partakes of two natures, inextricably combined, just as in a human personality there are both subconsciousness and superconsciousness, related respectively to past experience and potential experience. The first part of ideal art is the presentation of concepts, which are unities re-established by memory out of the multiplicity of individual experiences. Memory, racial and individual, eliminates the unessential an impermanent and so idealises. The second part of ideal art is the presentation of ideal forms, apprehended by intuition, or imagination, that is, literally, the visualisation of Ideas. The artist, by Imagination, approaches near to the mind of God (Ishvara), and apprehends the forms on a higher plane in his own consciousness, undarkened [2] by adaptation to external circumstances and by individual characteristics (imperfections). Ideal art is thus related, on the one hand, to empirical experience, and, on the other, to the transcendental reality that lies outside of space and time.

It will be seen that all art is thus in one sense realisticandimitative, understanding reality in a deeper sense than the phenomenal (empirical.) But as we have already said, this imitation is only justified when it selects, emphasizes and appreciates the beautiful and the true. The message of the East is then that there exist a greater beauty and truth than that of this phenomenal world; and that the artist, like Fra Angelico, must imitate the beauty which is in Heaven, rather than its imperfect reflection in individual physical forms. And where are this greater beauty and truth to be found? The kingdom of Heaven is within you.

We now see that the permanent function of ordinary realism in art-the endeavour to reproduce a natural form rather than the idea of it -is very insignificant. This endeavour, indeed, belongs to not so much art at all, as to empirical science.

All of these considerations have a very distinct bearing on the teaching of drawing. Drawing was at one time taught only to those who needed a knowledge of it for purposes of an hereditary art or craft. It is now rightly regarded as an essential part of a general education. But a fatal confusion of science with art has destroyed much of its value. The exact reproduction of natural forms is mainly an education of hand and eye, and should be regarded as a part of education in empirical science--and as such, of course, most desirable. Distinct from this aim, is the teaching of drawing as an education of the imagination and emotional side of the self, and as a means to the fuller grasp of the national culture. The means to this end are drawing from memory; and the copying and learning by heart of traditional forms. These at least would imply some real education of the child, and would not actually unfit him for the calling of an artist, as the teaching of drawing now does.

The further education of the artist would proceed on the same lines drawing the figure from memory, etc. But in his education there must be more than this. He must be put in touch with all the beauty and romance in his own national culture. But above all he needs to train and develop the one great distinctive power of the true artist-visual imagination. These things are essentials in the training of the artist. Modern practice considers technique alone. The art teacher who should teach also metaphysics and romance would soon be relieved of his position. But in the old days of pupil-discipleship, whether in East or West, the apprentice learnt not merely technique, but life in his master's workshop.

It may be observed that the artist cannot draw from memory, cannot idealise in that way, unless he is intimately familiar with nature and human life. This is why the modern student of applied art, whose life is divorced from those realities with which the old artists were in daily touch, is obliged to take a flower put it in a vase, and sit down to 'conventionalise' it by a process of taking thought -- a process utterly foreign to any period of great achievement in art, perhaps indeed, unknown to the world before the nineteenth century.

In India, life and art have always, at least until modern times, been in close touch; and a community of culture which no longer exists in Europe or in India united artist and public in a common understanding. The great ends of life, the cultivation of the soul and the worship of God, have been the dominant notes of the long continued rhythmic and disciplined life of the Indian people. The beauty of art and life must stand and fall together-none may gather grapes of thorns nor figs of thistles. The great art of pre-mediaeval India, to a realisation of which the Western world is just awakening, is filled with this message for rhythm and discipline and love in life. It is through the understanding of this inseparable relation of art to life that so many artists in modern times have been led through their art to the profound consideration of social problems, knowing that there can no new birth of art while life itself is mean.

It is in relation to the training of the usual imagination that the message of the East is most clear. In the great period of Indian art, not only did the conception of Great Yogi (Bubdha) dominate the divine ideal, but the artist was himself to be a yogi. Not until all that the word yoga yoking, union) implies in Indian culture is understood, will the 'Western mind grasp the full significance of the message of the East.

"The imager", says Sukracarya "should attain to the images of gods by contemplation only.” This single sentence embodies the essential philosophy of Indian art. 'Instead of painting a study in still life from a model posing as a god or hero, the artist is to perfect and define a visual mental image, and then only to begin the work of carving or painting. The character of Indian religious culture makes the comprehension and adoption of this process easy. It is the message of Eastern art psychology to emphasize the possibility and manner of developing this power of subjective visual imagination. Not merely is the artist to form such visual mental images--after due preparation of prayer and fasting, and in the absence of any profane stranger--but he is even to identify himself with the imagined form. Only so can he completely understand it and express its real inwardness. This self-identification with the imagined form is the samyama of yoga philosophy, and is expressly enjoined in many Mahayana Buddhist Silpa Sastras, and implied in, Sukracarya. It is no doubt the explanation of the extraordinary sense of reality conveyed by even the most un-human forms of image belonging to the living period of Indian sculpture. [3]

The same general principles were followed in the case of more concrete subjects, such as flowers and animals. The artist painted not from a specimen before his eyes, but from careful observation stored in his memory refreshed, if need be, by further study. It will be seen at once also that the same principle explain the character of the decorative art. Ornament is never an attempt to reproduce the form of any flower but consists in the use of abstract flower forms as motives, presented in rhythmic and disciplined design.

One other message of Indian art identical with that of medieval Europe -is that the greatest art is always both religious and popular. By 'popular' I mean not (as now) `subservient to an uncultivated taste: but in the highest sense, 'for the people.' Under medieval conditions, the masterpieces art were produced more directly for the people -because for God - than is possible under modern conditions where art is secular and has become the privilege of the rich alone.

Furthermore, we have before us the gospel of tradition. Examine any detail of an Indian design, consider any phrase of Indian literature, or for that matter, of any great traditional art, and at first you are struck by its apparent spontaneity, and you think `how great the geniusofthe man who thought of this, who first saw that what was his name? Where did he live? But trace back the motif, and you will find that it has been the common property of generations and its first appearance is lost in a past which you cannot analyse. The meaning of this is, that traditional art is the art not of a few superior individuals, but of a race. Its separate phrases are no more traceable to individuals than the recurring phrases of an epic literature. They are modified and added to by succeeding generations until the living force of the tradition fades, and they become stereotyped and finally degenerate. While the tradition lives, the individual artist of each generation speaks through these phrases with the power of one who is the mouthpiece of the race, not as the utterer of individual fancy. He is as one with authority, and not as the scribes.

Strong interest in the individuality of artists is comparatively modern. The great men of old, the sculptors of Egypt, of mediaeval India, of mediaeval Europe, like the makers of nearly, all heroic literature, are nameless. Artists’ names are not re-corded on the sculptures of Borobodur or attached to various recensions of the epics. They did not make this thing or that: in their own words they saw or heard it. They did not aim at originality--they wanted only to tell and retell the great stories that swayed the hearts of men. They spoke in no secret language of a cultured few. Like the kings of Ceylon, they ‘made themselves one with the religion and the people.’ The great genius when he came, did not stand by himself, a solitary figure, misunderstood and without helpers. He was but one of many workers, each in his degree so refined by labour, that the spirit of his race could use him as a tool. For, "only when the artist has stripped himself of self-love, inertia and indulgence, can the divine hand of beauty take him, and unite with his fingers the record of love." Each one in turn took up the language of his day, used it and added something to it and passed it on as a sacred charge to those who followed him.

The doctrine that art is for art's sake, or science for science's sake would have seemed to India a confusion of means with ends. The one is a satisfaction of sensuous pleasure produced by combinations of form and colour, the other a satisfaction of curiousity, apart from any question of the relation of these things to the purpose of life. These satisfactions are not in themselves wrong-- save in so far as the whole empirical order of existence is 'wrong' (avidya) but they lead nowhither, and are certain in the end to pall.

The real and great significance of art, on the other hand, lies in the emancipation which we, artist and beholder, find in it from the bonds of our limited selves. In the words of Goethe:-

Each age has sung of beauty-

He who perceives it, is from himself set free.

The art which arouses sensuous pleasure only is limited in time and space. True art, by "unveiling and interpreting the innermost being of this whole world," transmutes the momentary into the universal and awakens in us an inexplicable and indescribable emotion - we are lifted above and out of ourselves. In a disinterested and selfless contemplation of the sublime, freed from individual desire or fear, we attain a momentary samadhi, from which we again awaken to the 'hard facts' of the 'real' world. But we can never forget these moments in which our self has been forgotten, when we have stood for a moment apart from the empirical and un-real things of time and space. It is by these experiences that our self is realised and widened; praisiing what is beautiful, we receive it into our souls and are nourished by it, becoming worthy and good men ; knowing by such intimations of immortality that the goal of our existence is to be sought beyond the limitations of empirical experience, in a freedom from the bonds of the individual self, the sense of I and my. These things are the message of the East.


Since writing the above I have seen Prof. V. V. Sovani's article "a Brief Survey of -Sanskrit criticism on Poetry" in No. 10 of Vol. II, of the 'Vedic Magazine and Gurukula Samachar.' It appears that the ancients held that the essential features of poetry consisted in the use of metaphors and figurative expressions, verbal ingenuities and similar 'ornaments.' The modern critics make rasa (emotion, burden) the essential feature, to which the ornaments are merely secondary. The first view is that of art for art's sake: the second, art for the sake of life and all that it means.

Amongst the later school, Bhadranayaka says that after we have understood the ordinary sense of a piece of poetry, together with its tropes, by the function arthava (meaning) there comes into play the function of poetry called bhavakatva (imagination) which divests the hero of his individual character and makes him identical with us, and then it is that we experience the function of poetry called bhojakva (delight).

The great philosopher Abhinavaguptapadacanja further explains that when we enjoy a beautiful piece of poetry, we realise our own higher self. What is called bhoga (delight) is nothing but the revelation of our own higher nature, conditioned by sattva (truth), but previously obscured by rajas (selfish activity) and tamas (inertness). Since our higher nature is essentially blissful the delight we experience is comparable to Brahmanic bliss.

It will be seen that these views of the significance of poetry correspond to those outlined above in relation to the plastic arts. I do not know if any similar study or criticism of these arts can be found in Sanskrit literature; if that should be the case, I should be very grateful to anyone who will direct me to the proper quarter. In any case, however, it will be seen that criticism such as the above is really of a perfectly general character, and applicable to the plastic arts and to music as well as literature.


[1] The 'historical painter' of today is usually little more than the illustration of an archaeological treatise. The true work of the artist, painter or poet, is not however to relate what happened, but to represent all that might have happened. An Individual historical character concerning whom much is known is too much 'characterised to be presented as a type. It is other-wise with the legendary heroes whose being has - for ages swayed the hearts of men. These alone live in the world of the imagination, exerting an influence more powerful and more enduring than that of any individual.

[2] The fact that many crafts now survive only in degraded forms, dependent on the tourist trade, without which they would perish, shows how art and life are now dissconnected, and marks the contrast between past and present.

[3] The whole of this part of the subject is much in need of further investigation. See 'The aims of Indian art,’ by the present writer, and Foucher's `L' Iconographic Bonddhique’ Foucher unfortunaley treats the subject briefly, devoting most of his attention to archaeological details.
Courtesy Swaraj - The Art Archive
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