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Transcendence and The Ground

As an artist I depend on writers to put into words their thoughts on some of the issues that all artists perennially grapple with. What is the point of making art? What is useful or relevant art? What is the relationship between the artist and the product? A work of art is sometimes loosely referred to as “transcendent” but what does that mean? The definition of transcendence has been hotly debated among philosophers and religious theorists but Wikipedia defines it thus:
In everyday language, “transcendence” means “going beyond”, and “self-transcendence” means going beyond a prior form or state of oneself. Mystical experience is thought of as a particularly advanced state of self-transcendence, in which the sense of a separate self is abandoned. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcendence_(philosophy)

How does the word relate to art? In her book, Summer, Ali Smith takes a stab at it: “Art is about the moment you’re met by and so changed by something you encounter that it takes you both into and beyond yourself and gives you back your senses. It’s a shock that brings us back to ourselves. Art is something to do with coming to terms with and understanding all the things we can’t say or explain or articulate with help from something which we know will help us feel and think then articulate those things even at times like this when feeling and thinking and saying anything about anything are under impossible pressure. What art does is, because we encounter it, we remember we exist too, and that one day we won’t.

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ALi Smith, author of Summer, Published August 4, 2020, Hamish Hamilton

Then there is Aldous Huxley’s ambitious work that connects transcendence and the arts more fully. (Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, 194,5 Harper Perennial Modern Classics, edition 1990)

Huxley says the perennial philosophy has to do with”… the metaphysic that recognizes a divine reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds: the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the imminent and transcendent ground of all being -the thing is immemorial and universal.“(p.vii)

This is a meaty tome and not an easy read, but I ploughed through it wondering why a gifted writer like Huxley would be interested in such an esoteric topic. The answer becomes apparent about halfway through the book where he talks about simplicity.
“…real simplicity, so far from being foolish, is almost sublime. All good men like and admire it, are conscious of sin against it, observe it in others and know what it involves; and yet they could not precisely define it. I would say that simplicity is an uprightness of soul which prevents self-consciousness…. That soul which looks where it is going without losing time arguing over every step, or looking back perpetually, possesses true simplicity. Such simplicity is indeed a great treasure. How shall we attain to it? I would give all I possess for it; it is the costly pearl of holy scripture.”(p113)

Huxley and PIcasso agreed on the goal of simplicity and spontaneity:
Only the most highly disciplined artist can recapture, on a higher level, the spontaneity of the child with its first paint box. Nothing is more difficult than to be simple.”(p116)

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Girl Before a Mirror, Pablo Picasso, 1932, Oil on canvas 162.3 cm × 130.2 cm (63.9 in × 51.3 in) Location Museum of Modern Art, New York City

and
“…it is by long obedience and hard work that the artist comes to unforced spontaneity and consummate mastery. Knowing that he can never create anything on his own account, out of the top layers, so to speak, of his personal consciousness, he submits obediently to the workings of “inspiration”; and knowing that the medium in which he works has its own self nature, which must not be ignored or violently overridden, he makes himself its patient servant and, in this way, achieves perfect freedom of expression.”(p117)

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Alexander Calder, Red Mobile, 1956, Painted sheet metal and metal rods, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

However, he goes on to clarify that perfect freedom of expression and even the creation of perfectly beautiful and inspiring artwork is not the highest goal, according. The ultimate goal is overcoming the sense of a separate self and instead, identifying with what is called “the ground” which is God or the Tao as it exists in an eternity outside time.

And the corollary of this explains the nature of good and evil:
“… good is the separate self’s conformity to, and finally annihilation in, the divine ground which gives it being; evil, the intensification of separateness, the refusal to know that the ground exists.”(p184)

The problem arises when Huxley gets onto the topic of “subhuman existences”. He states that “…every other species is a species of living fossils, capable only of degeneration and extinction, not a further evolutionary advance…of all this living matter only that which is organized as human beings has succeeded in finding a form capable, at any rate on the mental side, of further development. All the rest is now locked up in forms that can only remain what they are or, if they change, only change for the worst. it looks as though, in the cosmic intelligence test, all living matter, except the human, had succumbed, at one time or another during its biological career, to the temptation of assuming, not the ultimately best, but the immediately most profitable form. By an act of something analogous to free will every species, except the human, has chosen the quick returns of specialization, the present rapture of being perfect, but perfect on a low level of being. the result is that they all stand at the end of evolutionary blind alleys…. as species, they have chosen the immediate satisfaction of the self rather than the capacity for reunion with the divine ground.”

For this wrong choice, nonhuman forms of life are punished negatively, by being debarred from realizing the supreme good, “…to which only the unspecialized and therefore far more highly conscious human form is capable.”(p183)

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https://www.amazon.co.jp/Supreme-Human-Being-

So despite the rigorous thought that has gone into other aspects of his book, this section reveals that Huxley is a man of his time who believes that “Man is the Measure of All Things”. Huxley’s version of the perennial philosophy thus negates the arguments against separateness that have gone before. Unfortunately, he has internalized the Christian view that the human goal is oneness with the divine ground and that the separateness of human beings from all other forms in nature is almost a pre-requisite for this oneness. But if goodness is the annihilation of separateness, evil must be is intensification of separateness whether from God, the Tao or the Earth.

Using this logic, humanity’s damage to the planet has come about through our intensification of separateness, which by the above definition, is an evil belief in ourselves as a superior species with a unique capacity for union with the divine ground, but not part of nature.

Since 1945 science is confirming that everything is connected. A closer more biocentric examination of forests shows they are a gigantic interconnected being with what could be called a mind connecting its various forms. If this observation of inter-connectedness were to be expanded, we can assume that the entire surface of the earth is one interconnected being, with one mind or what has been called Gaia. Awareness of this inter-connectedness could be called a recognition of the ground of being.

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Forest, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/23/the-overstory-by-richard-powers-review

The goal of the perennial philosophy is to recognize the oneness of all things, but the assumption that humans are a separate species with a higher calling than all other species is the basis of humanity’s degradation of the rest of the planet. Perhaps, rather than adhering to religious beliefs design to underscore our specialness, we should contemplate our humble role as only one of 2.16 million species on the planet all interconnected in nature.

As noted above, Huxley is a man of his time and his flawed thinking is apparent from the perspective of the 21st Century. He refers to humanity as “man”, uses the pronoun “his” consistently and sees no relation between the female principle and divinity. He also refers to “primitive” religions and “savages” as people who are less mentally and spiritually developed than people like himself or the thinkers he admires. In 100 years, it is likely that mainstream ideas of the 21st Century will appear just as deluded to people in the 22nd Century.

But Huxley admits that he has not overcome his sense of a personal separate self, is filled with pride in his many and admirable achievements, and clearly struggling to be the best person he can in his life. While his views have been limited by assumptions common to his place and time, in other ways his book is a valuable contribution. It is a compendium of what he considers the best writings on philosophies that seek to overcome the separateness of individuals and nations as they struggle and strive in errors that bring destruction to themselves and the world.

So if we leave aside Huxley’s blind spots, he has made some astute observations about the role of the artist. Huxley suggests that the best art, what might be called transcendent art, is created by artists who have overcome the separate self – a separate ego. Through discipline these artists create works that are not the product of their pride, desire for fame and recognition, or even pecuniary rewards. The most meaningful, worthwhile art is created to bridge the gap between the separate and the eternal self, or ground of all being. This is as good a definition of transcendent art as we are likely to find.

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