Art & Ought

I was at a Buddhist gathering recently, and I heard the following exchange. A young man asked the question: ‘I’m a painter. I’ve been through some dark times, and this is expressed in my work. I don’t know whether I should put my paintings out there. I think there’s something valuable in what I’ve done, but I don’t want to just make others depressed.’ The answer, more or less: ‘Wait till you’re happy and put out happy paintings.’

This captures a deep ambivalence in Buddhism towards art. On the one hand, there is an extraordinarily rich heritage of Buddhist art, so much so that for many places in some periods the history of art is the history of Buddhist art. But there is also this feeling, often not quite articulated, that there is something untrustworthy about art. It belongs to the realm of the senses, and is merely a trap, an illusion.

Plato shared this distrust of art, treating it as a mere imitation of life, and therefore inherently inferior, a cheap knock-off of the truth. The only role for art in his imagined Republic was to hold up the values of society. Only orderly, positive, harmonious music was to be heard; dissonant, depressing, or chaotic music was to be banned.

As a former musician, I read the Republic with a kind of fascinated horror. It read like a fascist fantasy. But where, exactly, did it go wrong?

Let us start with a distinction. On the one hand we have what I shall call ‘didactic art’. This is art with a message. Plato’s kind of art, or the kind of art that is found in every Buddhist temple. It expresses an ideal and imposes a value. It is art with an ‘ought’: ‘This is the perfect (person, society, religion…), and it is how you should be.’

On the other hand there is, shall we say, ‘expressive art’. This is art that has no ‘moral’ or ‘message’, but expresses what someone feels or wants to say. It has no ought, only an is. Lou Reed was once asked whether his song ‘Heroin’ was for or against taking heroin. He said it was not for it or against it – it was about it. That is expressive art in a nutshell: not judging, but experiencing.

And that is why the moralists are afraid of expressive art. They are afraid that if everything we do or say does not contain the right kind of moral message, it is somehow an invitation to chaos. So for most Buddhists, who are primarily interested in Buddhism as a message or a moral, didactic art is fine, but expressive art is dubious. And so if you don’t have a Buddhist message, perhaps it’s best if you wait until you have the right thing to say before you say it.

I would suggest that we consider expressive art a little more carefully before writing it off. Not everything is morality; there are other, sometimes deeper matters. Sometimes art is not ethical but existential. Expressive art is not interested in judging. Compare it to insight meditation, where we objectify our feelings and thoughts so they can be dispassionately observed. I think something similar, at a more basic level, is happening in expressive art.

How does art work? In Pali, the word that means ‘expression’ is viññatti, literally ‘making known’. Think in terms of the Buddhist idea of sankhāras, all things as vibrations of energy, patterns resonating, changing. An ‘idea’ is when some of these energies coalesce into an attractive or meaningful pattern; we feel an instinctive desire to propagate, remember, make concrete, or share this idea, or ‘meme’. In ‘expression’, part of the mind is ‘pressed out’, or ‘made known’. The patterns in my mind become a part of yours.

In didactic art, the artist expresses not where they are at, but where they believe they should be. An idea is formed in time and space and mere fantasy takes on form. A Buddha image, for example, appears, and is given idealized shape by one who themselves is very far from Awakening. The sincerity of didactic art lies not in the representation of truth, but in the purity of the aspiration. Setting up something ‘up there’, an artistic image draws the mind upwards; both the artist and the viewer end up in a similar relation with the object as an imagined other, a better possibility, an aspirational possibility.

Problem is, what if I don’t share your aspiration? What if I don’t want to be a Buddha? To be frank, most religious art I find unbearably kitsch and cloying, smug in its sense of superiority and certainty. I may well agree with the ‘values’, but the work itself does nothing to me. And that is even now; if I were not a Buddhist, it would be even worse. There is no connection, so the aim of drawing the mind up simply does not happen.

So if didactic art has the function of an ‘ought’, then what of the ‘is’? How does that work?

When someone’s sad, what do they do – put on some happy-clappy music and just get over it? Maybe; but more than likely you’ll want to listen to sad music. Why is that? Are we just making things worse? Far from it.

Consider what’s happening. There you are, all sad and lonesome. No-one loves you, no-one cares. Depression is always lonely. But when you hear a sad song, the first thing it says is, ‘You are not alone!’. Bruce Springsteen captured it in perfect brevity:

Roy Orbison’s singin’ for the lonely,
Hey that’s me! And I want you only.

When you hear the song you can make a connection. There are other people like you. The sad energy patterns coursing in your brain/mind/body are not too dissimilar to the patterns found in that song (or painting or poem or whatever). So straight away, you’re a little less lonely. And this is why the character in Springsteen’s song, after making the artistic connection, immediately expresses his love. Is he limited and still entrapped in samsara? Of course, but in a (relatively) good way. Instead of despair, there is hope. The character declares himself to his beloved in a way that is so honest, simple, and direct. That takes a lot of guts; it’s more than most can do.

This why there is such adulation and love for artists. Their genius is to somehow capture a part of their humanity and express it so that others can share. When you participate in that, when your energy patterns resonate with the art, you feel, well, love. Because that’s essentially what love is, right? A genuine, heartfelt connection with another, with the ‘you’ to whom so many love songs are addressed. When we love the art work, we fall a little in love with the artist as well (which is why so many people want to be artists!)

But there’s more to it than that. It’s not just a matter of expressing emotion. Art combines feeling with form. And the form is no less significant. It is the form that makes the emotion safe. You can cry all you like, because the song will be over in three minutes. Emotion is contained and managed within a rigorous, highly formalized mathematics.

This is especially so in that most emotive of arts, music. Almost every song you have heard is some variation of an eight or twelve bar form, with four or three beats to a bar, mathematical subdivisions of the beats, and the pitches arranged using a selected eight notes from the artificial system of twelve semitones that Western music has imposed against the natural harmonics.

We express and identify with emotion in music so readily not in spite of but because of the rigidity of the form. And as a rule, the more emotive the music – think blues or punk – the more rigid the underlying structure.

So art offers, first of all, a gift of compassion, a ‘feeling with’ the artist. They are also given that essential safety net of boundaries, an order that contains and manages that emotion. This in itself is of extreme value, as it models a healthy psychological response to emotion. Rather than repress it, it needs to be felt and acknowledged, but managed so that it does not take over.

Still there is more. Great art offers not just compassion and a safe place, but the possibility of redemption. Didactic art seems to have it all figured out, it knows where it is headed; but expressive art is still lost. That’s why it appeals to the lost and the lonely, who detest the smug middle-class certitudes of didactic art. But there is something there, implied in the very lostness.

Great art is great because it holds an inherent tension in the strong arms of its form. The greater the tension, the greater the command of form that is needed to contain it. Inside that tension there is chaos, and this is frightening to those who need a moral. Now this, now that, the contradictions and ambiguities that art delights in.

But any artist knows, tension demands a resolution. The very fact of the tension, of the holding and acknowledging of contradiction, swells the heart to bursting. If the command of form is insufficient, the work crumbles into pretentiousness or dissolution. But in the hands of a master, the tension serves a greater purpose. Little tensions deal with little issues and result in little transformation. Great tensions demand a great resolution, a real transformation; ultimately a transcendence of the form itself.

A classic example is The Lord of the Rings. Frodo and Bilbo were Ring-bearers; in their intimate acquaintance with that heart of transcendent evil, they found a resolution; but the cost of that was that they could no longer stay in the mundane world. They set out over the seas, following the Straight Road, and come into no more stories.

In the heart of the most depressing or perverse work of art is the seeds of its opposite. The promise of redemption, I believe, is what draws us towards art.

Before I was a monk, one of my favorite songwriters was Nick Cave. His was perhaps the darkest music I ever heard; chaotic, menacing, drug-fuelled, death-obsessed. A moralist’s nightmare. And yet there was always something deeply redemptive about his work. He was a writhing spiky-haired screaming heroin addict who could write words like this verse of The Weeping Song:

O my father, have you been weeping?
Your face seems wet to touch.
O, I’m so sorry father –
I didn’t mean to hurt you so much.

The power of his work comes in the depth of the contradiction. There is backstory: Nick Cave detested what his father did (he was an English teacher) and wanted to be as different from him as possible. Then, when he was a 19-year-old delinquent in St Kilda gaol, his father died in a car crash. In his beautiful essay, The Secret Life of the Love Song, he speaks of how he had tried so hard to reject his father, yet his life seemed to draw him back, so that now here he is, standing in a lecture hall speaking about literature – just as his father did. In The Weeping Song, there is a confusion and an unassuming, tender intimacy; he does not see his father crying, but touches his wet face. From such a profound gulf, so many years later, comes such a moving moment. We can feel, for just a moment, something reach out and touch us.

In that essay, Cave gets at the heart of what I am calling expressive art, especially in the form of the love song. Every love must contain a tension, says Cave, and at the heart of that tension is the secret: the real object of a love song is not the lover, but the Beloved. A true love song reaches, inchoately, for the Divine.

One of the greatest of all love stories is the Persian tale of Majnun and Layla. They were archetypal star-crossed lovers. The twist was that, rather than be reunited against all odds, their love become so profound in separation that they became the very essence of Love, a life lived in yearning for the Divine. They no longer needed to be together.

In Buddhism we are not really comfortable with the idea of the Divine on a doctrinal level; nor with the notion of the soul’s yearning for a vaguely-conceived ‘Thou’. But these are just details; don’t get caught up in them. The real issue is the sense that there is a life of greater things. Call it purpose or aspiration or transformation or Awakening. The details only matter when we put on our philosopher’s hat; but as long as we wear that hat, then like Plato we will never understand art. We will use artistic forms to articulate our doctrines, and cannot get our heads around the idea that for many others, that’s just not the point. Put on the philosopher’s hat for doing philosophy, but take it off for reading poetry.

Not to say, however, that expressive art is better than didactic art. Both have their place, and both can be wonderful (even if they are usually banal). In great didactic art, there is a genuine and profound affect, no less than in expressive art. Witness, for example, the magnificent monument at Borobudur, and in the tellings of the Buddha’s life, in the countless variations of gentle, harmonious forms, in the perfect integration of form and content you will find your mind uplifted, tenderly, lovingly, and without even noticing it. A perfectly realized work of didactic art, it draws you – literally – upwards towards Nirvana.

It is just that expressive art should not be judged according to the standards of didactic art. We should not ask, ‘Does that (song, movie, book) have Buddhist values or themes’ (unless, of course, it is meant to have those things). Rather, we should ask, ‘Does that work of art call out to my soul? Does it dare to tread waters of dark uncertainty? Does it laugh at easy answers? Has it walls strong enough to contain a tide of feeling? And does it offer somehow, somewhere, a glimpse of redemption?’

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to argue that art is a path to enlightenment, or that it is superior to meditation in understanding the mind. I was a full-time artist of expression for many years, and I turned to Buddhism because I had, for me, exhausted the limits of where I could go through music. Meditation is far more subtle, and the spiritual path, properly lived, takes us beyond the reach of story. But for many people, this is not where they are at. An art of ambiguity, of tension, even of darkness, can reach places that a spiritual path cannot go. It would be foolish, even cruel, to close any door to the heart. Perhaps only a little light may peek through the crack; but in the deepest of nights even a little light can sometimes be enough.