I first encountered Ken Wilber’s phenomenal philosophical genius while reading ReVision Journal some seventeen years ago. I marveled at how he modeled and brilliantly articulated the evolution of consciousness from slime to Godhead in writings on the Spectrum of Consciousness, the Atman Project and Up from Eden. The range and depth of his thinking, the clarity and originality of his insights, definately put Ken in another league. Maybe a league of one, the world’s greatest philosopher. Perhaps selfishly, I wondered what special insights he could bring to contemporary artists. Could he help us circumnavigate through bullshit art criticism and give us the swords of critical thinking that could slay the Jabberwocky of “flatland Modernism” and the Hydra of Post-Modernity, and could his philosophy help put Art on the track to real Spirit?
Around this time, back in 1981, my wife Allyson answered the telephone one day and said, “It’s Ken Wilber! He wants to talk to you.” A rush of excitement and a big gulp, “Uh hello?” I said, and Ken replied, “Hi, I really like your work and would love to see some more of it.” So we invited him to our loft studio in downtown Boston. Ken’s appetite for art was voracious, observing one piece after another with fiery intensity. He always asked pointed questions, showing that he intuitively absorbed what both Allyson and I were doing with our work, whether it was paintings, sculptures or performances. It was that evening that I first asked him about art and philosophy. I said, “Part of the trouble with art critics today is that they haven’t had mystical experiences, so their writing is always theoretical and rarely addresses the spirituality of art. When the art critic gets philosophical, they turn to the great philosophers of the 20th century, who are all sorting out the existential “realities” of life without God, or else getting lost in the complexities of language, questioning even the possibility of finding truth. Where is the spiritually inclined, philosophically minded artist to turn?”
And Ken replied, “My advice would be to go back to the German idealists like Schopenhauer. He was the last great philosopher to deal with the transcendental function of art. Joseph Campbell wrote a wonderful book called Creative Mythology, part of his Masks of God series of books. Campbell summarizes Schopenhauer’s aesthetics pretty well, so that would be the easiest entry to his thought. If you like it you can go for the original texts.” Ken has always had direct advice for direct questions. Although I had gained much from reading Nietsche, I had always heard what a chauvanist pessimist his predecessor and main influence Schopenhauer was, so I had not made the effort to read him. Since heeding Ken’s advice, my readings of the German idealists Schopenhauer and Schelling have yielded great insights on the matter of how art and mysticism are related.
Ken has given me other important pieces of personal advice such as the time he cautioned me in my tendencies to look superficially at lots of spiritual paths and not choose one. He advised me to develop an in-depth practice. He quoted an Asian proverb, “Chase many rabbits, catch none.” I soon found the Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Namchai Norbu, and attended teachings over many years to receive his transmissions of Dzogchen spiritual practices. The meditation practices continue to be a strong influence in my life.
Ken’s curiosity and knowledge about art is extensive and spans every media. We’ve met on several occasions, and sometimes the muted imagestream of MTV would dance on a screen in the background of his den as we turned the conversation toward art and consciousness. The following is assembled from my notes of a conversation that took place at his home in Boulder, Colorado, the summer of 1995…
A: Ken, I’ve been talking with some artist friends who consider their art as their spiritual practice. I’ve been wondering to what degree we could consider art as a legitimate spiritual practice?
K: There are developmental stages to what I call the spectrum of consciousness — art can come from any of these stages. Piaget did psychological experiments with children and determined that there is a sequence to the unfolding of higher values. He showed that compassion and “fairness” is a quality not so present in a four year old child because they cannot project themselves into the role of the other–at around age seven the brain/mind has the capacity to exchange self for other. The human mind can potentially develop through emotional, rational, psychic and spiritual modes of awareness. The higher spiritual stages are also progressive and unfold with spiritual practice.
So art can express any of these stages or levels of awareness, from sensorimotor reflections of the world of matter, to the feelings and ideas of the ego-self, to the sociocentric or worldcentric self. But this is still not transformative spiritual art. A spiritual art must transform the artist and the viewer. In order for art to be transformative, it has to undo you.
A: The artist’s life, and sometimes ego, is sacrificed to their art …
K: Yes. For the spiritual artist, their art forces them beyond where they are. They must reach beyond the present limitations of their bodymind or ego to a higher level of consciousness and being. One could look at the process as “variations on a scream.” There is a violent painful birth to much great art. The artist has labor pains. It is the worst and the best. For the art to be spiritual, the artist has to be a better person after finishing the work than when they began it.
A: Tantra or Vajrayana Buddhism is a model of the transformative path–transforming passions into wisdom. The Tantrika generates Bodhicitta, or altruistic intentions, the strong motivation to benefit and bring liberation to others.
K: But these Vajrayana spiritual practices are carried out in a meditative atmosphere, somewhat solemn. The creative process, though, is a tumultuous struggle. In the studio, the artist is wrestling with their demons.
A: The demons help us tear ourselves down, maybe to the point of re-inventing ourselves. Artists are like the Phoenix, they periodically have to self-immolate, burn off an aspect of themselves to give birth to something new. The blank canvas demands you exceed yourself. And most times you fail. This pisses you off so bad you want to quit making art or makes some artists want to quit living. But then you calm down and come back to the work. Also, bringing spirit to form calls for an encounter with difficult and resistant materials, the craft and techniques of art. The meditator is unlikely to spill turpentine on themselves in the course of a session on the cushion, but in the fire and alchemy of the studio, you deal with the very frustrating and physical limits of “stuff”. Most artists agree, their dissatisfaction drives them toward something deeper and better, and keeps them making art. Even a “happy” artist like Matisse agreed with this. I think Krishnamurti called it creative discontent.
Of course, there are sacred art traditions where art objects are created in a meditative fashion, like you have said, as supports for contemplation. Tibetan thangka painting or Icon painting is like this. In the Buddhist tradition there are meditation masters who have made art. These objects are especially treasured.
But isn’t the proof of a spiritual practice in the level of realization of the practitioners? Look at the accomplishment of the artists. Can we point to any “enlightened” artists? For me, Michelangelo is the most fully realized artist, but he seems to have never resolved his melancholia. Even Blake and Van Gogh, as much as I consider them art saints, probably did not achieve what we could call samadhi enlightenment.
K: In the Western tradition, beyond Christ himself, Plotinus and Meister Eckhart, there are not so many enlightened beings. Saint Teresa achieved a high psychic or subtle realm illumination. By their standards you would have to place Blake and Van Gogh at a high but intermediate level. But such spiritual artists prove that art can be a spiritual practice. Who wouldn’t want the level of vision and devotion of Van Gogh? It doesn’t mean that art can’t be a powerful positive practice even if it doesn’t produce total enlightenment.
Conventional art is an expression of the self or world as it is now. Transcendental Art expresses something that you are not yet but that you can become…Alex, that insight belongs to both of us.
A: That’s why you feel better after producing it. Transformative art must express something beyond where you are, it demands that you grow beyond your current self. This is where an artist’s angst and the pain of transformation coincide. You reach toward the true, the good and the beautiful and become a better person through the struggle.
K: As Emerson said, “It all begins when the soul would have its way with you.” Certain artists become channels of the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. They are the chosen who the World Soul reaches down and grabs by the butt.
A: Like Munch, Picasso, Pollock…
K: The best they could do was have a sense of grace while being the puppet of the Zeitgeist. Some artists, like Pollock, wind up sedating themselves for the ride. A metal bar will bend until it cracks and pops apart. Artists are positioned at the crack of the Zeitgeist. When a force beyond the individual grabs you, you are not choiced. The onset of social psychopathology or transformative growth is signalled by the artists.
Alistair Hardy, who wrote a spiritual perspective on evolution theory many years ago, titled The Living Stream, did research at Cambridge on the religious impulse. He felt that humanity has an inborn need for the transcendent. So artists have to ask themselves, “Is my art just a way of affirming my mediocre whiney-ass self, or am I up to the challenge of spiritual transformation, reaching for the higher self and a deeper art?”
That was the way it went, maybe more like interviews than conversations, but I always wished they could have gone on and on. Whenever I’m around Ken, even if he’s joking around, it’s sacred time. Our conversations were a very strong influence on my thinking as I wrote The Mission of Art. At one point he read the manuscript and e-mailed me, “The new material looks great. My only small suggestion is, be a little kinder to modernity.” It was good advice. I had been pretty negative about the spiritual blindness of much twentieth century art, neglecting the hard-won freedoms of modern art. I sounded a bit like an old geezer. As is obvious to any contemporary artist, it’s thanks to Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, Dali and dozens of others, that we no longer have to pay homage to idol or regime, and we are free to make any kind of art we please.
Ken has shed light, much numinous light, on the problems of contemporary Art. If I could, I would bind up his writings on art into a single volume… The Artist’s Eye, or some such thing, and make it required reading for young artists as an antidote to the confused and nihilist thinking that bedevils much art critical discourse.
A list of Ken Wilber’s Art writings (that I am aware of) and a brief synopsis would go like this:
1. In the Eye of the Artist – Art and the Perennial Philosophy 1989
published in slightly different forms in:
Sacred Mirrors -The Visionary Art of Alex Grey and the second edition of Eye To Eye.
I had asked Ken to contribute something to my art book that would place art in a transpersonal context. So in his essay he briefly summarizes the Great Chain of Being, the hierarchy of ascending levels of awareness and introduces the question, “Which level of Being is the artist accessing and expressing?” The theosophically minded artists, Kandinsky, Marc and Mondrian are quoted as having pointed the way toward a new universally spiritual art. Ken summarizes his position in the statement,
“Bad Art Copies, Good Art Creates, Great Art Transcends.”
2. Various passages from Sex, Ecology, Spirituality 1995
and A Brief History of Everything 1996
These are two of Ken’s most important books for their vast scope and originality. He wrangles with the theories of modernity and post-modernity, citing both their “dignity and disaster.”
Here Wilber introduces “The Big Three”: I, We and It in relation to his four quadrant map of reality, a map that integrates inner and outer focused modes of knowing. Art is associated with the “I” of the big three, because it expresses the artist’s subjective world and provides a way of knowing the inner world.
3. How Shall We See Art? – What and Where is Art? 1996
published in Andrew Wyeth, America’s Painter
This essay in expanded form was published in
The Eye of Spirit (Chapters 4 and 5) as:
3 a. Integral Art and Literary Theory – Part I & Part II
A mind-blowing tour de force analysis of how art has or can be interpreted, and how the aesthetically attuned mind can see the world. Art critical theories are summarized, through the ages up to (and past) post-modernity, leading to a description of the “Primal Art Holon”. The art holon section describes how the interpretation of art is always context dependent. Depending on who is looking at the art, it can be seen from the perspective of psycho-analysis, sociology, economics, politics, etc. (even) spirituality. To demonstrate the inherent flaws in projecting one’s own fantasies onto a work of art, without doing a little research into the truth of its surrounding context, Ken ingeniously demolishes Heidegger’s famous essay about Van Gogh’s painting of a worn pair of boots. Ken finally points past arguments of interpretive methods, and brings us to how great art simply “takes our breath away” providing a momentary release from the clutches of ego, a release into the timeless present of Beauty.
4. Levels Of Art 1997
As part of a Chapter in The Marriage of Sense and Soul pg 191-194
In The Marriage of Sense and Soul, Wilber gives more detail to the passages which first made their appearance in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. He associates the big three: I, We, It with art, morals and science and the enduring ideals of those ways of knowing: beauty, goodness and truth. Every level of Being corresponds to an approach to art. Simplified to four levels: the sensorimotor, the mental, the subtle soul, and the causal spirit, Wilber lays out what we can expect, artistically, at each broad level. Again, Art is the I of Spirit. One of the main points of this book is that both scientific and transcendental knowledge are based on testable injunctions, “If you want to know this, you must do (thus and so).” For science, that may involve years of training in a specific method. It’s the same with mysticism, years of meditation lead to spiritual states of awareness that are identical to the reports of hundreds of mystics gathered over the millenia. To me this underlines the “spiritual injunction” to
artists, in order to do spiritual art, you must have spiritual experiences.
5. To See A World – Art and the I of the Beholder 1997
Anselm Kiefer asked Ken to write an essay for one of his exhibition catalogues, and to my knowledge it was not used in the catalogue (?!) but is available for reading on Ken Wilber’s website at www.shambhala.com/wilber. In this important essay, Ken states that Art Expresses Worldviews first he defines the spectrum of such worldviews, paying particular attention to the exhaustion of the ego’s existential aperspectival modern/postmodern worldviews. Beyond the personal is the transpersonal and according to Ken, “There is, right now, simply nowhere else to go.”
6. Foreword to my book, The Mission of Art 1998
In a few choice words, Ken makes clear that the purpose of transcendental art is to express something that you are not yet, but that you can become, that the highest art is a mirror of our true potential.
Ken has stated numerous times, and I agree, that art is an essentialized worldview, or as Bachelard called it, “a metaphysics in a moment.” Over the millenia, culture has embodied worldviews that both express and guide the attitudes of the people. As artists, we need to be conscious of and responsible for the views we transmit through our work. We need to use all the tools available to re-invent and invigorate our field, and to my mind, Ken provides the amazing tool of a worldview that makes peace between the quarrelsome territories of science, art and religion. After the dissociation and alienation of artists and their communities over the past 120 years, Wilber’s integrative approach holds much promise. He has lead the way beyond current post-modern thinking toward an integral approach to art, toward an art of the soul. I hope that artists of the twenty-first century will allow his wisdom to nurture their own heart’s vision and open their eyes to Spirit.
That the kosmos could exist at all, and give birth to a mind and heart as wise and caring, so highly disciplined and penetratingly clear as Ken Wilber will suffice for me as convincing proof that God exists and has our best interests at heart. Over the years, in relatively few but potent encounters, Ken has enriched and guided me, and through his many writings he has left a legacy of spiritual friendship with all artists.
The following inexcusable doggerel was written
I know a man who is strong
and tall as a giant redwood tree.
He lives on a mountain, meditates,
and discerns what a kosmos might need.
When the redwood blooms philosophical fruit
the boundless dimensions hear it.
Then jump on his ladder made from the tree
Which lights our way to spirit.
But the ladder is lit by swords of truth.
Our flaws shine in high relief.
We’re ashamed and defensive when we
Finally see a cherished mistaken belief.
And so this Transcendental Pugilist
Has to duke it out,
With every misguided philosopher.
But both will learn from the bout.
He’s not “the sound of one axe grinding”
As some cynical folk may chide,
But the sound of one man finding
There’s no place left to hide:
“God’s got the place surrounded!
Come out with your hearts open wide!”
So we should pay homage to the redwood beacon,
The lighthouse of the West.
The supreme translator of Sturm and Dharma,
As a spiritual friend, he’s the best.
— Alex Grey