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Friday, June 3, 2011

Illusion, truth and reality (Part 6)

It would be easy to construct a dialogue with a student that happened twenty years ago and inject into it the benefit of subsequent life experience, but I don’t want to do that. Besides, I haven’t finished with this topic by a long chalk, so I’ll have my opportunity to do it elsewhere from my present vantage point.

    Of course I have had to reconstruct the dialogue, but I’ve done it as faithfully as I can according to the experience of that time. I do still have recordings of some of these Talking To New England talkback series, though I’d really have to go hunting to see if the first one is still around.

‘Art,’ I said, ‘is an attempt to approach truth, or reality.’

There was a silence.

‘Can you please explain what you mean?’

    'I guess the first thing to do is to ask yourself, when does something become art? There’s no fixed rule about that, obviously, or we could all agree on what’s art and what isn’t – but we can’t. There’s Blue Poles in the National Gallery that some people feel is the greatest work of art in this country, and others think is just a huge dropping-sheet splattered with random spots of colour. So it’s an individual thing, and some are moved by an experience in a way that makes them feel they’ve been drawn into something essential or special in it. It may tell a story. They can lose themselves in it. I mean that literally – they lose that sense of self – of separateness, just like you can lose yourself in a well-written novel or movie.'

    'In Hinduism, it may be in the grottoes of Ajanta, where the paintings as they appear to you from the darkness have a mystical quality. Or the apsaras - the flying figures - in the rock-cut temples at Ellora - or the erotic sculptures of Konarak or Khajuraho. People feel this sense of awe and mystery when they enter great piece of architecture – cathedrals and mosques and magnificent temples. It can be something as great as that, that you feel can absorb you - or it might something so small you can hold in your hand.'

    'Or the feeling by a kid when he’s bought or built his first car and to him it’s a work of art that he’s poured himself into. To others it’s just a vehicle to go from point A to point B. For other people something they’ve created or been a part of is the love of their life. This kid becomes that car or that Harley motorbike. It can be an object but it transcends the ordinary even though some might regard it as mundane. Being in an orchestra performing something special can be an art form. Art has no boundaries.'

    ‘You mean like those dancing Shiva figurines?’

    Thank you, thank you, I think gleefully, you’ve dropped in my lap the perfect example.

    ‘What do you think of it - the dancing Shiva?’

Shiva (Siva) Nataraja - Lord of the Dance
    ‘Well, it’s terrific,’ he says, ‘I mean, I saw a whole bunch – exhibition, I mean – rooms full of them here in Sydney last year. I had read about them but I didn’t expect what happened to me when I stood in front of one. It was a bronze figure. I got this sense that it was almost alive because it had so much movement in it. It was like a coiled spring. The twist in the body, and the position of the arms and legs like it was going to spring into action.’

    'It’s Shiva in his incarnation as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, so you really got it.'

    I’m excited by this, and now I have no nervousness. I lose myself in the discussion while trying not to turn it into a lecture.

    'It took you to another plane – to something essential. Maybe towards some transcending truth? Some.... glimpse of reality maybe?'

    I was pushing it a bit, I know, but I wanted to steer the conversation back to where we started, without killing it. It was a bit quiet at the other end of the line.

    ‘Tell me, did you notice what the god was standing on?’

    ‘It looked like a baby to me. I didn’t quite get that but I knew Shiva was the God of Destruction, so I guessed it meant nothing was free of death. It could be even a baby that dies.’

    ‘No, that’s not it, though you’re on the right track in one way. It’s not a baby at all – it’s a demon. But what demon is it? It’s the Demon of Ignorance. Shiva’s whole dance is about the destruction of ignorance, the demon that causes so much harm to the world. I said in the lectures on Hinduism that Shiva’s one of the three gods of the Hindu trinity – one each for creation, preservation and destruction. Shiva represents destruction. But out of destruction always comes something new.

    ‘I’m not actually a student of yours, he says, I’m just listening in by chance!’

    No matter, I’m on a roll.

    ‘A cicada breaks its shell to escape from it. The Hindu gods aren’t separate from each other – they’re just symbolic in their roles in the order of things in the universe. They release humanity spiritually from its state of ignorance and that’s the message. But it’s not a message in words. It’s a performance of yoga, in the real sense of that word. So your piece of art has some universal meaning.’

    I knew I had explained some of this on the recorded lecture so I didn’t want to double back, and there were other callers waiting – Wal had given me the sign. So much more I wanted to say! How this transcendence can be felt anywhere, by anyone, in the presence of any object or place of art – or nature – if the circumstances are right. For others, it may simply pass them by. They aren’t ready for it. Or they don't want it.

    ‘Words! When you define something you take something away from it. There's only one thing you can take away from art by trying to define it, and that's its boundaries. Definitions are created in words, and I’ve said in my lectures on Hinduism that words are good servants but bad masters.’

    I remember then that he hasn’t heard that lecture, but so what?

    ‘Words serve their purpose well for most of the time but they can also mislead us. All those words can be so capriciously defined later on in religious texts.... causing so much harm as well as comfort! You go to a dictionary to define a word, and it gives you an indication of its meaning in terms of other words. Go to those words in the dictionary and eventually - maybe quickly - you find yourself right back where you started.'

    'You don’t find actual meaning in a dictionary or an explanation. Art is something you have to experience to get at its essence or truth. It can be a little watercolour, or a huge Constable in the National Gallery in London, or a Buddha in meditation. Or, your Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance.’

    I guess we have to move on. So inadequate an explanation, but Joe Gelanesi in Sydney is about to put the next caller through.... I’m ready for anything now. Bring it on!

    ‘Ummmm... Dr Wright? I called because I’m having trouble with the next essay....’

    *** SIGH *** Oh well. That’s how it goes.

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