Art and Mysticism – Part 1

Empty, dark, psychedelic room with black and white checker on th

Paul introduces the reader to the mystical experience of art – direct perception of beauty, which we can all experience.

I confess from the outset that I am uncomfortable with the word “mysticism.”  It is an important word, there is no doubt about it, but it has taken on meanings in addition to the one that I am looking for, and I do not necessarily agree with all of them.  By “mysticism,” I mean the direct perception of the nature of reality.  Now reality is a virtually inexhaustible well of concepts, the very concepts that define its nature.  For example, one might speak of interior and exterior, or say that these are opposites, or differentiate opposites from complements.[1]  Or one might speak of principles of stasis and change, of being and doing.  Or one might move through various states, from the definite, through the indefinite, to the infinite. Now I know of no other word that encompasses the unveiling of all that I have just mentioned, than mysticism.  Nor, ideally, should anyone who has a talent for this type of thing shy away from being called a mystic, any more than he would object to being called a musician, or a mathematician.  In fact, we are all mystics to some degree, as long as we can reel a single concept out of the well.  It is our natural birthright to understand what is.  It is therefore with great sadness that one notes how badly “mysticism” has been corrupted, such that it now encompasses every New Age fad this side of the Henge; or how it has been used in the past to refer to experiences that bear the marks of mental illness.  For exploring the nature of reality has nothing to do with the loss of rationality, but is, on the contrary, its highest expression.

Having said all that, in this paper I want to talk about an uncommon form of mysticism—uncommonly recognised, at least, although perhaps more commonly experienced.  And that is the mystical experience of art.  We are used to thinking of mystics as people who acquire deep knowledge of reality through inward contemplation, but contemplating the right painting can teach us much about the nature of reality, too.  In effect, a painting extracts certain principles of reality found throughout the natural world and artificially concentrates them within the narrow confines of a picture frame.  In this way, art can deliver an uncommon dose of mystical insight.  When it does, we call that direct connection to reality “truth,” the underlying principle of all authentic art.  Naturally, this connection is old news.  So it is not necessarily that the relationship between art and mysticism is new, but that we have not conceptualised it as such.  Instead, much of the mystical experience of art has been classified as either spiritual or aesthetic.  In the former case, the distinction is between knowledge and being.  Mysticism teaches us about the nature of things; spirituality encompasses how this knowledge effects who we are.  There are various stations along this path, various means of moving down it, and various levels of understanding that result.  In any case, the spiritual path is wedded to the mystical experience, but is actually a separate concept.

The aesthetic experience is, on the other hand, a certain subset of mystical experience.  It is the direct perception of beauty, as opposed to truth.  In fact, a third form of perception now becomes apparent, based on the three classic ideals:  the mystical perception of goodness.  In sum, the direct perception of what is true, beautiful, or good is the very nature of mysticism.  Mystics, in turns out, are natural Idealists.  To put it another way, if one is tone deaf to the nature of things, one becomes a banker.

Surprisingly, all three facets of mysticism, and hence of reality itself, emerge from certain works of art.  Indeed, this is what gives art its power.  But instead of trying to prove this verbally, I would like to practice what I am preaching, and take a direct mystical approach, one that the reader can experience, too.  By this I mean that if a work of art, like a painting, can stimulate a mystical experience, then we ought to be able to take a particular painting and have that experience together, right now.  Why not?

Reality

This is State of Life, by Steve Perrault. Perrault is an interesting anomaly in the art world, a former monk who left his monastery at age thirty, became a psychotherapist, and then turned to painting in mid-life.  Since then he has enjoyed great success in a relatively short period of time.  He works in the genre of metaphoric realism, in which his exclusive subject is the interior life of the human being.  Virtually his entire oeuvre utilises the motif seen here (two others are depicted below).[2]

State of Life presents the viewer with a powerful image, one able to provoke many deep and meaningful impressions.  Without trying to analyse why, let us open our minds to this painting and simply list what these impressions are as they strike us, one after another.  A quick sample might look like this: purity, simplicity, principle, clean, sharp, distinct, precise, deep, order, bliss, longing, serenity, color, calm, bright, alive, open, aware, visionary, light, warmth, sea, sky, beauty, white, blue, red, ideal, real, being, here, now, affirmative, self.

This kind of conceptual pointillism creates a cluster of ideas that surrounds our mind like a billowing cloud.  This cloud, of course, refers to the scene in the painting.  It defines what the scene is, in both part and whole: the sea is blue, the walls are sharp, the scene is serene, etc.  And the term for that—for what is—is reality.  So this cloud of concepts is our first cut at reality.  It is our initial awareness of the scene.  Note the distinction between this reality and the material reality of the painting, the oil and canvas it represents.  We are talking about a purely visual reality, the reality of the image.  The image is drawn from the painting, but should not be confused with the paint.

From here we may draw a few more conclusions about reality.  First, visual reality is an inexhaustible well of ideas, be they principles, or qualities, or elements.  Our quick sample list could be extended for this one painting, and multiplied by others.  Second, this well amounts to a realm of its own.  Third, this realm is a world of light.  Light is the carrier wave, the source of all those impressions that break upon our consciousness.  Darken the room, and they disappear.  Finally, while visual reality draws upon many ideas, it forms a whole.  All impressions ultimately fuse into a single image.

Before we move on, we can draw one last important conclusion from the above.  Visual reality is a term that qualifies “reality” based on a particular sense, vision.  In separating the image from the thing, it also separates itself from what is tangible.  I say this because the traditional distinction between the material and spiritual sides of life follows this same logic.  In other words, tangible reality is material, while visual reality is spiritual.  For this reason descriptions of visual reality take us away from the technical language of the modern Western scientific intellect, and into a more symbolic, pre-modern, and Eastern way of thought.  From our limited viewing of State of Life, for example, we may already say that the image is the doorway to spiritual reality, the portal to a unique realm, a world of principle and light.

Continue reading – Part 2

by Paul Stiles


[1] For those thinking that mysticism is the perception of the unity that transcends opposites, I certainly do not deny this, I am merely suggesting that the term be expanded beyond this summit.

[2] See www.sjperrault.com.