The narrative that provides the context for art is all-important. A healthy story liberates and nourishes the artist in the creative process while a story dominated by the false-self constricts and starves the flow of intuitive inspiration. “The Chinese were the first people who did not think of the making of pictures as a rather menial task, but who placed the painter on the same level as the inspired poet.”
Within a culture’s meta-narrative we can find a relationship between meditation and art. “The religions of the East taught that nothing was more important than the right kind of meditation.” However, Westerners often fail to understand what the purpose of meditation is. For example, the author of the book The Story of Art, E. H. Gombrich writes: “Meditation means something like deep thought.” In fact, meditation is often a practice designed to enable the practitioner to transcend thought. Meditation can result in a profound “insight,” that is, it can enable us to see reality as it really is or, in other words, to attain present moment awareness. As we read this book, we want to be open to allowing art to assist us in realizing these intuitive insights.
This awareness of the present moment, or the experience of “flow” as it sometimes called, is the state of consciousness that an artist has when engaged in the creative process. And that process is not only related to meditation, it is meditation. “Their pictures on silk scrolls were kept in precious containers and only unrolled in quiet moments, to be looked at and pondered over as one might open a book of poetry and read and re-read a beautiful verse. That is the purpose behind the greatest of the Chinese landscape paintings of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.” (Fig. 96)
It is easy to see that the energy of these Chinese artists was not coming from an intellectual approach to the creative process. They were not trying to capture the “reality” of form nor were they creating with the didactic purpose seen in medieval religious art of the West. They were instead connecting to nature subjectively; they were “feeling” the beauty and grace of the ever-present Now. “But once we try to put ourselves in the place of the painter, and to experience something of the awe he must have felt for these majestic peaks, we may at least get an inkling of what the Chinese value most highly in art.” (Fig. 97)
Gombrich’s idea was that Chinese art was used to promote meditation. Actually, it was the “result” of a meditative state of mind. Not that this beautiful art could not aid in the appreciation of deeper truths regarding reality. Since beauty is truth and truth is beauty, the relationship to reality is obvious in the context of Oneness.
Chinese art itself then becomes a meditation when skillfully executed. “One can look at such a picture for a long stretch of time without getting bored.” Much of the art of China exemplifies the experience of “flow” during the creative process. This experience is unknown to many Western artists who struggle against the ego in their search for beauty. We can see the spontaneity in these Chinese paintings and what they teach is the power inherent in the NOW for creating or appreciating beauty. (Fig. 98)
Illustrations: Gombrich, E. H. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Publishers Inc., 1966.
- Figure 96 – Landscape in moonlight by MA YUAN, 1200 A.D., page 106.
- Figure 97 – Landscape after rain by KAO K’O-KUNG, 1250-1300 A.D., page 107.
- Figure 98 – Fishes by LIU TS’ AI, 1300-1400 A.D., page 107.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.