BEYOND THE VISION OF THE EYE
The Inner Art of Hung Hoi
Art shares with spirit the same mystical source. Whatever we consider to be high art, or highly efficient art, acquires the epithet timeless' precisely because it communicates a sense of timeless reality. To transcend merely relative significance and reach realms of true profundity, art must be drawn from, and lead back to this sustaining source.
As in spirituality, so in art. In the crucible of creative communication the intellect (the rational, reasoning, faculties of mind) constantly explores the alchemy of its own transformation to this higher plane of meaning. While true of all art, in a fully mature aesthetic culture this is recognised as axiomatic, rendering the entire process infinitely more efficient.
There is no more mature aesthetic culture than the Chinese. It not only arrived at the concept of silent music by the time of Confucius, in the sixth-century B.C., but fully understood it. In the art of painting, it both incorporated and theoretically understood the equivalent of Western post-modernism by the fourteenth century. Because it had no need to follow the same path to this point as the West, those traces of its journey still remaining may appear quite different, making it difficult for Western art theories to accommodate this salient fact. This level of aesthetic and spiritual maturity is also one of the main reasons why Chinese culture has outlived all others and can be traced back more than seven thousand years.
Chinese culture is ultimately governed by a level of definition beyond time and place. Its highest aspiration has always been to transcend the intellectual, relative realm of reality to dwell beyond the gods in the trans-intellectual, or directly experiential realm expressed by Daoism and Buddhism and, although less obviously, by the underlying aspirations of Confucianism. Meaning in this realm is indestructible. Political circumstance may lay waste to the people, even to the country, but it cannot destroy the timeless, placeless, ultimate source of the culture. All who have come as conquerors, notably the Mongols in the thirteenth century and the Manchus in the seventeenth, have quickly been seduced by the siren song of this fully mature culture and aspired to it, ensuring its longevity.
As human consciousness evolves, high art, which is the zenith of creative response to experience, becomes the most powerful vehicle for the transformation from surface meaning to profundity. Nor is it any longer confined to the separate activity of producing traditional art objects. Eventually it becomes clear that the other primary vehicles in this evolution (religion, philosophy and science) are no more than creative responses to experience themselves and can, therefore, be subsumed within the broader meaning of art. The West begins to glimpse this in the wake of its modernising, or maturing revolution, but still lacks a suitably mature and all-encompassing theory of art to fully comprehend what has happened in the past, revolutionary century. I addressed this problem in a recent essay, proposing a theoretical outline. 1
As we in the West begin to comprehend the spiritual role of art we treat both the art and those who produce it with ever greater respect, finally deifying them as we have in the age of Picasso. In China this was a process completed centuries earlier; in the visual arts, by the fourteenth century. It is at the point where nay culture begins to grasp the autonomy of the artistic process that it goes through its only substantial artistic revolution, emancipating art to fulfil its fundamental role as a primary vehicle in the evolution of consciousness, pared of all servitude to the other three vehicles. This revolution pushes back to infinity the frontiers of perception and expression. The rules previously seen as governing art evaporate like mist under a rising sun as art takes up, directly, its role of evolving consciousness with maximum efficiency.
This realization of the vital role of art in the evolution of consciousness, whether understood or merely intuited, feeds the artist, and always has, with the will to endure whatever hardship is necessary to refine the human spirit in the alchemy of art.
Regardless of the stage in a particular culture's evolution to aesthetic maturity, art commands attention. The relative aesthetic maturity of the culture merely effects its efficiency in fulfilling its fundamental role once art has our attention. In any culture, at any time, all are drawn to some form of creativity; to the arts, whether as artist, audience or indeed as both. In mature aesthetics there is no real distinction between creative artist and creative audience. The physical work of art is merely a mirror placed in front of us to reflect the level of our own understanding and allow us to consider and, thereby, deepen it.
1. ‘A Unified Theory of Art’ in The Experience of Art Vo1. 4.
What the West faces today is a radical new order of art. The modern revolution has set art free. It has granted the artist an autonomous Kingdom of Creativity without frontiers, allowing activities previously unthinkable in servitude. At the same time, the modern technological revolution has brought the West face to face with the art of other cultures. In the case of Oriental art, epitomised by China with its cultural longevity, the creeping hegemony of Western art and art theory of the past century has come up against an anomaly: an aesthetically fully mature culture that did not arrive at its aesthetic maturity along the same path as the West and is, therefore, difficult to assess through its locally established, purely Western, theoretical framework of understanding.
Radical new art, or the newly acknowledged, radically different art of another culture, requires a radical new theory of art. That theory must encompass the fundamental role of art as an autonomous vehicle in the evolution of consciousness, rather than a separate activity in service to the inconographic requirements of religion or the perceptual needs of philosophy or science. This requires a unified theory which not only makes sense of all the activities of art on both the mundane and the transcendent planes of reality, but also renders more efficient the process of transformation from one to the other.
Such a theory will allow us to make sense of art as diverse as silent music and noisy sculpture, blank white canvass, installations, paths walked patiently in anonymous fields, wrapped bridges, cybergraphics and a host of other possible art forms arising out of the combination of aesthetic maturity and modern technology. It must embrace with equal comfort modern Chinese art apparently unchanged in essence from that of the fourteenth century, and alternative modern Chinese art which seems barely Chinese at all , save for the ethnic origin of the signature drawn in oils in the corner of the canvas. It needs also to address the very nature of maturity in art, allowing a reassessment based not upon local invention at the surface of art, but upon the point in the overall evolution of consciousness at which it takes place.
In Western art, so much seems radically changed in the past few generations that much of it appears in danger of becoming unrecognizable as art at all, but this is only because in the West theory has not yet caught up with art and we are still trying, with confusing results, to cobble together the old theories to fit the new art. This confusion has spread even to China, with its centuries-old maturity in the arts, because of the hegemony of the West over the past two centuries. Forced, somewhat ignominiously, to accept the technological superiority of the West, many in China also assumed that, consequently, Western art must also be far advanced, a belief made the more reasonable because of the recent century of revolutionary advances at the surface of Western art, diverting attention from the fundamental nature of the revolution. In fact, quite the opposite was true.
Precisely because of its technological superiority, the West was far behind China aesthetically. The mental perspective that sees the intellect as the highest way of knowing, predominant in the West to an ever-increasing extent since the Greeks, and which produces scientific and technological maturity, is precisely the perspective that keeps the arts from the autonomy required for full maturity. Conversely, the mental attitude which sees the intellect as no more than a useful tool in reaching a transcendent reality, fosters the arts and encourage aesthetic maturity at the expense of such intellectual pursuits as science and technology. It is no accident that while the Chinese invented fireworks, the West developed them into thermo-nuclear weapons. The result of this confusion in China is that, today, a number of different schools of artistic thought appear to be in conflict with each other as to what even constitutes modern Chinese art.
A new, transcendent theory of the arts is now needed to bring order out of this global confusion. It has caused the West to mistake revolution for the nature of art and required of our post-revolutionary artists activities proper only to a revolutionary process. This led to surface banality and incomprehensibility once the revolution was over. In China, it is actually in danger of blinding the world's most mature aesthetic culture to its own maturity. This new theory must be comprehensive, allowing for the inclusion of the fundamental role of art, the different explorations of this in different cultures, and the new freedoms and additional tools and techniques made available to the artist through modern, technological advances. It must, in short, allow for the infinitely expanded frontiers of perception and expression which are now the birthright of artists throughout the world, should they chose to explore them.
Radical change is always accompanied by confusion and, for a while, theoretical vacuum. All progress leaves its scars upon the body of civilisation. Now the frontiers of perception and expression are infinite and we can envisage the global emancipation of art, without such an all-encompassing theory we are deprived of the true meaning of art. As a defence we fall back upon surface meaning which, yet again, leads to banality. The new theory will reveal art in its full maturity to be far too complex to judge objectively, at the level of the art object.
Today, consciousness has evolved to a point where no leading aesthetic culture can any longer see things in such simple terms. Today art theory must be linked syncretically to a broader and more profound role than that of producing art objects, which are significant only as a part of the overall process of art. Reverence has shifted from the material aspect of art to the spiritual, from the object to the creative personality and the visionary capacity that both creates, and uses art efficiently for the personal and collective transformation of consciousness.
Art in mature aesthetic cultures becomes recognized as process with the end product of that process the evolution of consciousness. No longer can we see only the first, isolated stage of the process as being the art: the vision of the artist translated through acquired technique into a finished art object (or performance)which is then seen as the end product of the artistic process.
The audience today, instead of being a separate observer reaching back through the coded surface of the art object to try to glimpse a reflection of the artist's vision, has become an integral part of the vital creative process. Through its own form of creative input, the audience becomes an equal partner in the process of art and, in turn, gains access directly to the visionary realm. When the entire process is seen as the art, the end product becomes not a finished art object but the expansion of consciousness, ultimately to the point of enlightenment: the paradigm shift in consciousness from the plane of fragments of the individual self and its separate world, to the plane of the self in spiritual unity with the source.
In mature aesthetics, the apparently simple rules of the past are revealed to be suited only to the simpler state of consciousness of the past. Today they become inadequate and, if followed, lead to banality in art and confusion in the audience. As art is emancipated, more and more perceptual and expressive possibilities are revealed to artist and audience alike. Rules which once appeared to govern art at the surface are perceived only as arising out of the creative process, and thus as being of only relative significance. In short, there are no longer any rules that govern art - only those arising out of it.
As we learn to recognize the entire process as art in this fully mature context (or fully `modern' by Western standards), the art object is de-emphasized along with the rules once thought to govern it. We look for new criteria in judging art; criteria of the process rather than criteria of the products. Attention shifts not only to the process but to its driving force: the creative personality.
What defines an artist? What separates an aesthetic guru of higher consciousness from an ordinary mortal? Where once we looked at the work of art in isolation from the process, judging it objectively, now we must look to the creative personalities on both sides of it (artist/audience), judging it subjectively. Materialism is dying and a new age of process, integration, syncretism and unity is being proclaimed all about us. This is both fostered by, and reflected in our arts.
The importance of process over product is intriguingly demonstrated by the fact that although the visual surface of art has often changed radically, the qualities that make an artist remain, for all time, essentially immutable. Those inner qualities which make for a great artist are constant, regardless of the rules they may be bound by at any point in time or space that vary the physical surface of their art objects and their immediate reasons for producing these objects.
Great artist are born not made. It is neither possible to teach the inner, prerequisite qualities of a great artist nor eliminate them, other than by depriving the artist of life.
Great artists are driven. There is a need deep in their soul that forces them to concentrate only upon their selfish quest for creativity - a selfish quest that is, like so much in a mature aesthetic, a paradox, for it is also a selfless quest on behalf of all humanity. All else is subsumed within the quest.
Artists are creatures of conviction. They are convinced of the vital nature of their work. They are convinced of their vision and their unique ability to express it cogently. They are convinced they have a vital role to play; a role with the potential for god-like transformations in humanity.
Artists are exclusive. They exclude by whatever means necessary anything they perceive as obstructing their one, vital quest. They also form an exclusive influential minority of seers and visionaries who are, by definition, elite, for they are both few and immensely influential.
Artists are absorbed. They are absorbed in their quest, in their creations, in themselves, in their own world of exploration and expression.
Artists are pioneers, explorers on the frontiers of expanding consciousness, where they must forge their own path, the furthest limits of which must be travelled alone.
Artists are our most vital human resource. They know it - whether intellectually or intuitively - and in a mature aesthetic culture, we know it too, and we treat them accordingly, with the sort of reverence we once afforded the gods and their prophets and priests.
High artists are defined by and separated from others by personality. The rule applies whether we consider poet, painter, politician, philosopher, scientist or playwright, whether dancer or mountaineer, military strategist, athlete or photographer. For the cosmologist pondering the dynamics of the universe or a writer devoting a lifetime to revealing the mystic between the lines, the qualities are essentially the same. It is personality that defines high artists and separates them from the rest.
In a mature aesthetic culture we begin to place more emphasis on the creative personality than on the physical work of art which draws our attention to it and which, finally, can only stand for it, as the words of a mystic only stand for the universal wisdom which lies beyond them.
Every aspect of the entire process of art goes hand in hand, but finally it is the creative personality that matters most on both sides of the physical work of art. The more efficiently our means of communication bring us closer to enlightenment, the more the distinction between the creative personality of the artist and that of the audience dissolves. Finally, any distinction between the two dissolves entirely, as all distinction dissolves on the threshold of enlightenment.
The entire process of high art in a fully mature aesthetic culture relies upon the mind, heart and soul of an artist matched in perfect harmony with those of the creative audience. Once we have an all-encompassing theory allowing us to establish the criteria for attaining this, the rest falls easily into place and the process becomes both highly efficient and delightful.
Hung Hoi has the mind, heart and soul of an artist.
It has never occurred to him to be anything other than an artist, nor will it. His path is set, inevitable. The only question outstanding is when his single-minded devotion will lift him into the company of the artistic deities of his chosen tradition, that of Chinese art which he understands profoundly and respects as entirely self-sufficient in its ultimate maturity. No other goal would be commensurate with the truly artistic personality.
Hung Hoi lives his art. He devotes himself to it on a full-time basis. Every experience is subsumed in his painting. Each day sees the further refinement of his single-minded quest and yet, brought up in the tradition of Chinese painting, he is in no hurry. He grasps the essential truth that in any fully mature art form, surface pyrotechnics and innovations have no lasting meaning. Like the Daoist or Buddhist disciple, he realizes that his path is necessarily long and time has no real meaning in the attainment of timelessness. Sagacity, rarely the gift of youth, comes with patient years of gradual progress in preparation for the final breakthrough to the god-like state of the fully mature artist, free of all influences and inhibitions, divinely creative.
He is content to follow his path steadily, to disregard the trappings of artistic fame and temporary reverence and concentrate on reaching the source of all creativity so that he can express it in all its power, for all time. Whatever newly discovered profundity he plumbs from his chosen tradition, whatever evolution his art goes through along this path, he will always bring to it those essential qualities that will infuse it with profound meaning. Whatever it takes, however long and difficult the path, he will prevail. He will emerge at the end with whatever scars have been left upon him by the process, triumphant as an artist and transcendent in consciousness and we, his audience, can rejoice in this truth as we will rejoice in his mature art, for what he reveals to us from his difficult journey will also serve to set us free. That is the nature and role of the artist and the reason we place such high faith in them.
Above all else, Hung Hoi is an artist.
At the Garden at the Edge of the Universe
Sussex, England, August 1996.