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WHAT IS ART?
© 2012 Shunyo Mahom

Art is a thing, Zen Art is a process. Art is technical, Zen Art is personal. Art is doing, Zen Art is a happening.

Have you ever had an original insight when the solution to a problem you’ve been struggling with came from out of nowhere after you stopped looking for it?

We all have had creative moments after which we could only wonder, “Where did that come from?”

Somehow we know that our original insight or expression did not come from our past knowledge, from our mind. It came from a space beyond our mind.

Such is the mysterious nature of creativity, of art. Individuals who have enriched the world through their creativity - scientists: Madame Curie, Einstein; mystics: Buddha, Osho; artists: Van Gogh, Meryl Streep - know from their personal experience that creativity spontaneously comes from a space beyond the mind. They know that creativity and art have a spiritual foundation in consciousness. They know that an empty, receptive mind and heart is spirit’s workshop. They know that art is a light bridge between the worlds of spirit and matter.

Creativity is mysterious, magical, and there is an explosion of creativity happening in many areas: psychology, health, renewable energy, relating, ecology, as well as art. Understanding this gives the question of what is and isn’t art a broader context to consider than that of paintings hanging in museums or music played by symphonies.

Dictionary definitions of art include: 1) human creativity 2) any specific skill or its application 3) making of things that have form or beauty 4) sly trick, cunning.

“Sly trick, cunning” covers imitations of the “Mona Lisa”, and “form or beauty” covers just about anything!

So what is art and who is an artist?

Creativity implies originality, and the “human creativity” part of the definition of art implies that if something is to be considered art, it should be original. That being so, can a visual expression which simply attempts to reproduce the image of a face or nature be considered original, creative, be considered art? Or should one say it is the skillful work of a technician, but not an artist?

Can a song be considered original art if for commercial purposes it is constructed by plugging words or music into a successful commercial formula?

The answers to these questions will be different for different people because what is or is not art depends on the consciousness and values of the creator and the experiencer of the art. One can  argue back and forth about what is art, but given the different consciousness of people, it’s best to let people call anything they want art and explore the different types of art, of which there are three: Zen art, subjective art, and a hybrid, a combination, of the two.

Zen Art vs Subjective Art

As a child I remember my grandmother often beamed with delight and said that my antics were “priceless”. But other adults punished me for the same behavior. Confused, I wondered, “Why do some adults punish me for the same things that make others laugh?”

An adult now, I understand: values. People differ in their levels of consciousness and different people have different values. One person pays $103,579 for Alex Rodriguez’ 500th home run ball, another $103,579 for Zen art, a third $103,579 to a politician so their religious beliefs become law.

“Value” is an adult word, the quality of a thing which makes it more or less desirable. Desire is goal-oriented. As a child all my needs were provided for. I had no need to desire food, clothes, shelter or love and lived in the moment. With no goals to drive me into the future, what I did was fun, play, an end unto itself. Understanding this gives us an insight into Zen art. Zen art is fun, play; it expresses the joy of a child playing, the joy of being.

Zen means being conscious, spontaneous, here now. One can “be in Zen” painting a picture, tending a garden, cleaning a floor, loving a person. As a Zen artist, painting is a spontaneous dance with color and form. True, an elegant work of art is created as a consequence, but it is a consequence, not a result. The act is not goal-oriented, but rather a priceless treasure, the “value” of which is intrinsic in the act of painting.

Zen mystic, Osho, called Zen art “objective art”, saying, "Ninety-nine percent of art is subjective art. Only one percent objective art is based on meditation. The subjective art means you are pouring your subjectivity onto the canvas, your dreams, your imaginations, your fantasies. It has come from a chaos.

“Objective art is just the opposite. The man has nothing to throw out, he is utterly empty, absolutely clean. Out of this silence, out of this emptiness, arises love, compassion. And out of this silence arises the possibility of creativity. This silence, this love, this compassion - these are the qualities of meditation."

Zen art is a different type of art than subjective art - not better or worse, just different. Subjective art comes from the chaos of the unconscious mind, from imaginations, dreams, fantasies, repression. Zen art, on the other hand, is a conscious expression which harmonizes and uplifts the spirit of the observer or listener.    

Zen art is subtle. As a Zen artist I’ve come to realize that the adult world is more complex than a child’s. I have values now and need to provide for my fundamental needs. My values tell me what I need to do or not do to fulfill my needs in the future. Future brings in mind and tension if I am not meditative, relaxed, and watchful of the mind as I paint.   

In September 2005 I was very sick and for three straight days could not sleep. I was in a hypersensitive state the third night and felt I could easily float from the body and die. In that state I felt that the desire to live - the very desire - is a tension. Utterly exhausted but somehow relaxed in bed, I could feel the tension around the desire to live. I let the experience be a meditation, accepted the tension, let it be so, surrendered to dying. I let go...

It is a mystery why I did not die that night. Instead I fell asleep. I spent the next six days healing in a hospital. During a meditation afterwards, I had the insight that it was my fear of death and the resulting tension around my desire to live that had been keeping me from relaxing and falling asleep for three days. I realized, “I am alive! Now! The desire to be alive is a tension I don’t need.”

Since then my guiding principle has been “Be conscious, relaxed, here, now...easy is right”. This is the milieu in which I paint. And this is Zen Art: a conscious love affair with color and form.

Rather than ask, “What is art?”, the question may be, “Is a certain creation subjective art, objective art, or a hybrid, a combination of the two?”

The answer depends on the consciousness of both the beholder and the creator of the art.

Meditation is a vehicle to become more conscious, and meditation and love are one. Just as when a pebble drops to the depths of a calm, silent lake and circles of energy dance to the shores, the consciousness which grows at our depth in meditation manifests as creative love energy on our surface.

Zen art is an expression of love.

As a Zen artist I know that each Zen artist expresses differently. My Zen Pearls™ art is a synthesis of Zen calligraphy and a faux-pearl medium mounted on a silk scroll by skilled craftsmen in China. Each scroll reflects my unique expression of love energy created by being relaxed and conscious while painting. This energy is translated into the painting and is felt by sensitive clients who have commented on the relaxation and harmony they feel when in synchronicity with the Zen Pearls™ art on the scroll.  

To value the ecstasy of love - when two beings dissolve into one - one has to have experienced such a union. There is no other way. To value Zen art one has to have experienced the ecstasy of consciousness and love. There is no other way.

When a connoisseur values Zen art and purchases it, everyone wins: the artist experiences the ecstasy of painting and the connoisseur experiences a priceless treasure which invokes relaxation and harmony, and provides elegant inspiration for years to come.

What type of art a creation is depends on the state of consciousness of the creator or the experiencer of the creation. Personally, as a Zen artist, when I am identified with my dream-mind, whatever I create may be beautiful or melodious to others, but to me it may not be art, just stuff, and I may choose to keep it to myself or throw it away.

And when I am alert, conscious, playful? Then anything I create is art.

When my mind is silent, receptive, open, I may have an insight or vision and feel inspired to communicate this “gift from the beyond” through a song, painting or poem. Such moments when I am “possessed by the Whole” are fragile; they can evaporate in a flash or last for hours. Zen art is a creation which is completed before the inspirational state of consciousness vanishes.

So we have three types of art: subjective, objective and a hybrid of the two. Hybrid works of art are completed by applying a technical expertise to an original inspiration after the inspirational state of consciousness vanishes. Hybrid art may be more the work of a technician than an artist.

Actually it doesn’t matter what one calls a certain creation. Words are just the container. The content, the source, of all creativity comes from beyond the mind, and every human being has the capacity to be creative in their own unique way.   

Shunyo Mahom is a Zen artist and holistic counselor who commissions personalized Zen Pearls portraits and is currently booking venues for “Zen Art - Priceless Treasure” - an exhibition of 21 of his Zen Pearls scrolls. www.shunyo.org

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