Art and Spirit - A Vamp on Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton, writing of his conversion to Catholicism in The Seven Storey Mountain, underscores his realization that the creating of art is a contemplative act as one of the primary reasons he converted to Catholicism.

He thanks his study of William Blake’s poetry for this realization; specifically how ‘Blake rejected literalism and naturalism in lieu of the mystical and the supernatural.’ Merton expanded this reflection to the people in his life, especially his own father:

“I had learned from my own father that it was almost blasphemy to regard the function of art as merely to reproduce some kind of a sensible pleasure or, at best, to stir the emotions to a transitory thrill. I had always understood that art was contemplation, and that it involved the action of the highest faculties of man.”

The artistic process, as Merton sees it, is integrally entwined with the artist’s spiritual practice. The artistic process IS the artist’s spiritual practice.

This sentiment, the conjoining of the artistic and the spiritual, has always made ready sense to me, and although I do a poor job of synthesizing the two regularly, the devotion that creating art requires draws on the same soul-source that my spiritual practice (a practice that is admittedly loose and haphazard) also employs.

I can’t at this point separate the two practices.

To vamp on Merton’s ideas, though, I would add a couple of clarifications/realizations.

One: thanks to good old American commodification, we often expect a product from art, a ware that can be sold to the world as some end-result of our artistic efforts. Although I respond to this like any American would (maybe MY novel will be discovered, and I’ll make a gazillion dollars) this notion is demeaning to the act of creating art as a spiritual practice where the art is as much in the doing as it is in the artifact being made.

Two: Merton’s own vision of having once wanted to be known and validated as a novelist—a desperate validation I am familiar with—portrays art as a singular, myopic act. As a younger man, I often held in great esteem those writers who sacrificed family, health, sanity for the pursuance of their art. Merton, who eventually lived a monastic life away from the temptations and the messiness of day to day America, is making art sound like a singular process when it is multi-faceted, raggedy, personal and public – much like the pursuance of spiritual matters.

These ideas—that artistic and spiritual work must produce something, that there is only one God, one religion, one way at the exclusion of all else—reduces and diminishes the many routes, the many small acts, that we all have available to us to go beyond the literal world before us and enter into the mystical, the supernatural.

You Complete Me: What is the Purpose of Art? (Answered in 500 Easy Words)

Gone are the days when I could ruminate about the whys and hows of my art.

It’s not that I lack the interest or even the tolerance (although I do certainly lack the time) or that I can’t navel-gaze with the best of them, but at some point along the way, the need to preoccupy myself with the engines driving my writing decreased from an incessant, back-firing clatter to a just audible background thrum.

So I was jolted into once again considering the topic when I listened to this interview with sculptor Dario Robleto, and the conversation turned to a question that Robleto continues to ask himself:

Can art finish something that’s never been finished?

As discussed in a previous post, we’re all familiar with (if not bored by) the trope of the artist as damaged human who turns to creating as a means to heal, as a means to salve some emotional wound or to deal with some mental dysfunction. The trope exists not only because of the attractive and convenient narrative, but also because of its inherent truth. Yes, most of us wanderers are wandering because we were at some point in our lives unmoored. Most (maybe all) eventually thrive from embracing this otherness that we perceive separates us from a ‘normal’ existence that everyone else appears to be living.

But if we can take the artist and his/her origin story out of the art object and do our best to consider the art by itself (yeah, yeah, I agree it’s nearly impossible but give it a shot, anyway) we are left with considering the purpose of that piece of art. Not the why but the what.

You drew that picture. You wrote that book. You composed that piece of music. Ignoring why and how you did it, what is that picture, book, music supposed to do?

For my part, I default to the same setting that I suspect most of us are switched to: I cogitate about and put more emphasis on the process rather than the product (art for art’s sake, man). In fact, I bet if I surveyed my own damned blog, I’d find in the often overlapping topics I tend to discuss—writing, spiritual wandering, parenting—more about the doing and less about the having done.

So, again, Robleto’s question.

Can art finish something that’s never been finished?

Is the answer to that question—dare we postulate—the purpose of art? Is the creative journey less about self-actualizing and more about impacting the world around us? Is the artist’s role, then, to discover the broken places outside of ourselves and bring wholeness and completion?

If so, our jobs just got a lot more complicated.