In Pursuit of the Sublime
n the aftermath of Japan’s March 2011 triple-disaster of earthquake, tsunami and the resulting leakage from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, a friend of mine, prominent in the international music community, was asked to speak to the graduating music students at Tokyo University. The purpose? To encourage these young musicians not to give up, to remind them that their musicianship, their creativity was needed now even more than ever.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and, with it the arts and music scene that for decades had defined a rich American heritage, the people of New Orleans refused to allow their culture to be swept away. For those who returned to New Orleans afterwards, the music and art that was re-emerging became an inspiration and an integral part in revitalizing a struggling community.
We hear examples like these of the power of art to inspire us to hang in there, to not give up the fight, even as at such times so much seems to be working against us.
And yet there are other times when life provokes the opposite reaction: When the response to having one’s very breath knocked out of us leads to anger, despair. A sense that, at the end of the day, none of our efforts really matter.
In modern post-Cultural Revolution China there is even a name for it: “Cynical Realism,” one of the most popular contemporary art movements in the country today. Arising as a response to the “collective mindset” of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese artists first from Beijing and now from all across mainland China have developed a new style of art that re-views the country’s socio-political history with an eye for irony.
It’s a style similar to what is becoming increasingly pervasive throughout Europe and within the U.S., and not just within the “Outsider Art” movement. We can understand this as an effort to take back art and culture for the people and out of the hands of the elite. To make a statement that “we” are not being fooled by anyone. That art is about truth, not propaganda.
“Art remains the one way possible of speaking the truth.”
So, one wonders: With so much in flux in the world, does classical art still have something to offer us?
“Art washes away from the soul the dirt of everyday life.”
Aristotle wrote, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”
California photographer, Steven Gelberg holds a masters of theological studies from Harvard Divinity School:
I like the fact that images can contain mystery, ambiguity, beautiful strangeness and strange beauty. I like that they can touch something in us beyond the literal and the rational—that they can penetrate into the subconscious, invoke archetypes, stir nuanced emotions, leave us with a taste of the uncanny and the surreal.
If we are sensitive and open, curious and attentive, we cannot help but be haunted by beauty, by the mysteries of existence, by the hidden meanings of things, by what some have called “the Sublime,” that which fills us with a sense of awe and fascination.
“Art is a step from what is obvious and well-known
toward what is arcane and concealed.”
David Begley, oil painter, Ireland:
To ‘seek refuge in shadows’ is perhaps to ‘do’ nothing, to retreat, to ‘be’, to heal a wound and make ready for battle again. During difficult times it is necessary to wear an emotional armor, and at other times to shed this armor. Sometimes we cope and grow through reflection, at times we cope by impulse.
When my brother died suddenly in 2008, I did not and could not paint for some time after, and naturally my perception of life changed considerably. Whilst I couldn’t paint, I took to my garden. I found solace there. This was the impulse I had at that time, even when turning the soil reminded me of my brother’s grave.
Some days I retreated. Other days, when I was ready, I spent time with friends. Through the love I felt with friends and family, and the peace I found in the garden, a healing began. My experience of grief and the shadows it creates, have brought me to love life and the light it brings, all the more. I have lost my innocence but recovered my wonder. Loss has also deepened my relationship with paint as a medium. I have always had the urge to paint, however this urge now has a deeper resonance and purpose.
David Begley: When I returned to paint, I tried to bring Hope to and through my work. The painting ‘The Watertable’ [2009 – 2010] came from this yearning for light, for hope. This is obviously something many people have expressed through their art before me. It cannot be contrived, it must come from within. And so it did.
Steven DaLuz, painter, Texas:
I did this self-portrait at three a.m, not long after receiving the news that I had cancer. It was an unsettling time, one of introspection and ultimately clarity.
A self-portrait is something I recommend all artists do at some point in their careers. You are forced to look closely, seeing all the warts and imperfections in a brutally honest way.
The piece wound up being published in the book, Strokes of Genius 3: The Best of Drawing, in 2011. Then, it was purchased by a collector. I have done about seven self-portraits so far.
But DaLuz has also worked on a very different series.
Angels have been spoken of throughout history and across many cultures. They have been described as representatives of our highest conception of love, goodwill, and creativity. They have been painted, sculpted, dreamed of, sung about, included in prayers and sought out for comfort in times of duress. They have been described as beings of light, as winged creatures who work behind the scenes, unnoticed, serving as ambassadors between earth and eternity.
Are they here to deliver messages? Are they agents of judgment? Are they metaphysical descriptions of the work of a higher power? Or, are they actual physical entities? In Sentinel, I chose to depict her as though she is just “materializing” from an unseen world.
In this series, I strove not to overtly focus upon religious notions about angels. Instead, I extracted them from the sanctuary and present a glimpse of them as imperfect beings–adorned with wings, yet somehow close to us. Some may comfort, some may disturb. These beings are not clad like angels of the Renaissance. Some belie the Biblical descriptions of them. Most have their faces obscured in shadow, leaving appearance, identity, and intentions to the viewer. I assumed the role of merely suggesting enough information to ignite the imagination of the viewer regarding these unseen beings.
“Painting is silent poetry.”
Salvatore Ala, poet, Ontario, Canada:
I see poetry in almost everything. Lately, I’ve been exploring religious and mystical writing.
Salvatore Ala: What led me to write this particular poem was the moment itself. A gust of wind. At first she was hidden and then revealed and in that instant she became in a sense an object of her own culture. I can tell you that I’ve always loved Keats’ phrase “negative capability,” that is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I also love what Hazlitt said about Shakespeare. “He had only to think of anything in order to become that thing…“ So for me “negative capability” was about developing empathic and sympathetic nerve-endings. I practiced on little things first. I think the otherness that can be achieved in poetry, sometimes uncannily, is one of its most enduring qualities, alongside metaphor and music.
I have no doubt it was poetry that allowed me to stay connected with “the magic in the real and everyday.” Poetry is like a set of magic keys someone puts in your hand. They’re good for every door.
A certain weariness with words and concepts resulted both from having recently spent three years in the highly cerebral environment of graduate school (Harvard Divinity School), and that I’d spent the previous seventeen years living as an ascetic monk in Hindu ashrams, mostly in the U.S. In that particular religious environment, the idea that “you are not your physical body” was axiomatic, and avoidance of “material pleasure,” including sensory and aesthetic pleasures, was the rule. So, after two full decades of “transcending” and intellectualizing, I was left with a certain feeling of dislocation, of estrangement from my own instincts and intuitions, of being strangely out of touch with whole dimensions of myself.
From my younger to my middle years, the center of my attention underwent a dramatic shift from a quest for Truth to a search for Beauty. Early in life I’d been obsessed with the concept of Truth, with figuring out what is “real,” what “reality” is, and how to get there—how to attain “enlightenment.” But that quest had an obsessive aspect to it. It was produced by a kind of deeply felt ontological anxiety. I was so determined to pin down Truth or Reality, that at age 18, I dropped out of conventional society, renounced drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll, and moved into a Hindu ashram, to live a life of celibacy, study, and meditation in quest of ultimate truth in the form of Krishna. I stayed there seventeen years and left at age 35. That’s a big chunk of my life—my youth!
During my monk years I became deeply conditioned to think of “matter” and “spirit” as two distinct and essentially opposing principles, one to be cast aside, the other to become fully immersed in. That represents a rather stark bifurcation of reality, not to speak of a rather self-alienating and schizophrenic way to live and think. It radically devalues whole realms of selfhood: physical, psychological, sensory, sensual, aesthetic, even intellectual (since even the mind rates as “subtle-matter”). One cannot, at least with integrity and sanity, live one’s life as a “pure spirit.”
I didn’t plan it this way, but in my post-ashram life, photography became for me a way to reintegrate into a fuller state of being, a necessary corrective to an extreme matter vs. spirit worldview. I had to re-learn how to be at home in the world, comfortable in my own body—learn how to patiently look at things, really notice them, feel relational to them, experience things aesthetically. So, photography, the creative act of opening one’s eyes and looking deeply and intensely at everything and recording impressions in tangible form, became a path of awakening, of becoming more aware, attentive, receptive, focused, present.
I like to entertain the notion that there are things that co-exist with us, that we cannot see with the naked eye. We experience the world with our known physical senses, but what if there is a realm right in front of us that our limited senses cannot detect?
The piece, “Window,” is a kind of mysterious, imaginary landscape with a sky above it that has a couple of tears in the atmosphere, creating a kind of window that reveals just a glimpse of another reality, partially obscured by a blinding light. This kind of imagery embraces the idea of the sublime–a powerfully fearsome, yet beautiful display that makes us realize how very small we are.
“To make us feel small in the right way is a function of art;
men can only make us feel small in the wrong way.”
~E. M. Forster
for my father, uncles and cousins
The child I was sits trembling in a barber chair.
“Make me a barber,” I asked my father,
Barbers are men who smell like rose oil,
Who gather sea foam in their hands.
In my family, scissors fly like swallows,
Straight razors never bleed.
Now mirrors have tears in their eyes,
Combs and brushes are buried in coffins.
My father is inside a mirror,
Walking in his white salon shirt,
Carrying his sad combs and scissors
Along an endless seashore.
~Salvatore Ala, from: Straight Razor and Other Poems, Biblioasis, 2004.
If there’s anything in my childhood that might be the source of my aesthetic, it might be watching my father listening to his favorite operatic singers. He would not even know I was in the room. He’d be in a state of rapt attention. I remember being amazed by this when I was very young, and then again when I was much older. His concentration seemed to me total and profound, and this left a lasting impression in me about the power and beauty of art.
To me, to see something deeply and to feel it deeply is a kind of ecstasy.
Our normative state is that of learned insensitivity. Our society teaches us to think and plan for the future, not to savor the present moment, to analyze things rather than experience them personally and directly. We have no idea how closed down we are, how we sleepwalk through life half-aware, until something rouses us, even momentarily. I’m not implying a sustained state of blissful enlightenment, necessarily, but a capacity at least for episodic awakenings, compelling experiences that remind us of the hidden beauty and wonder of things. I like the phrase “aesthetic ecstasy.”
We all have moments when we seem to wake up and feel deeply touched by some aspect of our environment, as if experiencing it for the first time, as if we’ve landed on some distant planet, our senses pulsing with amazed attentiveness. In one form or another, something like that state of heightened awareness has been the goal of artists and mystics through history. I think of those two things, art and mysticism, as being closely related. Not that all art is mystical, or that all forms of mysticism contain a strong aesthetic component. Some art is simply descriptive, or emotionally expressive or, especially in postmodernism, an emotionally detached toying with concepts. But for me, personally, art and spirituality both suggest highly sensitized seeing, a capacity for deep and nuanced emotion, and a desire to share those profound inner experiences through authentic expression.
Wonder leads to creativity. To be inspired I feel we must leave our comfort zones from time to time. Go out and see the world. This may be by taking a walk in the woods, by the sea, in a city, or venturing further to somewhere new, regardless of place, we bring back with us something new. Something seen. Or heard. To life and thus, to painting.
My most precious memories come from times I found myself lost, and the people, places, and surprises this led me to. Having to put trust in the moment. I began to relish these moments. Rather than being frustrated when I found myself lost, I gave up on maps and enjoyed wandering. Wandering and meandering through the serpentine streets of Toledo, circling endlessly, hilariously, in the village of Nerja, and after botching my knee in a disco in Madrid, I found myself hobbling through The Prado Museum for a month, in awe at paintings, then stumbling about in the semi-desert of Almeria looking for the sea, gathering ‘finds’ along the way. I discovered over time my sense of direction is poor, and my map-reading skills are worse, so, no I didn’t find my way back. I did find new ways however. Life is a labyrinth sometimes, that is part of the joy and mystery of it. A recent painting ‘Maktub’ [2011 – 2012] refers to this.
I don’t think I’m truly experiencing nature, unless I’ve opened to it sufficiently for it to touch me deeply, for it to delight my eyes, stir deep and subtle emotions, even awaken some sense of the infinite and the eternal. If faith plays any role in this, it’s simply faith in human potential and in the grandness of existence—faith sparked by an intuitive sense of the miraculous, or as a result of passing brushes with the Sublime.
We all possess an innate capacity for mystical awareness, cosmic consciousness. We all possess some kind of inner antenna for the Sublime.
When I’m photographing nature, landscape, I try to open to that deeper realm of mystic beauty, and later, in the darkroom, I attempt to convey those impressions through tangible imagery. I shot many of my landscape images with infrared film, which has a mystical quality about it, because it’s sensitive to visual wavelengths not normally apprehended by the human eye.
Steven Gelberg: My close-ups of rocks, trees, tide pools—micro views of natural scenery – those images have a kind of hallucinatory quality, because they involve a mode of seeing that is deeply influenced by imagination. I put together a book of this work called Pictures from the Earth: Things Seen on the Surface of a Strange Planet.
We need to learn how to look at things patiently, meditatively, with the open eye of an innocent child or that of a newly landed extraterrestrial visitor. And that expanded, deepened seeing creates a kind of intimacy with a sacralized nature, an appreciation for the holiness, beauty and spirit of the earth. At its best, this creates a kind of blissful intimacy.
I am compelled to do work that conjures up a sense of mystery and ethereal light. I cannot say that light represents “truth” for me, but there IS a certain hopefulness to which light eludes. A young child in the dark can feel fear, until a light is shed in the room to reveal no danger lurking in the darkness. At the same time there is a kind of paradox–while light unveils things hidden in darkness, it can also blind us. I do not think I expose some undiscovered truth with my work; rather, I try to reveal just enough to spark the viewer’s imagination and pose questions.
Steven DaLuz: My work often reflects upon primal questions about origins, the expressive beauty of the human figure, the aesthetic power of light moving through an imagined atmosphere, and the sublime.
One night, while watching a science program on TV, I began to doze off. In that twilight state, I began to dream that I was careening through space at the speed of light, wondering what would happen if I reached the edge of the universe. Eventually, my body pierced through a membrane, and as I decelerated. I slowly turned to see that I had ruptured through the boundary of the universe. Before me was a brilliant egg-like structure, appearing almost as a human ovary, opening to reveal gaseous clouds of energy and light of billions of galaxies. I realized, I was gazing upon the universe, and that it was contained within another universe, where my body was floating. Suddenly, I awoke and was determined to try to paint the image I saw in my dream. The result is “Ovum 2.”
“Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self.“
I’ve evolved over a long period of time into what someone might call a Monist, one who sees everything, including “matter” and “spirit,” as all being one energy, a kind of unification of all things and beings into one life principle. I didn’t get to that point by studying philosophy or shopping for something new to believe in. It’s come pretty organically. I didn’t start out in photography with any pre-formed philosophy of art or even a clear sense of the kinds of things I wanted to photograph. It was a very organic process of letting my eyes and heart lead without analyzing too much.
This getting out of my head and into my senses, particularly the sense of sight, was a new experience for me. I just learned to trust my eyes as aesthetic antennae. Over some time I came to understand, consciously and intellectually, that the thematic core of my evolving aesthetics had to do with a kind of deeper looking, a depth probing for evidence of spirit. That meant opening up to the subtle undercurrents of beauty, strangeness, mystery, and surreality in the visible world. To me, that constitutes a certain spiritual orientation to life, one that happens to have a strong aesthetic motivation, a search for beauty in spirit, spirit in beauty.
“Church Demolition” is a personal poem concerning the demolition of the neighborhood parish of my childhood, of my memories there, including my father’s funeral service. Seeing the old church come down left an empty place in me. I think I had Philip Larkin’s “Churchgoing” in mind. I took out my frustration at faith, real estate, change… It occurred to me that faith, like many attributes we boast to possess, is an insufficiency and an approximation. We all still needed to be individuals who do the right things for the right reasons. And that wasn’t happening. But at the same time I saw that my instincts were to begin amassing structure from the rubble, as I say in the poem, and to create form out of chaos. But maybe that’s what a poet does, and so far I’m not sure, outside of my art, where to place my trust.
My favorite philosophy is phenomenology. Also I love poets and poems of quiet spaces. I think I was already a dreamer of them at a young age, though the first time I read Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Reverie” and “The Poetics of Space,” I realized I wasn’t alone. It was in Bachelard I discovered many poets like Rilke and Jean Follain and others, who made marvels of their quiet spaces.
how the sea learned to walk on so many legs where the seashell began compiling its manual how coral disguised itself in itself how jellyfish learned erudition how the octopus engineered fluidity where the flower was born and the tree where the root went down how branches branch why leaves need to grow when the eye of God became a fossil of meaning where time began work on its museum how the dragonfly was invented how spiders of crystal learned to cooperate in the mineral kingdom when the seed discovered its shape in the word love how birds learned to sing through bone why why is the smallest seashell the faintest star
The philosopher Martin Heidegger had a peculiar way of saying things like “the un-concealment of beings is the concealment of Being.” This sort of thinking appealed to me. My idea of beauty floats between the two worlds of this paradox of concealment and revealing. For me beauty is always in a state of becoming, and it is art which brings beauty into “the steadiness of its shining.” Heidegger.
Many of the sights and sounds we’re subjected to in our society are harsh and disturbing. Psychologically and spiritually toxic. Scenes of cruelty, vindictiveness, ugliness and pettiness saturate the media and poison the mental atmosphere. I like the fact that I am sending out into the world images, pictures, little visions, that may do a tiny bit to counteract all that and communicate a sense of beauty, gentle humanity, grace, even holiness. It makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile in this sad, sad world.
“In art the hand can never execute anything higher than the heart can inspire.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Salvatore Ala has published three collections of poetry: Clay of the Maker (Mosaic Press), Straight Razor and Other Poems (Biblioasis), and Lost Luggage (Biblioasis). His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies. He has also published six broadsides of his poetry.
More of David Begley‘s oil paintings can be appreciated at his website at: davidbegley.com
To view Steven DaLuz‘s oil paintings, please visit his website at: StevenDaluz.com
Steven Gelberg’s photography can be enjoyed at: stevengelberg.com