Edited by Sean Geer
4 February 2021

Art is a vital resource. Along with our three other quasi-autonomous domains of exploring meaning – namely, religion, philosophy and science – it is one of our most powerful means for improving our understanding of self and environment. As such, its role in our lives is not widely disputed. But its real nature, and its real importance to us, has rarely been described adequately by theorists or critics.

Long dissatisfied with widely accepted theories of art, I have been developing my own over the last several decades – one which seems to resolve the problems I encountered when considering commonly held views. It's a theory which is both trans-cultural and applicable to any art form, from any culture, at any point in time – a claim that is difficult to make for existing, widely-accepted theories. One of the reasons for this is that current art theory – based to a considerable extent on a resolutely western perspective and experience – illuminates parts of the whole but fails dramatically when exported, despite a greatly heightened awareness of trans-cultural matters in our recent past. Specifically, it fails to illuminate (or even comprehend) the precocious 'modernity' of 'traditional' Chinese art – a key aspect of understanding art from a global perspective, as I hope to demonstrate in these essays.

The primary pillar of my theory, and the one supporting all its other components, is simply this. Art is arguably our principal means of enhancing and evolving human consciousness. It is crucial to our civilisations and cultures – indeed, I would argue that they are not possible without it. Art, and the creativity that drives it, is perhaps our most useful tool for exploring and understanding our human selves and the dizzying variety of cultures and civilisations that we have created. For all its simplicity, this fundamental idea is extremely powerful. Once we understand it, we can easily see it as an overarching theory within which we can view all of art – whoever makes it, or wherever it is made – through the same lens.

A second critical step in constructing the broader theory is to expand our definition of art to include any form of creative response to experience. Then we can recognize that of our four main domains for evolving our consciousness – art, science, religion and philosophy – it is the only one capable of subsuming the other three. However structured and rigorous they appear, they are also all creative responses to experience. The downside of this more inclusive definition of art is minimal; it merely requires a secondary exercise in judging the level of meaning or significance of any creative exploration. The upside, on the other hand, is extensive.

Our third adjustment in our approach to art theory is to shift our focus from the art object itself to the entire artistic process. Today, most of the art world's attention remains resolutely on the products of art, whether they are paintings, sculptures, poems or symphonies. In such product-based aesthetics, the overall process is seen from a narrow perspective; the artist translates their visionary capacity into a physical work of art or performance of some kind, using their preferred acquired techniques to do so.

In this model, the physical work is seen as the end-product of the artistic process. The audience for that work is considered completely separate from the process; an observer and beneficiary, certainly, but not a full participant. Their only role is a post facto one – to try to reach backwards through the encoded languages of the physical work of art, in an attempt to grasp as much as possible of the artist's original vision and intent. This, of course, has been the principal approach to art in the west for centuries, for some apparently sound logical reasons. Faced with a painting or a poem created some time in the distant past, what else can one do but appreciate and analyse it after the fact?

The answer to this question is a simple but vital one. For any artwork created in any medium at any time, we can shift our perception of it from a product-based perspective to a fully process-based one. We do that by simply considering the art object itself as effectively the mid-point of the overall process, rather than the end-point. We then include the audience itself as the remaining half of the process; in effect, a mirror image of the artist's side of the art object. The audience then uses and refines its own techniques in approaching and understanding the object as an integral part of the process, rather than as a passive bystander.

This approach makes sense for all kinds of reasons, not least because the audience is of course crucial to the overall process from the outset. Artists tends to create their works with an audience in mind; without one, the incentive to create anything would be greatly diminished. Throughout history, artworks have been created for specific purposes and audiences, and often commissioned for specific occasions; many of the most famous works of classical music were created in just this way, as were countless paintings, statues and other objects. Their audience has inevitably changed over time, but an audience of some kind was always in the artist's mind.

Viewed this way, it becomes clearer that art objects are not a wall between the artist and the observer. Instead, they can be seen as a doorway or conduit. Even this analogy is misleading, though, because it fails to take into account the dual nature of the artist; on their side of the doorway, they are their own audience. Every act and aspect of creativity enlightens not just the audience but the artist too; at every stage of producing a work of art, the artist is involved in self-refinement of some kind. On the other side of the door, the audience continues the creative process of refining their own techniques and expanding their appreciative abilities. So instead of a series of discrete steps with finite outcomes, we now have a continuum of experience; a process that comprehensively blurs the line between artist and audience.

From this perspective, even the distinction between artist and audience starts to shimmer and evaporate. It becomes merely a low-level expression of a much bigger idea, in much the same way that organised religions are simply lower-level expressions of a higher spiritual source. Our myriad works of art and religious interpretations are much more readily understood once we recognise both as simply lower-level expressions of a higher purpose.

We can visualise the shift from object-based to process-based aesthetics in a simple flowchart:
Artistic vision → artistic techniques → art object → audience techniques → audience enlightenment
The entire process is the art. The end product is self-realisation or enlightenment (however we care to define that concept, of which more later) – not just for the audience, but for the artist too.

Here's a visual representation, not because we really need a chart to understand it but because, once drawn, it looks encouragingly like the cross-section of something that would actually float.

Fig. 1

The horizontal line separates the visionary realm from its intellectual counterpart – the so-called reality that we live with on a daily basis. This is the 'glass ceiling' of consciousness.

A (above the line) represents the trans-intellectual, ineffable way of knowing; a visionary fount, if you like.
B (below it) represents the fragmentary realm of the intellect, the rational, reasoning faculties of mind.
C is the visionary capacity of the artist.
D is acquired artistic techniques.
E is the art object.
F represents audience techniques.
G is audience vision, taking the whole process back above our glass ceiling to unite with the transcendent realm. This is the goal of self-realisation, the thing that gives us access to the full bandwidth of consciousness and allows us to integrate our two ways of knowing. I'll have a lot more to say about this in later essays. For now, let me just say that this is a critical aspect of the theory I propose; the expansion and evolution of our consciousness towards Enlightenment, in its transcendent rather than relative sense.

These major shifts in our approach to art are crucial to overcoming confusion and misunderstandings about art throughout its history. They allow us to make sense of all the controversial, exciting art of the past century – the upturned urinals, unmade beds, sharks in formaldehyde, piles of builder's bricks, blank white canvases, silent music, conceptual art and much more. If we approach them not with a focus on the art object but on the entire process of art, we quickly find that they take on new meaning. Rather than focus on questions addressed to individual objects (Is this art? Do I like this? Does this really look like a horse?) we can start asking different and more enlightening ones. For example: how does considering our own spot on the artistic continuum change our overall understanding, not just of art but of ourselves, life, the universe and everything too? Are these changes incremental or fundamental? How has my relationship to the artist changed? There are no 'correct' answers; by changing the questions there is nothing left to argue about, although plenty to discuss.

In any culture, art has many levels. It addresses and codifies everything from the utterly banal to the ineffably mysterious and esoteric. In fact, it is essential that it does so; that is precisely how it offers us a valuable and efficient conduit between our two states of consciousness, the realm of the intellect and its transcendent counterpart. Art is not just civilising; it is civilisation. If you doubt this, try to imagine existence without music, literature, the visual and performing arts, without architecture. We don't just express with our arts, we think with them; and crucially, we store information and insight from one generation to the next in them. This cultural storage capacity is one of art's greatest tricks; it facilitates the accumulation of our collective understanding, in ways that mere words never can. Without them, civilisation is inconceivable. This is why art is one of our most efficient and profound means of communication. It's why it is of such enormous importance to us. And it's why we are, and always have been, so powerfully drawn to it. It is no surprise, then, that it is also why it has such disruptive potential.

Hugh Moss
At the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat.

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