Sunday, July 10, 2016

Art and Silence

Hampton Beach?
CC Jean Stimmell: 1/22/15
After retreating to the Book and Bar Bookstore after a torrential downpour cut short our participation in last night’s Black Lives Matter Vigil in Portsmouth, I discovered and read – though soaked to the skin – a mind-expanding essay by Susan Sontag.

Though written 47 years ago, The Aesthetics of Silence is an amazingly current examination of how silence is a critical component of modern art: or in her own words, “how silence mediates the role of art as a form of spirituality in an increasingly secular culture.”[i]

According to Sontag “art usurps the role religion and mysticism previously held in human life — something to satisfy our “craving for the cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech.”

As such, Sontag connects the path of the modern artist with that of mystics from time immemorial.

Sontag uses a perfect example: The Cloud of Unknowing[[ii]originally written by an unknown mystic in the fourteenth century. It is a literary work of great beauty offering a practical guide to the path of contemplation. In order to access a higher spiritual reality, this ancient mystic explains how, first, all thoughts and concepts must be buried beneath a “cloud of forgetting.”

The holy grail for today’s artist, in my opinion, is to attain this “cloud of unknowing,” to forge a unity between art and anti-art in a higher dimension, to heal the split between verbal versus nonverbal, cognition versus emotion, right versus left brain, mind versus body.

Maria Popova says that, for Sontag, the way forward from the spiritual satiation that arises from this dialogue between art and anti-art, necessitates the pursuit of silence. For the serious artist, silence becomes “a zone of meditation, preparation for spiritual ripening, an ordeal that ends in gaining the right to speak.”

Pursuit of silence should not be just a goal for artists but us all. That is the message of modern day mystics, like Eckhart Tolle: If we connect to the stillness within, we move beyond our active minds and emotions and discover great depths of lasting peace, contentment, serenity­ – and, might I add, creativity.

When you become aware of silence, immediately there is that state of inner still alertness. You are present. You have stepped out of thousands of years of collective human conditioning.

1.The Aesthetics of Silence, pp. 3-34 from Styles of Radical Will by Susan Sontag
2. I am indebted to Maria Popova’s review of this piece in Brainpickings
3. The Cloud of Unknowing, edited by William Johnston, Doubleday, NY: 1973
5. Stillness Speaks, Eckhard Tolle. Gale, Detroit: 2003, page 23
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