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Consciousness

09/01/13 11:51 PM

Consciousness, Literature and the Arts Archive Volume 5 Number 2, August 2004 Special Issue: Jacques Derridas Indian Philosophical Subtext _______________________________________________________________

Thayer, Peggy. The Experience of Being Creative as a Spiritual Practice: A Hermeneutic-Phenomenological Study. Revisioning Philosophy 27. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. ISBN: 0-8204-3454-X. Pp. xii + 161. $56.95, 37.00.

Reviewed by Robert Dunn


La Sierra University

This fascinating volume examines how artists who regard their creative work as a spiritual expression describe their practice. Peggy Thayer writes that her interest in the subject began years ago when she set out to understand how artists viewed their creativity. The answers she received suggested that many respondents regarded their work not only as creative but also as spiritual. This discovery led her to do a doctoral dissertation at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco on the spiritual practice of artists, and this dissertation forms the basis of this book. Her research is in art, but she also notes that much of her description of the spiritual in art could also be applied to composition, which she has more recently been drawn to do. Hence, readers from the range of artistic disciplines should find this a relevant and suggestive book. For Thayer humans can neither fully understand nor be fully understood through realism, which has been the dominant mode since the Renaissance. The world, she says, is much greater than what we see about us. It emerges out of mystery, and each person, each creature draws life from that mystery and submits to it. Both
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Consciousness

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spirituality and creativity bring us into contact with the Unseen. Spirituality helps because such practices as meditation, hypnosis, and drugs alter ordinary perception and bring a sense of unity, of oneness, stillness, ecstasy, or bliss (37). Creativity employs parallel techniques, using form, color, perspective, harmony, and beauty through which space, time, and self are disrupted and then reconstituted (39). What is the difference between the two? The artist seeks to embody experience, but the mystic seeks silent union with the Absolute. So spirituality and creativity do a dance, and creativity may help spiritual experience or vice versa (40). This flies against common understandings, but Thayer holds that the spiritual constitutes an ongoing, underground tradition that continues to grow (76). But though she and artists like her draw themes, techniques, and inspiration from a variety of sources past and present, one appreciates her voice as an independent, nonconfessional witness to the truth of human consciousness. The spiritual, she says, once played a significant role in European art, and there are strong expressions of it in Asian (Hindu, Taoist, Zen) and Native American cultures. But during the Renaissance Western art moved away from interest in the spiritual, which is the hallmark of Medieval culture, to concern for the physical. It moved from art as an expression of the community to painting as a reflection of the individual artist. A change toward the spiritual begins with the German Romantics and continues in the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Cubists. There are two waves in 20th Century art history where the spiritual re-emerged to play a major role. The first was at the beginning of the century in Europe when artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian found inspiration in theosophy and anthroposophy. The second came in mid-century America when painters like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko reflected Native American, Zen, and Jungian traditions. But the public still is generally unaware of the extent to which art has been seeking spiritual techniques and images through which to express the human condition. I applaud Thayers decision to reject an experimental, behaviorist methodology to compare and contrast spiritual and creative states. The sciences have given much to the world, yet the experience of the spiritual in art and literature requires an approach at once delicate and bold. It rests on the perception of identity and difference between the artist or viewer and the work of art. The more human form of hermeneutic phenomenology through which one enters a dialogue between selfunderstanding and the understanding of the text offers a way into the mystery of art and literature. In the end the method allows one to interrogate the connection between human life and the larger world about us and within us; it clarifies relationships but does not dissolve the mystery.
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Consciousness

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The heart of the study lies in the statements Thayer solicited from ten artists about the connection of their spiritual practices to their creativity. They represent people who apparently find little or no nourishment in organized religion, yet they are all deeply spiritual. They employ a variety of methods for a variety of purposes. For example, Maria R experiences a mystic connection to the Source as she paints (89). The important thing for her is the intention to allow the connection. Spencers very personal spirituality is deeply tied to employing art to re-experience and try to heal a relationship with her mother and (possibly) with her daughter. She began by considering that the source of her inspiration was only psychological, but she learned through her painting and a creative expression class that she was touching a spiritual connection with her roots as she worked. Connies spirituality is social and tied to environmental concerns that she explores in her work. She perceives her artistic work in the out-of-doors as a way toward healing the earth. Marks philosophical spirituality paradoxically tries to describe the indescribable. He seeks a transformation of his perception through such devices as the use of mirrors, crossing his eyes, blurring them, and binoculars. In short, each artist has different concerns, employs similar or different techniques, and expresses spirituality uniquely. The lot of the artist and writer in the modern world has often been a lonely one, and I sense some of this loneliness in Thayer herself. I wonder whether Thayers study, and future ones like it, might open the public to greater understandings of human consciousness and lead to a greater sense of unity in the world? The spiritual is an aspect of consciousness that has been devalued in the modern West, yet as Thayer suggests it continues to haunt and inform us. Dissatisfied with her overly rationalistic culture, Thayer and people like her turn toward Eastern or native American religions. They find techniques and images in these sources, but they can never fully identify with the cultures that produced them. Yet might not Thayer find in the history of Christian or Jewish mysticism some of the same practices and images she finds in the East? If so, and if the spiritual genius of these religions were stressed and not merely their doctrinal content, might she not be led to a greater sense of unity with her own culture? Thomas Merton and others suggest a growing interest in adapting ancient meditative practices to active life in the modern world. In them we discern a growing interest in bringing together all the spiritual traditions of the worldboth Western and Easternso that artists and writers may some day feel less isolated as they go about their work.

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