Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tao in art

I have been reading Jean C. Cooper's admirable, 'An Illustrated Introduction to Taoism'. The text is lucid and clear and the illustrations are beautiful and illuminating.


The chapter on Taoist art is especially good, speaking of the way in which the arts were integral: painters were poets and musicians. There was a harmonious weaving of disciplines together to form a whole. "The Sages of old used to say that a poem is a picture without visible forms and that a painting is a poem which has put on form."

Integral to all the arts was an absence of concern for ownership. Paintings were not signed nor sold as any genuine work was created out of the spirit of the Tao that informs all things, not the individual drives of any particular person. The aim of the artist was not 'self-expression' but (as Simone Weil put it) 'de-creation', a stepping aside of the 'self' so that the work could unfold unhindered. "Art, as soon as it is no longer determined, illuminated, and guided by spirituality, lies at the mercy of the individual and purely psychical resources of the artist."

What I love about Taoism is that it is a tradition in which joy and laughter play a significant part, with a strand of the compassionately satirical; thus, the poet, Su Shih:

Families, when a son is born.
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the child will prove
Ignorant an stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.


And for its celebration of the natural world just as it is, a revelation of Tao within the ordering particulars of the world. Here Li Po:

The travelers, listening to the sound of the
zither...
Heard the rustling pines in myriad chasms,
The dying notes like falling frost on bells.
I had not noticed dusk come to the
mountains,
Nor seen how deep the autumn clouds were darkened.

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