On the occasion of Christmas Eve, 2016, I found myself entertaining disparate thoughts, wondering where mankind might take its next turns in history. Donald J. Trump has seemingly been selected by voters in the U.S. to become the next president of their country. He will take that office within the month. I have serious doubts about his ability to lead the U.S. to any positive outcome. However, I must admit that if he should choose to take the high road and essentially do the exact opposite of almost everything he proposed doing, he could become a truly great president! As Trump has already pointed out, his followers will follow him no matter what, so if he is encouraged in the right quarters to do the right things, who knows?
But this article will not be another political diatribe. This article is about spirit, about who has tried to find spirit and about the power of spirit to move us in the directions we choose. In writing this piece, I claim the privilege of the artist to engage in what may seem to be a random selection of assorted ideas in order to present my artistic way of seeing things.
Historically, many artists have attempted to create a visual representation of the insubstantiality of spirit. Late Italian Renaissance artists (Michelangelo, Andrea Del Sarto) and the Mannerist painters that followed them (El Greco, Pontormo, Parmagianino) intentionally distorted the human figure in order to confer a spiritual grace and weightlessness, to suggest the presence of spirit within. Figures that may appear to be standing on their toes are not presented that way because the artist couldn’t draw a flat-footed figure. Instead, it was to suggest a spiritual insubstantiality, a lightness of being.
Opposite in character, yet alike in its pictorial intent, is the work, “The Nightmare,” (c. 1790), by John Henry Fuseli. In this work of the Romantic style in England, ghostly or demonic apparitions visit an agitated, sleeping (perhaps swooning?) woman in her bed chamber. The apparition images are painted as semi-transparent, lacking in worldly substance.
Personally, I see in the works of other visual artists and art movements, the attempt to expand the boundaries of the static image and the limitations of the picture plane to include matters which may be touched only within the viewer’s mind. I think of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” and the Italian Futurists (for motion). Cezanne, Picasso and Braque engaged in a kind of cubist re-constructivism. Andre Derain and other Fauvists’ freely applied dabs of colour communicate a purely felt joy of living and seeing that transcend their figurative references. Surrealism legitimized the use of sub-conscious imagery. Abstract Expressionism involved the viewer in often completely non-figurative portrayals of energetic motion which involved the viewer more closely to the creative act than any work had done before that time.
My fascination with the idea of spirit is not grounded in (nor constrained by) any religious faith. Instead, it is my strongly held belief that spirit exists within each individual and that spirit may be strengthened or weakened by the conscious associations, contemplations and artistic influences (broadly defined) that one freely chooses in life.
The late David Bowie (musician) addressed the emotional pain and futility of attempting to embrace spirit directly when he sang, “Inspirations, have I none? Just to touch the flaming dove!” (The “Flaming Dove” has long been a symbol for “spirit” in Christian iconography.) Of course, spirit, by its nature, is not physically touchable. Still, I am intrigued by the concept of psychically touching the spirit, which I hope to do through writing.
Spirit is that insubstantial influence that inhabits and strongly influences our existence in this world. It may express itself as simply as a smile that is passed between strangers, some kindness mutually acknowledged. Spirit often expresses itself in an act that creates a tenuous, temporary bond and expresses a small fraction of the goodness and power of positive connections between people. It is our spiritual energy that we vaguely sense when we recognize goodness within ourselves and see goodness within others. It is also present when we marvel at a peaceful moment in nature, when we thrill to the sudden flight of a bird, or we bear quiet witness to the running of a deer. Spirit is a world of parallel existence. It is psychic, metaphysical, occupying the same time and space as our physical, material world. Spirit recognized and nurtured has immeasurable power. Enough power, perhaps, to change the world!
Today, there is much evidence that mankind is choosing to dwell in fear. We surround ourselves with messages of doom, FaceBook and similar social media are used as much for spreading malicious gossip as they are for making positive connections. We fear our neighbours, mistrust strangers. Movies and entertainments of all kinds monger fear and stoke the fires of hatred and distrust. Programs intended to be satirical are watched and accepted as normal, acceptable behaviours. Why? Because we choose them. The programs are offered and we don’t say “no.”
Can we as a species consciously recognize how destructive these forces are and choose to turn our backs on them? Wouldn’t we be better off if we helped everyone to seek their highest potential? Why try to boost ourselves at someone else’s expense? One never climbs any higher by lowering another, it only looks that way, like a magic trick, it’s an illusion.
You want to think about something that will serve the greater good? You want to think of something that would be best for the long term? Educate girls! No kidding. That’s key. World-wide, despite the desperate attempts of certain fundamentalist groups whose reason for being is to oppose such an activity, educate girls!
Women are the medium of continuity of humankind. If you educate a girl, she will become an educated woman who will be the first teacher of her child or possibly of your child, guys! Continuity of humanity, continuity of peaceful spirit, continuity of goodness in the face of challenge, that’s what educating girls is about. Making sure that all youngsters are educated to their highest potential with a specific concern for the education of girls is the development of spirit at its best!
Oprah Winfrey is a well-known force for this good in the U.S. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the face as punishment for seeking education and who was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, has made it her life’s mission to promote the universal education of girls too.
I urge people then to forsake one or more of the programs they currently watch that they know are only mindless drivel. Which one is it that’s polluting your mind? Real Housewives of Seacaucus? Moose Dynasty? I Wanna be a Loner Too? Whatever it is, turn your back on it! It is crack-cocaine to you! Spend only half the time you might have dedicated to that pursuit by instead imagining ways you might contribute to the massively beneficial cause of educating girls. Who knows? The doctor/researcher who develops a vaccine for cancer may be a girl who was helped to be educated by your concern, your efforts, your contributions to the cause, your spirit singing like an angel from within!