Where Is Art Headed?

With the world now in lock-down, perhaps it’s a good time to take stock of where art has been, and where it’s going.

The following is Chapter 19 from Swami Kriyananda’s landmark book, Art As a Hidden Message. The vision it presents is of a bright future for the arts as a conduit for high values and personal expasion.

Where Is Art Headed?

There is no shock value in saying that we live in a time of moral and spiritual confusion; it is common knowledge. For most of the Twentieth Century, art has been wandering about in a state of bewilderment. Nowhere in the field is the problem more pronounced than in music.

Classical music, which ought to be in the vanguard of meaningful expression, has lost touch with melody. How? The explanation is best stated poetically: The fountain of melody is situated in the valley of the heart. It is fed by streams of inspiration, but vulnerable to the desiccating winds of intellectuality. When these blow unremittingly, the valley becomes an arid desert: Faith is then lost; hope is lost; love is lost. And the fountain of melody ceases to flow.

Swamiji signs books after a talk in Palo Alto. With Nayaswami Asha.

The chords also in classical music have tended toward dissonance, signaling inner tension and nervousness. The rhythms are jagged, as a person’s speech is when he is mentally confused. And the supportive instrumentation is heavy with self-importance, pride, and callousness to the suffering of others.

In the visual arts, the impact of moral and spiritual confusion is softened only by the fact that color and design affect our feelings less directly than music. Some day, perhaps, the visual arts will be refined to the point where light itself is used, rather than reflected light on a canvas.

In literature, finally, the moral predicament is not only implied, but stated explicitly. All too much so!

Popular music at least has retained some of its melody. For even when people are confused, they are clear about their basic emotions: anger, self-pity, romantic love. Popular music, in expressing them, is still capable of doing so melodically. The melody here is fading too, however – not because it is desiccated by intellectuality, but because it is dying for want of nourishment. The streams of inspiration have been dammed up by logs of egotism and self-absorption. In this sense, popular taste today is most worrying of all, for what it reveals is not confusion, but moral and spiritual paralysis.

The folk music of the past was exuberant, earthy, cheerful – or, when its mood darkened, heavy with sentiment and tragedy. Had it been expressed on a canvas, the artist would have laid the paint on with a trowel. Part of the charm of that music was its lack of self-consciousness. It accepted unquestioningly the customs and mores of the day. That recognition of an established order in life began to evaporate with the frayed nervousness of ragtime music. It was reaffirmed, but with bombast and unconvincingly, by the music of the big bands with their heavy emphasis on “I, my, me, mine.” Since then, popular music has virtually surrendered its innocence to the pounding beat, the monotonous melodic line, and the absence of subtlety in chord progressions that are the rallying cry of rock music and its offshoots. There is a kind of desperate howl in this music, suggestive of a pack of animals on a rampage.

What does this trend connote, if not a collective mind bent on self-destruction?

Wherever one travels in the world nowadays, the same maniacal beat assaults the ears. Cars pulsating with “heavy metal” or “rap” music make their presence felt long before they are even seen. What this “music” does to the minds of the occupants – to say nothing of their hearing – is serious cause for concern.

One wonders if our planet is not gathering force to purge itself of this epidemic of human confusion by some global cataclysm. Mankind seems to be actively courting disaster. The bullying beat of rock music and its increasingly rowdy descendants is inviting a grand finale of devastation: a massive explosion of some kind, whether by world war, or worldwide depression, or natural cataclysm – or a terrible combination of all three.

After every storm, fortunately, there ensues a time of calmness. Whatever disaster we attract, I believe it will, in the end, prove a blessing. Nor will it necessarily be an unmitigated evil even during its occurrence. For too much ease is always an impediment to progress. Hardship, like the grain of sand in an oyster around which a pearl is formed, affords us wonderful opportunities for inner growth.

And the first sign of this inner growth will appear, I believe, in the arts – especially in music.

If I am right so far about the future – if, in other words, we really are dancing on the brink of an abyss – then may this book play an important role in persuading people to pull back and take stock of their position. I earnestly hope that what I have written will inspire a few artists, at least, with the faith too many of them have lost. If so, perhaps, gradually, art will be restored to its true role, which is to provide guidance, inspiration, and deeper understanding of life and of the universe around us.

When did people’s sensitivity to beauty begin to diminish? It began after the dawn of the Industrial Revolution – in itself, in many ways, a benign phenomenon, but esthetically and in other ways a disaster. Profit and similar “practical” considerations began to take precedence over moral and spiritual values. Chimneys belched smoke up to the sky, covering cities with soot. Since that time the smoke has diminished, but toxicity has grown to the point that I can’t imagine any self-respecting planet putting up with it for much longer. In some of the largest cities, the air is so polluted that it is difficult even to breathe.

Earlier, I mentioned John Keats’s lament for the rainbow. He wrote, “There was a rainbow once in heaven. It is listed in the catalogue of common things.” Keats’s lament would be even more heartfelt today, when the rainbows over smog-blanketed cities have all but disappeared, and might well be listed along with condors and other fauna as an “endangered species.”

From the home I built recently in Italy, the view is beautiful. From a height of 800 meters (about 2,400 feet), the plains of Trasimeno stretch away in the distance to my left. The city of Perugia, concealed by intervening hills, casts a warm glow into the sky at night. Alas, on some days the view can be enjoyed only in memory. The valleys a short distance below me are barely visible, due to pollution.

The Industrial Revolution brought many advantages, including products, previously available to only a few, that now were accessible to many. The dark side of the story, however, was that people’s refinement was somehow blunted, and their enjoyment of beauty, vitiated.

A creeping paralysis occurred in people’s capacity for feeling. They no longer asked of anything, “Is it beautiful?” Instead what they asked was, “Does it work?” and, “How much is it worth?” Nowhere is this shift of emphasis more poignantly evident than on the island of Bali.

When I first visited Bali in 1958, it was a place of pristine charm. Terraced rice fields stepped down gracefully to little streams that flowed through verdant valleys. There were few cars. Electricity was almost non-existent. Few roads were paved. People traveled about on bicycles.

People’s greatest delight lay in the dances, organized for their own enjoyment and not as tourist attractions. Hardly a thousand tourists visited there annually in those days. Those who came had to accept conditions that, by modern standards, were far from luxurious. (I remember one tourist complaining that his bed in the best – and perhaps the only – hotel in Den Pasar, the capital, was “so hard, I had to sit up halfway through the night just to rest my weary bones.”) Bali in 1958 seemed to me a land where artists reincarnated. The beauty of the land and the tranquillity of the villages encouraged every artistic activity: music, sculpture, painting, dancing. All were in full flower.

I’ve visited there in more recent years. Bali, I regret to say, has been “discovered.” Hundreds of thousands of tourists stream there every year; everything is changing for the worse. The landscape, the people, the atmosphere – all have been affected. Cars dodge determinedly about on paved, though still narrow, roads. Electricity has modernized even the small villages. High-rise hotels jostle one another for elbow room. And wherever one goes, one finds the hustling spirit in full swing.

One can still see Balinese dancing and listen to the xylophone-like music of the gamelan, but these performances are put on in tourist compounds. The visitor no longer treads uncertainly down back lanes to lantern-lit places of native entertainment. Everything is organized to maximize profit. In the process, unfortunately, something precious has been lost.

Bali was the most beautiful land I have ever visited. Its beauty, though still evident, is contained now, as if protected under glass. Bali, today, is an open-air museum.

Such, wherever one goes, is the world today.

I am not really worried about the future of mankind. It is the present that concerns me, rather. Humanity, and our beleaguered planet, will recover in time even if it takes some dramatic event to reawaken people to life’s basic values.

Meanwhile, however, there is more from which humanity needs to recover than the shock waves of the Industrial Revolution. That sociological upheaval amounted to only the first knell in the clock tower of human faith. Midnight had come, and the end of a day. More knells remained to be struck.

Darwin’s publication, in 1859, of his book, The Origin of Species, shattered many people’s faith in the divine purpose of life. Thus sounded the second knell.

The third knell sounded near the end of the Nineteenth Century, with Sigmund Freud’s publications regarding abnormal psychology.

Charles Darwin persuaded people to define themselves in terms of the subnormal. Sigmund Freud persuaded them to define themselves in terms of the abnormal.

Ideas have consequences. If we really are only primates “putting on dog,” so to speak – monkeys dressed up in fancy clothes so as not to look like animals – then of course it is a mere affectation to try to refine our animal nature. A clown might just as well pretend to be a king as a human being pretend to be a saint, or to be possessed of noble qualities. If our animal nature defines us as we really are, then aberrations in human behavior may simply be, as Freud said, an attempt to suppress that reality. In this case, kindness is simply a disguise for avarice, generosity a disguise for personal ambition, and altruistic love a disguise for the more basic reality of lust.

Where the arts are concerned, exaggerated emphasis on the subconscious has produced more confusion than enlightenment. The best symbol for this trend was, perhaps, that “painting” by Picasso’s monkey to which I alluded earlier.

The Twentieth Century has been trying to cope with the apparent destruction of a vast number of fundamental articles of faith.

One more knell remained to be struck, the most decisive of them all, and ringing out the remaining tones to the hour of midnight. That knell was Einstein’s discovery of the Law of Relativity. Many writers, basing their reasoning on a superficial understanding of his discovery, reached the conclusion that absolutes don’t exist in moral and spiritual law, either. Truth, they declared, is whatever anyone wants it to be.

I mentioned earlier that I wrote a book years ago, Crises in Modern Thought. There I explained that values, although relative, are directionally so. Our understanding of human values, in other words, is actually liberated by the concept of relativity. It is in a position to grow endlessly toward perfection, now that it is no longer limited by absolutist concepts of right and wrong. Evolution, too, I wrote there, has only to be viewed afresh for Darwin’s thesis to give deeper meaning to life. It hasn’t snatched meaning away altogether. Again, Freud’s investigations into the subconscious have opened the door to a vitally important discovery, one that is only recently beginning to be discussed: the superconscious.

There is no reason whatever to assume that, if things don’t mean exactly what we thought, they must therefore mean nothing at all. Moral and spiritual realities are by no means lost to us. Darwin never actually robbed us of our dignity as human beings: He helped us, rather, by affirming our connection with all life, to see that human dignity is a state achieved only after hard evolutional struggle, the ultimate goal of which is to reclaim our true dignity as souls.

Freud hasn’t stripped us of the rationale for idealism: He has only shown the limitations of human nature, which prevent us from attaining those ideals.

And Einsteinian relativity never robbed us of universal values. It only undermined moral absolutism, which ultimately obstructs our development toward limitless wisdom.

The most important discovery of this age has been the fact that matter, far from being solid, is a vibration of energy. This realization is, increasingly, defining our understanding of reality. It is this discovery, above all, that convinces us we live in a New Age. The awareness that energy is the reality, and that the solidity of matter is transient, is changing our very view of the universe.

People are coming more and more to view life in terms of fluidity and change, including in this view their traditional beliefs, their institutions, their customs. Nothing seems chiseled in granite any longer. Welling up in human consciousness is a new sense of freedom. In the first exuberance of this spirit, many people have plunged headlong into the roiling eddies of sense indulgences. Hedonism however, in time, becomes tiresome. As we accustom ourselves to this New Age of Energy, people will regain their native equilibrium.

One unfortunate aspect of technology has been a universal increase in complexity. How many people, today, can keep abreast even of the information deemed essential to their own line of work? Specialization prevents people ever increasingly from studying anything outside their own particular fields of interest.

Human nature simply cannot continue in this direction indefinitely. The brain is not made to contain and process effectively an infinite amount of information. No matter how many facts we “download” onto computer disks, there must come a time when all this outward focus of attention causes our nervous systems simply to break down and refuse to function. Many people already are dysfunctional, no doubt in reaction against the complexity we have created around us.

The future of mankind will, I am perfectly certain, include a return to simplicity. Art will not merely join the trend: It will actively help in bringing it about.

Art in future will become more interiorized, as people everywhere revert to a focus on life that is less technological, more people-oriented. Art once again will express human aspirations and ideals. It will abandon, no doubt with a sigh of relief, its fascination with techniques and artistic “isms.” Social conflicts that drown perception of the individual in a formless sea of humanity will cease to claim the fervent support of artists.

The great historical themes of the past, and the grandiose sweep with which they were depicted, will, I believe, give way to a more intimate telling. The masses of humanity, so often depicted in those works, will be reduced to individuals, supported not by milling crowds but by their own relationship to truth, to God, and to the universe. These changes will appear naturally, as a result of the shift in people’s attitudes toward life.

Symphony orchestras will, I think, become relics of the past. The impressive grandeur of symphonic music reached its peak already with Beethoven. To travel indefinitely down that road would require an increasingly fervent devotion to complexity, just when human beings are beginning to long for a return to the simpler life, at their inner center.

Artistic emphasis will shift toward greater subtlety and sensitivity in self-expression. People will tire of the sensory overload brought on by so many instruments laboring together in a strenuous workout. The acclaim accorded to conductors for their skill at controlling large orchestras will subside, as people’s admiration shifts to people who show skill at controlling themselves.

In keeping with an increasing love for personal freedom, small ensembles, such as quartets, trios, and duets, in which the instruments each get a turn at the melody line, will become increasingly the vogue.

The restlessness that is suggested by rapid 16th and 32nd notes, so common to classical music and so often necessary in piano music, for example, where volume fades away fairly quickly to silence, will be transformed by electronically produced notes, which can be sustained indefinitely.

Sampled music – notes, that is to say, that have been digitally recorded from live instruments – will turn out not to be the disaster so many musicians now dread. It will become possible, instead, for more musicians to play solo against studio-generated orchestras. Thus, musicians, instead of seeking posts for little pay in large orchestras – where much of the music selected offends their personal taste – and perhaps padding their income by teaching resentful little children or by performing in places that are demeaning to their talents, will be able to find audiences for music they produce inexpensively, and with greater personal satisfaction. Composers, by the same token, will find it easier to get their works played, and to make a living by their art.

For music will come, in time, to be seen as a necessity of life, and not merely a form of entertainment. Indeed, people will understand the importance of all the arts to a healthy, harmonious, and happy existence. Art generally, therefore, and music in particular, will be supported financially by an appreciative public. I even foresee the day when musicians will be salaried by societies and individuals to perform regularly in town squares, parks, and other places frequented by the public for purposes of rest and relaxation.

Musical compositions will, I suspect, offer more latitude for interpretation, as society’s prevailing mood shifts away from regimentation and control and toward greater freedom of self-expression. Musicians will begin to think of themselves as working in cooperation with composers, and therefore, in a sense, as co-composers. Music notation itself will become more skeletal, offered more as a suggestion to the musician than as an absolute directive.

Man’s search for understanding will turn inward; it will plumb the depths of consciousness. Art, therefore, will become more personal; it will focus less on mass events, social reforms, and political struggles. People will lose faith in the ability of big government to solve their problems. They will become more independent in conscience, as freedom and individual responsibility become increasingly accepted as social norms. Art will mirror this direction of thought.

I doubt that chords in music will be abandoned, though they will no doubt reflect the general return to simplicity. Chords express a dependence on group thinking and interaction. This emphasis will diminish, I believe, as individuals increasingly assume responsibility for their own lives. As faith in higher values returns and is perceived as a personal, not an institutional, issue, greater importance will be given to melody.

Importance will be given also to the human voice, as the instrument par excellence for expressing human feelings and emotions. Electronic amplification will render it less necessary for singers to use their bodies as sounding boards to fill a concert hall. The operatic singing style – which makes it difficult sometimes to discern whether the singer is bellowing a war chant or crooning a love song – will be replaced by more sensitive voice production. Increasingly, indeed, the “sounding board” of the future will be, not the human body, but the “chakras,” or foci of spiritual energy in the body. Singers will learn to project feeling with their voices by infusing them with energy from the heart “chakra.” Peace and a feeling of expansion will be expressed in their voices by projecting the sound from the throat “chakra.” Joy and divine power will fill their tones when they direct them through the “spiritual eye” between the eyebrows.

As for painting, it will be expressed more, I suspect, in the form of light rays, and less through pigments on a canvas.

People will keep fewer paintings on their walls, and will devote more energy to enjoying each of them in turn. Indeed, in keeping with the new emphasis on simplicity, there will be less of a tendency to surround oneself with a plethora of anything.

Again, the vibrations in a work of art will be considered its essential reality. Thus, people will no longer hang works on their walls that, even if well-executed, project vibrations they don’t want in their lives.

Recently, I visited a metaphysical bookshop in Australia, where I was traveling on a lecture tour. The owners, a husband and wife, asked me if I would like to have my photograph taken by their “aura” camera. “Why not?” I replied. This sort of thing would have been ridiculed a few years ago. Today, however, it seems to be fairly widely accepted. The hues in my “aura” photograph were those I knew inwardly to be true.

Of special interest to me were other photographs the owners later showed me of themselves. The colors in these photographs, and the way they blended together, corresponded strikingly to what I sensed about their personalities. They were pleasant people; therefore the colors surrounding them were pleasant also.

The wife showed me two more “aura” photographs of herself. One of them had been taken after a physical healing; the other one, just before the healing. The contrast between these two was remarkable. It struck me how much more effectively these “aura” photos captured them than any normal photograph could have done.

Abstract expression in art is, I believe, here to stay. It will be more sensitive in future, however, appealing to people’s inchoate feelings and soul-aspirations, and will consist no longer of indiscriminate splurges of color that basically say nothing at all.

Impressionistic painting will be understood to have laid the groundwork for a more subjective, more thoughtful view of life. Art will abandon excessive realism as sterile and uninspired. Artists will attempt to suggest energy fields around things, and will place less emphasis on physical shapes. Matter will come to be considered a fleeting expression of ever-evolving spiritual realities.

Sculpture, inevitably, will become less heavy-handed, and will no longer hold up a symbolic mirror to a soul-less technocracy. It will suggest forms as mere veils for subtle energies and states of consciousness. Sculptors will strive to instill faith in people, and to deepen their insight into the meaning of life, instead of devoting their art to mockery. The forms they create, though solid, will suggest fluidity and grace. Sculptures of the future may combine crystalline shapes with plays of light, also – not in a spirit of whimsy, but as a serious effort to raise people’s consciousness.

Architecture will be accepted as a fine art, for people will come to understand the need for bringing harmony to their environment. There will be a shift of emphasis from creating a personal space for oneself to the creation of an environment that everyone can enjoy. Because buildings are visible to everyone – unlike paintings, which can be seen only in homes and in museums – architecture will be given special importance among the arts. The concept of utilitarianism, though not rejected, will be expanded to include the utility to human existence of grace and beauty. The primary emphasis in architecture will be on space, light, and harmony.

Color in architecture will be more important than in the past. It will be introduced with a view to blending harmoniously with Nature, even to the point of enhancing natural features that the eye might not have noticed otherwise.

Architects will come to understand that buildings have the potential for expressing human values, and should not be imposed on a community without regard for those values. They will find it necessary, before beginning their careers, to study religion, philosophy, and the other arts, that their structures be brought into line with the more sensitive development of human feeling.

Literature, finally, will cease to denigrate noble motives, justifying the practice as the “in” thing to do. The average writer will no longer pride himself on discerning base motives for high ideals. Writers will seek, rather, to inspire people to lofty thoughts and aspirations. Darwin and Freud, though not rejected, will be seen as having provided only rudimentary insights into the evolution of species and of individual human beings. Man’s longing for self-perfection will be perceived, not as a distortion of his animal nature, but as being due to a deeper-than-conscious memory of his eternal reality. No longer will idealism be treated as a mere bubble in need of pricking by the needles of cynicism. Man’s abiding reality will be seen to be, more than ever before, his higher Self.

People will be less concerned with humanity’s “sinful” nature, inherited from Adam and Eve, and held up reproachfully as proof of our eternal guilt before God. They will find it more and more natural to view their soul-nature, inherited from God, as their reality, however long-hidden by fogs of delusion.

Faith will grow out of intimate, personal experience, and will be less a blind affirmation of untested beliefs. Formal church services will increasingly be replaced by forms of worship that reflect this new faith. Religious art will contribute to this shift in values.

Choirs will be organized for the upliftment above all of the singers themselves, and will not focus on productions intended primarily to impress audiences. More common, in keeping with the spirit of simplicity, will be offerings of song and music by soloists, or by small singing and instrumental groups. There will be greater participation by congregations in singing to God, rather than singing about God. Gone will be the implied declaration to God, “Lo, together we worship Thee!” Implied, rather, will be the statement, “Beloved, we worship Thee in the hidden sanctuary of our own hearts.”

God will no longer be thought of as only masculine. “He,” the Heavenly Father and Imperial Lord, will be perceived also as “She,” the tender and compassionate Divine Mother. For others, God will be thought of as Friend, or as the Infinite Beloved. God will be perceived above all as existing beyond form: as infinite wisdom, love, and joy.

Religious music will be not so much shouted in loud affirmation as it will be offered – murmured, even – in loving communion. Religious art, also, will be the artist’s act of communion, and will incline, sensitively, toward understatement.

Melodies once again will be beautiful, as people achieve greater clarity in their faith. Paintings will satisfy, and will no longer deliberately threaten people’s peace of mind in the name of “giving them art.” Art everywhere will become more deeply meaningful, and will play a role in bringing humanity back to sanity once again, as artists strive to reawaken faith in people’s hearts. Religious art will once more be at the forefront of artistic expression. Its themes, however, will no longer emphasize the differences between one religion and another, but will awaken in hearts everywhere a deeper awareness of universal truths.

Self-realization will be the major theme in artistic expression. Gone will be the former emphasis on articles of dogmatic faith.

These things I deeply believe. And I dedicate my poor efforts to bringing this world, though described here as belonging to the future, into present manifestation.