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A Touch of Tao

There have been maybe millions of crucifixion paintings made, and so few of them clearly and convincingly communicate that feeling of deep tragedy that generations keep responding to. Others we say are too decorative or too illustrative. That thinking about tragedy is not the same as being a victim of tragedy. The decorative or illustrative are just symbols of tragedy without possessing its emotional reality in any real way. It was not only the skill of storytelling on the part of the artist or their arrangement of plastic elements, no matter how dynamic, that was to generate such emotional responses. There is some invisible entity, some subtle glimpse, some small nuance that opens that door. It is in these subtleties that powerful emotional responses reverberate, and in those subtleties exist the few intuitions that might be called an artist’s absolute own. These intuitions are the artist’s “Inner Eye” and it is this “Inner Eye” that moves us so.

It is the artist that has had some ability since birth to keep in touch with the inner self, maybe more than others. People other than artists are connected to this self through works that artists make, and this connection is called an epiphany or an aesthetic experience. In other cultures this experience is called Rasa, Satori or Enlightenment.

In primal cultures, people who could do this were called Shamans. The word Shaman comes from the language of Evenk, a hunting and reindeer herding tribe in Siberia. In the strictest sense, a Shaman refers to a practitioner who can will his or her spirit to leave the body and journey to the upper and lower worlds. In Shamanic thinking, every element of the world around us, whether human, animal, tree, or rock is imbued with spirits. These spirits are consciousness and can also be interpreted as representing the essences that underlie surface appearances. In some cultures (American Indian) for example, the Shaman was a person who had survived a terrible fever or tremendous emotional upheaval. Through this ordeal, they were again strongly reconnected to this deep consciousness. A Shaman could reconnect other people to the forces and “gods” in nature. The world was seen as one, a practical reality, and “the other” on top of or under it. This “other” is reality as it really is—an unconditioned view of reality. In these societies, all ages were alive and vital at the same time. All ages were contemporaneous. It was necessary for each member of the tribe to see this “other” world for the well-being of the tribe. It was a process through which they would experience a collective consciousness and then would be connected with their inner selves and to that “other” world. That through the collective consciousness we can arrive at the intuition of singular-self.

It is the modern artist who is working out of the idea of individuality, usually with a sense of separation from the tribe, sometimes with protest and recrimination from that tribe. Through a collection of paths from the past and subtle inventions of the present the artist can connect us with that “other” reality. 

If art has a worth outside of social and economic importance, it is the ability to touch areas of the psyche that we are not normally aware of. These places are reality. They are places without prejudice or wars. These places of awareness are the inner life, the inner eye. They are the self before any I, You, or Them exist.

In perennial nonbeing you see mystery,
and in perennial being you see appearance.
Though the two are one and the same,
once they arise, they differ in name.
One and the same they’re called dark enigma,
dark-enigma deep within dark-enigma,
gateway of all mystery.


—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 4th Century B.C.E.


Bill Jensen

Bill Jensen is an artist. He lives in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2018

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