Swedenborg tells us that angelic art is far superior to that of terrestrial artists on earth. In fact, angelic art is almost beyond human comprehension and therefore, he offers very few clues as to how we might envision the quality of this artwork. I also suspect that angelic music and dance also follow along the same line.
Having spent a part of my education in art school, Swedenborg’s references about spiritual art definitely captured my mind. However, I not only wondered if the art of terrestrial artists was simply inferior, but actually in opposition to angelic art.
I am talking about something deeper than painting the Virgin Mary lovingly holding the baby Jesus.
I was once at a get-together with a group of spiritual seekers. I found myself sitting next to a woman who was involved with modern and interpretative dance. Having been exposed to the sacred dances and movements developed by George Gurdjieff, I mentioned to her that he created bodily movements that were mathematically designed to portray the laws and process of the universe.
She turned to me and said, “but is it art?”
I inwardly recoiled at hearing this most unexpected—for me—response. And I spent some time after that pondering what art really is.
In Swedenborg’s address at his college graduation he states, “That is not art which reaches its effect by chance.” Whoa! Many of today’s artists allow their work to come forth through the expression of free spirit. Just let it happen spontaneously! Terrestrial art is both personal and one’s free expression. Rules would simply put the artist in creative bondage. That wouldn’t be “true art.”
One of the anti-intuitive themes promoted by mystical philosopher George Gurdjieff was that human art has degenerated since ancient times. Swedenborg states that the “Fall of Man” essentially consisted of exalting personal expression—instead of God’s expression, or, of expressing the sacred laws of the universe. This downward trajectory, if true, would certainly offer tangible evidence as it found new expression in the types of music, dance and art being created throughout history.
Self-expression (from the proprium) was certainly not the style of ancient peoples and cultures. All their art, like Egyptian hieroglyphics and symbolic art in ancient India, embraced cosmological and theological themes. The whirling dervishes of the Sufi religion say they are moving according to the laws of the universe (angular momentum rules the motion of planets and is represented in Planck’s constant of quantum mechanics). When Native Americans dance to the rhythmic beat of drums they feel they are taking part in the “heartbeat” of the universe.
These art forms are completely self-less. Nothing of personal expression drives the rich creativity of these earlier cultures. Art was not originally created simply to entertain our worldly senses— but instead, to communicate special knowledge and help open the door to spiritual salvation.