Synthesis of East and West

A painting, you know, it’s all dirty material. But it’s about transformation, taking that earth, that heavy earthen kind of thing, turning it into air and light.-Brice Marden

Asian scholar, Ernest Fenollosa anticipated a future cultural synthesis of East and West that would emphasize spirituality and harmony.[1] Traditionally Eastern aesthetics highlight inner sciences (intuitive/spiritual) and Western art focuses on outer sciences (analytical/rational).[2] Fenollosa’s vision has come to fruition in Kosmorganica.

Art experiences that elicit presence, contemplation, heightened interconnectivity, perceptual experience,  and the sublime may describe a walk in a Zen garden, but that does not make those characteristics exclusively Eastern nor Western. One could also be describing an Albert Bierstadt landscape or a Jackson Pollock painting. The three have no likeness in style nor technique, but they have a similar effect on the visitor.  The misinterpretation of a cultural work could be the result of focusing on styles rather than the philosophy behind the work.

Abstract painter, Franz Kline insisted his black and white brushstrokes must not be seen as variations of Asian art and in particular its calligraphy.[3] Instead, he adhered to formalist concerns such as contrast, line, composition, quality of the paint on paper. Most would agree that the brushstrokes of black ink on paper of a Klein next to a Japanese calligraphy master share similar qualities. Yet, this is a surface reading. One explanation why the two have a striking resemblance regardless of the artists’ individual concerns is based upon a collective conscious aesthetics. Subliminal perceptions of collective memory are captured in both. [4] The Japanese calligrapher is more conscious of the internal mechanisms behind the spontaneous, lyrical ink strokes on paper than Kline. In Asian calligraphy, the dance of the brush leaves traces of ink on paper which convey the energy or qi of the artist.[i]

Another abstract painter, Pollack alludes to this idea of a collective memory that permeates his own work subconsciously. He disagreed with interpretations of his work that he was imitating Asian art. Although a fan of Jung and the unconscious, he admitted that perhaps an early memory of seeing calligraphy may have unconsciously informed his work.[5]

The ancient Indian Vedic texts refer to a collective consciousness field that consists of a group mind and the concept of a world family. [6] In the association of the Klein painting and the example of Asian calligraphy, there is a similar reoccurrence of patterns and rhythms reflecting interior intuition. Kosmorganians call the two related internal patterns, vibrational cousins. Vibrational cousins are aligned with the biological concept of morphic fields. [7] Biologist Rupert Sheldrak explains that species learn across distances without external communication. Instead, an energetic field affects a species across space so that the learning of one group of species travels to the same species in another region. Although scientists have yet to empirically prove how these morphic fields communicate, the transmission of learning at a distance has been observed in mammals.

Vibrational cousins are ineffable and therefore best manifested in non-literary works. Historian Robert Welsh pointed out how Kupka and Mondrian are stylistically worlds apart, yet their inner philosophy echos one another. Art is a conduit between the microcosm of earthly existence and the macrocosm of everlasting spiritual existence.[8]

The mind of the sage, being in repose, becomes the mirror of the universe, the speculum of all creation -Chuang Tzu (c. 4th century BC)

Waves of  East-West synthesis

When the Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu finished his text on the philosophy of art, True Nature of Imaginative Vision,  it was 300 years after the death of Pythagoras. Despite the gap in time and distance, both philosophers taught that through artmaking humanity can bridge Heaven with Earth.[9] Pythagoras chose music as one of his daily divine acts not for the gods but of the gods. By playing an instrument the musician becomes the music. Art was a transcendental practice that required the artist to merge with the object they feel, intuit and observe with their sense. [10]  In the ancient Advaita Vedic text, Upanishads, the authors recognized this fusion of the maker and their work as a transcendental act.[11] True knowledge of an object is obtained when knower and known, seer and seen, melt in an act of transcending distinction, ‘anayar advaita’.[12]  Medieval Scholastic Christianity and European Romanticism echoed the same principle of achieving perfection once the artist becomes its subject. In Dante’s words, He who paints a figure, if he cannot be it, cannot draw it.[13] To fuse with one’s subject, ultimately derived from the pantheist notion that God is equivalent to nature and the cosmos.  By imitating forms found in nature and the cosmos one is unifying with the divine.

Design by divine

Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Indians, and Chinese believed that forms in painting, architecture, music, and town planning should be designed according to cosmic divine order.[14]  The ancients were specialists in building their temples according to divine proportions and geometric shapes sometimes referred to as sacred geometry or geomancy. Indian Vedic art and Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist art were concerned with imitating forms of nature through the interior, the heart and soul, shên, and not through the exterior, likeness of appearances. [15] Interior knowledge is true knowledge or pramana in Sanskrit. You’re painting the idea and not merely the shape[16] advised ancient Chinese art theorist, Hsieh Ho. In traditional Indian art, the sensational bhuta-matra and the intelligible/formalism prajna-matra are equally relevant. [17]

In traditional Vedic and Chinese aesthetics, objects observed in space are seen as colored shapes and patterns with an all-over composition with no fixed central point.[18] With no ground, forms float, allowing on-lookers to constantly shift their point of view.[19] Space is not a measurable plane to divide up mathematically and geometrically as in a Gothic or Renaissance painting. Without this fixed point and lack of static ground, the timeless dreamy quality of infinity persists. The idea that humans are considered a part of nature, and not above or separate from it,  is demonstrated in the depiction, placement, and size of figures that blend into the scenery. This ecocentric perspective is shared in Kosmorganica aesthetics.

When the Chinese painted calligraphy, animals, and landscapes, they believed the spirit is rendered in the rhythm of things.[20] The ancient Greeks and Egyptians also glorified harmony, pattern, and rhythm in divine architecture, music, and poetry. Vedic culture applied rhythm and pattern to their dense reliefs of deities and architectural forms. Modern abstract western European and Russian artists sought musical references with the composition, light, and color of their paintings. In his manifesto, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, modern painter, Kandinsky explains that musical analogies like rhythm, harmony, and reverberation, are superior to representational forms when the artist wants to express the vibrations of their soul.[21] . Kosmorganian art expands on these traditions that respect the internal intelligence of shên and the external intelligences of harmonic proportion, rhythm, and prajna-matra.

The transcendental art experience, harmony, and rhythm have been part of Eastern and Western thought and artistic practice for thousands of years. Eastern cultures tend to adhere more consistently to these ancient principles throughout time, more so than Western Europeans. From the 14th century Renaissance to the present, Western European philosophy of art departs from these unifying ideas.  Although waves of resistance to rational materialism of the scientific Age of Reason, revived cosmological, spiritual, harmony, and the sublime in art. These moments of temporary affinity fall under numerous titles from the 18th century to the mid 20th century. They include Naturphilosophen[22],  Symbolism, Romanticism, Abstraction, and Suprematism. Additions from the 1960s to the present include, Abstract Expressionism, Color field painting, Earthworks, Minimalism, Sound art, performance ritual, Ambient, Atmospheric art, Contemplative arts, Immersive installation, and multisensory rooms.  Kosmorganian art is an umbrella term that draws from these diverse themes under a cohesive philosophy of artmaking that dares to include the metaphysical in a period of skepticism of internal intelligence.[23]

[1] Pyne, k. & Atkinson,S in Munroe, A., Exhibition The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860 – 1989.  (2009).p.89-99 New York, NY: Guggenheim Museum.

[2] Robert Thurman regarded the West’s failure to not develop their ‘inner’ sciences as being more detrimental to the East’s not developing their ‘outer’ sciences. Clarke, J. J. (1997). Oriental enlightenment: The encounter between Asian and Western thought. London: Routledge.151.

[3] Winther-Tamaki, B. (2009) The Asian Dimensions of Postwar Abstract Art. In Munroe, A. (2009). Exhibition, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860 – 1989. 145-157 New York, NY: Guggenheim Museum.

[4] Jung, C. G. (1992). The collected works of C G Jung: Vol 7. Routledge.(page)

[i] Ingold, T. (2016). Lines: A brief history. London: Routledge.52.

[5]Landau, E. G. (2005). Reading abstract expressionism: Context and critique. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.6,133.

[6] Harung, H. S. (1996). Vedic Psychology and the Edda Poems. Journal of Human Values2(1), 19–36.

[7] Biologist, parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake holds that a species learns through mutations of a morphogenetic field of past memories and repeated patterns. He believes that the development of a species occurs by collective learning through osmosis.  Sheldrake, R., & Sheldrake, R. (2009). Morphic resonance: The nature of formative causation. Rochester, Vt: Park Street Press. pp. XIV.

[8] Walsh, R. Tuchman, M., Freeman, J., Los Angeles County Museum of Art., Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, Ill.), & Haags Gemeentemuseum. (1986). Sacred Geometry: French Symbolism and Early Abstraction. In The Spiritual in Art: Abstract painting: 1890-1985. (pp 63-111)Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.p.84.

[9] Coomaraswamy, A. K. (1956). The transformation of nature in art. New York: Dover Publications.57.

[10] Coomaraswamy refers to the Upanisads that refer to the process of how the mind produces forms of devata or aspects of God and reality comes from within not exterior. Knowing an object isn’t measured physically, but when the observer merges with the observed in a transcendental process. Ch’an Buddhist art seeks the realization of the divine by the artist imitating nature in painting. By painting, the artist is seeing nature in himself and is ordering sensations and intelligibility toward perfection. In this way, the artist is connecting Heaven with Earth. Coomaraswamy, A. K. (1956). The transformation of nature in art. New York: Dover Publications.6-7,57. Need page number reference. Lawlor, R. (1989) Homage to Pythagoras. Thames and Hudson.

[11] Ibid.6.

[12] Ibid.

[13]  Dante’s theory of art in Julius Scholaser(1924) Die Kunstliteratur. Vienna.pp. 66-77.  In Coomaraswamy, A. K. (1956). The transformation of nature in art. New York: Dover Publications.7.

[14] Mander, W. (2020, Jan. 21.) Pantheism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (Retrieved 2021, Jan. 1). 35.

[15] Ibid.6.

[16] Ibid. 15.

[17] In Coomaraswamy, A. K. (1956). The transformation of nature in art. New York: Dover Publications. 29.

[18] In Coomaraswamy, A. K. (1956). The transformation of nature in art. New York: Dover Publications.29,56.

[19] Bao, Y., Yang, T., Lin, X., Fang, Y., Wang, Y., Pöppel, E., & Lei, Q. (2016). Aesthetic Preferences for Eastern and Western Traditional Visual Art: Identity Matters. Frontiers in psychology7, 1596.

[20]  Guo li. Pyne, k. & Atkinson, S in Munroe, A., Exhibition The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860 – 1989.  (2009).p.89-99 New York, NY: Guggenheim Museum

[21] Kandinsky, W., & Sadleir, M. (1977). Concerning the spiritual in art. Toronto: Dover Publications.19-25.

[22] The Naturphilosophen (nature philosohers)  were second generation Idealists of philosophers and scientists revived a pantheist vision of the world, whereby all things in the universe have a conscious mind. This group split from Kant in that they believed reality was more than just color, pattern, sounds and sensations. They added a mystical notion that one can know the true essence of matter and nature by merging with it or ‘becoming one with nature.’ Gamwell, L.  (2005). Exploring the Invisible: Art, science, and the spiritual – revised and expanded edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.13-15.

[23] ‘It is as if the near-consensus among art world professionals that modern art must be kept free of spirituality so that it can maintain its high level of seriousness is a defensive action solely to preserve the preferences of the art world itself.’ Art critic Clement Greenberg paved the way for secular formalism as the ‘sole sophisticated way to analyze art.’ Spretnak, C. (2016). Spiritual dynamic in modern art: Art history reconsidered, 1800 to the present.3-8.