Interview with Daphne Astor: Consciousness and the Role of the Artist
In January 2002 the artist, writer and naturalist Daphne Warburg Astor conducted the following interview with Rupert Spira. Her questions about his work as a potter lead from a discussion of beauty and form to a deeper exploration of perception and then consciousness itself. Rupert’s expression of the non-dual understanding naturally flows into the topics of science, culture and the role of art, including sacred art, that is, ‘work that comes from a deep desire to explore the true nature of our experience’.
Daphne Astor: What was it about ceramics that first attracted you?
Rupert Spira: In 1975 I saw a retrospective exhibition of Michael Cardew’s at the Camden Arts Centre. Cardew’s pots had a raw, vital, organic quality I’d never seen before. What struck me was their potency, their capacity to communicate.
Around this time I started to make pots myself and to explore this world of form. The first thing I noticed was that, despite the apparent simplicity of the technique I was using and the forms I was making, my work had none of the beauty of the pots that had originally inspired me. So I started to look at ancient ceramics in all the museum collections I could find: Tzu chu, Mimbres, Shino, Oribe, Sung, Tang, Sawankhalok, Jomon, Koryu, Juan.
What were you looking for?
The questions in my mind were simple and compelling: ‘What makes these pots so good? What does their beauty consist of? How is it possible to make such things?’ After these visits I would return to the studio and start making again.
And you repeated this process?
Yes, this cycle of looking and making continues to this day, only what I look at has changed.
In what way?
I have always gone to the place where I thought the answer to my original question could be found. To begin with, I thought that beauty resided in these objects, so I immersed myself in museum collections wherever I found myself in the world. However, when I compared my own work to these pieces there was always something missing.
One of the first things I noticed was that, independent of any volition, my underlying or subliminal attitude was explicit in the finished work. In fact, the underlying attitude was often far more apparent in the finished piece than the initial idea was. I began to be aware of the subtleties of the plastic language of three-dimensional form, and to notice how an object maps the elements that comprise its making like an emotional precipitate. I became fascinated by this capacity of objects to reveal their origin and to express something intangible yet intimate.
So you had to look at what lay behind the physical form?
Beauty is a subjective experience, yet at the same time it appears to be connected to objects. I realised that to find out what beauty is, let alone make something beautiful, it was necessary to understand our relationship to form, and to do this I needed to go back to square one and find out what an object really is. So I started very simply: ‘What is form, what is an object?’
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Where did this lead you?
I didn’t want theory, so I started with my experience of the objective world. It struck me what an extraordinary coincidence it is that all external phenomena – sights, sounds, textures, and so on – correspond so specifically with the sense organs that perceive them, with our capacity to see, hear, feel, and so on.
Is this just coincidence or do our sense organs condition the way reality appears to us? Do they superimpose their own characteristics onto whatever they contact? And if so, what is it that exists as an object prior to this apprehension or superimposition by the senses? What is being mediated through the senses? There is no doubt that something is being experienced but, after all the characteristics imparted by the viewer have been removed, what remains?
William Blake said, ‘Every bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight enclosed by the five senses’. What is this ‘immense world of delight’ that is translated into the medium of sense perception, onto which our senses impose their characteristics? The second thing I noticed was that although the objectivity of the world of objects seems indisputable, it is never actually experienced without consciousness. Moreover it became clear that every object I tried to study was subtly changing all the time and that the consciousness of it was in fact the only stable element of my experience.
So my enquiry into the real nature of an object led to two observations. Firstly, if we divest any object of the characteristics that are imparted by the mind or the senses in order to arrive at a clear understanding of what it actually is prior to or independent of our experience of it, what remains is undeniably present and yet at the same time indefinable and strangely unapproachable.
Secondly, consciousness is always present in every experience of an object. However, in spite of this fact, our culture has conceptualised the separate existence of objects independent of consciousness and, although such an object has never been experienced, much of the way we think and feel is conditioned by this presumption.
How do you reconcile these two observations?
I reasoned that if these two elements – the presence of an object in itself and the consciousness to which it appears – are essential ingredients of every object, there must be a relationship between them. So I began to explore the relationship between consciousness and its object, between that which sees, hears, feels and thinks and that which is seen, heard, felt and thought about. I reasoned that if there is a distinction between the two, there must be some perceivable interface or border between them. I looked for such a border between the subject and its object, but could not find one.
It became increasingly clear that if everything is perceived through consciousness the understanding of this consciousness must be a fundamental prerequisite for the understanding of anything else. So I started to look for the subject of each experience, for consciousness, for that which we refer to as ‘I’, as it obviously held the key to the true nature of the object. However, although I could find many things that I was accustomed to calling my self, each of them in turn required consciousness to be present, and yet this consciousness, although undeniably present, always evaded recognition.
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What do you mean by consciousness?
The word consciousness refers to that which is conscious, to that which experiences, whether by seeing, hearing, smelling, thinking, feeling or whatever. It is the cognitive presence in every experience. It is also that is present when no experience is taking place. The world cannot be separated, except conceptually, from our experience of it, and for each of us that experience is slightly different. But although every person’s experience is changing from moment to moment, the presence of consciousness in this flux of experience is stable and consistent.
What are the implications of this?
We inherit many presumptions about consciousness from our culture, and from these we build a model of psychology that provides the basis of all our activities and relationships and deeply conditions the way we interpret our experience of the world. The two main presumptions, from which all others are derived, are that consciousness comes and goes, and that it is personal and therefore limited.
If we investigate these presumptions we find that neither can be validated by experience or reason. For if we claim that we experience the appearance and disappearance of consciousness, we imply that there must be something present to witness this appearance and disappearance, and this something is in turn what we call consciousness.
Likewise, if we claim that we can see a limit to consciousness, then that which makes this claim, that to which this limit appears, must itself be without limits. So both experience and logic suggest that consciousness is not personal and that it does not disappear.
That is not the view currently held by science.
No, there is a great taboo in scientific circles and in our culture as a whole against the possibility that consciousness may be universal. Even our religion, whose true origin and goal is the understanding of the universal nature of consciousness is deeply prejudiced against this possibility.
Art is the other main channel through which this knowledge can be experienced and made available. Cézanne said, ‘Everything we see falls apart, vanishes. Nature is always the same, but nothing in her that appears to us, lasts. Our art must render the thrill of her permanence along with her elements, the appearance of all her . It must give us the taste of her eternity.’ That which is ‘always the same’ in every experience is consciousness; everything else, each
perception, sensation or thought, changes, vanishes moment by moment. For this reason many people have shunned objective experience in order to have direct access to this presence of consciousness, to ‘that which is always the same’. Monasteries are institutions that are set up for this purpose. But I feel that the artist has a special mission. He has to use the elements of the objective world, the ‘appearance of all her changes’, to explore and reveal that which is changeless, the ‘thrill of her permanence’.
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So the artist has a special responsibility?
Yes, certainly. I would say that the purpose of an artist is to reveal this presence of consciousness through the medium of the senses. So in this respect the artist has a special responsibility. A mystic’s job is to explore the nature of reality, but more is required of the artist. He or she has to simultaneously make manifest the ongoing results of this enquiry in form. So the role of the artist is to provide a way that this presence can be approached and experienced through the senses.
The scientist’s job is to provide a true model of reality, a true model of the universe. The artist’s job is to provide a means whereby this reality can be experienced in a direct way. I think this is what Passolini meant when he said of making films, ‘I am trying to restore to reality its original sacred significance’.
So the artist has a twofold responsibility?
The first we could call contemplation. It is the process of exploring the world of form as it is actually experienced in order to discover its true nature, and this he shares with the mystic. The second involves becoming familiar with one’s medium in order to express and therefore share the results of this enquiry with others.
The artist has to re-present our world of conceptualised objects, separated and extended in space and time, as it really is. He has to reinterpret our model of reality in line with direct experience and to convey this ‘taste of eternity’. We could call this twofold activity contemplation and creativity. Contemplation is the passive aspect; creativity is the dynamic aspect. These are two inseparable aspects of consciousness.
Do you try to express this in your work?
Consciousness itself can never be defined or approached directly, let alone expressed, and yet at the same time it is very obliging. The more attention we give it, the more attention it gives us, so to speak. So we cannot try to express it; yet if we ignore it, it doesn’t appear. We have to court it. In fact, the more interested we become in it, in that which is ‘always the same’, the more it infiltrates our perceptions, thoughts and feelings, and therefore the more it informs our work. But there is no effort to try and express this, or anything else for that matter. That would be very pretentious.
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So do you pay less attention to form now?
No, form becomes vitally important. When any form vanishes, in the gaps in our flow of experience, consciousness becomes aware of itself even if for a moment, only to be temporarily veiled again a moment later by the next appearance. However, there are some forms whose inspiration, knowingly or unknowingly, comes direct from consciousness – that is from love, beauty, intelligence – and these objects have a particular capacity to reveal the space of consciousness out of which they arise and into which they vanish. Their purpose is to reveal their source not to obscure it, in just the same way that a good garment reveals rather than hides the body.
These objects that come from consciousness unmediated by any self-imposed limitations could be said to be sacred art. They have the power to reveal the universality of consciousness, and it is in this capacity that their extraordinary potency lies. It is the exploration of what it takes to make such an object that I am concerned with.
Would you say that sacred art is always free of the ego?
Sacred art is work that comes from a deep desire to explore the true nature of our experience, or from an intuition of it. So if we are trying to find out who we really are and what the world really is, it makes no sense to predefine or limit either. The ego is a self-imposed limitation on our true nature, it is the name we give to consciousness when it identifies itself with less than the totality of itself, and objective phenomenology is a self-imposed limitation on the true nature of the world. Both presumptions have to be suspended for the real investigation to take place.
Sacred art takes us beyond these limitations, because it is inspired by that which is beyond them. If a work of art is inspired by these limitations it will only lead the viewer back to them. We could say that a work of art is like a pathway; it bears the signature of its origin. The senses are the medium through which we travel this path.
Our culture doesn’t place much emphasis on the sacred. In fact we barely know what the sacred is.
It is true that this perspective has been eclipsed by our culture of objectivity and our celebration of despair, hopelessness and isolation. However, even if it is not apparent in our arts, it is very much alive in physics at present, and maybe this is the main arena for this research in our time.
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Do you think that Eastern cultures have paid more attention to sacred art?
It is important not to mistake the exotic for the esoteric. However, it is true that, until recently, the sacred was not suppressed in the East as effectively as it has been in the West, and so perhaps traditionally it was more available there. However, I think it is true to say that there has been much misunderstanding of the sacred in both cultures. For instance, I think the founders of the Mingei movement in Japan felt that there was something impersonal, something universal, in the work they admired.
One of the hallmarks of this universal quality was a lack of pretension, a lack of awkwardness, a lack of striving. In other words, the work did not come from the ego, from a sense of separation, of lack. With this I would agree. However, I think they were misguided in ascribing this lack of ego to a certain group of people, namely uneducated peasants, in associating the authentic in art with the pre-literate. In reaction to this untenable assessment of the authentic, and in a legitimate effort to redress the balance, some contemporary critics have tried to reinstate the ego as the author or all true artistic endeavour.
But true art comes from transparency, not from feelings of isolation, separation or despair. Of course, such feelings often precipitate the sort of openness and sensitivity that are the origin of creativity, but it is important to make this distinction, because without it we may think that these feelings are themselves the source of creativity and we end up with an art form that celebrates the hopeless, banal, vacuous despair of a culture whose paradigm has lost sight of the sacred, of any true enquiry into the nature of reality.
When Messiaen had written Quartet for the End of Timein a concentration camp in 1941, he said that although his great suffering had caused something very deep to stir in himself, nevertheless his music contained everything he truly loved.
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Do you think sacred art is normally found in association with a religion, and if so how do you think we can have true sacred art in our irreligious times?
I wouldn’t say that at all. In fact, religions are very good at suppressing the sacred and therefore suppressing creativity. However, it is for precisely that reason that our era is potentially such an interesting one. This perspective is becoming increasingly available, partly formulated by modern physics and partly by those who have made deep enquiries into other cultures where this understanding has not been so successfully suppressed.
Much of this knowledge was until recently enshrined in the East and, divested of its traditional cultural overtones, shares many of the remarkable insights of contemporary physics. At the same time there are no restrictions imposed on artists as to what they should and shouldn’t do, so these are fertile conditions.
I certainly don’t mean to suggest that this approach is not available in Christianity. I think Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection is one of the most potent symbols of the awakened presence, impersonal sensitivity and fierce clarity in Western art. However, there are many other paintings of Christ whose true subject matter doesn’t extend beyond the personal story of an individual. They have none of the feeling of transcendent intimacy that characterises sacred art. I think some of Morandi’s drawings are very powerful. He didn’t start with an object and then try to break it down, abstract it.
That approach ultimately reinforces the initial perception of the object, for in order to deconstruct something we first have to presume its existence. Morandi started with true unknowing. He didn’t paint an object, nor did he paint the space around it, for both object and space are superimpositions on consciousness. He painted that moment of perception before space and object are artificially conceptualised. They are depicted as two inseparable aspects of the moment of seeing. I think they are sacred.
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Do you consider yourself to be an artist?
If the role of an artist is to explore that which he or she is in reality, it doesn’t make sense to predefine the entity that is under examination. Such a label would limit the scope of our enquiry to some predetermined field, and our work would degenerate from true enquiry to merely a confirmation in apparently new ways of old preconceptions.
So if the term ‘artist’ has any relevance, it could be used to define an intention rather than a type of person. I believe that it is in connection with this that William Blake said, ‘An artist is not a special kind of man, but rather man is a special kind of artist’. He meant that man is one of the vehicles through which consciousness is capable of recognising itself. So the answer to your question is that I do not consider myself an artist, because I truly do not know who or what I am.
How do you know when you have made a good pot?
There are moments when the mind is simply open without intention. These moments occur often, but usually pass unnoticed because of their apparent lack of content. Such a time might occur at the end of a meal with friends, when everyone is satisfied and there is a lull in the conversation. At such a time the mind is open and unfocused and the next train of thought has yet to present itself. If my eye falls on a bowl at such a time, the bowl as it were becomes transparent, revealing with great clarity and vividness what has gone into its making.
I feel this in my own body. Such a moment may not leave much impression in the mind beyond a ‘yes’ or ‘no’; it is a simple recognition. However, the conviction that comes from this moment is unequivocal; it cannot be discussed, nor need it be.
What relevance do you think beauty has for our culture, when far more pressing issues seem to be at stake for most people?
If we look deeply into the causes of isolation, fear, despair, misery, their cause can be traced back to the belief and feeling that consciousness is personal and limited. When consciousness is for a moment relieved of this self-imposed limitation, it experiences its own unlimited nature; and beauty, love and intelligence are expressions of this experience. It is from such an experience, therefore, that the root cause of suffering is undermined.
For this reason I would say that beauty is not only relevant in our culture, but that it is essential. In fact I would go further and say that the more injustice, inequality and suffering in a culture, the more need there is for truly creative artists, for people who are sensitive to the universality of consciousness and who are able to express something of its majesty in form. Ultimately no words can describe this because all words are conceptual, and we are talking about direct experience. That is why it is so important to make beautiful things. In fact, the more conceptual and abstract a culture’s notion of reality, the more important it becomes to have good artists.