Art as Ritual

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Culture comes up out of the earth, vibrating through the body,
as each individual affirms life and expresses her or his unique creativity.
It is kept alive by consciously honoring the sacredness of the four
Great Mysteries: food, sex, birth and death. The ceremonial arts are channels
for people to express their relationship with these primal mysteries.

—Sedonia Cahill

Art is a reflection of Spirit, both human and more-than-human. It is an acknowledging and glorifying of the inner essence of the subject, the luminous essence that our creations can at best only allude to. It is the connection of vision to the visible, spirit to the physical, fostered by our own loving hands, the mixing on the palette of pain and joy, struggle and hope.

There’s an honesty to real art that makes it more than decoration, that raises it to the level of ritual. One celebrates not only the lines and color of a particular landscape, but the character that breeds and defines its landed features, the spirits of place honored in deft strokes by one who loves the land in the hush of compost and gray of winter as much as the brilliant warmth of Spring greens. And it is just as true for our poetry, correspondence and diary entries, for craft and song and dance dedicated to the illumination of the lasting inner power, the energetic fibers that connect us to the All.

Dances to the hunted animals, chants to the rain gods, magical paintings on mats of bark and myths told and retold over the proverbial tribal fire—all are stories, and it is story that binds us to our beliefs, to our world, to the past and the future. They are the threads that weave us back into our contact and our place, that portion of the crucial lessons handed down through the inheritance of crafts rather than genes. Since the very beginnings of what it means to be “human,” we have venerated and exalted the gods, the land, and our true loves—and it is in this place of art and ritual where we know these things as one.

Art of life

We may not immediately think of art when we think of the covenants of lifestyle. But it is precisely the lack of art in the substance and administration of our lives that reduces them to anything less. What is missing is not only more artistic form in life, but the art of life: the art of conscious, responsive, celebratory relationship. The assignment is not only to make the relationship work, but to make it beautiful as well. Not only meeting the needs of the other, but delighting them with our means for doing so. In our relationship to the land, the care we gift it includes our attentiveness, love, protection and artful celebration of shared being. In our ecstatic coming together, there is the opportunity for a further dissolving of boundaries. Boundaries between us and the land. Between the creator and the created, the artist and the art.

It’s far too easy to relegate art to those visible forms seeming to exist beyond ourselves, to finished and salable products rather than recognizing it as an ongoing process in which we play an essential role. Say the word “art” and many will conjure images of mummified paintings hung in sterile museums, the tastier graphics adorning the expressway billboards or the better of the year’s dramatic films.

For some, art is whatever catches and pleases the eye so long as it was informed by the human hand, while for others it can only be found in the few of those creations that manage to stand out from the rest, enlisting, stirring and releasing our reservoirs of pent-up emotion. Others find in the creations of Nature or God, in the luster of the sunset and the grace of beating wings an artistic perfection one can barely approximate on paper or in clay. And in the end all our art—as all people and all life forms—is of the Earth. Grounded in a wild and creative Nature, empowered by Spirit.

An exchange

What we nearly all forget is the degree to which we can and should be participants in the artistry we’re immersed in. While we may consider ourselves “spectators,” we inevitably contribute awareness, experience and emotion to what is principally an exchange. Exchanges with someone’s painting, with the architecture that surrounds us or the heavy-breathing clouds above our heads. We are said to be the only species capable of creating art, and yet we may also be the only lifeform ever to exist outside the state-of-art.

But it was not always so. Not for the pale villagers of ancient Europe who left us the sculpted body of the archetypal Earth Mother, the bearer of all of life. And not for the ancient pueblo people who left behind shards of painted pottery that continue to evoke the Great Mystery, fired clay fragments of a life of honoring, picture-puzzle pieces still vibrating with the energy of years of reverent touch. They spoke their feelings for the land in rock art carved out of their collective and individual souls, lightning bolts and the seed-carrier Kokopelli painted on the sides of the caves. Here too are the forms of the artists’ fingers and palms: their signatures, the marks of their selves, in graphic hands reaching out to their descendants across the chasm of time. They left enduring images of their priorities and loves, deities and dreams. They left their holiest expressions of wonder and communion, the evidence of a marriage with place consecrated in timeless art.

Lover in us

The lover in us is a child that likes to draw, handle a sharp pencil, splash watercolors or inhale the aroma of the turpentine and linseed oil that thins and binds the pigments to canvas. Vision can be as immediate as touch, direct and with no need of explanation. Like altar boys, we ready the vacant sheets of tree-flesh, release our lifeforce in a fountain of red paints, freed of all preconceptions about design as meaning proceeds to take over. One never really manufactures either adventure or art. We are confronted by it, consumed by it…and remade within it.

It always has a purpose, one beyond the range of the artist’s intentions, and it is willingly given away. Here today and gone tomorrow, like those golden cottonwood leaves. Like those Tibetan sand paintings intricately crafted in this ever-shifting medium, definitive colors sure to blow across one another, mixing and blending until fully melded into, fully indifferentiable from the landscape from which they came. But then it’s not in the completion of some project that we become fulfilled. Rather, it is in the making of our art, in the living of our lives that we’re made whole.

“The purpose of Art is not to represent the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance,” Aristotle proclaimed. This is true for those aesthetic forms evolved independent of human influence as much as for our “own” creations, for rivers and twisted cedar limbs, as well as the sculpture forming beneath the attentive motion of our tools. Each glinting rock, each flex of river muscle an inspiration to the heart, and food for soul. Art was, is, what comes of the relationship between self and other, when allowed to express itself. It is a complex and evolving structure for relating that we exist and act within. With or without the artist’s brush, we reach out to make our mark, from the center of our experience of art, of life, of our mated land.

A way of being

In the artist’s vernacular, our attention to form is called “style.” Once we’ve made art into a way of being, an activity, a verb, we see the ways in which it corresponds to the word “grace”—which can mean a “seemingly effortless beauty or charm of movement,” “an excellence bestowed by God” and “a prayer of thanksgiving.” It is in this sense of motive beauty, beneficence and gratitude that we impart grace to our acts, and are in turn graced by the inspirited world we act upon and within.

Repetitive chores turn into art whenever they’re executed with style, then become ritual concurrent with our conscious acknowledgement of their meaning and importance. The same acts completed without our mindful attention and conscious intent are simply habits. We don’t need to take time away from living to engage in ritual, so much as we need to ritualize our daily existence. Sitting up in bed each morning to face the first sun becomes a ritual, as soon as we’re conscious of it as an act of interpenetration and show of gratitude. The sharing of food moves from a quick refueling to a slow and artful unfolding, and then into ritual as each serving is consecrated, every bite undertaken as communion. Communion with the lifeforms that feed us, with the sun and rain and soil that made the salad possible, with the spiritual/evolutionary power moving through both consumer and consumed.

The result is reconnection, as our art and practice weaves us back into the material of our experience. Together with the ritual efforts of others, we co-create the living fabric of culture, jointly paint on that fabric the story of our struggles, our miracles…our beautiful, beautiful hope.

Jesse Wolf Hardin is a contemporary spiritual teacher, environmental educator and storyteller. He lives in New Mexico.

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