Why Great Art Lies at the Centre of the Physicality-Spirituality Scale

This article was written by Aaron Pederson.

“I live a personal life of great optimism, but I look around and I don’t see a way out for this species.” – George Carlin

Ahh. George Carlin once again leading the way, showing us how all artists should perceive the world: with a mixture of cynicism and optimism.

With the rise of spirituality and the constant bombardment of new self-help books, I think we’re drowning in a deep sea of optimism.

As artists, it’s great to dip our toes in these waters—everybody needs more happiness and emotional stability. But if we’re not careful, we can become submerged in these indoctrinations. We can program ourselves in positive thinking and optimism, and unknowingly hinder the power of a healthy dose of cynicism.

As a result, our creativity gets crippled.

Now, you might disagree and say, “There’s so much spiritual art out there!” or “Spirituality fuels art—it gives it meaning!”

And I’m not fully disagreeing with you, but when you take a look at the great artworks, you see a combination of the “tangible” and the “spiritual.”

The Celestine Prophecy, for example, is a fantastic spiritual story, one that, as I get older, makes more and more sense to me. But it’s not “art.” It’s too pie-in the-sky, too perfect, and too preachy and pretentious.

(Of course, the author, James Redfield, probably didn’t intend to make art—he had a message to convey. I’m just using his book as an example.)

Great art has its realistic qualities: characters with painstaking flaws; stories with shades of ugliness, shadiness, anger, and baseness; songs with anxiety and despair; plots doused with a sense of realism.

Along with these “realistic” reflections of human nature, however, there’s also an overarching (or suggestive) “spiritual” theme, e.g. optimism or faith.

In other words, great art combines elements of “realism” and “spiritualism”—without focusing on one or the other!

An example is the song Lose Yourself by rapper Eminem. To me, this song works so well because it’s grounded in pessimism, failure, pain, ugliness, and anger—all elements of “realism.” But towards the end, we come to understand the power of self-belief, optimism, persistence, and faith—elements of “spiritualism.” The song naturally lets the spiritual elements rise through the more grounded components, without artificially manufacturing the “ethereal” too early.

The result is a song that sends mixed signals, letting us taste both the “base” and the “noble” sides of human nature. How powerful!

Here’s another example: The Shawshank Redemption. This movie tells the raw truth of what it’s like to do time in prison: you have to deal with the social politics, feelings of shame and regret, and the strange dependency you develop on the prison system. But as the story progresses (and eventually climaxes), a theme of “faith” and “optimism” prevail. This combination of the “real” and the “unreal” throws us back—and we’re moved in a deep way.

One of my favourite writers on the subject of creativity, Steven Pressfield, sees the human experience as being suspended between two worlds: the “upper” and “lower” realm.

Every time you and I sit down to work, we confront a scale that depicts these two excluded worlds. It ranges from “realism” to “spiritualism.”

As an artist, you need to be “centre-field.” Perceive and depict the world with raw honesty, in a way that transcends the “lower” realm and catches glimpses of the “upper” levels (without ascending too high up).

Let’s look at an example. In Shawshank, the protagonist escapes prison and lives out the rest of his days down south on an island. But he was never supposed to be in jail to begin with; he was innocent! The story ends happily, but there’s still a tinge of bitterness. He never escapes the angst of being human, as his innocence was never recognized and a large chunk of his life was butchered.

That’s how we feel after we’ve watched a great film, read a great book, or listened to a great song—we’re licking our “lower” realm scars, but we still get a peek into the divine, the infinite.

As Pressfield puts it, “We’re marooned in the middle.”

I believe artists should convey this experience of being stuck between two worlds, without diverging too far to one side, i.e. stay away from overly “realistic” and overly “spiritual” art.

Here’s why: if a painting or song or movie is too mechanical and realistic, it feels dull and hollow. You see examples of this in mainstream action movies. These films have cool effects and entertaining fight scenes, but the plots usually stay stuck in “base” territory. They never reach for something higher; the characters fail (for the most part) to transcend their human vileness.

Likewise, if art is too spiritual, it feels pretentious.

The answer, then, lies in a mediation of the two extremes, a balance that so beautifully conveys the bittersweet experience of being human.

I mentioned earlier that it’s crucial for your inner artist to avoid getting sucked into the growing spiritual movement because it can cloud your creative vision.

But our culture is also very materialistic and money-oriented, so it’s best to steer away from that extreme as well. Instead, you are realistic, grounded, and attune with the fine details of your work, but you also have a sense of wonder and curiosity in the divine—things you can’t perceive with your senses. You maintain hope for the human race, but you have reasonable doubt—much like George Carlin.

As an artist, we can’t lose you to blind materialism or airy spiritualism. We need you to juggle both balls, and tell us stories about what it’s like.

Next month right here on Read Learn Write, I’ll continue on this theme and suggest how the physicality-spirituality scale can impact not just our work, but also our own lives. Stay tuned!


Aaron Pederson is a copywriter and freelance writer by trade and, in his spare time, he writes about creativity. He believes that creative people must be diligent and disciplined in their work, because if they aren’t channelling their creative energy productively their personal life can get messy. He has self-published a book called Lessons for Creative People, a short book on creative recovery. He blogs often at http://creativeethos.net about the creative spirit, and the many lessons we can learn from living he creative life. You can follow him on twitter @Creative_Ethos.

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  2. Chris Ciolli (@ChrisCiolli)

    This was an interesting idea, and Eminem’s work, George Carlin’s comedy, and Shawshank Redemption are indeed works of art….but I would have liked there to be a few more examples of great art in the form of the written word. Also, I don’t think balance is always a factor in great art. Take for example masterful books like”The Shining” and “The Road” where’s the balance there?

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