“And if you should ever reach this cloud [of unknowing], and dwell and work in it as I am telling you, then, just as this cloud of unknowing is above you, between you and your God, so you will need to put a cloud of forgetting beneath you, between you and everything that was ever created. Perhaps it will seem to you that you are far distant from God because the cloud of unknowing is between you and him, but in fact, rightly understood, you are much further from him when you have no cloud of forgetting between you and everything that was ever created. Whenever I say ‘everything that was ever created’, I mean not only the created things themselves but all they do and all their attributes. I do not except anything created, whether bodily created or spiritual beings, nor any act or attribute of any such being, whether good or evil; but, in brief, they should all be hidden in this way under the cloud of forgetting. For though it may sometimes be very beneficial to think of particular attributes and acts of specific created beings, it is nevertheless of little or no benefit in this work of contemplation.”
The Cloud of Unknowing is a work of Christian mysticism from the 14th century. The book counsels the young seeker in the quest for union with God through intense contemplation stripped of all thought. It’s basis is a ‘negative’ spirituality. It reflects a form of negation often found in Eastern mysticism and spiritual practices (Neti! neti! Not this, not that!).
The artist as a conduit of revelation and vision may express this contemplative seeking in two ways. He may perceive the transcendent in the reflective experiences of the mundane and everyday representing through symbolic images observations of the world and the forces of nature ; each special moment revealing a divine instant in space and time. Alternatively there is an argument for a trans-personal and trans-formative art practice that is in communion with the ‘cloud of unknowing’ reaching beyond the surface and nature of things to declare the essence of the Divine. As makers on a cosmic stage the contemporary artist stands before the unblemished sheet of paper or the, as yet, unhewn form of wood and rock in meditative visionary revelation of the intangible image. The relation between the artist as a mediator of Otherness and the ‘becoming’ material object establishes a meditative discourse embodying revelation through expression that stirs the senses. In this symbolic ritual act of making the artwork arouses the sensibilities effecting a bridge to and from the divine Soul through the soul of the artist as mediator, a Divine concord through the immaterial, and to the material resulting in the production of the transcendent manifest as material artform. Creativity as a flowing process is often described as an emptying and a filling and as a folding and enfolding. In both the making of symbolic or ritual forms and the meditative state there is the opposition of omission and completeness; an opening up to the cosmic oneness and a union with all that is above and beyond the Self.
In the quest for a transcendent and transpersonal art of awakening the maker as mystic is striving to approach the ‘unfathomable mystery’ (Primavesi 222:2005*). She/He identifies by a sense of communion implicit in the act of creation that transcends the individual binding them to the greater whole. The process of making transforms in an unarticulated sense of oneness through meditative immersion in the visionary’s ‘cloud of unknowing.’ The expression of creative communion in the artform and the site of its audience, through their essential sense and presence are a conduit for the Holy, of all that there is, touching all worlds and all beings through their sensuality and materiality.
If the former is an argument for a new canon of making that embodies the numinous in a direct discourse with an awareness of transcendence produced as a meditation in union with a greater Whole, however defined, how will the characteristics and paradigms of such be realized and appropriated. The creative artist speaks in symbols, images, colour and mark much of which is referential and utilises the world of things to refer to the nature of other things. Such signs, maps, pictures and diagrams respond to ways of being and ways of knowing. Let me end here with a question…
Is an art of awakening by virtue of its mediation of material objects by necessity a representation of symbols and references or is there a visual meditation of the numinous that speaks directly through the ‘cloud of unknowing’ in a discourse that truly transcends self in union with the Divine other?
Text and Image © Robert Burton. Rob is an artist and writer on the arts and consciousness and is currently working on publishing critical and theoretical texts on the artist as the mediator of the transpersonal. Please contact Rob Burton for more information.