As a painter, art instructor, and author, I focus largely on the making of art — the “how” and the ”why” of things like composition, color, and technique. I seldom discuss the more intangible aspects of our practice such as the emotional component of painting, the “soul” of the artist — or how our artwork might be a reflection of our own spiritual awakening and the spiritual awakening of the culture we are a product of.
The spiritual landscape is the territory Patrick Howe explores in his new book, The Awakening Artist: Madness and Spiritual Awakening in Art (O Books, 2013). Patrick takes us on a journey through art history seen through the lens of spiritual awakening. His contention is that throughout history two conditions have exerted themselves: “awakening,” which reflects our highest truth, beauty, and innocence, and “insanity,” which reflects humanity’s taste for war, greed, and the subjugation of one people by another. We see these two forces reflected in art through the ages. In the “age of innocence,” from the time of the Neolithic cave painters to about to 4,000 BCE, we find no evidence of “insanity” in art. Then, in the “age of madness,” beginning around 4,000 BCE, there was an explosion of “egoic madness,” as Patrick calls it, and we begin to see art populated with images of war, cruelty, and the oppression of peoples.
What I enjoyed most about the book — and why I think it is an important read for artists — is that it exposed me to ideas I had never considered before and made me think about my own art in a new way. In all the years I have been painting, I rarely gave conscious thought to infusing my painting with emotion or “spirit,” yet people often told me they sensed these qualities in my work. I had a vision in mind and I simply tried to do the best painting I could. After reading Patrick’s book, however, I began to think more about the nature of what I was doing. Where did my ideas come from? Were they a reflection of my spiritual state? Did the work come from a place that I was unaware of and unable to name? Patrick would say yes. Throughout the book he talks about the infinite creative source that flows through the artist, yet is beyond the artist’s mind.
The Awakening Artist doesn’t survey every movement in the history of art, but Patrick is able to make a strong case with the examples he chooses from cultures around the world and most of the major art movements we are familiar with. The Awakening Artist is categorized as art criticism and art theory. I see it also as a book on anthropology, exploring the history of human spirituality through art.
Looking at art movements and individual artists through the lens of “awake” and “insane” will naturally invite judgements. This artist is awakened. That artist is not. But Patrick is quick to point out that that isn’t the point of the book at all. “By looking at how the creative process evolved throughout history,” he says, “we are better able to explore our own awakening process.”
Excerpt from The Awakening Artist: The French Academic Painting at left, by David, depicts a heroic allegiance among soldiers. The Academic painters could only use themes and techniques allowed by the Academy. Right, however, romantic painter Goya depicts the tragic reality of human madness emotion and expressive brushstrokes. The infinite creative source working through Goya wanted to see the world honestly and realistically.
To read excerpts from the Awakening Artist, see the “Look Inside” feature at Amazon.com.
The Awakening Artist is available at Amazon.com and booksellers everywhere.
Patrick Howe is a Seattle-based artist. His artwork hangs in many private and corporate collections worldwide. The Awakening Artist is his second book. He can be reached at www.PatrickHowe.com.