In my previous post, On Struggle, I asked a series of questions that, hopefully, made you think about your view on life. In this post, I offer my perspective on the topic. This post is very long and may take a while to read.
“The task of a director is to pick out and join together the bits of sequential facts, focusing on what lies between them, while revealing what kind of chain holds them together.” (Sculpting Time, Andrei Tarkovsky)
This post contains some spoilers for Andrei Rublev. If you have not seen the film yet, I highly encourage you to see it.
In a series of interviews and in his work, Tarkovsky gives his perspective on art and life. I would like to mention a few excerpts and connect them to his film, Andrei Rublev because I share most of his perspective.
The artist always works under pressure, never under ideal circumstances. Even if such ideal circumstances existed, then the work would not happen at all. Some pressure must exist. The artist exists because the world is not perfect. If everything is splendid and harmonious, art would not be needed, and one would not look for harmony in secondary activities – just living would be sufficient. Art exists because the world is deficient. Search for harmony, search for meaning that manifests in harmonious relationships among people, between art and life, between time and history, between moments and history as a whole – that’s what Andrei Rublev film is about.
Tarkovsky also talks about the intransferrability of experience, a very important topic to him. Hesse’s Siddhartha is an excellent example of this. Older people tend to give advice to the young, but the youth does not listen and goes on to make their own mistakes. Your parents or friends might have warned you about taking a certain career path or living in that certain country, but you decided to do it anyway. Some people will regret not listening to the elders, but others will find a new meaning in their life. Tarkovsky encourages young people to take their own path, but, as we can see at the end of Siddhartha, all experience is useful.
In Poet in the Cinema (1983), Tarkovsky answers to a direct question: “What is art?”
He frames it from a very global perspective. He says that to define art’s purpose, we need to define life’s purpose first. Art’s purpose will be seen through your perspective on life. Purpose of life is a spiritual development. Subsequently, the purpose of art is to help in that spiritual quest. Tarkovsky further expands on the topic in his book, Sculpted Time.
You might be tempted to immediately disagree with his perspective on art. Why art is a response to a deficient world? If the world is perfect, people would still try to capture its beauty, draw landscapes, etc. Here is his potential response:
“Art is a meta-language, with the help of which people try to communicate with one another; to impart information about themselves and assimilate the experience of others. Again, this has to do not with practical advantage, but with realizing the idea of love, the meaning of which is in sacrifice: the very antithesis of pragmatism. I simply cannot believe that an artist can ever work only for the sake of ‘self-expression’. Self-expression is meaningless unless it meets with a response. For the sake of creating a spiritual bond with others it can only be an agonizing process, one that involves no practical gain: ultimately, it is an act of sacrifice. But surely it cannot be worth the effort merely for the sake of hearing one’s own echo?”
That’s a great point, isn’t it? Do you know any artists that don’t show their completed work to others once they gained a decent level of proficiency by their own standards? Even if you draw for yourself only, the very fact that you have an urge to depict the world around you or your imagination indicates something – a search for harmony that Tarkovsky alludes to.
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see” – Edgar Degas
“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good. Touched by a masterpiece, a person begins to hear in himself that same call of truth which prompted the artist to his creative act. When a link is established between the work and its beholder, the latter experiences a sublime, purging trauma. Within that aura which unites masterpieces and audience, the best sides of our souls are made known, and we long for them to be freed. In those moments we recognize and discover ourselves, the unfathomable depths of our own potential, and the furthest reaches of our emotions.”
This notion is illustrated very well by an ancient story about Bo Ya (伯牙), a qin player from the Spring and Autumn period or the Warring States period. He is associated with the guqin pieces Gao Shan 《高山》 (“high mountains”) and Liu Shui 《流水》 (“flowing water”). The term Zhiyin (知音，literally “to know the tone”) has come to describe a close and sympathetic friend.
Bo Ya was good at playing the qin. Zhong Ziqi was good at to listening to the qin. When Bo Ya’s will was towards high mountains in his playing, Zhong Ziqi would say, ‘How towering like Mount Tai!’ When Bo Ya’s will was towards flowing water in his playing, Zhong Ziqi would say, ‘How vast are the rivers and oceans!’ Whatever Bo Ya thought of Ziqi would never fail to understand. Bo Ya said, ‘Amazing! Your heart and mine are the same!’ (Wiki)
In 1977, a recording of “Liu Shui” (流水; Stream), as performed by Guan Pinghu, was chosen to be included in the Voyager Golden Record, a gold-plated LP recording containing music from around the world, which was sent into outer space by NASA on the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft. It is the longest excerpt included on the disc (lasting seven minutes and 37 seconds) and the only excerpt of Chinese music. (Wiki)
How is this view on art depicted in the film? Andrei Rublev has many themes, but three scenes stand out in particular. For me, Andrei Rublev has three key interconnected scenes that contain one of the important points in the film.
Theophanes paints for the God, not the people, and holds a very cynical view of humanity, whereas Andrei believes in and works for the people, in spite of their ignorance.
Theophanes: “I serve to God, not the people. As for the praise, today they praise you, tomorrow they condemn you for the same thing they were praising you yesterday, and the day after tomorrow they will forget you. They will forget me, and you, and everything. It is all futile. The human race already perpetrated all stupidities and wrongs, now only repeating it. If Jesus came back to the Earth, the people would crucify him again…The good? Recall the New Testament. Jesus gathered the people in the temples, taught them, and then they gathered for what? To execute him! “Crucify him!” they shouted. And what about his disciples? Judas betrayed him, Peter renounced him, all abandoned him, and they were the best.”
Andrei: “People just ought to be reminded more often that they are human beings. Something does not work for you or you are exhausted, and then you meet someone’s human eyes in a crowd, and feel as if you took a Communion, everything is easier immediately.”
Theophanes and Andrei: Dialog 2.
Now the worldviews are reversed. Andrei have witnessed the absolute cruelty humans are capable of, completely shattering his perspective. He, a monk, even had to kill another person to defend an innocent girl. Disillusioned by the humanity, he takes a vow of silence and puts away his brush indefinitely.
Andrei: Half of my life I spent in blindness… I did it for them, for the people… day and night… You told me the truth that time… One Tartar was even smiling, saying that even without the invasion you’d cut each other’s throats… They killed everyone, only she remained… I’ll stop painting, nobody needs it… I’ll take a vow of silence – there is nothing to talk about with the people anymore for me.
At the final scene, the circle is complete. Andrei sees a weeping boy who just have succeeded in making a functional bell. The boy confesses the he really didn’t know the secret of bellmaking – his father took it to his grave, refusing to share it. Andrei realizes that, indirectly, he is doing essentially the same thing as boy’s father by giving up painting and not sharing his talent with the world. He breaks his vow of silence, consoles the boy, and decides to resume painting again because, just like the bell, the paintings will give people hope and happiness, reminding them of our shared humanity.
Each of us has something to contribute, each of us has something unique. Why not share it with the world, improve the human condition? You may say that it is all samsara, just as Theophanes declared it all futile. That is true, but we always have a choice: to be or not to be. Sometimes we have to choose to terminate our life, but such case is an extreme.
“Suicide is passing sadness from one person to others”
There are people in the world who care about you and will be extremely upset if you decide to take this route.
“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
We all suffer. Some suffer more than others, but most cases can be treated and life can improve.
The only time when this route is the optimal choice is when suffering is completely untreatable and unbearable. Perhaps, a terminal illness with substantial pain. For example, in Pan’s Labyrinth a doctor, risking his life, gives a lethal dose to person in agony who has been tortured the entire night.
Then, in most cases, we decide to be.
How then should we allocate the resources and the energy we have?
Should we spend it all doing good for the people, enriching ourselves, or serving God?
Maybe a little bit of everything, maybe one path only – what matters the most are our journey and the result. For example, Daniel Dennett recommends to “find something greater than yourself and dedicate your life to it”. Both Andrei and Theophanes produced wonderful works of art that touched many people, but they did it with completely different perspectives. Bill Gates is one of the richest people in the world, but he is doing a very generous charity work, substantially improving the world – a feat some scientists will never reach.
Hitting the center of the aim is not the point of kyudo.
By not being attached, you free up tremendous reservoirs of energy. A mind with a clear vision is a wonderful thing!
You job may or may not coincide with your interests. It is just there to help you survive, but choose your job carefully, preserve your humanity, whenever possible. Some jobs, especially those that deal with people, such as psychologists and doctors or those that involve creativity with deadlines, such as professional writing, drawing, and composing, may be prone to burn out. It does not mean that you have avoid such work completely – just do take some extra time to take care of yourself if you take this route.
A passion and a vision will enrich your life.
Andrei Rublev ends with a scene of wild horses under the rain, highlighting the beauty and infinity of nature.
What is immortality? The beauty in the church – not I built the church – the beauty in the cathedral, the beauty in the poem, the beauty in the sculpture – the beauty, not the object of beauty. The beauty itself. That is immortal. (A Wholly Different Way of Living, J. Krishnamurti, 1974)
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there he tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. I Cor 13, 1-16