Connecting to the source, coming to full expression

Connecting to the source, coming to full expression
Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle - Guggenheim New York

How can we revitalise our connection with all of life on the planet, human and non-human? It's a question I have been carrying with me for while. Unexpectedly, a recent visit to the Guggenheim in New York gave me inspiration for something of an answer. It isn't through our intellect that we come to true understanding, but through our direct experience. Maybe we shouldn't explain but inspire instead.

On view was the exhibition 'Around the Circle', about the life of the Russian abstract painter Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944). It was two separate artistic encounters that turned him into an artist at the ripe age of 30: seeing a painting of Monet and hearing an opera of Wagner. These experiences made Kadinsky understand the power of art; namely its potential to speak directly to the soul.

Kandinsky saw how art has the ability to transform the individual and society and decided to use it to shape a world that he'd like to see. He aimed for a society that was centered on equality, freedom of expression, love, and a recognition of our place in nature. Through his art he expressed his ideas about radical ecology and mystical anarchism.

In many ways Kandinsky was as much a philosopher as he was an artist. He just spoke a different language; a language of expression. Which might be the most profound way to shift someone's thinking.

Studying Kandinsky's work, it is fascinating to consider that the themes that he addressed around ecology and decentralisation are still relevant today, if not more. The beginning of the 20th century was also marked by pollution, industrialisation and rampant social problems. Comparable to our fear of planetary collapse today, many at the turn of the century were afraid of some sort of social cataclysm (and in hindsight, they were right...).

Yet, what has changed compared to a century ago is the role of the arts. Whereas the beginning of the previous century witnessed an explosion of artistic expression far beyond museums (think of Impressionism, Expressionism, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Bauhaus, Cubism, etc, etc), art today barely plays a role in our cultural discourse. On the contrary, our design tends to be mostly focused on functionality, often disregarding aesthetics or artistic expression.

Expression of being

Could it be that this emphasis on functional design is a reflection of our collective state of being? As efficiency has become the hallmark of our efforts, we tend to reduce the things around us as mere means to an end. And by doing so we fail to acknowledge the meaning they have by themselves. That comes at great costs. When we perceive the world through the lens of mere functionality, our relationship to it becomes hollow and indifferent. It leads to a clinical perception of our environment and ultimately to an estrangement from it.

In my home region of South-Holland I have a few examples of such hyper-functionality. I grew up in a region next to the Westland area, which is known for its many greenhouses. From space one can see a glass desert of industrial agriculture that shines brightly during the night. I have many beautiful memories of my childhood, but the permanent twilight that the Westland gave us during the night isn't one of them.

A couple of kilometers north-east of the Westland, a second example can be found in a city called Zoetermeer. It has been built as part of a planned effort to create multiple new cities in the country. Zoetermeer has become symbol for modernist soullessness, as if it only exists to work or sleep. Which might actually be the case.

In both cases, the sole focus on functionality has resulted in a degradation of the vitality of these areas. They are called soulless and ugly. But why is that? What makes something alive and vital or dead and soulless?

Let's compare the Westland and Zoetermeer to two of their beautiful counterparts: Twente and Delft. The first is known for its meandering, mixed landscape, while the latter is renowned for its rich cultural heritage. In both places, individual, cultural and ecological/urban identities are intertwined. The local communities are proud of the environment they live in and value it. The environment forms a source of identity which is expressed in local products and customs. It is a mutualistic interplay that is alive and co-evolutionary.

In flourishing places we shape our environment and it shapes us in return, and vice-versa. As such, we are larger than our individual identity alone, we are interwoven with society and our physical environment. Together it forms a nested complex system.

top left: Westland, top right: Twente, bottom left: Zoetermeer, bottom right: Delft

For such a system to thrive, its expression needs to be sourced from its essence. We often call this authenticity. And consciously or unconsciously, we quickly sense if something is authentic or not. We tend to dislike it if something isn't, because it feels fake and shallow. But once there is a harmony between essence and expression, we perceive it as beautiful.

In that sense, beauty isn't an aesthetic luxury, it is an indicator of alignment between essence and its expression. It shows integrity, quality, truth and meaning. It wasn't without reason that the ancients considered beauty to be a core value. Vasily Kandinsky and his contemporaries were part of a long lineage that carried the torch of this value. But somewhere mid-20th century, we lost beauty as a value.

Function became a soulless expression of our rational minds and beauty got subjected to the tyranny of relativism. It got reduced to be a mere opinion with only subjective qualities. This is perfectly summarised by the adage "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". It's an easy defence, one can create something repulsive and disregard any criticism as a mere matter of taste.

The world that we shape around us, is a direct reflection of our inner world. Whatever we create, there is always expression. It can be beautiful or ugly, shallow or deep, alive or dead. Expression matters as it forms the experiential connection with our wider context. We call the pure expression of essence beauty, which is reciprocal. It gives us the experience of its beauty and we give appreciation and gratitude back in return. That relationship gives meaning, it ties us together with that which we experience.

Connecting to the source

The dismissal of beauty as a value isn't without reason. In the name of science, rationalism is largely considered to be the pinnacle of human knowing. Other forms of intelligence such as intuition or imagination, are often depicted as soft or irrational. Our subjective experience has become increasingly suspicious as a result. It is the heritage of the Cartesian worldview, which perceived the world to be a giant clockwork. And although this mechanistic paradigm has been caught up by science in the meantime, it continues to have its influence on mainstream thought.

The concepts we use in rational thought, are always an abstraction of reality. A pointer to the moon as Buddhists would say. They point at reality but are not reality itself. The Tao te Ching starts with a similar statement: "Description lies, the map is not the territory." That's exactly how we should see rational concepts, as maps that navigate us through a complex, living reality. Unfortunately, we often confuse the map for reality.

Fritjof Capra calls this confusion the crisis of perception. He describes how the many crises that we experience today, all originate from the mechanistic lens through which we see our reality. By solely focusing on the separate parts, we fail to recognise the interconnected, living wholeness that we are part of.

In a previous blog I wrote:

Aliveness implies that something is unique, that something has an essence and that its potential and meaning are built within. The thriving of something alive is qualitative in nature. It is the full expression of its essence, like a flower coming to its full bloom. Something that can only be experienced, not measured. This way, perceiving aliveness in all its forms makes a radical difference in our perception of meaning and potential.

In order to make the world around us thrive, we need to connect to the source. It is from this essence that potential can be fulfilled. It is from the expression of our true nature that alignment can be found with the larger environment. We can see it in nature, where inauthenticity doesn't exist. This whole living dynamic, can only be experienced, it cannot be captured by rational concepts. It is through our direct experience that we can connect to the living world around us and make it thrive.

The disconnection from our essence is a wound that needs to be healed. Its scars can be found all around us, in the form of alienating architecture, meaningless jobs, environmental destruction, the shallow fakeness of pop culture, etc, etc. They are deserts of our own making, waiting to be regenerated into their true potential.

Meaning from expression

Vasily Kandinsky was "shocked at the core of his being" when he realised that painting would offer him the most expansive possibilities. It struck him that painting could develop the same powers of music; to elevate someone into new states of being. This insight would form the basis for the expressionist movement.

Kandinsky inspires us to explore artistic expression as a means to reconnect with the source again. If intellectual concepts are like the map, expression is like the landscape. The way we navigate the world is fully experiential, we move through it by using our senses. Hence, it is through our experience that we navigate the landscape, and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, each other and the reality around us.

In the past this was the role of the church. It is not without reason that the religions of the world have such a rich arsenal of rituals and symbols. Through its expressions, spiritual rituals have been designed to bring us in contact with the divine. They all point to the source; the nature of our being. But where religions have grown dogmatic (read: confusing maps for reality), we can also use expression to experience the divine in a secular way. Instead of worshiping God, we can worship the living whole that we are part of. Which to me, is the same thing.

We are craving this divine connection. The secularisation of the West, has left us with an existential void. Science has partially taken its place but is devoid of meaning. As a result, we are trying to infuse our careers with 'purpose' and 'impact'. Without much success. Stuck in our mechanistic reflexes, we have abstracted meaning to be a means to an end. We quantify it in tons of CO2, % of clean energy, ESGs, etc. As if life is a problem to be solved.

But as we described before, meaning isn't derived from the output we produce, it is something we experience through the expression of essence.  It is the product of authenticity. Only a (re)connection to authenticity bring us towards a more meaningful experience of life. To thrive into our full potential, we are asked to change our yardstick from quantitative output to beauty. When there is no beauty, there is no harmony.

One century ago, expressionists like Kandinsky used painting as a medium for their expression. How would a 21st century version of expressionism look like? Could we extend its philosophy to other forms as well?

We face a monumental task to make humanity thrive into its full potential. But contrary to what most believe, it is not through our intellect that we will do so. Only if our expressions are sourced from our being can we transform the sterile, soulless, alienating deserts of modern society into beacons of life and beauty.

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