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Sonja van Kerkhoff     visual artist, video, installations, performance,
reviewer (visual arts), websites, The Netherlands.

A Perspective on The Bahá´í Writings and the Arts

There are as yet few signs within the global Bahá´í community of distinctive Bahá´í art forms, but we can identify at least three elements in the Bahá´í writings which are likely to influence the development of a distinctly Bahá´í attitude to the arts:
  • the inclusiveness of the term 'art' in the Bahá´í writings
  • a new theology of creation
  • a more positive approach to the value and dignity of the physical world.
The mere fact that there are numerous mentions of the value of art in the Bahá´í scriptures is also a distinctive feature.

Inclusiveness of the term 'art'
In the Bahá´í Writings, the words that have been translated as 'art' are usually the Arabic words san'at and fan, and occasionally the Persian word hunar. In the time of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá, all three of these terms had the very general sense of a transmitted skill or craft. San'at and fan are translated in some passages as 'art', and in others as 'craft' or as 'skill'.

The English language references to the arts usually include the word craft as well and are written to have a very broad and inclusive meaning referring the artists as those skilled and as something everyone is capable of.

"Arts, crafts and sciences uplift the world of being... Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone." (Bahá'u'lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 26.)

Creativity is a universal human attribute, but the manner in which it finds expression is dependent on the capacities, experiences and preferences of each individual. 'Abdu'l-Bahá is reported to have said:

"When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Son of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures." (Bloomfield, The Chosen Highway, p. 167.)

While inspiration plays its part, this is not a theory of passive inspiration -the Holy Spirit fills us not with finished works of art but rather with an analytic capacity:
"By the power of hte Holy Spirit, working through his soul, man is able to perceive the Divine reality of things. All great works of art and science are witnesses to this power of the Spirit"
'Abdu'l-Bahá Paris Talks, p. 85.


That the artist is in some sense reiterating the creativity of God has also been perceived in other religious traditions, but in the Bahá´í writings God's creativity is seem somewhat differently.

Creation is perceived not only as an act of will which God does at some time, but also as an essential attribute of God, part of God's being. Creation is therefore continual, implying not only ongoing physical creativity but also the creation of new essences or idea - in other words 'the creation' is not a fixed environment within which we live but an ever-expanding world in both physical and intellectual senses.

"All the wondrous works ye behold in this world have been manifested through the operation of His supreme and most exalted Will. His wondrous and inflexible Purpose. Through the mere revelation of the word "Fashioner", issuing forth from His lips and proclaiming His attribute to mankind, such power is released as can generate, through sucessive ages, all the manifold arts which the hands of man can produce...

Makng Salt, 1998, detail of performance
incorporating video and text projections with
performance, at the 1998 International InterSociety for Electronic Arts Symposium, Manchester, U.K. By Sonja van Kerkhoff with Sarah Buist and Gaudi Hoedaya.

No sooner is this resplendent word uttered, than its animating energies, stirring within all created things, give birth to the means and instruments whereby such arts can be produced and perfected. All the wondrous achievements ye now witness are the direct consequences of the Revelation of this Name. In the days to come, ye will, verily, behold things of which ye have never heard before." (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings p.141-2)

Humans are endowed with the unique potential of being able to manifest all of the the attributes of God, although in a form and degree appropriate to our contingent natures. Since creativity is seen in the Bahá´í Writings not just as an act but also as na attribute of God, humans, and most particularly believers in God, are called on to develop their creative capacities, just as they are also called on to become good and just, and to acquire knowledge. (See Gleanings, p. 290, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 26)

Although there is generally an emphasis on the creative process itself, and in particular, those arts which benefit humanity are seen as particularly praiseworthy.
"At the outset of every endeavour it is encumbent to look at the end of it. Of all the arts and sciences, set the children to studying those which will result in advantage to (humanity)"
(Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 168-9)

It is up to the artist to be moderate in the same way that every Bahá´í is to be moderate in their conduct, but of course, what this means in terms of artistic expression is dependent on the context and is in part a question of culture. Being moderate in one's conduct does not imply that an artist cannot be radical or bold.

The physical world
The dualism between the physical and the spiritual worlds, and the physcial and spiritual natures in human beings, which has been a feature of many previous religions is absent in the Bahá´í Writings. The physical world is intended for our education and enjoyment, provided that we do not allow it to intervene between ourselves and God.
"(F)or God hath ordained every good thing, whether created in the heavens or in the earth... deprive not yourselves from His wondrous bounties." (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings p.276)

The fact that Bahá'u'lláh has specifically included the fruits of human creativity in the bounties we are urged to enjoy may prove to be very important in the development of a distinctive Bahá´í approach to art. Bahá'u'lláh also wrote that 'monks and priests' should
"give up the life of seclusion and direct their steps towards the open world and busy themselves with that which will profit themselves and others" (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 24)

Although their withdrawal from the world in orderto devote themselves to worshipping God had been praiseworthy in the past, in the present age such a withdrawal is no longer necessary. Both spiritual and physical worlds are seen as having their own dignity, and the goal is not to subordinate one to the other but rather to integrate them.

Art and religion
Artistic enterprise is not subordinated to the religious: the arts, like science, government and religion, is an order in human society. Each order manifests an attribute of God and develops and functions according to its own rules and procedures which are an organic outgrowth from its central idea.

The degree of synergy which can be obtained between these orders is a function of how closely they work together, but it also requires that ech order develops according to the logic of the attribute of God which it manifests. This exlcudes intrumentalist theories of art which would require it to serve the requirements of a spiritual order, or as in the 'social realism' school, the political order. But it is also true that the arts can contribute a great deal to the religous and political orders, and that religion provides the richest source of symbol and inspiration which the artist requires to work.

Give and Take, 1995, by Sonja van Kerkhoff
Text on the card:
"Make not your deeds
as snares
to entrap
the object
of your aspiration"   Bahá'u'lláh, Kitab-i-Aqdás.

The relationships between the physical and spiritual, and artistic and religous elements of human nature and human society are complex and to achieve the greatest possible harmony and synergy between them requires continual effort. In seeking this balance, the laws of God serve to define some limits: "We have made music a ladder by which souls may ascend to the realm on hight. Change it not into wings for self and passion"
(Bahá'u'lláh, Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 31)

Because the physical and spiritual worlds are not in competition, a Bahá´í aesthetic could not assume that art which gives more sensual enjoyment is likely to be less spiritual. On the contrary, since the pleasures and riches of this world are in their own right acceptable, a work of art which served no other goal than a physical beauty ("art for art's sake") can and should be appreciated.

"In this new century the attainment of science, arts and belles lettres, whether divine or worldly, material or spiritual, is a matter which is acceptable before God and a duty which is incumbent upon us all to accomplish..." (emphasis added) ('Abdu'l-Bahá The Bahá´í World Faith, p. 377)

In fact much of the decorative art we use in our homes and clothing, and the aesthetic element of good design, whether applied to everyday objects or public architecture, is art in this sense. Those who produce this art are accounted as worshipping God:

"In this universal dispensation man's wondrous craftmanship is reckoned as worship of the Resplendent Beauty" (Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá p.145)

The Bahá´í writings go further to state that art has the potential to aid our spiritual progress:

" this new age the Manifest Light hath, in His Holy Tablets, specifically proclaimed that music, sung or played, is spiritual food for soul and heart."
(Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá p.112)

The arts also offer us a medium to express our spiritual experiences:
"Every word of thy poetry is indeed like unto a mirror in which the evidences of the devotion and love thou cherishest for God and His chosen ones are reflected... Its perusal hath truly proved highly impressive, for it was indicative of both the light of reunion, and the fire of separation." (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 175-6)

The arts, like other forms of works, are a form of worship:
"In this great dispensation, art (or a profession) is identical with an act of worship and this is a clear text of the Blessed Perfection. Therefore, extreme effort should be made in art and this will not prevent the teaching of the people in that region. Nay, rather, each should assist the other in art and accordance with the Divine Teachings, the acquisition of sciences and the perfection of the arts are considered as acts of worship. If a man engages with all his power in the acquisition of a science or in the perfection of an art, it is as if he has been worshipping God in the churches and temples." ('Abdu'l-Bahá The Bahá´í World Faith, p. 377)

"A painter asked: 'Is art a worthy vocation?'
'Abdu'l-Bahá turning to her impressively, said: 'Art is worship'" ('Abdu'l-Bahá, reported in 'Abdu'l-Bahá in London, p. 93)

Laws and Limitations
There are some specific limitations mentioned in the Bahá´í Writings which are applicable to the arts. Many of these relate to the whole community's maintaining a proper relationship with God and the Manifestation and involve the arts and artists incidentally. For instance, there is a requirement that pictures of should not be hung in Houses of Worship (Tablets of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 337), that the Manifestations of God should not be represented in works of art (Shoghi Effendi..??).
Similarly 'Abdu'l-Bahá discouraged the Bahá´ís from making free use of his own portrait (Tablets of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 257), although this is widely ignored.

Other limitations seem to be directed to maintaining the dignity or universality of B institutions, and again involve the artist incidentally. For instance, dancing is not permitted in the Hazirat'ul-Quds (26) and musical accomplaniment may not be used in the Houses of Worship (27). In the case of drama:
"The Faith can be dramatized, but two things

Detail of Certain Measures, 1993, by Sonja van Kerkhoff
Five sticks laid on a table symbolize measures and have engraved texts along the four sides. The sticks need to be handled in order to read the texts. Most of these come from the book, the Hidden Words by Bahá'u'lláh, and deal in some way with bringing oneself to account.

-------more to come........

Excerpts from BAFA newsletter, June 1994.

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