A New Sacred, a New Faith

Having come to understand that we, as humans, have always created our own mythologies as explanations for life, and that cultures everywhere have done this with astonishing variety, you’d think there would be a religion for each of us. How do we pick?

Consider that every religious person has in fact picked their religion, whether he or she realizes it or not. If you are religious, you picked one church or temple over the other, or chose not to worship in a building but rather connect with God in the woods. If you grew up Catholic or Jewish and just accepted the faith of your ancestors, recognize that some person in your past picked the religion you now call yours. So the faith that you hold to be absolute for you is actually a relative choice. As such, it cannot be absolute for everyone.

Understanding this is both the beginning of tolerance, and if we’re honest, the recognition that our understanding of God has been made up by people. After all, if your God is not the same as another’s, and both were picked by the faithful, then neither can be ‘True’ in the absolute sense. What may be true to your faith, catalyzing the dynamics of belief in your life and functioning as The Word of God, is another man’s mythology. Others cannot be compelled to accept it based on some objective veracity. For one person, Christ was resurrected and ascended into heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father God. For another, that’s a superstitious story about a middle eastern blue collar worker being elevated into the outer atmosphere without a space suit to sit next to his Dad. For yet another, aliens abducted the so-called Christ.

I haven’t found a religion that satisfies me completely. I do like elements of Christianity, like the emphasis on responsibility, on loving your neighbor, on non-violence on keeping bad spirits out. I like elements of Zen Buddhism, like the polar thinking that recognizes the background space is just as important as the subject (in art). I like the Mormon emphasis on family, social cohesion and preparing for disaster. I find fascinating native dances and rituals that are artistic portals to the ‘world behind’. I like indigenous peoples’ emphasis on humans being part of a family of creatures, which leads to respect for nature. I like the Catholic church’s sponsorship of the arts (especially in the Renaissance). I like Buddhist notion that we are part of a process and flow and are one with our environment, the earth and ultimately the universe.

On the flip side, I’m not fond of the mystical idea that the earth expresses itself and humans are the universe becoming conscious of itself. I don’t like the pagan-ish idea that blood atones for sin to satisfy a rather blood thirsty god. Nor the idea of God sending souls to hell to be tortured for eternity. Nor do I like exclusive thinking about an individual human the ‘one way’ to God, or the corollary that a priestly caste has to mediate. I’m also not fond of the faithful holding on to centuries old stories from a Holy Book (take your pick) that get shoe-horned into present relevance by a dutiful expositor constrained by theology. I’m not superstitious about spells and smells changing our future, or about casting bones or cards to predict it. I also don’t like the counter-intuitive teachings of Buddhism that make my life just a drama being played out by a self that doesn’t recognize it’s all an illusion. Anything to do with passive fatalism and introspection doesn’t sit well with me, especially when our planet needs urgent regenerative intervention.

Instead, I desire a belief system that can catalyze passionate, principled action in my life. I want to focus on cherishing, nurturing and protecting the sacred. You know, we actually get to choose what is sacred! Not in an arbitrary way, but based on principles deeply ingrained in our humanity. How do we choose to not choose greed and exploitation? Doesn’t humanity have a negative imperative that is as strong, and often stronger, than the will to do the collective good? The simple answer, for me at least, is that I have to have faith in humanity.

Where there is education and well managed prosperity, people settle into peaceful co-existence. When there’s a collapse scenario at play, otherwise ‘normal’ people can turn to cannibalism. The longer we see required lifestyle changes as just lifestyle choices, the closer we come to a collapse situation. In other words, the absence of an effective religion will only expedite the rise of an oppressive one. Dictators get power when people are oppressed, poor and powerless to change things themselves. We really have no other choice than to believe in humanity.

So what should we believe in? How should we then live? Today, there is no more an urgent topic than reversing climate change.

Imagine if the earth’s environment was more sacred to us than our right to consume whatever we like from Fred Meyer or Amazon. Not only would we save money, but we would drive demand for different types of goods and services. For me today, doing the right thing for the planet is just a lifestyle choice. I may choose to buy organic, or to advocate against extractive industries, raise awareness for alternative energy sources and recycle my new monitor’s box. However, I still feel entitled to drive a SUV, to have two monitors on my desk and drive alone just because I like my own mind space. If I fail to eat 100% grass fed beef, I don’t really feel deeply about it. I think factory farmed meat is unethical and will share YouTube videos about its cruelty, and consequently look for local sustainable beef (as long as it’s available on my way home from work).

Here’s the problem: while such lifestyle level of choices are laudable, they are not stopping climate change. We need something more drastic that is at the same time not externally coercive. Governments may set quotas, and industries may cooperate if they can find profits. The more hurricanes, floods and droughts we see as the result of extreme weather, the more we will shift behaviors for the sake of survival. Yet all of this will not be enough, and it won’t stop the exploitative instincts of those with power to find new ways to influence the green NGOs into compromise. We need to change the human heart, and here is where religion comes in.

Think of the transformative power Christianity has had on Western civilization. While there have been dark periods, at the same time, the happiest countries in the world have Christian roots. The faithful will of course impute the power of change to Christ himself, and interpret success as evidence of his divinity. I look at it differently, however, i.e. more in terms of changed behaviors. The Christian religion catalyzed people to behave in certain ways that were conducive to a civil society. It wasn’t just Christianity that helped. Local culture and values morphed the religion into an effective, cohesive social structure. Once those values and behaviors become deeply embedded in the society, countries can secularize.

Early faith is fanatical. Think about the level of personal sacrifice that religious extremists are willing to suffer. Ascetics deny themselves food, live in the desert, make pilgrimages on their knees. Believers will fight holy wars, and fanatics blow themselves up in the hope of a getting a direct pass to heaven. What drives these people to extreme behavior? It is their world view, the internalized story line that they have accepted for their lives. I’m not advocating that people blow themselves up to stop logging trucks, no. But I do see the power of the commitment to defend what is held as sacred, like the Sea Shepherd activists putting their boats between the poachers and the whales. We need to define a new sacred worthy of sacrifice.  

So while all kinds of external pressures from the harsh environment, from dutiful governments, corporate philanthropy and peer group shaming can drive us towards good behaviors, there’s nothing more powerful than people making dramatic lifestyle choices based on their own conviction of faith.

Thus, when we combine the notion that religions are manmade, and that faith systems are the most powerful internal motivators, along with the imperative to save the planet, we can create new faith that drives people to action.

Do we start a new monolithic religion? Isn’t that politically untenable? Won’t we find peace only on the other side of major religious wars? I don’t think so. We can’t spread the new sacred through political and military power. It has to spread person to person.

Rather than startup a new major world religion to compete with Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and the like, we should instead teach communities to self-serve. This is all made possible through an understanding of the democratic nature of dynamics of faith. Historically, we have looked to the religious elites, to the prophets and holy scriptures for the contours of our faiths. Now we can use the principles of community mythology to put structure around faith building. The result will be an endemic set of shared values expressed in a plethora of local cultures.

— Roy Zuniga
Kirkland, WA 

 copyright (c) 2015 roy zuniga

Faith Connection Entities

A friend was out in the woods recently, talking to trees; some more than others. A Douglas Fir in particular seemed to be a great one to interact with. And she ‘heard’ words come back. The message was to head back after eight days alone in a rainy Northwest forest. This turned out to be for a very good reason; her horse was about to be put down due to injury and old age. She arrived with minutes to spare to say her goodbyes after over twelve years together.

‘Doug Fir’, as she identified the tree that warned her, rose to prominence during her forest quest to re-kindle faith. As a child, she also talked to trees while playing, and to Jesus while praying. Somehow both were part of a magical world where she experienced answers to her prayers. Grown up and educated as a scientist, she later stopped believing in Christianity, or rather, she started believing Christianity is a mythology, a man-made story system. The heart-felt magical belief faded with childhood. This particular week in the woods, however, she missed it and wanted to rekindle her faith. Not having Jesus available, she fell back on the wonderful trees. I won’t recount the entire adventure here, other than to say she did find answers to words directed at the universe. The connection point was Doug fir.

Listening to her retell the story, I was struck by how humans of faith seem to need to talk to something. Even religions that appear very introspective and seek to evade the mundane through inward meditation nevertheless have statues of their prophets and gods. We can all visualize the laughing Buddha, or the Virgin Mary, Thor and Zeus. In popular mythologies, citizens talk to superheroes. Jews and Muslims denounce graven images, yet there always seems to be some object, some connection point – like the Wailing Wall or Mecca – that is special, sacred. Humans, it seems, can’t connect to God without directing their prayers towards something tangible.

In the case of our Northwest forest sprite, the connection artifact came into focus after she re-started her journey towards faith. In other words, desire for connection comes before the connection point is identified. Abraham saw his burning bush as he sought after God. This may explain the localization of connection points, like the ‘Virgin of Lourdes’, or the sacred nature of Medina. Some confuse the connection artifact with the connection, as if the locale is the catalyst. In fact, pilgrimages to holy sites are not required.

If the various mythologies around the world that function for their believers as religions are in fact created by peoples over time, it is reasonable to assume that connection points can be created and conjured, much like our forest pilgrim transformed the tree in front of her. With eyes of faith, she turned an ordinary tree into a sacred intermediary point. You see, she has been well versed in the principles of community mythology and knows there is no religion apart of story. Having moved away from the exclusive God of Christians after much thought and soul searching, she was not about to conflate the artifact with the faith. It’s quite remarkable that despite the knowledge that her prior faith was connected to a concocted mythology, she was still able to find faith again. This time, the faith artifact was also conjured by a human (quite opportunistically). In a way, the Doug fir is a ‘found’ connection point.

Listening to her speak, it was clear that the Douglas fir had been elevated into something more than a tree. It became a spiritual entity by virtue of its function as a connection point of faith. This transmutation is to be expected when the mythical imagination is in play. It is an important mental shift because it points the way forward on the dynamics of faith and myth. One of the concerns I have had was whether someone who knowingly creates a mythology can participate in it as effectively as one who has it handed down. Her experience suggests that this can be the case.

It is one thing to believe in Jesus because that is the truth as told to you by parents. It’s quite another to believe in a tree that you’ve just elevated to a connection point with God! Yet for her it worked, and this is a great lesson for us. Apparently, you can pick your connection point and activate it yourself through the mythic imagination, and it can be effective for faith.

The dynamics of myth become the dynamics of faith when you express your thirst for connection with God or the universe through a found connection point. This makes faith much more portable and malleable. Artifacts and their location shouldn’t define your faith. Rather, your mythic imagination identifies and defines the artifacts you’ll need to light that fire of faith. These become portals to the world beyond, and they are at your disposal, regardless of how you feel about traditional religion.


— Roy Zuniga
Kirkland, Dec. 2015

Creating Mythic Art


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So far I have been looking at myth-making from the perspective of how communities can ‘re-program’ themselves to implement more sustainable behaviors. We can think of this as the ‘human software’ role for myth. The theory is people will empathize with mythic heroes on their journeys and mimic their decision making when faced with analogous circumstances.

However, there is another role for myth as a way to connect to ‘the world behind’, or ‘the other plane’. In this view, myth is the portal, the mystical means by which we can make things right with the gods, and in so doing enhance our spiritual survival. In other words, we go from mythology as a systematic and somewhat objective study of the stories of culture, to a faith-full ‘mythism’. This is a belief in the power of the myth itself. In Campbell’s terms, myth gives you ‘a line to connect with that mystery which you are.’

If we take either one of the approaches without considering the other, we miss out. Focusing on the hereafter without regard to the planet does not lead to integral living: as the planet sours, the daily reality of living contrasted with the spiritual journey towards bliss causes us to live with tension, dissonance and conflict. All sorts of dysfunctions result, including the creation of artificial environments, denial, retreat, escapism and even hatred. Some of the most vitriolic chronic ‘haters’ are those who feel others have come in between them and their journey to bliss.

On the other hand, while focusing on the here and now can help organize and clean up society, it doesn’t address the basic human need for meaning and an explanation of the soul’s afterlife. Do we have to choose between approaches? I think not.

The duality between the pragmatic behavior-focused approach and the spiritual journey has something in common: sacred stories. For community myth-making, these are the stories that hold our core values as exemplified by normative behaviors. For the spiritual pilgrim, these very same stories hold the metaphorical images and concepts that provide a connection with the gods and their normative behaviors. Align the two and we have the formula for cultural transformation. Myths give us the sense that today’s acts can be brought in line with how things are done on the higher plane. It’s imperative, therefore, that we align our mythical world with what life on earth should be. What does that look like?

Myths are all around us and every culture has them, but where do they come from? I dare say none of us has invented a widely adopted sacred story (yet). Let’s face it, we’re not accustomed to bootstrapping our sacred myths. Historically, no one person invents a religion; even if it came from a founder or prophet, it only has the legs the community choses to give it. In other words, myths are community creations. Given the need to elevate our behaviors, we can think of the process in three phases:

Three Phases of Myth Making

  1. Sacred Values: We need the notion of sacred values and behaviors, and this is best defined by the community itself. We really do know the answers; we just have to agree and write them down.
    • This is actually not that hard. It starts with mythic awareness, and then coming together to define themes for change.
  2. Myth Framework: We need the masters of metaphors, those who actually create the allegorical imagery and story that we can use to re-program ourselves.
    • This is perhaps the most important phase because it will scope the realization of the myth. Mythical art expresses a shared purpose.
    • The a-priori to mythical art is the shared story. The narrative phase, therefore, is a necessary pre-requisite. This is why we stress the need for a story framework early on in the community myth-making process, which is just a natural expression of a shared belief.
  3. Artistic Myth-crafting: After this come the execution, or creative phase.
    These three phases are described in more detail at Cultera.org.

Artists are the myth realizers – making sacred stories tangible, a necessary pre-requisite to belief. Think about the dimensions of illusion here. For example, a two dimensional surface (the canvass with paint) provides an illusion for a three dimensional form. If the work is figurative, we can infer another dimension, namely the sense of presence of a personality when done well (like a Rembrandt portrait), a fourth dimension. Moreover, if it provides a sense for time past or alternate worlds, we have a fifth dimension (like allegorical art on the Sistine Ceiling). So far we have described qualities what many great works in museums have. They are not necessarily mythical without additional context. The next dimension is narrative context and symbolic meaning. This is what puts art in the realm of myth. The sixth dimension is the portal to the world behind the world, and it’s actually something the viewer brings to the work, i.e. a knowledge of the story. Art has these six dimensions is mythical.

With mythical art, the artist is facilitator of transcendence. Connecting with ‘the world behind’ actually validates current decisions when they are seen as consistent of the laws of that other world, as revealed by mythical art, which by the way, can include dance. Artists with community-sacred values are to be valued as a myth-crafters, those who create the means of collective healing and transformation.

Artists don’t have to dress as priests, mediate and set themselves apart from carnal desires in order to create this sacred art. In fact, it’s not really about the artists themselves. Myths will do their work regardless. It’s the job of the artists to be faithful to the theme and express in the works a heartfelt conviction. This view of the artist, while not new to civilization, is strange to the modern mind.

On a personal note, I’ve come full circle from being an artist who threw away his paint brush to preach a reductionistic gospel of Jesus Christ during two years as a missionary back in the early 1980s, to one who now advocates an expansive vision for making myths as communities write their own gospels, which serve functions of religion. What’s more, this process requires artists to pick up their paint brushes, chisels, pens, musical instruments and whatever other art crafting tools they have at their disposal.

This is trippy because the traditional missionary comes to a people with a message, and seeks to find an aesthetic way to present the pre-conceived – and often ancient – pathways to God. In our new practice, we don’t come with the message – that is the responsibility of the local community. No, we come with a methodology for letting them create their own and helping artists understand the crucial role of mythic art. This pre-supposes a great faith in humanity.

— Roy Zuniga
Feb. 2015 – Langley, WA

copyright © 2015 roy zuniga – all rights reserved

Art as a local economy of discovery


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In the book Zero to One, Peter Thiel notes that a large segment of society has stopped looking for secrets in relation to new technology. People think all the hard problems have been solved, and what remains is either easy to do or a mystery and impossible to know. The book is very insightful in other respects as well. What struck me as an artist who uses very old technology (painting with pigmented oils) is that the mysteries artists discover have nothing to do with technical secrets. Scientists look for the undiscovered technologies. Artists, on the other hand, manifest mysteries with mundane means on everyday walls.

Both are valid, and both can be used to drive commerce. In today’s world where we are drowning in gadgets, it’s time to explore how art can be used to bring forth an alternate and more humane economy.

Technical consumerism is choking our planet. Clearly there is a thirst for progress out there. While a small segment of innovators is looking for discoveries, the rest of the population is looking to compete over the production and consumption of commoditized technologies. We gloat in the benefits of yesterday’s stellar innovations having been made available to us at ever cheaper prices. At the same time our actions are diminishing the biodiversity of life on a finite planet. The producers don’t tell us about this hidden cost. That job is left to the activists who raise awareness and prick our consciences. If we can’t channel this demand elsewhere, we risk being awash in real garbage as we enjoy virtual worlds.

The problem is not with the innovators or activists. The problem is with producers and consumers, who have a tight inter-dependence. Lust for products is generated by the producer’s marketers and advertisers. This message is then internalized and expressed by consumers. Like members of a bizarre cult, after a while we can’t let go of our consumerism because doing so would invalidate our beliefs, practices and past choices. It’s a sick symbiosis, but let’s be clear the problem lies squarely with the consumer addiction that is fueled by the product mythologies. Myths of personal productivity, of connectedness, of sharing images, of fast shopping and shipping, etc.

The key to change is therefore breaking the addiction on the consumer side, possibly by replacing the mythologies and their perceived benefits. We can, for example, have anti-consumerist stories put the old behaviors in a negative light, while at the same time not detracting from the innovators who can provide technologies to overcome our current pollution problems. Technology is not the enemy: the wrong version of consumerism is our collective mad obsession, and to change we need new world view stories.

We can imagine a world where consumers skip a few generations of innovations, much like some developing countries leap frog technical adoption that the West leveraged. This is a multi-facetted problem to solve, but there may be a glimmer of an answer in art, which can play two roles: a) helping to change the mythology of consumerism by providing a vehicle for new desired content, and b) by becoming a new target of consumption.

Why would art become something to lust after by the change-hungry tech crowd? This is just a hunch, but there is a link between consumerism and discovery. Tech junkies are thrilled when we can have the latest the latest technology. Remember when touch screens came out, and what an amazing experience it was to have the physical buttons replaced with screens that can change? Many of us who thirst for progress felt compelled to upgrade. That thirst has not abated, and the tease of ever bigger screens and thinner phones and tablets has us on a consumer craze that is fueling an unprecedented rate of exchange for gadgets.

Today, we don’t look at the phone the way grandma looked at the Maytag washer in the past, i.e. as a reliable machine that would do its job well for many years with little to no maintenance. To sell product, technology companies have convinced us that what counts for ‘doing the job well’ changes every six months, and that therefore our relatively recent purchases need to be upgraded frequently. Heck, recent advertising suggests you can just upgrade for next to nothing, so why not do it, regardless of the state of your old phone. This is not a sustainable mindset; but it is the current madness of the masses.

One of the biggest ironies of social media today is that people have to be focused on a gadget – their computer, phone or tablet – in order to share about themselves with others. There’s an illusion of connectedness that, if we are honest, is strangely not deeply satisfying. This was highlighted recently with Facebook’s mass production of image timelines for a person’s year, as if the machine could determine what defines you in the year by what you post online. We all adopt certain personas online. To have the system provide you with a digest of your online persona for your approval so you can share it with the world is really an inversion. The machine is now defining the person, and consumers obediently share out of a misplace sense of duty to false connectedness.

This cult of technology is dehumanizing producers as well as consumers. With the race to the bottom on price comes the inescapable logic that the production systems and cloud infrastructure should standardize. While the customers should have ‘choice’, the product companies have to streamline, and that means fewer choices for the producers. Deviation from simple, repeatable automation on standard equipment works against the bottom line. People who have to deal with exceptions in the standard process are expensive. So end-to-end processes are being designed to leave the human out of the production as much as possible. Ostensibly this frees key people to focus on strategy and direction. Ultimately, the number of people required for the new roles is much smaller, and layoffs ensue when standard automation is fully realized.

So we have the paradox of choice – increasing the choices to consumers necessarily means reducing choices on production. Get more people to buy more things produced by less and less people. In fact the two forces are linked – standardization on production means that more and more competing companies will end up having different flavors of the same essential product. How does the human benefit from this craziness? We don’t. We get absorbed in the incremental consumerism where we obsess over micro-differences in products and constantly upgrade to get the next version to compare and show off.  Or, if we are on the producer side of things, people experience becoming as fungible as the machines in the cloud data centers that can be swapped out at a moment’s notice. ‘Progress’ has hijacked humanity.

Therefore we have to slow down on the consumerism, and at the same time decouple innovation from that cycle so that scientists can work on unlocking secrets of the universe that will benefit humanity. Art can play a partial role here, I would like to argue, in diverting the consumer thirst for innovation away from the production of commodity gadgets to a discovery of mysteries through art. Not that art is the superhero to save the planet, but there is a dynamic of attention incited by artistic discovery to be valued here. And it’s not technical discovery. Let me explain.

The core of consumerism is a lust for the new. Modern art capitalized on this and accepted formal changes in how art was rendered as innovation, and connoisseurs lapped it up like iPad junkies on a new release. Yet there is another segment of artists who don’t look to formal innovation as the measure of the works. These traditional artists don’t understand the madness of the modern art scene because they view art through a content lens, not a technical one. Perhaps this explains the modern art craze that drives up bidding on dumb empty works: the buyers are seeing art innovation as a kind of technical innovation, and that is valued for its own sake.

Regardless, artists should apply the mastery of old techniques in the services of new images that convey values that are relevant to the day. So it’s not about technology; it’s about content. With art, the technology and content must support each other, as expressive use of the medium is integral to the impact of the work. Formal expression can’t be an end in itself, however, even in the pursuit of ‘sacred’ content. If the expressive execution precludes or overwhelms the users’ ability to connect with the subject matter, we haven’t achieved our ends.

What is this desirable content that will seduce consumers? I can envision two levels: a) a lively community discussion about shared values, and b) the rendering of mystery. Of course, these can be complimentary efforts and one work can even manifest both. The consumer’s role is unpacking the nuances of mysteries rendered in art, mysteries which touch on the shared values being targeted by the community. To achieve this, we have to learn to look, not for features, but for meaning. In a very tangible sense, an artist can render her response to mystery for you to contemplate, to consume, internalize and respond to. The role of producers as advertisers is replaced by the community as advertisers of values, which generates the desire for works. This is a good consumerism that is not an opportunity cost to a viable planetary ecosystem.

How can this work? As I’ve written elsewhere on community mythology, a creative lifecycle or season of embellishment can be chartered by a given town or region for the express purpose fostering the production of art aligned around certain themes.

Care must be taken to value high quality, so we’re not talking about newfangled consumerism of large quantities of low quality works. This raises the question of the market: where will the purchasing power come from if not from the production of technologies. The simple answer lies in reverting back to old models for local economies. Much has been written about this in the Transition and other movements, and I won’t cover that here.

Let’s also keep in mind that mythologies that stick with people generate economy. We have only to look at Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, superhero movies, etc. to know that these shared stories can take a life of their own, with very passionate participants. All this hunger for stories and artifacts is a proven driver of commerce.

Art can help us reclaim our humanity from the sea of technology. As we find our dignity as beings, we will hunger for true connection with others. For the cycle to be complete, art should focus on the shared values the local community holds scared. Only then can we have a deep and meaningful conversation that elevates our existence and frees us from reducing the planet’s resource stock even as we pile up used tablets and phones.

— Roy Zuniga
Dec. 2014
Kirkland, WA

copyright (c) 2014 Roy Zuniga

The End of Hermeneutics

Some believe reincarnation is a kind of undesirable state where you go to work out your karma issues. When you’re done with all that processing, you enter a state of Nirvana. Personally, I’d much rather be present in the moment on this world. To me, the aesthetic experience is life! I don’t want a Nirvana where all the beauty of our planet disappears as illusion. Such ‘enlightenment’ is alien. What life do we have apart from experience? To an artist, a place without aesthetic delight is separation from God.

However, I find the  concept that perception is illusion fascinating. It leads me to think we can layer perception:

  • Viewer perceives Art (perception + imagination = an illusion that is momentarily taken for ‘reality’)
  • Creator perceives Reality (perception + interpretation = Art)

Perception plays a role in both creator and viewer modes. Viewer has to know the art is an illusion; however the experienced aesthetic delight is substantial, it is an emotional reality. Likewise, to the Buddhist, life is an illusion even as happiness is not.

Thus there’s a certain type of perception, a process of viewing art, that can train the mystic how to enjoy illusory life by enjoying illusory art. The painting is a metaphor for understanding life spiritually because before immersion in the world of the work, all she has to do is turn the painting around to understand its physical truth as a collection of paint and canvass. This collection of intentionally arranged pigments cannot explain the joy of the art; neither can the collection of creatures and earth explain the joy of life. There is an ‘otherness’ to the experience of perception that when understood is true enlightenment. When you can both fully delight in the work and in the same mind fully understand how it works, you have attained a functional duality of serene existence. It’s the peace of both knowing and experiencing.

This is the skill required to fully participate community mythology. With it, you both create the myth (i.e. sacred story) and experience it with unfettered emotional empathy. We can most internalize the lessons of the work when we have childlike abandon in trusting faith. The more we understand the dynamics of myth like we understand the artist’s craft, the more our perceptive mind can cast off from creation analytics, so we can be truly open to the experience. Confidence in the product comes from understanding its origin, and this confidence improves aesthetic consumption.

We don’t really appreciate the value of confidence until we’ve come out of entanglement with traditional religions and their conundrums. Today there is a lot of suspicion about religion – people want to believe, especially if the ancestral etymology is there. However, suspicion incited by the stories themselves, by their ulterior power and organizational hidden agendas, keeps us from truly enjoying them. In such circumstances, suspicions have to be overcome with the noisy impact of oratory, of powerful preaching, and of emotional music and emotive lights. The religious experience is less about our analytical minds being truly free through understanding of the underlying story making craft. Instead, the analytical mind is suppressed, shut down temporarily by the religious mob experience. The religious service is a mental override that frees perception from analytical tethers so we can intake emotional experience and mold our psyche and innate responses.

Why expend all that energy to overcome our lack of understanding the hidden craft behind traditional religions? Instead, give people the tools to craft their own stories to hold sacred. There is no suspicion about the etymology because we ourselves created it. There is no need for hermeneutics because the intent is made explicit ahead of the experience. Thus the rational mind is appeased – it does not have to tolerate ignorance or conundrums, and hence does not have to be overcome with preachy showmanship or overridden with an emotive musical performance. Noise is replaced by impactful performances which themselves are the message, not the prelude. Emotions and the rational mind can both fully participate in shared myth, just like the viewer of art can have a real experience with the surface of a canvass that cannot be explained by the collection of smeared paints and pigments composing it. There’s a reason museums with great art are intended to allow a quiet experience – both your understanding and your perception are invited to be equally present, subject to your control.

Roy Zuniga
November 2014
Langley, WA

Sacred Stories

There is a synergy between story and meaning that gets played out every sermon and teachable moment in a religious house. We err when we confuse the holy relevance of the meaning with the immutability and sacredness of the story. The story is sanctified by the meaning conveyed, not by the other way around.

When we marvel at the beauty of the Sermon on the Mount or a parable of the Walls of Jericho falling down, it should be because of the interpretation given us by the speaker, and the interpretation of that which we ourselves process.

For that meaning, for that lesson, that take-away that we consider holy, we should be able to swap out the story without concern. We can update the parable and make it a sixteenth century anecdote, or a 23nd century projection, and as long as we can derive scared meaning from it, the stories are sacred.

Ultimately any lesson derived from a Biblical narrative can be distilled to essential behaviors and feelings. Reverence for God and family, devotion to a cause, inspiration to sacrifice, indignity over lying, repudiation of stealing, etc.

On the other hand, if we take the 2000 year old story ‘facts’ to be sacred in and of themselves, the behaviors that derive from them today might not be those intended by the original authors. For example, if one tribe was wronged by the other, and the version in the Holy Scriptures of one is taken to be the very word of God on the matter instead of being seen as a politicized spin by a biased stakeholder, then subsequent generations will be carrying a grudge long past what the original event merited, or what is really good behavior for the descendants of either party today.

In other words, the ‘sacred driver’ is not the story, but the meaning. When these get turned around, and you have a recipe for majoring on the wrong points and having an unholy effect. The faithful internalize divisive behaviors instead of inclusiveness and tolerance.

So when I visit a church with a friend, I look to take away great lessons regardless of the delivery vehicle. If the preacher gets hung up on doctrine and defending it for its own sake, we’re not taking away any good meaning. Instead, we’re learning to preserve an organization. No finite human can really make authoritative statements about God’s nature. Those who assert they can are really just asserting a privilege they want others to pay for somehow.

In the same manner, if the values being presented are about personal prosperity and the blessings of giving to the church, again we’re not really communicating sacred truth. The so-called canonical stories, when used to justify an organization’s prosperity, are really being defamed. They are no longer sacred. That is the irony of the prosperity church: the so-called ‘word of God’ is being made worse than secular, it’s being made consumerist.

So we see that story, in of itself, is neither sacred nor secular. Sacred are the values intended, and what we take away, values that are programmed into us via story telling and our attentive, imaginative listening. The utility of stories in this function of sacred programming is what makes the story sacred as well.

— Roy Zuniga
Langley, WA

copyright (C) 2014 roy zuniga

Values-first Faith System


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Can an understanding of God exist apart from religion? Theology so far has been so deeply intermingled with the stories about God that it’s hard to imagine doctrine without references to tablets and sermons on the mount. Apparently, for a faith-phenomenon to gain widespread acceptance it has to be infused by severe, wide-spread and hallowed embellishment. Based on that, it seems that story and tradition have to exist for a faith to succeed. The problem is that in most religions, the stories are rigid and outdated.

Assuming stories are still needed for religious success, how then can we turn the model upside down so we can have fresh stories as well as a good faith? A values-first approach can help. Let me explain.

If you assume for a moment that none of the stories in the Bible (or other scriptures) can be taken at face value, i.e. that they exist to justify an agenda, because of the conclusions they justify there’s really nothing objective about them even if some of the events they narrate are historical. In other words, the stories are essential to justify the conclusions being drawn out by the exegete. These conclusions are intended to team certain values and behaviors to the population, and to sanctify them via the veracity of the narratives. This means that you need to do certain things ‘because Jesus said so, and Jesus is God’ as evidenced by the stories of miracles. Ignoring the question of salvation from hell for a minute, that seems like a lot of overhead just to get at good behavior.

What if we just skipped the allusions and articulated the values first? The whole notion of heaven, hell, resurrection, salvation, etc. is not something we have to deal with to arrive at solid practices for life that derive from values we sanctify as a society.

We can even start by selecting the values and behaviors from historical religions that are relevant. We can also start fresh, ignoring the challenge of scrubbing stories that have too much historical baggage for some of us. Why not just start with values and let the population of believers develop practices and stories to help themselves assimilate those behaviors. There is more than one way arrive at value-driven behavior it seems. The traditional prescriptive doctrinal approach requires a supporting infrastructure of religious narrative and tradition. The values-first approach, as we may call it, focuses on the learnings first and lets the supporting narratives be develop organically.

When I speak of embellishment, I’m referring to the rich traditions, stories and other aesthetic dimensions that may be added to simple beliefs. A direct correlation can be made between embellishment and the success of a given religion. The richer the tradition, the more successful the religion. Catholicism comes to mind as a prime example. Counter examples exist in various ascetic sects that reject art and the ‘smells and bell’s, but these are minorities.

What comes first, the core beliefs, or the embellishment? Is it the lesson or the parable? The difficulty we have answering this is an indicator of how inextricably bound myth-making is with the growth of a religion. If the author’s only intent is embellishment for entertainment, as in a successful epic narrative like The Lord of the Rings, you end up with a ‘religious’ devotion to something that isn’t really intended to be a religion. People quote the novel like some would quote Scripture. Is the opposite also true? Can we have we have a value set accepted as sacred truth without the supporting narratives?

An example of the values-first approach is articulations of corporate values. Many companies will have a religion-agnostic set of values like ‘treat others with respect’, ‘assume good intent’, ‘focus on results’, ‘contribute to the success of others, leverage the contributions of others’, etc. These are intended to be internalized by employees so they manifest behaviors that foster collaboration and drive success. Supporting example stories may be given, but these are not seen as religious stories. They are fleeting justifications that can easily be replaced or altered without violation. If the story fits, use it. Sometimes games and exercises are developed to drive home the values as well. While some can become annual events, they are not give the significance of a religious tradition.

Can such ‘corporate’ values in the abstract be ‘sanctified’ and leveraged by the population at large to achieve the same ends as religion, i.e. to drive virtuous behavior of societies? This is an interesting question we should engineer into a pattern for reverse-religion, i.e. a values-first approach to ‘indoctrination’. There would be a certain ‘doctrification’ of narratives from the creative side of the population that is the playing a key role in establishing a new type of shared religion, one that is fuzzy around the narrative edges. The myths are made sacred by collective blessing of the values that drive them.

This diagram illustrates the difference between a ‘Narrative-first’ and the ‘Values-first’ approaches.


On the left, Narrative-first means that an ancient core narrative grew to have holy significance in the tribe, and out of that stories were canonized (into a Bible, for example). Over time as the stories failed to satiate people’s needs, additional folk embellishments were added that were not at the status of Holy Scripture, nevertheless were shared and revered. At a given point in time all of these – the fading canon stories and the sacred folk stories were what a person was presented, i.e. the ‘edge of presentation.’ However, people don’t just assimilate what they are presented, they apply their own filters and weighting, to the point where what they receive is what they want to believe. Note that in the end, the canonized stories blend and fade along with the cacophony of other messages people deem valuable and assimilate. What soaks in varies from person to person.

Note that the Narrative-first system can consume a lot of energy in maintaining the canon stories in the forefront of people’s minds. First, they must be established, which means filtering out anything that didn’t rise the standard. Second, this establishment is done by a select group of experts, which introduces social tension. Third, over time the stories become less relevant, and more and more energy is required to make them stick with people like they did in the beginning. Finally, to maintain a cannon, there is a constant battle between the ardent believers and those who would embellish the faith – the conservatives vs. the liberals.

Now let’s turn to the Values-first approach. Since ‘a-storical’ values are agreed upon first (‘a-storical’ simply means values in the abstract, that are not inherently justified by a sacred core narrative). We can think of them as humanitarian values. In any case, a set of values is made sacred by the community, with some definition and examples. From those values, the community is free to create stories to explain them to various audiences with locale-specific flavors and color. This suite of narratives likewise compose and edge of presentation that any given individual will encounter at a given time. As in the previous example, the user brings their own filters, so the end result is really about the same. People have assimilate what they want to believe in, and stories help tremendously with that programing.

With a Values-first approach, there is a lot less energy and strife expended on sustaining the canon-story establishment because it doesn’t exist. In its place is a tolerant culture of creativity. The key in all this is accepting the new pattern, and fostering a process for the establishment of the sacred humanitarian a-storical value set.

In this paradigm there is no hermeneutic of Scripture – there is only interpretation of art. The sacred values have already been articulated because they came first. Intent is clarified up front. There is no practice of interpreting the text to discern the will of God. The god-will, as we internally know it, was summarily recognized and articulated in the vernacular at the start. Interpretation comes during the embellishment process as we look at the work of artists and try to understand their response to subject matter based on the canonical values they have accepted as the soul-blood of their creative efforts.

Since all religious story is filtered by what the individual projects over it – their current struggles, pain points, pleasures or joys, there has never been a time when a sacred story has landed objectively, i.e. in the same way for everyone. We have been interpreting the narratives with personal filters and imaginative embellishments forever.

Being human is the certification of your right to appeal to your conscience, as validated by your understanding of collective norms, and your assessment of the output of the story writers and artists. The interpretation can be advocated but should not be contentious due to any exclusivity mandate. The idea that there’s one set of canon-stories is gone. Because the values are already clear, the interpretation is about understanding nuances of multiple meanings, each of which is valid from the person’s own perspective (as it always has been). Thus there are no denominational schisms with each side claiming the truth based on interpretation.

In other words, interpretation is not seen to narrow inwards where there’s only room for one truth. Rather, interpretation fans out from values, dividing into endless branches, each of which is capable of carrying and conveying truth for someone. Expansive interpretation based on core values affirms our creativity, variety and humanity and teaches us to co-exist in the process.

Traditional religion, it seems, has the flow of interpretation backwards: we should not narrow down narrative artifacts into a holy cannon, and then use interpretation to drive out the values and lessons. Rather we should start from values derived from our collective life’s lessons and let embellishment and interpretation fan out without limit. But remember, the ensuing unlimited interpretation of the embellishment is not the same as ‘anything goes’: the foundational values constrain the efforts. Thus we can achieve balance between unity of intent and variety of expression, and thereby realize the embellishment which seems to be a pre-requisite for widespread adoption of a faith.

— Roy Zuniga

August 2014
Kirkland, WA

copyright (c) 2014 Roy Zuniga

Get an evangelist thinking


What better advice can I provide this father’s day than spiritual guidance? Yet instead of telling my grown children what to believe by way of doctrine, I would rather provide some tips on how to avoid what I call the ‘scripture thumpers’. These are the folks who come armed with an authoritative book they use to justify their conclusions and/or hit you over the head with if logic isn’t prevailing. They are friendly enough, usually, and they know they are right. How they look at you depends on whether you’re a ‘saint’ or an ‘ain’t’ from the perspective of their sacred scriptures.

I was a Bible thumper in my twenties, so I know the pattern. I went door to door, preached in churches, in malls, in the streets – basically anywhere there was a relatively captive audience to frighten with notions of not being saved, of going to hell. Gratefully, I came out of that praxis. I learned a few things along the way I’d like to share with you. If you come across an bible thumping evangelist, here are some issues to bring up that can put them on their heels, and hopefully get them thinking about the positions they so confidently assert:

  • Did the resurrected Jesus have blood? You see, blood atonement is the whole crux of the matter – if blood doesn’t atone for sin, then the crucifixion – and Christianity – has no basis. Blood atonement is actually a pagan concept that goes back to before the time of Abraham. It’s the idea that killing one creature can buy the life of another, in front of God. What kind of God needs blood to forgive sins? Does that make any sense? As if life is a zero-sum game. If the blood of Jesus was so precious that it could buy the life of all present, past and future believers, how could it be spontaneously regenerated at the resurrection? And if the resurrected Christ didn’t have blood, how did his body even function? If it was no longer human, then the resurrected Christ was by definition a radical discontinuity from the carnal human who died – i.e. a whole other being – in which case the question about whether it was the same body – with our without blood – is irrelevant. His new body is a fabrication, even if it was a close facsimile. If it can be fabricated like the Fed prints money, how is it so precious? The notion of corporeal continuity breaks down – you might as well believe in reincarnation.
  • What kind of God would create people able to suffer eternally? This is an age old rebuttal that doesn’t lose cogency. Hypothetically, one can understand God permanently annihilating souls that didn’t make the cut – but keeping souls around just to torment them sounds like the conclusion of medieval theology and doesn’t pass the sniff test. A good God would not do that; and if God does that, he’s not worth believing in.
  • A single book serves a single state – whether it is Constantine’s council of Nicea early in the fourth century, or King James’ Bible council early in the 17th century, any time there has been a single book created to prescribe the bounds of belief, it has been in the service of political hegemony. Plurality of beliefs is seen as divisive. In fact, cultures change, and so do their values and the mythical stories required to support those shifting values. Locking on an old book of explanations in the face of new and more differentiated understanding of the world makes the faithful archaic in their superstitions, narrow and intolerant. Rather, we should have a system that allows for the evolution of spiritual understanding, which necessarily means new sacred stories to support them.
  • Why spend so much energy explaining conundrums? The Bible is full of them – free will vs. predestination; the role of women, of slaves; our posture towards government; teaching on divorce; polygamy, stoning and genocide. At some point the scriptures endorse, contradict or do both to these tendencies. Those who hold that the entire Holy Book (from end to end) is the Word of God have a lot of explaining to do, and it’s not entirely believable. The faithful need full time theologians to reconcile the points of view, have to continuously convince themselves about how these contradictions hang together, and have lots of meetings to drill in the teaching. That’s a huge amount of unproductive energy expended just to appease a conscience and provide a foundation for doing good works. Why not start from a position of peace and goodness, and nullify the need to reconcile conundrums?
  • All intractable wars over the millennia can be traced back, for the most part, to one or more sides holding on to beliefs about an exclusive way to God. Think about it – if Christians, Jews and Muslims weren’t exclusive about how to get to God, we wouldn’t have religious wars. In an ever more crowded planet, holding on the exclusive beliefs that only alienate others and keep them from learning about other cultures is not morally justifiable. We have to genuinely not only tolerate, but find reason to share humanity with those who believe differently. The exclusive scripture mentality necessarily works against that and is, in my mind, a root of evil behavior.
  • Creationists see themselves as ‘other’ than creation. The idea that nature is there for our benefit, to be exploited and exhausted because we’re entitled to it, and that God will anyway come back with a new earth, has led to abuse of the planet. The whole notion of Manifest Destiny that drove early American expansionism is an example of this. Buffalo herds decimated for sport. The attitudes continue today with our exploitation of forests and the hunting of species to extinction for vain reasons. On the other hand, if we see ourselves as being related to and directly dependent on a healthy ecosystem, we will act differently. Indefinite growth on a finite planet will not be assumed.
  • Take the religious language out of the religious narratives and see if the stories are believable. For example, instead of saying that ‘the Christ was crucified, died, preached to the underworld, was then resurrected on the third day, and ascended to heaven, as witnessed by the saints, to be seated at the right hand of God the Father . . . ‘ try a narrative like this: ‘A middle aged blue collar carpenter turned street preacher who broke the law was tortured and killed as an object lesson to his followers. It is alleged that he came back to life by a handful of followers, without evidence. They say he was able to appear and disappear at will, and was eventually elevated into the upper atmosphere without a vehicle or space suit, where he sat down next to his dad on a platform in the sky. . . ‘ How does this story scan? It’s essentially the same narrative without the religious jargon. Did you find it barely suitable for a tabloid? If it sounds absurd, perhaps it is. If Jesus really did sit down in outer space, and he has a human body, how does he breathe? Where exactly is he? Why is he just sitting there for thousands of years?
  • As a preacher you are asking people to make the most important decision they could possibly make, namely to commit their lives to a religious purpose, based on what? Something you can’t verify, which has no evidence beyond hearsay. For example, it was just a handful of grief-stricken witnesses who saw the empty tomb. If they had colluded or had been deluded, and somehow lied about that one event, the entire Christian believe system falls apart. Think about it – millennia of institution building with millions placing their faith in a religion and fervently believing in a resurrection that never happened! Our courts would not send a man to death row based on hearsay – how can you ask everyone to give their lives to a cause based on the narrative of those who had most to gain? 
  • Every culture experiences miracles – what makes the Bible’s miracles from God and the others’ from the devil? Read, for example, ‘the Autobiography of a Yogi’ and you’ll see India’s stories about people teleporting and being in two places at once. There are many mythologies out there that narrate miracles – how can your miracles be evidence that your way is the only way to God? If that were true, then their miracles would validate their way to God. So either both are true, or their miracles are from the devil. Great way to make friends! Miracles, even if true, cannot be seen as definitive evidence because they are by definition subject to interpretation.
  • The ‘N-Level’ problem – even if Jesus and the disciples were not lying and colluding to create a cult, even if they did hear voices and experience spiritual beings and faithfully obeyed and reported what they said – there’s no absolute proof that those beings one level above them weren’t deceiving the prophets and their disciples. The same can be said for any number of levels above. For example, even if Jesus and the disciples are truthful, and the layer of beings above them were also truthful, we can’t prove that the next level up was not being deceptive. If our flawed society of finite people with conflicting and even questionable motivations can create scams, form groups of hackers who steal identities; if our own government can spy on us without congressional oversight and criticize foreign entities for putting ‘back doors’ in our computer hardware all the while they are intercepting hardware orders to do exactly that; if our own elected representatives and the government whom we finance with our taxes can so deceive us, what makes us think that more powerful beings one or two levels up in the ontology are any less corrupt?

So my friends, this is the advice of a father who has graduated – don’t let a scripture Evangelist tell you what to believe. Ultimately you know in your heart and being what you must believe. My advice is to be still, know yourself, think for yourself and be open to experiencing God. I left the scriptures behind that I had spent years memorizing. Yet during my missionary stint I did have spiritual experiences, and met men and women of God who exuded goodness in a way that cannot be justified by reasoning about doctrine. Godliness does not validate doctrine; it validates the human connection to God. There is goodness, there is a spiritual realm and humans are capable of living in harmony with each other and the planet. Find those values, create sacred stories around them, and share them in a community. This is true organic and agile religion.

— copyright © 2014 Roy Zuniga 

Values Spawn Religion  


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We often think of religion as the source of our values. We can’t leave Christianity (or Buddhism, or Islam, or Judaism) because we’d cast adrift into a morass of values, not all of which are good. We think of religions as a safe place, where we can come back to – a place where the pastors and leaders can set us straight if we wander, just as they themselves can be set straight if they wander. All of this is based on the values and principles in the Holy Book of whatever religion we follow.

Yet as many of us grow old in religion, we come to realize that we tend to filter, interpret and otherwise mold ‘religious’ and ‘righteous’ practices to conform with how we want to behave. We do largely what we want and pay lip service to a religion. At some point we are living our own interpretation – and if the particular denomination doesn’t suit our taste, we move on to find one that does. In fact, you can become more conservative or liberal at will by joining a church that gives it legitimacy. We fool ourselves into thinking we are obeying God by conforming to the church, forgetting all too quickly that we chose that church. It conformed to us – or our parents we inherited it from – before we conformed to it.

Given this reality, what have we to fear leaving a religion? Do we really lose values if in fact our values have driven the choice of church? Do values and principles in fact go deeper than religion? I suspect they do, and that religions are a way of codifying values and behaviors for a society. Religion is a way of aligning a group of individuals towards the same shared behaviors.

It only follows then, that we can and should come together with kindred spirits and likewise create our own structures and norms to codify the desired behaviors. Creating a religion is not playing God; on the contrary, it is very human. The values that drive it, however, should aspire toward a positive greater good. Where do these noble values come from ultimately? Whether instilled by a divine breath or simply the evolution based on the benefits they deliver, their well spring is the human heart.

The dynamics of religion, then, is about the dynamics of shared values and their manifestation into a socially sacred culture.

— copyright Roy Zuniga 2014

Creating the Greatest Art


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by Roy Zuniga

Art has an impact. Without someone actually being touched by the work, who can say a painting is art? If it’s not perceived then it is just another object reflecting light. Any item can be seen; beauty is perceived. Art’s essential meaning does not register on a light sensor. Neither does everyone who views a work of art actually perceive its artistic import. The presence we think of being ‘in’ the work is actually only in the viewer’s mind – there is no objective presence in the paint and canvass. Of course, without a work there’s nothing to respond to. Light may reflect from the unobserved art like the sounds of the proverbial unwatched tree falling. Perception of the work as art is everything, which makes judging great art very subjective.

To excel as artists, we need to know what makes truly great art. This actually depends on what we value as individuals, which correlates to what we have learned to value as a culture. Cultural values can go sideways and degenerate. The question should really be ‘what great values should art embody well?’ These question forces us to think about what we need to value going forward as a population, and what stories are we going to develop to ingrain them in our psyche.

Myths, which carry a peoples fundamental beliefs, are manifested through art. Great art in turn has impact by embedding those cultural values and behaviors in our being. In other words, there is cycle that perpetuates certain values, with each generation spinning old myths in a new format. Think of how many incarnations of American superheroes have manifested themselves over the years.

We all participate in this cycle but many of us are not aware of how it’s working on us. Art is central. Impact art and you impact culture and ultimately civilization. Art can be an entry point for change to impact more suitable economic, technical or political decisions. Make people aware of values driving culture, and we have a wedge into this cycle of myth that allows us to adjust the direction of observer’s future choices.

Thus answering the question of what art is, and what great art should be, starts with identifying subjective values that are great. For me, having a sense of connectedness is a supremely good value to have. As do most people, I value a connection with other human beings and creation. This is the foundation for co-existence and long term sustainability. Of course as humans we connect best with our own kind. In my mind, the greatest art has to be the great portraits and figurative works that connect us with the personalities portrayed. So to me, a great work is:

Figurative art that makes us feel we are facing a personality.

To understand this higher calling for the artist, it will help to sort out some of the dimensions that make art excellent, and understand which dimension specifically takes art to that higher level:

  1. Historical import: art valued for its historical role and impact, not just for the merits of the work as art. Like classic cars, the value of the work increase because of scarcity and historical context.
  2. Technical mastery of the artist: the work astonishes us with innovation, competence, skill, execution of the paint and materials.
  3. Subject matter expertise: the work demonstrates deep knowledge of anatomy, perspective, foliage, topography, engineering, etc.
  4. Formal interest: The composition, how the eye is directed by shapes and teased by color, texture, perspective, golden proportions, balance, dynamism, etc. all work together for maximum impact in relation to the concept of the image.
  5. Narrative curiosity: the subject matter makes us think about events and a story. For example, it betrays the artist’s struggle, a fairy tale plot line or someone’s success. Something in the work’s subject or how it’s rendered elicits an involuntary response brings us into the context of the work emotionally. The rendering of a beggar boy, or little girl with a bird for example.
  6. Personal presence:  the most elusive quality – the work of art instigates the perception of a personal presence. Think master portrait. We come to respect and even empathize with the subject. That’s part of the beauty of portraits; the only sensitivity required is the ability to recognize other people!

It’s the last one – personal presence – which I’m most interested in. The others can be acquired through study and practice. Rendering personal presence, however, is a sort of alchemy that enables all kinds of mystical scenarios and raises questions about existence. Before we get into that, however, let’s review some of the dimensions of art that no matter how great don’t add up to great art on their own.

1. A dimension that I don’t think is a defining characteristic of the greatest art is historical import. The analogy is of course classic cars. Rare cars are more valuable because of how much of the original car is actually there, not by how well they function. Knock-offs made today my look just as good and be lighter, more efficient, safer, quieter, etc. and still not be worth what a fragile original is. Same for art – the perceptive impact of a medieval painting could be lesser than the work of a modern master, but because of its historical import, the medieval work could be worth more. It may have been the first painting to show two point perspective, for example.  

2. Neither is the differentiator having absolute mastery of the illusion. A pencil, a fruit, a hat, a bowl may seem to pop off the surface. We admire what a skilled craftsman can do and may be tempted to try the technique ourselves; after all, if it’s rational, it can be learned. We marvel at these works in the same way we marvel at fine woodworking or precise engineering. Aesthetic delight is in acknowledging the elevated actions of other humans, which somehow projects back on us. Ultimately a heroic effort on a ten foot hyper-realistic portrait is only that unless it also connects with our souls.

3. Medical text books have amazing art that illustrate anatomy in detail. Artistic anatomy books display a mastery of surface anatomy. Yet neither of these in and of themselves translate into us feeling a human connection with the subject matter, although the greatest masters demonstrate knowledge of human anatomy. The reverse is of course true. We may feel a presence in the work – a real empathy and connection at an emotional level. However, if the anatomy is off, we take points off.

4. The key differentiator is not the work’s ability to fool the mind into reacting as if it were encountering something. The mind assesses warm and cool greys and evaluates one to be ‘in front’, for example. The same for colors that are said to be acidic, hot, cool, airy, peaceful, etc.  Invoking these associations are an important tool in the artist’s kit. However, in and of themselves these stimulated associations are not the key differentiator. Advertisers use similar techniques to sell products and vacations. And a great work might be devoid of strong visual stimulation.

Neither do formal techniques differentiate great art. As artists we use all sort of gimmicks to trigger involuntary responses, like embedding primal geometry and the golden mean in the composition. Our mind can’t help but perceive the underlying structure, and this creates interest. It’s a way to hold attention on a work that otherwise might not have real depth of content we can connect to. In this category are letters in the background that we can’t help reading any more than a billboard when we’re stopped at a red light. Puzzles that work our sub-conscious can be delightful, and certainly a master portrait that also works in this dimension will be even more fascinating.

5. In a similar vein, an artist might leave marks in paint that are a testament to struggle, which is interesting as a biographical note, and fascinate us, pulling us into the drama. This pricks our curiosity about the plight of the artist and what he was thinking about and struggling with. The wrestled work provides an opportunity for empathy for the audience to be sure.

Aesthetic delight can also come from interpreting symbols in works, like detectives deciphering a Da Vinci code. We want to look for meaning in shapes, animals, coats of arms, etc. Investigative delights can certainly augment the aesthetic experience, as in for example, van Eyck’s ‘The Arnolfini Marriage’ painted in 1434. We can respond at many levels – the wedding narrative invokes our curiosity about the commitment; the symbolism of the dog, the slippers, etc.; the discovery of reflections in the mirror; the sublime execution and richness of contrasting red and green colors all provide us with entertainment. However, do we really feel we know the souls people represented? Or just that we know about them via the symbols?

6. I also don’t believe the greatest art can be achieved without a human component we can empathize with. Sure there are amazingly intimate still life painting like those of Richard Schmidt or Daniel Keys. However, the best still life painting dims when compared to an encounter with a portrait by Rembrandt or Velazquez because we, as humans, value an encounter with a real person above the encounter with a real fruit bowl.

The experience I’m referring to is not instigated empathy, i.e. like the feelings elicited by someone who is tugging your heart strings to get attention. That is not the highest calling for art because it is no more an encounter with a personality than passing by someone on the street whom we might feel for, but don’t deeply engage with. That’s not to say you can’t have a deep engagement through a great portrait of a beggar. That would happen despite the trappings of the subject’s circumstances.

So we’ve seen what can make for great art, but not what I’m really after with understanding the greatest art – art that you can connect with in your soul. When I encounter a Rembrandt or Velazquez portrait I feel a connection the person depicted. This experience is repeatable, although it will vary from observer to observer. What are we connecting to? There is no breathing person there. Here’s where it gets mysterious. If the significance in the recognition, then is the perception of an art work a kind of soul revival? Does it matter if the original subject doesn’t really get any benefit from our adulation of a work about the person? Does art truly immortalize?

Great art has a type of spirit that comes to life when you observe it. If you’ve ever stood mesmerized in front of a Sargent, then you know something is there you can relate to as a person. It would be creepy if it wasn’t so wonderful. Reflected light doesn’t make art; our perception of an entity does. A full experience of art is somewhat mystical, and thus hard to define.

Figurative art that betrays a presence that cannot be explained by a scientific language that only understands paints and canvass as objects, pigments and chemicals. We need a more metaphorical language. The great paintings function as a unit, with a spirit that comes to life as it is observed and internalized. Your attention is what animates it; but the work must first hook you, and it does so with one or more of the visual techniques described above. Look away and it lives not. Look back and it is there engaging you with the intensity only you can throttle. Great art will give to you as long as you let it.

If people are not sensitized to understand and interpret what is before them, art is ineffective, diminished. Thus, paradoxically, the greatest art can only be created in partnership with an audience. No matter how good the work, it won’t be great with an audience of one. When one takes art history, learns the vocabulary of art and visit museums, you are in fact sustaining the art. When the public ceases to participate, the works have no beauty. They revert to being a collection of colorful molecules. As values change, old masterpieces may just fade away. Does that matter? If they were masterpieces to a past generation, does it diminish the works if they are not so to today’s viewers? What value is there in being a historical footnote saying that at some point in time, art we ignore was once valued?

Those who can educate the faithful about what counts in art are very powerful, like the priests of old who educated the religious on what god is and how to worship his attributes. We tend to think of masterworks as having a fixed value. In reality, they are more like stock options, but instead of price fluctuating by demand, the true impact of art fluctuates by the number of people who can perceive them, and the quality they assign to that perception. Perhaps this explains why modern art works can exact such high prices – there is a group that nurtures the appreciation of the works and thus makes them more valuable. However, our institutions have it all wrong if they think a small elite can determine worthiness and masterworks.

There’s a certain protective entitlement of artifacts in museums that, rightly or wrongly, is not tied to any broader audience-impact index. There are many who consider contemporary artists as great as, or even greater than, the pantheon of the ancients. If display space in publicly funded art facilities went to work being appreciated, I suspect we would still see Rembrandts and Sargents, as people still connect to them. But alongside these we would likely see the work of modern masters like Kassan, Assael, Shanks and Liberace.

To appreciate the art, the audience itself must hone its ability to perceive. Wherever you live, you don’t have to go far to enhance your sensibilities. Visit the local farmers market and take time to see the colors, the textures, the smells, the sounds. Pick up objects and feel them. Say hi to the soapmaker and wonder at the materials used. Take it to the next level and open a paint box, look at subject matter and start responding. Study the color transitions on a peach, discern the violet shades in an evening shadow crossing the way, and reveal the warm tones on a blushing cheek, and use highlights and edge to describe where bones meet flesh. A shadow may look grey to you at first, but with every differentiated thought you open up your ability to perceive and translate that insight into paint so that others can perceive as well.

Taken to its highest calling, perception must go beyond invoking the deliciousness of a peach or the sensuousness of a nymph. As in real life, deeper satisfaction comes from establishing a relationship. The ability to discover a person and generate the same response in others through paint is the highest level of art. It goes without saying that to be able to invoke the perception of a personality, the artist himself has to be able to perceive the subject. There are of course varying degrees of perception; not all people can empathize with others or develop deep friendships.

For example, John Singer Sargent’s letters a full of anecdotes about his sitters personalities and lives. Taking a class with David Kassan, one of the things that struck me was the conversation he has with his models. It’s prodding, playful, getting them to respond, to reveal character. It’s no co-incidence that many of his masterful portraits are in fact of people he knows really well, like relatives. You can tell when an artist views his models as mere subject matter, interesting and human for sure, but without a personal connection the end result is a depiction only, without that presence we recognize in the greats. This is the mystery of viewing great master works – there’s a transcendent dimension that creates a presence of character. Perhaps this is why the great portraitist John Singer Sargent was said to require many sittings with his subjects and reportedly scrapped of his canvasses as many as 25 times. It’s not that he couldn’t render a convincing likeness; it’s that he was capturing the ineffable personality of the sitter.

There is a direct correlation between the artist’s capacity for empathy and the ability to create great portraits. The key qualification of an artist is the ability to both perceive the person in the subject, and also stimulate a similar perception in others. A personal encounter is a pre-requisite to rendering a personality. How many introverted artists are capable of this? Do we have to be emotionally maturity to create great art? Certainly we find the time to master techniques. But to encounter a person, we ourselves have to be present, in the moment, and open to understanding the other person. Thus the requirement to perceive first and foremost brings us face to face with the issue many of us avoid by being isolated and absorbed in our own creative process. How we can we socialize? You have to take a genuine interest in other people to be a great portraitist.

By way of negative example, let’s look at those who had trouble connecting, like a Gauguin or Van Gogh. Yes they painted portraits, but more often than not it’s a rendition of modern alienation. You feel a presence, but not necessarily one you can connect to. Van Gogh is better remembered for his landscapes.

Having a relationship with the subject is not as easy as it might sound. Artists study objects. Some instructors tell us to put emotion aside and focus on perceiving the color, form and light. When we get into execution mode, we are responding to things and visual phenomena. We are not thinking about perceiving a soul necessarily. And while we have to get proficient with the machinery of creation, at some point we have get beyond the create-observe dynamic and actually understand the subject and the essential soul/spirit quality we want to instigate in the work. This takes a relationship, which is controlled emotional effort.

When subject friends are not available, the artist may turn to herself in the mirror. When the artist does a portrait, there are really three personalities in the room:

  1. The artist/creator/discoverer – which requires perception
  2. The responder observer – the artist as he steps back to experience the work and judge it to make adjustments
  3. The subject – the person being discovered, i.e. the perceived one

Amazing art has been made just with the first two. Going beyond critical execution to cultivating and understanding the third role is required for making a painting all it can be.

The idea that self-awareness impacts our ability to relate to others and thereby also create great art puts the self-portrait in a new light. When you look at a Rembrandt self-portrait, you are almost gazing into the looking glass that he saw. In his eyes, a depth of understanding and realization that is ineffable, that can only be realized with a gaze eye to eye with a knowing person. The subject is looking at us – or more specifically, looking at me (or you individually). Yet we see the record of the Creator in the room.

Rembrandt the painter has left a stamp on Rembrandt the subject with all the expressive texture on his countenance. The act of painting, secondary in importance yet so very evident, is catching our attention as it catches the light as we look into soulful eyes looking back at us. We understand subconsciously those painted eyes have been looking back at others for centuries. Hundreds, maybe thousands of others. This is a humane moment because, after all, it is the vulnerable Rembrandt we are understanding intuitively, face to face. The 16th century man ‘lives’ making eye contact with us.

To instigate this presence of personality we have to put energy into the material itself. There’s a certain transference of our perception into the material itself that renders it for others. The modern scientific mind can’t explain this.

Medieval alchemists had a special way of looking at the stuff they mixed. They observed properties and behaviors of things and made associations accordingly. They assumed inaccurately that things that behave similarly are made of the same primal stuff. They didn’t have the science to know, for example, that lead is not an immature form of gold because they are both heavy and relatively soft. Alchemists didn’t have the periodic chart, but they did have a systematic approach to their studies, which included gaining insights by observation. They imputed meaning to chemical reactions and interpreted them, trying to gain insight into creation that would allow them to tinker with it.

Likewise, artists view colors in less of a scientific sense, but more in terms of meaning. Artists look for the message of the visual sensations caused by the brush tracks in the paint. Certainly the closer the medium of representation aligns with the thing represented – like brush strokes that mimic skin texture as in a Rembrandt portrait, or a flowery field in a Monet – the more coherent the presentation is and the less the formal aspects get in the way of perception of an illusion.

The continuity of presentation from texture to a human presence is mystical. To the artistic mind there is magic in painting because the medium presents itself simultaneously with the ‘spirit’ in the work in a synchronous duality. The artist is putting mystery into the work by invoking a ‘spirit’ in the work. This is not rational. The artist is able to conjure beings and their new essences at will, placing her on the same side of creativity as God.

‘In the beginning . . .
the earth was formless and void,
and darkness was over the surface of the deep . . .
and God said, ‘Let there be light,’
and there was light.’

— Genesis

To create the universe God, it seems, just needed light before starting to push things around on a surface to make the rest of creation. White light is and has been the energy that makes art possible. Without it we have no images; the surface is ‘formless and void’, it cannot be perceived. With light, the pigments we push around come to life with color, form, symbol and even a spirited presence. Light is energy. We are energy workers manipulating base materials like paint, wax, clay, marble and bronze that reflect and refract the light. Art is not religion: it is creation. With great portraiture, the artist imposes her will on White Light, crafting a personality on the surface of the deep. 


copyright 2014 roy zuniga – all rights reserved