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A Commentator's View on Life and Art

January 03, 2009 |   By Lu Zhenyan

(Clearwisdom.net) Renowned artist Feng Zikai once taught his philosophy of three levels of life. He said, "I think human life should be divided into three levels: material, intellectual and spiritual. The material life considers basic physical needs such as food and clothing. The intellectual life refers to the academic literary arts. Lastly, the spiritual life encompasses spiritual needs, that is, religion. A complete life requires these three levels."

He suggested, "On the first level, people who are lazy and don't need to walk up stairs are considered to live a good material life. They are clothed well, cherish food, are successful and are honored...The second level...belongs to the people that have dedicated their life to the academic literature and arts. There are many such people in the world. We find them among intellectuals, scholars and artists. Those, who are unsatisfied with the second level...want to achieve the third level. These are those who are spiritually active and religious people. They are very sincere and do not find satisfaction with 'material desires,' but with 'spiritual desire.' These people look for the meaning of life...They are not governed by their basic human instincts, will look for the origin of the soul, and the origin of the universe. Only by finding these truths can their 'life's desire' be satisfied. There are only these three kinds of people in society."

Similar to the theoretical thoughts above, the artistic realms also have three levels. People often talk about literature and art together. For the sake of convenience, the art mentioned here also includes aspects of literature. The first level of the artistic realm is called "striving for the truth." This is also the most fundamental thought governing art. This does not mean that we are governed by what we sense and feel, which is addressed by the first level. We know that "true" is the opposite of "fake," and the opposite of "artificial." In artistic works, if we can distinguish between false and fake, we reflect reality. Under this presumption we listen attentively to birdsong, experience the fragrance of flowers, see the display of real nature in the passing clouds and flowing water. This gives people an aesthetic sense, and one has achieved the first realm.

The second artistic realm is defined by "understanding good and evil." Based on the most intrinsic, artwork perfects the subject, exposes darkness, eliminates evil, wicked and fake things, eulogizes brightness and hope, and extols compassion, beauty and truthfulness. Of course, the second level arises from the first level. Many great artistic works, such as Bach's "Brandenburg Concertos," Victor Hugo's literary work "Les Miserables," the movie classic "Schindler's List" and Michelangelo's sculpture "David" pay tribute to kindness and hope. They remove darkness and evil and follow the principle of "striving for truth."

The third artistic realm "searches for the origin." The third level of human life arises out of yet surmounts the second level - the artistic realm of "understanding good and evil." Good and evil exposed in arts, inevitably involve an ultimate question, "What is the original standard for good and evil? Where does human conscience and natural disposition originate from? That is the fundamental basis between humanity and the universe. The third level of human life and the third artistic realm interlink here. At the third artistic realm, successful artists use their work to have people question the meaning of life and think about the fundamental truth of the universe. Magnificent works, including Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy," August Rodin's sculpture "The Thinker," Da Vinci's oil painting "The Last Supper," Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor and other works, are all based on the above assumptions.

Of course many works cannot easily be assigned a given level, such as Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables." The humanitarianism spirit displayed in the works generally impresses readers. However behind such humanitarian spirit is the foundation of a more profound religion and universal love. This not only manifests in Jean Valjean's changes due to the bishop's selfless trust and forgiveness, but also in the final moment when Jean Valjean's battles his innermost feelings. We could say that this displays the characteristic of the second and third level.

Chinese readers will most likely notice that I did not mention any Chinese artistic works. This is not to say that the Chinese artistic works aren't good. I only want to discuss one magnificent Chinese artistic work here -- the Divine Performing Arts (DPA) World Tour. After watching the performance, audiences not only are greatly impressed by the scenery and costumes, beautiful colors, exquisite melody and dance, but many from the audience acknowledge that the beauty of the performance is "transcendental," "spiritual" and "enlightening." This is because DPA not only has a truly natural aesthetic sense, not only applauds brightness and kindness, exposes darkness and evil, but the audience also comes away with an ability to think about life and its origin. These performances lead people to experience compassion and beauty through the arts. Divine Performing Arts has certainly become the most magnificent display of true art.