The value of art in the digital age

- through Francois Leclercq

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Digital image in the style of an impressionist painting, created by Dall-E 2. From

Click, swipe and scroll. Trying to live authentically and avoid succumbing to countless senseless experiences has become a daily struggle. Sotaesan, the founder of Won Buddhism, foresaw the progress of scientific civilization and its potential to enslave the human mind. Therefore, the founding motto of Won Buddhism is straight to the point:

As material civilization develops, cultivate spiritual civilization accordingly.

The most vital human resource that needs to be conserved and protected is our attention span. Researchers warn us that the digital world narrows our attention, causing us to drift into external distractions. However, this caution does little to reduce the time we spend in front of a screen, checking email, working on projects, attending Zoom meetings and reading the news. Yes, labor productivity has increased, but eventually the mind reaches a limit and protests.

At this point, like some people, my mind starts looking for a reprieve and eventually heads towards art. When I visit a gallery, I sometimes come across a beautiful painting that gives the impression of having entered a sacred and alternative place. Art orchestrates time and space, so I approach my environment patiently and humbly. As a child, I remember sitting in front of my mother's art canvas, wondering why she added shades of red and orange to the sky. Strange, isn't the sky just blue with white clouds? In that moment of confusion, art enveloped me in a story, pulled me into the world of imagination, and delighted me with more questions. A work of art has the potential to enrich our range of feelings. Listening to a new song or reading a poem opens us up to new experiences. Our ability to feel and express emotions, to understand the plight of others, and to rejoice in the success of a friend is enhanced by the way art connects us to the universal experience of pain and joy.

Keeping your eyes fixed on a painting soothes incessant inner criticism and involuntary chatter. It is also a lesson in science to bring out the hidden part of ourselves and touch our moral feelings. If you ask an art lover how to understand a painting, they will most likely advise you to spend some time with them. We are obliged to pay specific attention to beauty. This is not always easy to understand and may require some effort on our part. Modligliani's long-necked paintings may surprise you and compel you to pause, to open up like a child, and to receive the work with respect and curiosity and an "I don't know" spirit.

Fri. Park Jang-Sik once wrote in his book A wish for peace, “Developing the arts as a means of reaching others is just as urgent as changing the teachings (to fit the times). Humans are rational as well as emotional beings. Therefore, the emotional side should not be ignored. (158-59) This single sentence intrigued me because the teachers I met rarely discussed the meaning of art. The more I think about his words, the more I realize the tremendous truth in what he says because the arts affect us deeply. Art can provoke our intrinsic capacity for empathy. Empathy allows us to share the suffering, desires and aspirations of others. Artists do not produce art; on the contrary, they give birth to it.

Art allows us to experience the world through the eyes of someone else, who often sees deeper than we do. One of the most famous Won Buddhist artworks is the He Won Sang (image of a circle) calligraphy of the third head of Dharma master Daesan. The trait is effortless and spontaneous, calm yet alert. The trait directs us to an experience of pure unity, our common humanity and our true nature. His calligraphy was, of course, inspired by the circle drawn on the ground with a stick by Sotaesan as he continued to teach his disciple: “This is the original abode of the grand universe. Within it are included, without exception, infinite arcane principles, infinite treasures, and infinite creative transformation. (Doctrinal Books of Wŏn Buddhism333)

Calligraphy of the Third Head of Dharma Master Daesan. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

One of my greatest joys and memories is walking through an art gallery with my mother, an artist herself. She moved slowly from one painting to another with complete concentration and peace. Then, finally, her eyes would light up and her impromptu art lesson would begin on a particular painter or era of painting. Then we were sitting in a cafe, and then it dawned on me that one of the most powerful aspects of art is its gift of human connection. Art is a common experience and brings us together. It is the only vehicle by which we come to understand each other. We can sit together in a room and listen to music without saying a word to each other while feeling a sense of community. Art reminds us that our lives will always be part of something bigger, no matter what happens now.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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