G. I. Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff International Review

More Selected Excerpts from the

Talks and Writings of G. I. Gurdjieff

Art, Music and Movement

YOU ARE RIGHT IN SAYING THAT THERE ARE MANY CONTRADICTORY OPINIONS on this subject. Does not that alone prove that people do not know the truth? Where truth is, there cannot be many different opinions. In antiquity that which is now called art served the aim of objective knowledge. And as we said a moment ago, speaking of dances, works of art represented an exposition and a record of the eternal laws of the structure of the universe. Those who devoted themselves to research and thus acquired a knowledge of important laws, embodied them in works of art, just as is done in books today.… This art did not pursue the aim either of “beauty” or of producing a likeness of something or somebody. For instance, an ancient statue created by such an artist is neither a copy of the form of a person nor the expression of a subjective sensation; it is either the expression of the laws of knowledge, in terms of the human body, or a means of objective transmission of a state of mind. The form and action, indeed the whole expression, is according to law.

VIEWS FROM THE REAL WORLD, pp. 32–33 [paperback]

TO DEFINE WHAT I CALL OBJECTIVE ART IS DIFFICULT first of all because you ascribe to subjective art the characteristics of objective art, and secondly because when you happen upon objective works of art you take them as being on the same level as subjective works of art…. In subjective art everything is accidental. The artist, as I have already said, does not create; with him “it creates itself.” This means that he is in the power of ideas, thoughts, and moods which he himself does not understand and over which he has no control whatever. They rule him and they express themselves in one form or another. And when they have accidentally taken this or that form, this form just as accidentally produces on man this or that action according to his mood, tastes, habits, the nature of the hypnosis under which he lives, and so on. There is nothing invariable; nothing is definite here. In objective art there is nothing indefinite.


     “Of course they exist,” answered G. “The great Sphinx in Egypt is such a work of art, as well as some historically known works of architecture, certain statues of gods, and many other things. There are figures of gods and of various mythological beings that can be read like books, only not with the mind but with the emotions, provided they are sufficiently developed. In the course of our travels in Central Asia we found, in the desert at the foot of the Hindu Kush, a strange figure which we thought at first was some ancient god or devil. At first it produced upon us simply the impression of being a curiosity. But after a while we began to feel that this figure contained many things, a big, complete, and complex system of cosmology. And slowly, step by step, we began to decipher this system. It was in the body of the figure, in its legs, in its arms, in its head, in its eyes, in its ears; everywhere. In the whole statue there was nothing accidental, nothing without meaning. And gradually we understood the aim of the people who built this statue. We began to feel their thoughts, their feelings. Some of us thought that we saw their faces, heard their voices. At all events, we grasped the meaning of what they wanted to convey to us across thousands of years, and not only the meaning, but all the feelings and the emotions connected with it as well. That indeed was art!”


BUT ANCIENT ART WAS NOT FOR LIKING. Everyone who read understood. Now, this purpose of art is entirely forgotten. For instance, take architecture. I saw some examples of architecture in Persia and Turkey—for instance, one building of two rooms. Everyone who entered these rooms, whether old or young, whether English or Persian, wept. This happened with people of different backgrounds and education. We continued this experiment for two or three weeks and observed everyone’s reactions. The result was always the same.


THE KEYS TO ALL THE ANCIENT ARTS ARE LOST, were lost many centuries ago. And therefore there is no longer a sacred art embodying laws of the Great Knowledge, and so serving to influence the instincts of the multitude.
     There are no creators today. The contemporary priests of art do not create but imitate. They run after beauty and likeness or what is called originality, without possessing even the necessary knowledge. Not knowing, and not being able to do anything, since they are groping in the dark, they are praised by the crowd, which places them on a pedestal. Sacred art vanished and left behind only the halo which surrounded its servants. All the current words about the divine spark, talent, genius, creation, sacred art, have no solid basis—they are anachronisms. What are these talents? We will talk about them on some suitable occasion.
     Either the shoemaker’s craft must be called art, or all contemporary art must be called craft. In what way is a shoemaker sewing fashionable custom shoes of beautiful design inferior to an artist who pursues the aim of imitation or originality? With knowledge, the sewing of shoes may be sacred art too, but without it, a priest of contemporary art is worse than a cobbler.


IN THE LEGEND OF ORPHEUS THERE ARE HINTS OF OBJECTIVE MUSIC, for Orpheus used to impart knowledge by music. Snake charmers’ music in the East is an approach to objective music, of course very primitive. Very often it is simply one note which is long drawn out, rising and falling only very little; but in this single note “inner octaves” are going on all the time and melodies of “inner octaves” which are inaudible to the ears but felt by the emotional center. And the snake hears this music, or, more strictly speaking, he feels it, and he obeys it. The same music, only a little more complicated, and men would obey it.


ON SUNDAYS, NAMELY, ON THE DAYS CONSECRATED TO MUSIC AND SINGING, the learned beings belonging to this group first produced on various sound-producing instruments, and also with their voices, every kind of what is called “melody” and then explained to all the other learned beings how they indicated in these works of theirs whatever they wished.
     They also had it in view to implant these works of theirs in the customs of various peoples, calculating that these “melodies” they created, passing from generation to generation, would reach men of remote generations who, having deciphered them, would discover the knowledge put into them and that had already been attained on the Earth, and would also use it for the benefit of their ordinary existence.


IMAGINE THAT IN STUDYING THE LAWS OF MOVEMENT of the celestial bodies, let us say the planets of the solar system, you have constructed a special mechanism for the representation and recording of these laws. In this mechanism every planet is represented by a sphere of appropriate size and is placed at a strictly determined distance from the central sphere, which stands for the sun. You set the mechanism in motion, and all the spheres begin to turn and move in definite paths, reproducing in a lifelike way the laws which govern their movements. This mechanism reminds you of your knowledge.
     In the same way, in the rhythm of certain dances, in the precise movements and combinations of the dancers, certain laws are vividly recalled. Such dances are called sacred. During my journeys in the East, I often saw dances of this kind executed during the performance of sacred rites in some of the ancient temples. These ceremonies are inaccessible, and unknown to Europeans….
     Such is the origin of the dances, their significance, in the distant past. I will ask you now, has anything in this branch of contemporary art been preserved that could recall, however remotely, its former great meaning and aim? What is to be found here but triviality?… Contemporary art as a whole has nothing in common with the ancient sacred art.


YOU SAW OUR MOVEMENTS AND DANCES. But all you saw was the outer form—beauty, technique. But I do not like the external side you see. For me, art is a means for harmonious development. In everything we do the underlying idea is to do what cannot be done automatically and without thought.
     Ordinary gymnastics and dances are mechanical. If our aim is a harmonious development of man, then for us, dances and movements are a means of combining the mind and the feeling with movements of the body and manifesting them together. In all things, we have the aim to develop something which cannot be developed directly or mechanically—which interprets the whole man: mind, body and feeling.


MANY YEARS PASS before these young future priestesses are allowed to dance in the temple, where only elderly and experienced priestesses may dance.
     Everyone in the monastery knows the alphabet of these postures and when, in the evening in the main hall of the temple, the priestesses perform the dances indicated for the ritual of that day, the brethren may read in these dances one or another truth which men have placed there thousands of years before.
     These dances correspond precisely to our books. Just as is now done on paper, so, once, certain information about long past events was recorded in dances and transmitted from century to century to people of subsequent generations. And these dances are called sacred.


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These excerpts were previously published as part of a program booklet issued for the “Ideas of Gurdjieff Conference” sponsored by Far West Institute in San Rafael, California in November 1996 and are reproduced with their kind permission.

Copyright © 1996 Far West Institute
This webpage © 2000 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2000 Issue, Vol. IV (1)
Revision: October 1, 2000