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Mirror of the Divine: Art in the Bahá'í World Community, by Ludwig Tuman:
Review

by Constance M. Chen

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 7
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1997
Mirror of the Divine: Art in the Bahá'í World Community
Author: Ludwig Tuman
Publisher: George Ronald, Oxford, 1993, 326 pages
Review by: Constance M. Chen


In Ludwig Tuman's Mirror of the Divine, art in the Bahá'í world community may be encapsulated in one word: service. Perhaps it is overly reductionist to try to capture in one word the complexities of Tuman's conception of what art from a Bahá'í perspective may signify, but the idea of service crops up again and again as the author unveils his thoughts on the manner in which art can be a manifestation of spirituality in the physical realm. Tuman's outlook makes sense considering that it is situated in his own identity as a professional artist and a Bahá'í, and as such he conceives of art as a form of work which, when performed in the spirit of service, is equivalent to the worship of God.

From the outset, Tuman states that he is attempting to begin a conversation on the place of the arts in the Bahá'í community. Carefully defining his terms - indeed, often formulating new language altogether - he forces the reader to think carefully about boundaries: where the Bahá'í Faith ends and the Bahá'í community begins, how art can be categorized by form and function, the purpose of the Bahá'í artist. A "Bahá'í artist" is any person who is both a Bahá'í and an artist, whether professional or amateur, whether the art produced reflects overtly "Bahá'í" themes or not. "Bahá'í art" does not exist; it will be the result of the future world civilization that emerges in the golden age of the Bahá'í dispensation. "Bahá'í-engendered art" does exist; it is art inspired by the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh that is produced by an enrolled Bahá'í. For reasons that form the very basis of his conception of art from a Bahá'í perspective, he is dissatisfied with the language that exists in current talk about art, such as "fine arts" or "beaux arts" or "practical arts," and so invents wholly new terms. The purpose of "seraffic" art is primarily to foster spiritual ennoblement, "donnic" art primarily enhances the well-being of humankind in the physical world, and "seraffo-donnic" art addresses needs that are both sacred and mundane.(1) Thus choosing his threads, which the reader may accept or not, Tuman proceeds to weave an exposition of what art in the Bahá'í world community may mean.

Tuman's dissatisfaction with mainstream terminology stems back to the very roots of what art means in the secular world. In a humanist world that has no eyes for the transcendent, it is commonly understood that the idea of art serving a purpose outside the expression of self is tantamount to blasphemy. "True" art is true precisely because it is true to the artist. Conformity to ideology taints art and causes it to become a political tool. Delineating four ways in which contemporary artists function, Tuman asserts that none of these roles mandates a spiritual responsibility. In response, Tuman takes the same premises and emerges with a new conclusion. In his view, true art still radiates from the artist, but the true purpose of the artist is the cultivation of a higher self that is oriented toward service. By identifying the self with service to God, humanity, and specific Bahá'í institutions (page 85), his interpretation of the role of art from a Bahá'í perspective redefines the issue of self-expression to avoid both total censorship and total self-expression devoid of moral responsibility. At first glance, Tuman's ideas about the purpose of art may be reminiscent of late 19th century art theorist John Ruskin, who believed that "true" art was necessarily linked specifically to God and religion, yet Ruskin directed art outside the self and toward God, while Tuman inextricably intertwines the self itself with God and religion, so that there is no contradiction between expression of the true self and true art.

The beauty of Tuman's elaboration is that it extols service before God and Bahá'u'lláh while avoiding triumphalism. His sense of service is all-inclusive; to serve God and humanity, in forms recognizable to all peoples, including those who are not enrolled Bahá'ís. To help the reader understand how he believes an artist may serve, he tells the story of a bellmaker in China and a poet in Germany, each of whom prepares himself with meditation and time spent in nature to create spiritually beautiful art. This is art in the truest sense of the word, he believes, because the creations arise from a desire to serve and mirror forth the divine. In an opening vignette, he describes three futuristic children who will be singing together at the 200th anniversary of the Bahá'í Temple in New Delhi, India. All Bahá'ís, they are, ostensibly, products of the golden age of the Bahá'í Faith. Yet they are there for all peoples, all religions, all backgrounds. Bahá'í art, it seems, will avoid ideology, even while the artist is distinctly Bahá'í.

Incidentally, the Chinese bellmaker and the German poet represent two different creatures in the paradigm that Tuman hopes to leave behind. The bellmaker is a craftsman, while the poet is a practitioner of the fine arts. In past ages, Tuman claims, the line of demarcation was that of pleasure on the one side and practicality on the other. Tuman substitutes spirituality for pleasure in creating his new terms, "seraffic" and "donnic" arts, so that the new divider is that of the spiritual versus the functional. If both forms of art are intended to be spiritually uplifting, they may both contain seraffic elements. Spirituality, then, becomes the great equalizer in the art world. Himself a composer and a pianist, and thus involved in what traditionally would be called the fine arts, Tuman speaks from the vantage point of an artist, and is self-conscious in his humility about the arts. He cites passages of Bahá'u'lláh to validate giving artists, craftsmen, and artisans the same status, placing them all on the same plane.

Since Tuman accepts that true art is a creation of the artist, he takes great pains to make amends for artists of the past. He refuses to condone the histrionic personality disorder that society often expects and sanctions in artists. He disputes Romantic era notions of artists as seers with special channels to a higher world. He warns against prayer and mysticism being confused with spiritism and superstition. Essentially taking his fellow artists to task, he suggests that art in the Bahá'í world community is about creating new artists, for it is the people who create the culture in any environment. Therefore, without a new kind of human being, it is impossible to have a new kind of art. Bahá'í or Bahá'í-engendered art, then, can only be produced by those who have been transformed by the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh. The light of God must illuminate the person so that eagerness to sacrifice leads the way to the path of service. Membership in the Bahá'í world community demonstrates this commitment to sacrifice and service as well as a willingness to submit to Bahá'í law. A non-Bahá'í who composes an oratorio about Bahá'u'lláh would not be considered a Bahá'í artist nor would such a person have produced Bahá'í art or Bahá'í-engendered art, then, because the work produced would be devoid of the spirit of allegiance to Bahá'u'lláh.

At times, Tuman's enthusiasm can leave him to describe the Bahá'í community or the Bahá'í artist as if each was an archetype, a heavenly ideal, instead of the clay reality that struggles along in daily life. For example, he writes, "One of the most important differences between the Bahá'í artist and his non-Bahá'í associate is that the former's identity as a human being is not bounded by the frontiers of his regional or national culture, but extends to embrace the entire world" (132). Certainly, it is a fundamental principle of the Bahá'í Faith that every believer in the Cause of Bahá'u'lláh strives toward transcending manmade political barriers, but declarations of faith are only the first step in wiping away deeply rooted cultural prejudices. A Bahá'í is only a Bahá'í to the extent that the love of Bahá'u'lláh fills his or her soul and leads to eager sacrifice in the path of service. A Bahá'í is not a Bahá'í because he or she has internalized certain social principles, which at times may be more effectively displayed by those who are not Bahá'ís. Who is to say that a Bahá'í artist is necessarily less culture-bound than his or her non-Bahá'í compatriot, whose only sin is never having had the good fortune to have heard the name of Bahá'u'lláh? The reverberations of the Bahá'í Revelation have touched all on earth, whether or not they are aware of its life-giving source.

The only other criticism of Tuman's work is that he at times falls into an unattractive us-them dichotomy, the "us" being the good Bahá'ís and the "them" being the not-as-good non-Bahá'ís. At present, this is a device that crops up all too commonly in the Bahá'í community to prove "good" Bahá'í-ness. Us-them categorization is symptomatic of an adolescent stage of development; maturity requires integrating all peoples and seeing them as one. Perhaps the Bahá'í community in its time of identity-forming requires this "othering" of the non-Bahá'í world, but it is dangerous if it leads to the demonization of the other.

With a focal point of service, Tuman manages to touch on so many issues surrounding art in the Bahá'í world community that it is impossible to discuss adequately them all in one short review. For example, he spends much time dwelling on the potential of the Bahá'í houses of worship to employ and contribute to the development of Bahá'í art. He talks about alienation and isolation in the artistic community, and the role of the Bahá'í administrative order in bringing about integration. He addresses fears about cultural erosion and conformity in creating a unified planetary culture. Each of his points could spur hours and hours of late-night discussion. What will art of the future look like? Bahá'í culture? Does it exist? Where is it coming from and where is it going? How do we know that it will really be different from the art of the past? Tuman asks the hard questions, and he knows which ones to ask. What results is a deftly-produced monograph. Whether or not his terms catch on, they should not be left hanging within a one-book conversation. All thinking Bahá'ís should flip through these pages, for the author has managed to produce an excellent, thought-provoking piece of writing.


End Note

  1. "Seraffic" is derived from the Arabic "sarofa" and the Hebrew "serafim." One of the meanings of the Arabic "serofa" is to ennoble, or to elevate; related to it is "saraf," which means elevated place, nobility, eminence, dignity, honour. The Hebrew "serafim" refers to the highest-ranking angels guarding God's throne, the angels of knowledge and wisdom. Thus, seraffic arts ennoble the soul by attracting it towards God through a manifestation of beauty that is founded upon knowledge and spiritual understanding. "Donnic" is derived from the Arabic "dunya," which means world, and may also refer to life in this world (as opposed to the afterlife), earthly things or concerns. Thus donnic arts primarily enhance humanity's material, intellectual or social well-being on a worldly plane (see pages 261-262 and 271-272 in the book under review).
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