An Artist’s Manifesto: How Can Art Change Us?

Lately I’ve noticed that the whole world seems to be waking up to the importance of drawing on the spiritual and emotional power of the arts. 

Have you felt it, too? In music, dance, film, literature, painting, sculpture, and just about every other imaginable art form, we’re in the midst of a renaissance, a re-awakening, a new era of insight and inspiration. 

As early as the 1930s, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, affirmed this artistic awakening in a letter written on his behalf: 

Art can better awaken such noble sentiments than cold rationalizing, especially among the mass of the people. We have to wait only a few years to see how the spirit breathed by Baha’u’llah will find expression in the work of the artists.

Shoghi Effendi also explained that:

It is certain that with the spread of the spirit of Baha’u’llah a new era will dawn in art and literature. Whereas before the form was perfect but the spirit was lacking, now there will be a glorious spirit embodied in a form immeasurably improved by the quickened genius of the world.

For many years, I’ve been waiting for some of these predictions to come to pass, often discouraged by the lack of progress or the personal tests I’ve experienced. Yet now, finally, I’ve started to sense a shifting consciousness, a greater receptivity to the role that the arts can play in this new phase of human existence. 

Like every other religion has, the Baha’i Faith will engender new forms of art, new ways of fusing creativity with respect for human life and for the Divine. Far from being a religion that prescribes or proscribes certain kinds of art, the Baha’i Faith encourages individual initiative in the creative process. Shoghi Effendi explained that “The believers are free to paint, write, and compose as their talents guide them.

This does not guarantee that others will like, understand, use, or promote our art — only that we are free in making creative choices, whether at rudimentary levels or highly skilled ones. Historically, artists have shown us new ways of looking at things that don’t get accepted immediately, so as creatives we can expect that the response to our work may be diverse. 

In 1983 the Universal House of Justice, the democratically-elected global leadership body of the world’s Baha’is, further explained

With the evolution of Baha’i society which is composed of people of many cultural origins and diverse tastes, each with his conception of what is aesthetically acceptable and pleasing, those Baha’is who are gifted in music, drama and the visual arts are free to exercise their talents in ways which will serve the Faith of God. They should not feel disturbed at the lack of appreciation by sundry believers. Rather, in knowledge of the cogent writings of the Faith on music and dramatic expression … they should continue their artistic endeavours in prayerful recognition that the arts are powerful instruments to serve the Cause, arts which in time will have their Baha’i fruition.

The Baha’i poet Roger White, in writing an arts manifesto called Bring Chocolate: Advice from an Artist, had this to say: 

Artists call us away from formulas, caution us against the fake, and accustom us to unpredictability — that trait which so characterizes life. They validate our senses. They link us to our own history. They clothe and give expression to our dreams and aspirations. They teach us impatience with stasis. They aid us to befriend our private experiences and heed our unexamined mechanistic responses to the world. They sabotage our smugness. They alert us to divine intimations. Art conveys information about ourselves and our universe that can be found nowhere else. Our artists are our benefactors. …

In general society artists are often at war with their world and live on its fringes. Their lack of discretion in expressing their criticism — which may be hostile, vituperative, negative, and offer no solutions — may lead to their rejection and dismissal by the very society they long to influence. Artists are frequently seen as troublemakers, menaces, destroyers of order, or as frivolous clowns. Sometimes the kindest thing said of them is that they are neurotic or mad. In the Baha’i community it must be different. Baha’u’llah said so. Consider that the Baha’i writings state that All art is a gift of the Holy Spirit and exhort us to respect those engaged in science, arts and crafts. 

The artist has among other responsibilities those of questioning our values, of leading us to new insights that release our potential for growth, of illuminating our humanity, of renewing our authenticity by putting us in touch with our inner selves, and of creating works of art that challenge us — as Rilke says — to change our lives. The artist aids in our transformation.

In the Baha’i order the artists will find their home at the center of their community, free to interact constructively with the people who are served by their art; free to give and to receive strength and inspiration. 

It is my hope that all of us who are gathered here will be in the vanguard of this reconciliation between artists and their world. As Baha’u’llah foretells, the artists are coming home to claim their place. I urge you: Be there! Welcome them! Bring chocolate!” 

This artistic homecoming is now taking place among artists around the world and their communities. It is time for humanity collectively to wake up to the power of the arts. Who can guess what will unfold when we fully draw upon this potent source for creativity, healing, community building, transformation, and unity?

Editors note: has published hundreds of essays on the arts, and a search under “art,” “music,” “film,” “poetry,” “architecture,” and the like will yield multiple results. 

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