illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
(food for thought, this post is without conclusion)
Most people have an artistic sensitivity. Those who develop it or manifest it might feel like this has commonalities with a spiritual path. But we do discern them: after all, we have two different words…
A key difference is that one might be artistic but not spiritual, or spiritual but not artistic.
Artistic without spirituality might be found in e.g. a sensitivity to proportions, symmetries, reflections, etc. It has been regularly observed that specific ratios are common in fine arts masterpieces.
Artistic without spirituality might also be found in e.g. having had a few creative insights but then 'milking' them forever, cornering oneself into "what sells", or into one's 'own' style, one's 'own' sensitivity, clinging to a particular form (in result or in process). This might be accompanied with notions of being the sole holder of an original perspective, with arrogance, with delusions of 'truths'. An example might be Astor Piazzolla who almost single-handedly revived tango as a composition rather than just 'popular' classics, and gave nobleness to bandoneon… a great artist but, according to most accounts, not a particularly charming person to hang about.
Spiritual without art is easily found in charitable works. But rigidity and righteousness can also be found at times.
A key difference lies in the 'attitude', or the 'intention'.
It's possible to a big-hearted artist who cares about others, is mindful of the consequences of some messages and of appropriateness to some audiences and not others, etc. It's possible to have a message to communicate and still respect that not everyone has to agree, without this disagreement automatically meaning they're 'ignorant'. It's also possible to be a selfish, self-centric, ego-maniac who has an unresolved superiority complex.
It's possible to go to temples and pilgrimages, and have no sensitivity to what's unique in a situation nor sensitivity to 'others' (neither as an audience nor as anything else except 'something' in your way that blocks your view to the statue, and takes too much time to perform their offerings, etc.). That's easy to find in obsequious religiosity, but this might also be found in some self-centred interpretations of spirituality: « I'll awaken first then help others » might express a wholesome intention but in a rather unwise execution, implicitly holding back from helping (although this would really help with awakening!), implicitly postponing forever any engagement with the reality that doesn't conform to what one thinks it 'should' be.
But, of course, some artists do continue the exploration, even if they had some success previously, rather than clinging to 'their' recipe for success. And some spiritual persons do cultivate a sensitivity that allows them to develop an original perspective worth communicating to others.
There's then some overlap between the two traits. Can they overlap fully?
There are many forms of art. In general, one might however consider that there is a vocabulary associated. Like a living language, the vocabulary evolves yet it also is stable enough to make a message communicable, it is stable enough for something to be expressed and shared.
This might be critical to a meaningful difference between art and spirituality: art, at the end of the day, relies on conventions. These might be found in the form the final production takes, or might be found in the process itself used to arrive at a particular form. But randomness is not art. Often ignorant people seeing modern art think some of the productions could have been done by their "3-years-old nephew" or similar, but that's a serious misunderstanding of the process, confusing one particular outcome with a whole series, or one picture with a whole film.
Because it relies on conventions, art is bounded and cannot actually represent the ineffable 'itself'. This is a classic issue in religious art: how could you ever represent God, or nirvāṇa? The best you might do is to create a sense of awe, a sense that the creation is beyond what the audience could personally 'ever' achieve hence a sense that there's "something else", there's "more"… but you cannot truly represent this 'more', this 'else'. Classically, spirituality rejects 'idols'. Reminders are accepted though, but the spiritual will not confuse the finger with the moon.
Most forms of arts require the artists to find their 'own' voice.
There exists a few traditions with tremendous discipline and strictness of form, like calligraphy, some forms of flower arrangements… traditions in which the artist focuses on tradition and fixed forms, and where personal 'interpretation' is dropped. The focus is apparently not on individual voices. However, just like letting go of 'self' narratives might help you to find your true 'self', the individual contribution can never totally disappear in fact, so the voice is indeed found (e.g. great calligraphers can be discerned); the work nonetheless lies in "chopping away" all the unnecessary excess, all the pointless baggages and ego, all the "I know better" and "my way". Even as the artists work to take themselves (their selves) off, their individual qualities invariably reappear in how they picked their pigments, in how they held the brush, in the degree of concentration they achieve during the work and the quietness of their mind, in the discipline… so the individual voice is found again.
Such a self-effacing process is often used in religious art (from statues of Christ to enzo circles, via tankha paintings).
By contrast, spirituality is often found in the service to others. The embodiment of service will invariably make a personal voice appear, but it isn't the focus. A key difference with form-focused art might be the sense of individual responsibility: to change the world, to truly contribute, one has to 'own' one's choices, intentions, words and actions [Of course, if one is an artist, that might e.g. manifest in which topics you cover, which message you spread… and what's the intention behind questioning the status quo]. While individuality necessarily appears in both art and spirituality, even when a personal voice is not sought after, a difference may lie in a distinction between personal technique vs. personal responsibility.
The spiritual doesn't necessarily focus as much as the artist on the 'perfect' expression of a moment and the means to do so, but (s)he stresses intentions and "continued engagement": if an attempt doesn't work, a follow-up, a response in the continuity is required… Starting afresh is not possible. One has to stop working on a painting at some point, and start a new one… Spiritual work differs by placing itself squarely within causal continuity. Repetitions are mere rituals: that's the reminders, not the spiritual work itself.
Another way to look at this is to see how most art tries in the end to capture the "essence" of a moment. Whether it is the painting from a battle scene, a macro photo of a flower, a dance move, a theatrical dialogue, a few words on a page 'evoking' profound feelings, artists capture the "essence" of a moment.
In buddhist terms, one could say artists focus on arriving at a specific "conventional truth". Even in the form of myths, it remains about capture the essence of e.g. a particular feeling of betrayal or love or awe: the context might not be 'real' but the foreground is meant to be.
Seeking a truth can certainly be likened to a spiritual search but, if I stick to buddhist vocabulary for a moment, conventional truths remain only partial. Truths might certainly be more valuable than delusions and erroneous views, but understanding their partiality and limitation is critical.
The unconditioned cannot be captured in art any more than it can be described in religious texts; and while the practice of art can be likened to some spiritual practice, its focus on 'production' or essence (even "white square on white background") rather than 'engagement' or functioning probably keeps the two discernible. The most 'perfect' circle or statue remains a specific answer to a specific moment, which by definition makes this answer outdated the next instant.
I earlier mentioned people who, on seeing modern art, think some of the productions could have been done by their "3-years-old nephew" or similar. What they're missing is that the production is a 3-years-old has little to do with breaking well-understood well-mastered 'rules', with breaking free from previous conventions, with renewing the artistic vocabulary (while still aiming for one, at least in terms of process). An artistic splash of paint is not random, it's a push of boundaries (towards 'realism' or towards 'abstraction'), which is only possible if you know where the boundaries lie.
An artistic production has something to do with being in the right place at the right time and having something relevant to say about tradition and about moving beyond. 3-years-old don't question traditions they didn't yet appropriate as relevant or even as theirs.
In this sense, this is a samsaric process, the search for a 'better', a critique of what's dysfunctional, narrow or limited… but ultimately each production is a fixed critique and a fixed proposal. It can certainly cause chain reactions, and be part of a process, but just like 'precepts' without exceptions cannot be confused with 'morality', any fixed proposal is doomed to be unsatisfactory and in turn criticised.
So, without this being a conclusion, for those interested, I'd suggest to enquire into the difference between expressible vs. ineffable… but also between breaking rules and pushing boundaries vs. understanding rules enough to accept exceptions, but without necessarily breaking away from the rules. Some art might question morality for the sake of just rejecting the bourgeois status quo, as a rebellion, a rejection, an aversion rather than a constructive engagement to help all; spirituality might question morality too, but in a different way, without necessarily wanting to dismiss it. And I'd suggest to enquire into motivation (notably when art or spirituality are attempts to secure one's existence, even possibly to live 'forever' due to a legacy).
There's an overlap but enquiring into the nuances, rather than blindly merging them, might make you both a more artistic and a more spiritual person, 'engaging' with these discernible phenomena. For then, even what is shared can be strengthened in 'unconventional' ways: discipline in meditation can be a training for the discipline of writing, and vice versa ;-)
Painting "White on White", oil on canvas by Kazimir Malevich, 1918 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)