Is there a place for spirituality in contemporary art?
MAGENTA SHEPLEY·THURSDAY, 5 JANUARY 2017
Is there a place for spirituality in contemporary art?
This essay will consider whether religion has become taboo in contemporary art and if its place and function has been filled by “spirituality”.
It is necessary to define the terms “religion”, “spirituality” and “art” before any cogent argument can be made:
Here, “Religion” refers to a named, state recognised belief system with public places of worship, paid Priests/officials/ ministers, rituals requiring observances and attendance, holy books and days, and congregations adhering to prescribed beliefs.
“Spirituality” is a personal, private belief system, which may reference religious vocabulary, but is often incommunicable, with private or personal acts of devotion and experiences of the divine. It is the interpersonal relationship with the “Divine” or “other”, beyond oneself.
“Art” here refers to “Fine Art”, that is, art made by professional artists, displayed in large galleries, museums and biennales and written about in major journals and periodicals.
This will be undertaken from a British perspective, considering western Art and its journey through history first as a tool of religion, then its transformation in the secularisation of society, before seeking the spiritual in contemporary art and exhibitions to discover how, or if, it manifests.
“The best of Western art… is a record of the triumphs and failures of a culture striving to express spirituality through art...to go beyond the facts of the material world and give form to the formless, to the unknowable” (Cole, Gealt and Wood, 1986)
From the dawn of western civilisation, art and religion were inseparable. Though this relationship has been turbulent, a major divergence can be traced to the time of the Enlightenment, which began a process of rationalisation resulting, according to Weber, in the “disenchantment of the world”. Religions place at the heart of western life has diminished and now, has been virtually eradicated. This situation is reflected throughout the arts. The sweeping secularisation has side-lined the spiritual to such an extent that, it would seem, to broach such a subject has become the 21st century’s taboo. Considered in this context, it may seem rather startling that what once so dominated human experience can be laid aside so easily; that such an all-encompassing facet of life could be discarded and deemed valueless. However, it is the aim of the essay to explore how and why such a change could occur and to discover whether the spiritual has, in fact, hidden in plain sight. Does spirituality, by other names, continue to dominate that which would call itself secular art?
A Brief History of Religion in Art:
The earliest artefacts and artworks, beyond purely practical objects, speak to us of spiritual belief. Though we cannot be certain, it is generally accepted that works such as those found in the Lascaux caves, “venus” figurine carvings and earthworks such as Stonehenge, all have ritual, spiritual, non-practical use.
The Egyptians, whose influence is mighty, left so much evidence to show, for them, religion was at the heart of every facet of life. This way of living in the physical realm but constantly aware of and engaged with a metaphysical locus, continued to be the way of life for mankind, globally, until very recently.
The birth of western culture can be traced through the art and philosophies of the Greeks. Their greatest surviving works are still marvelled at as the pinnacle of human artistic achievement. Their rending of the human form remains unsurpassed though their was work created, primarily, to represent their Gods and to adorn their temples and places of worship.
1 (The porch of maidens at the Erechtheion, Athens (Archaeologystudentsspeak.files.wordpress.com, 2017)
The Romans emulated this Greek style and even secular works elevated mortals to the standing of Gods. This era ushers in Christian art, which, 2000 years on, is still prevalent enough to be easily interpreted. Through medieval art and Gothic architecture, the Christian beliefs can be viewed as they evolved through turbulent times to the heights of the Renaissance which saw heavy investment by the churches in incredible works of art and architecture. The greatest and most celebrated artists at work in those times are still household names today, including Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael and Michaelangelo. Artistic ability was a “gift from God” at this time. It is said of Michaelanglo’s sculptures:
“he worked to liberate the forms imprisoned in the marble. He saw his job as simply removing what was extraneous. This endless struggle of man to free himself from his physical constraints is a metaphor of the flesh burdening the soul.” (Anon, 2017)
A wonderful depiction of this glaring metaphor are his “Emerging slaves” sculptures. The bodies are literally emerging from the stone, revealed by living hand in a dialogue between animate and inanimate, spirit and matter.
The grandiose ostentation of Catholic art came at a price, so much of a price the over-taxed populace turned against this vainglory and opted for a simple, unadorned, Protestant Christianity.
The separation of Church and State and the puritanical rejection of pompous papal art in places of worship caused some calamity for painters who now had to work for the wealthy gentry on, mainly, portraiture. Religious piety and thoughts of a spiritual nature are secreted in many works. Holbein, for example, added an anamorphic skull and a partially hidden crucifix as a reminder of both mortality and the lingering presence of beliefs, in his painting “The Two French Ambassadors”. Here the trappings of the new “age of Reason”, scientific equipment, surround the two figures, suggesting that despite all the scientific discovery, people are still mortal and must be prepared to face the afterlife.
The Age of Reason, or “The Enlightenment” ushered in rational, empirical, quantifiable investigation and philosophical thinking which supersede the religiously dominated thought of earlier times. Religious and spiritual beliefs looked to a more personal relationship with divinity, often through nature, as reflected in works deemed to be “Romantic”. Caspar David Fredrichs paintings show a meditative, solitary experience . and turner, perhaps reflecting upon the ancients beliefs or to own revelation is reckoned to have claimed “ The Sun is God”, his relationship therewith evidenced in his many paintings of both the sun and light.
The Industrial Revolution, which accompanied the Enlightenment, brought technical advances in paint production that freed painting from the studio. The new “en plein air” technique brought a wealth of new ideas but Van Gogh’s religious thoughts were encapsulated is his paintings of “The Old Church Tower at Nuenen” and explained in a letter to his brother:
“These ruins tell me how a faith and a religion mouldered away- strongly founded though they were- but how the life and death of the peasants remain forever the same, budding and withering regularly, like the grass and the flowers growing there in that church yard…’religions come and go, but God remains’ is a saying of Victor Hugo’s, whom they also brought to rest recently” (Wood, 1986)
By the start of the 20th century, western life had changed dramatically. Religious belief was still mainstream, yet less dominant than in previous eras. Many artists followed “Theosophy” which attempted to unite various ancient western and eastern belief systems, focused largely on spiritualism. Representational art had been all but abandoned yet spiritual beliefs were still being expressed, without the clear religious iconography that so defined it in earlier times. Expressionist paintings by Kandinsky exude spiritual meaning, as explained in his book “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”:
“Colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” (Kandinsky 1911)
Some artists even sought to replace preceding iconography with new, universal symbols, believing this could led to freer direct access to the divine. Malevich, for example:
“trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world”… as he explained in 1927, used the purity of black and simplicity of a square to facilitate a direct link between viewer and pure spiritual experience.
Du Duve described Malevich as “inoculating the tradition of the Russian icon with a vaccine capable of preserving its human meaning, for the period which faith in God could no longer keep alive” (Elkins 2004)
Religion, which had played a major role in the realm of art, faced further mass demise as the west was rocked by major wars, claimed by capitalism and consumed by consumerism. The 20th century west turned its back on its religious heritage as art increasingly explored other arenas.
How did religion lose its grip on the artworld?
The development of art tracks the secularisation of society, as the church lost its place of prominence in daily life, so followed its demise in culture, both high and low. The greatest and swiftest change, for the West, came with the Industrial Revolution. Sweeping revelations from the new scientific inquiry and rapid invention, together with the new philosophies of the Enlightenment, eroded all that had gone before. An effective denouncement, attributed to Courbet, accurately describes the emerging skepticism towards religion:
“I cannot paint an angel because I have never seen one” (Dawtrey, 1996)
A powerful statement on the incorporeal nature of religion. Art began to embody of the ideals of individual artists. Prompted by the political situation in 19th century France, Courbet painted the world as he saw it, depicting the struggle of the working man:
“I hope...always to earn my living by my art without having ever deviated by even a hair’s breadth from my principles, without having lied to my conscience for a single moment, without painting…to please anyone else or to sell more easily”(Gombrich, 1989)
Selling paintings and becoming a recognised painter were matters that had drastically changed. Painting was acadamised. The audience and patronage had changed to the newly formed bourgeois. The academies held exhibitions of students and associates work and the selection process drove a change in subject and style as artists competed for favour and attention. Opportunity arose to shock and enthral the audience, and many artists did just that, depicting the reality of urbanisation and industrialisation and the social issues they created. Artists like Courbet and Millet, for example, controversially depicted peasants with the dignity and finesse previously reserved for paintings of the gentry.
6“The Sower” by Millett.
When new ideas and styles of art emerged they were often rejected by the academies, leaving rebellious and forward thinking artists out in the cold. These artists forged ahead, regardless, exploring new techniques, scientific theories of light and colour, analysing perception. Described by Merlau-Ponty as “Cezanne’s doubt”, artists were constantly questioning and observing:
“Painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realizing one's sensations.” (Cezanne) The turmoil of early 20th century sent shockwaves through the arts. Atheistic, nihilistic and existential philosophies centred around the futility of human endeavours, the illogicality of religion, the vacuity of values and the poisonous self-interest of the ruling classes. Artists rejected all authority and old values as a backlash against the sanctified mass murder of the Great War and art dove into the chaos of “Dada”- art that could not be bought and sold, that produced no tangible trinket for greedy markets, that lived and died in a moment, that was on and of itself.
Dada could be summed up in these words from Neitzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols”:
“If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy.”
(High Existence, 2017)
Dada is characterized by spontaneous, meaningless, nonsense performances, actions, events and creations. The now infamous “Fountain” by Duchamp symbolises the movement, figuratively extracting the urine from art and society.
'Dada is like your hopes: nothing like your paradise: nothing like your idols: nothing like your heroes: nothing like your artists: nothing like your religions: nothing'
Such philosophy combined with the emergence of psychology; the explorations of the workings of the mind as the source of all human endeavour, had further impact on art and religious thought. Nietzsche’s asserted “God is dead”, Freud had much to say on the subject, seeing religious beliefs as a mental crutch, a childish delusion, saying:
“Religion is a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as we find nowhere else but in a state of blissful hallucinatory confusion. Religion's eleventh commandment is "Thou shalt not question.” (Freud, Anon, 2017)
Psychology furthered introspection and individualism, personal experience became of increasing importance. After the second world war, physicality and materiality became the primary focus of new types of art. “Action painting” recorded the gestures of the artist and the attributes of the paint, in a self-referencing, isolated act. Modernism followed with its maxim “Art IS”! The insistence on purity, to the exclusion of even the artist, made a painting a thing unto itself, set apart. Critic Clement Greenberg believed:
“in a period in which illusions of every kind are being destroyed, the illusionist methods of art must also be renounced.” (The Art Story, 2017)
Representation was out, along with meaning and interpretation. Of his work, Frank Stella said:
“What you see is what you see”
Essentially, there was no deeper meaning beyond the pure aesthetic, physical materiality. Modernism aimed for clarity and simplicity.
Consumerism and advertising saturated the new visual age of the later 20th century. Images dominated life, pushing capitalist agendas in a way that far outmatched any earlier propaganda of either church, state or regime. Post-modernists malaise added irony to the existing scepticism, nihilism and existential dread. Capitalism’s call to fill life with goods proved unsatisfying. Individual autonomy whilst still adhering to society’s morays is oxymoronic. All this uncertainty is reflected in post-modern art, highlighting the flaws and foolish axioms we live with. From collages of mass murderesses to tableau of a crushed Pope, much celebrated art now wallows in the mire of our confused and directionless times.
9 pope(Maurizio Cattelan, 2000)
Rent is the tattered veil of comforting belief systems. Humanity fed to the empty, devouring machinery of capitalism, a clunking husk, destroying the world in its wake. The pack instinct of the human animal denied and derided, left to starve on rationality and cold, hard reason.
This is reflected in our art, which must embody, according to James Elkins :
“Ideas like complexity, ambiguity, difficulty, the absence of religion, and the lack of sentiment…they are contemporary art.” (Elkins, 2004)
Our only consolations are the absurdity of it all and the certain uncertainty of death:
10 (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Hirst, 1991)
How has spirituality manifested without religion in contemporary art?
Paradoxically the loss of orthodox religion in art has allowed a greater freedom and acceptance of the principles at the heart of religion- an experience of and relationship with, the DIVINE
Can we examine this without religious vocabulary? Many words and phrases can be found scattered and repeated throughout contemporary art- in exhibition spiel, in artists statements, in journals, articles and critiques. These words have a metaphysical bent and point to feelings and experiences beyond the rational, everyday world. This vocabulary includes such terms as:-
Numinous; Inner Vision; Inner Worlds; Mystical; Expression; Intuition; Personal truth; Dreamscapes; Mystery; Metaphysical; Mytholoy; Formless; Unknowable; Subconscious; Uncanny; Transcendental; Sublime, etc.
Closer examination of some of these keywords reveals a thread of spirituality that runs from pre-Christian spiritual experience and continues in the 21st century. The term “Numinous” may seem rather vague, however Jungu Yoon clarifies:
“Robert Schilling argued that “numen” is based on the Greek “neumea”, which ‘signifies the manifestation, will or power of a divinity’” and continues “(Rudolf) Otto defines the term numinous as the non-rational mystery behind religion, which is both awesome and fascinating”. He goes on to explain that in Jung’s estimation the numinous is “unconditional, dangerous, taboo, magical” and that Elaide sees the numinous as “religious fear before the fascinating mystery” (Yoon 2010)
Rothko and the numinous:
One artists work to whom the term “numinous” is often applied is Mark Rothko. His abstract expressionist, colour-field works have been known to reduce some viewers to tears:
“they’re having the same religious experience I had when I painted them” Rothko explained” (the Guardian, 2017) .
His work, of overwhelming proportion, depicts shimmering, diffuse, feathery shapes and radiantly contrasting or harmonious hues, invoking meditative states and creating consuming atmospheres. Entirely abstract
“Rothko established colour as a real physical presence which inspired an overpowering sense of awe” (Yoon 2010)
A current exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art features many of the best known abstract expressionists, uniting both the gestural and the colour-field styles:
“These radical creations redefined the nature of painting, and were intended not simply to be admired from a distance but as two-way encounters between artist and viewer.” (Royalacademy.org.uk, 2017)
Rothko was decidedly and unashamedly spiritually inclined:
“Art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness.”( Mark Rothko - paintings, prints, biography and Mark Rothko Artwork, 2017)
This is evidenced in his work for “The Rothko Chapel” which is a non-denominational space, inviting personal spiritual experience, founded by John and Dominique de Menil who believed:
“Only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.” (NPR.org, 2017)
Of the works therein, Suna Umatri, the chapels historian, explains “The paintings in the chapel are dark, in purplish or black hues…They're sort of a window to beyond…(Rothko) said the bright colours sort of stop your vision at the canvas, where dark colours go beyond. And definitely you're looking at the beyond. You're looking at the infinite." (NPR.org, 2017)
This gels with Rothko’s notion:
“I think of my pictures as dramas…They begin an unknown adventure in an unknown space..to a place for numinous encounters, spiritual explorations.” (Mark Rothko - paintings, prints, biography and Mark Rothko Artwork, 2017)
These spiritual adventures lead us on to the mystical mystery of mythical inner realms. Now freed from the shackles of “heresy” the symbolism and story of myth, legend and old religion can be explored, combined and incorporated at will.
Kiefer, mythology and the otherworldly:
One key contemporary artist openly exploring these themes is German artist, Anselm Kiefer. Born into the rubble and ruin of a defeated nation, the impact of this on his work is tangible.
“I might have been born into a very literal sense of chaos, but in fact that state is true of all of us…. even people who seem not to be spiritual still long for something; I'm sure this is the reason we have art and poetry. I think without spirituality we cannot live... Art is an attempt to get to the very centre of truth. It never can, but it can get quite close. It is the dogmatism of the church, the idea that words can express a single truth over hundreds of years, that is complete nonsense. The world changes. Language changes, everything changes. Paintings certainly change." (Wroe, 2017)
The contradictions and incongruity in his world led him to question both the politics and religion he grew up with, and to develop an interest in history and mythology. This interest can be seen reflected in his many works with titles such as “Osiris and Isis”, “Samson and Delilah”,“Sefiroth” and “Seraphim”, to name but a few, themes relating to various religions and belief systems:
“all painting…is about walking around something that cannot be said, something you can never get to the centre of” (Joon 2010)
His latest exhibition at the Whitecube, London is entitled “Walhalla”, referencing the Norse mythological afterlife. The exhibition features sculptures and paintings exploring these themes; death, redemption, the hereafter. Lead corridors and hospital beds speak of the fallen and the slain, a spiral staircase suggests ascension. The paintings, tortured landscapes, flayed and overpoured with molten lead:
“emphasise the space of painting as a threshold into a mythic, imaginative realm.” (Cube, 2017)
Openly discussing the metaphysical aspect of his art, Kiefer has said:
“I am only able to do what stirs me. I want to perceive with my senses things which at the moment are not generally perceived… I do not believe that we are in the center of the world. It is possible that there are gods who do not relate to human. As an artist, I believe that it is possible to depict these forces. I know it sounds absurd when I say that man can perceive some things and adumbrate powers, which do not relate to him. But perhaps the artist, unlike the non-artist, is able to do just that.” (Harrison and Wood, 2003)
A self-proclaimed alchemist: “It is what I do…Alchemy is not to make gold, the real alchemist is not interested in material things but in transubstantiation, in transforming the spirit. It’s a spiritual thing more than a material thing. An alchemist puts the phenomena of the world in another context.” ((Ft.com, 2017)
But, all this is done with a sense of dry cynicism, a sardonic wit:
“there is always hope, but it must be combined with irony and, more important, scepticism” (Joon, 2010)
Bill Viola and the sublime:
One function of religion was to bring comfort at the time of death and at the passing of a loved one. The mystery of death and the grief felt by those experiencing loss has not changed, it is a constant. One artist who seems able to construct artworks that are both spiritually poignant and yet free of religious dogma, is Bill Viola. Working in the media of video installation Viola has addressed spiritual subjects often in orthodox religious settings, yet remained both contemporary and secular in his imagery. His use of “ordinary” people evokes a sublime empathetic response in the viewer, the feeling “that could be me”.
Writing on the contemporary sublime, and looking at Violas works including “Nantes Tryptich” and “Five Angels for the Millenium” Rina Arya asserts:
“Viola has revived the sublime for a contemporary audience…Viola’s update occurs on many levels. First, the power of nature in Viola is distilled... in Viola we…experience the force of the elements vis-à-vis the dialogue between the visual and aural, and the combined sensory effects are overwhelming... the lack of context makes the natural forces more brutal and potent. They are unbridled. The second main change is the level of interactivity that new media invites… we are unable to distance ourselves from the action as we fall victim to the full force of nature. ..in Viola’s work, the figure is an everyman or everywoman, who stands in for the generic experience of humanity. His sophisticated use of technology creates a simulation of the real resulting in a more sustained experience of the sublime. (Arya, 2017)
In a recent work for the Venice Biannale, “Ocean Without a Shore”, Viola used the Church of San Gallo in Venice, Italy. This small sixteenth century church had 3 altars on which Viola staged his screens showing footage of persons appearing dimly in the blurred distance, drawing towards the viewer then passing through an invisible sheet of water which broke upon their form as they passed through, sending spray and light patterns radiating like a visible aura. As they pass through their image becomes highly defined and in full colour.
“I think I have designed a piece that’s open ended enough, where the people and the range of people, the kind of people we chose are from various ethnic groups and cultures. And I think that the feeling of more this is a piece about humanity and it’s about the fragility of life, like the borderline between life and death is actually not a hard wall, it’s not to be opened with a lock and key, its actually very fragile, very tenuous. You can cross it like that in an instant and I think religions, you know institutions aside, I think just the nature of our awareness of death is one of the things that in any culture makes human beings have that profound feeling of what we call the human condition and that’s really something I am really interested in. I think this piece really has a lot to do with, you know, our own mortality and all that that means.” (Tate.org.uk, 2017)
The title for this piece comes from Sufi mystic, Ibn Arabi:
“The Self is an ocean without a shore. Gazing upon it has no beginning or end, in this world and the next.”
A striking reflection of the transient nature of our existence.
Exhibitions embrace the spiritual:
The numinous, mythology, alchemy and the sublime are now all open ground to be mined by artists. The spiritual and even occult vocabulary used by artists, provides a theme around which myriad exhibitions are based. Exhibitions like “Traces of the Sacred” at the Pompidou centre, Paris, in 2008, which:
“Reflects an earnest consideration of the status of the sacred in artistic creation, brave in its investigation of one of the few remaining taboos in contemporary secular society.” (Fluentcollab.org, 2017)
Or “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which examined the role of mysticism and the occult as the philosophical basis for modernism.
Here in the UK , the Tate St Ives, recently held an exhibition focusing on the mythology and folklore of Cornwall and the British Isles and, further, of the influence on modern and surreal art of mysticism and the occult. Entitled “The Dark Monarch”, after a controversial book of the same name, the exhibition featured a host of well-known artists including Damien Hirst, Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Curator, Michael Bracewell, explains:
“One of the things which the Dark Monarch is attempting to do as an exhibition is to consider a very specific period within British culture, between 1910 and 2009. If you think about that century, you almost immediately associate it with the development of new technologies, with acceleration, with mass media, with mass production. What we were interested in doing was tracking the shadow of that century. And in some ways this is a Gothic enterprise. However much technology developed, however much science makes things explicable, there will always be an aspect within art-making that wants to look at the mysterious, the enigmatic, that which cannot be explained.” (Tate.org.uk, 2017)
One artists featured in the show, whose work embodies many diverse reflections of spiritual, sublime and romantic art is John Russell in his “Untitled (Abstraction of Labour Time Eternal Recurrence Monad)”. This work is a backlit digital print on vinyl, embracing the latest modern media, yet the imagery shows mythological and occult creatures in a scene reminiscent of Runge, drenched in Romantic symbolism. The central Sun peering through an archaic arch surmounted by endless skies
“beneath…is the ocean…an ocean of “becoming”- dark convulsive, seething...Art, here, is on the edge of the real and the rational where the shadow is so inky it swallows archetypes.” (John-russell.org, 2017)
One important factor in experiencing the manifestation of the spiritual in art must be that of the environs in which the connection is made, that is the gallery or museum space. These environments can be compared with that of religious or church settings through some characteristic similarities:
I) The contemplative prerequisite : these spaces are entered into with the mind set of being introduced to new concepts, images, ideas; to see and experience something “special”. The mindset is that of observance and contemplation although the critical faculties and aesthetic judgements are also engaged. Still, the over riding principle is that of a personal, contemplative experience.
II) The reverential hush: it is really not done to be chatting loudly or making a great deal of noise. Phones are silenced, speech is murmured and the consensual condemning those who break the quiet with shushing and disapproving glances is enough to quell too much overt enthusiasm, generally.
III) The slowed pace: paintings, sculptures and installations cannot be viewed hurriedly, they necessarily cause a pause. There is no place for bustling, the risk of disturbing others or causing damage is too great and so the speed ranges only from saunter to shuffle.
IV) The “official” presence: silent guardians and attendants stand like living statues, protecting and policing the sacred space. An awareness of the great monetary value as well as the irreplaceable nature of the works encourages caution. CCTV is constantly monitoring like the very eye of God and the punishment for damaging any of the pieces would be damnation indeed.
V) The shared experience: there is a greater awareness of, and allowance for, other people going through a similar experience, a tolerance and respect for fellow observers.
VI) Beyond the norm: time out of the daily grind, a kind of “me” time, to use the contemporary parlance, generally with a view to improve or relax oneself, to have an experience or gain some benefit.
All this adds to the sense of place, the heightened experience, allows and attunement and awareness of our emotional state. The parallel to behaviour in other places of sacred reverence are clear. We also behave this way in places of natural, sublime wonder.
To conclude, it appears that if we widen our gaze and broaden our vocabulary, we can observe many former functions of religion being absorbed and served by Art. This spirituality is more unifying than divisive, it is not dictatorial but speaks to only those who choose to seek it or who find themselves engaged in an experience of it, and is free to be interpreted at will. It acknowledges something other, beyond the rational and scientific, that can be shared without getting lost in language or interpretation. A picture speaks not only a thousand words but a thousand languages and a thousand ages.