The Spiritual (Re)Turn: Session 2


Krista Tippett

Host of public-radio program Speaking of Faith


Huma Bhabha

Artist, recipient of the 2008 Emerging Artist Award from the Aldrich Museum of Art

Louis A. Ruprecht Jr.

William M. Suttles Chair of Religious Studies at Georgia State University

Mark C. Taylor

Chair of the Department of Religion and co-director of the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life at Columbia University

Session 2


Krista Tippett

So far we all seem to agree that art and religion, artistic creation and the human spirit, are “inextricably linked,” as Mark puts it, and that this never ceased to be the case; rather, in Huma’s helpful phrasing, the relationship “went underground” in the twentieth century. I’m very struck by Louis’s image of standing before a Greek statue seeing “art” when its original observers probably saw “religion.” At stake, as you all point out, are our very definitions of art and, perhaps more pointedly, of religion.

Moving forward, it may be less interesting to trace why the link between religion and art became invisible than to explore more spacious definitions of art and religion. The intriguing question you’ve all suggested is not how religion and art lost sight of each other but of what is essential that each realm lost sight of in itself. Mark speaks of the “sacralization of the world and the profanization of the sacred” at the core of modern Western culture and Louis of the emergence of modern art as a story of the “dispersion of religion into new forms and new institutions.” Where would all of you have us look for illustrations of the unnamed, perhaps unconscious interplay between art and religion in the present, and what do you see there?

On another note, I’m fascinated that both Huma and Mark bring the economic crisis into this discussion. Could we flesh out how a new vision of the intersection of art and religion might address our historical moment and nourish our common life as we move through it? If Western culture translated some of its former faith in providence into faith in market forces—and if this movement found expression even in the forms and business of art—how would a new awareness of the spiritual force of art speak to that development or counterbalance it? I’ve been struck in my conversations with many kinds of people these last several years, scientists as well as theologians and artists, about beauty as an animating force in human life and industry—of beauty as a core moral value. Are we suggesting that art’s power of beauty might itself anchor a reexamination of material values?

Finally, I was struck as I walked through the Kandinsky exhibit last week by a statement from his memoir Looking Back (1913) that the creation of a work of art is the creation of a world. This is a fascinating corollary to the Talmudic notion that to destroy a life is to destroy a world. If art does indeed give life, we have yet another convergence of art with the animating energy behind the best of religion. But does art cause us to think and act differently in the context of daily economic, political, social, and even spiritual life??


Huma Bhabha

I enjoyed Louis Ruprecht’s description of Winckelmann’s importance in the Western development of taste and modern art, and in particular how the concept of good taste was a component of spiritual development. What is striking is how contemporary this idea is and how prevalent it is in today’s art world.

There is a description of democracy in author and activist Arundhati Roy’s new collection of essays, Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers, that made me think differently about Winckelmann’s ideas: “What happens now that democracy and the free market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit?”

Reading Roy’s book, I began to see spirituality as similar to fire in the prehistoric world—as something precious and precarious, a resource that needs to be protected and somehow increased. Winckelmann’s ideas, born around the beginning of Western democracy, seem suddenly as hollow as democracy has become. Kandinsky lived at a time when art, democracy, and the spiritual still seemed vital and full of potential. Now we live in a time when a global apartheid between the haves and have-nots seems to be increasing and hardening every day. All of the isms seem to have crumbled into uselessness . . . how do the artist and the spiritual function in this environment?

Maybe this is not such a new environment after all. The life of Andrei Rublev (depicted in the film of the same name by Andrei Tarkovsky) seems very contemporary. The artist lives in a world of violence and barbarism, negotiating between physical beauty and spiritual angst. What is the artist’s role? Entertainer? Spiritual conduit? Witness? I think it is all of these things. For me, it is important to keep things fluid and open rather than fall into a one-dimensional role defined only by democracy/capitalism, to avoid the closed and reactionary ideologies that Roland Barthes describes in his essay “Neither-Nor Criticism.” The neither-nor critic, he wrote in the mid-1950s, claims to balance timeless virtues of culture against ideology and find some middle ground, while in fact they subscribe to rigid but unannounced ideologies of their own: “one reckons all the methods with scales . . . so as to appear oneself an imponderable arbiter endowed with a spirituality which is ideal and thereby just, like the beam which is the judge in the weighing.” The attempt to be beholden to no one ideology is, I think, a spiritual act.


Louis A. Ruprecht Jr.

I have suggested that modern art and modern museums grew literally out of religious institutions, then slowly declared their quasi independence. The creator of modern art history also created the Vatican Museum, imagining it and selling it as “profane.”

And there was more. With Winckelmann, we witness the “co-birth” of modern art history, modern art museums, and the cult of the modern artist. For Winckelmann—and this was central to his conception of the Greek achievement—the artist must be radically creative, radically individual, and radically free, free even of inherited religious tradition.

Winckelmann converted to Catholicism just one year before he published his 1755 manifesto (perhaps for opportunistic reasons, but how could we know?). Then he moved to Rome, seeking access to the Vatican Library and its collection of Greek masterpieces. No one before Winckelmann had written about Greek art with greater passion. Goethe went so far as to say that he “made himself a pagan” in order to see as he did. (Goethe toured Winckelmann’s Vatican Museum by torchlight in 1787).

Winckelmann sold his way of seeing Greek art through vivid prose, then later through his museum. He discussed these statues almost as if they were real bodies. This framing set forces in motion that today enable us to display statues as if they were real bodies, and real bodies as if they were statues. I am thinking of Egyptian mummies but also of the notorious Bodies exhibition.

The very first page of Kandinsky’s 1911 manifesto boldly announces that the era of Winckelmann is over: “Every work of art is the child of its age, and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. . . . Efforts to revive the art-principles of the past will at best produce an art that is still-born. It is impossible for us to live and feel, as did the ancient Greeks. . . . Such imitation is mere aping.”

Winckelmann said that the Greeks imitated nature to perfection; he counseled modern artists to imitate the Greeks. Kandinsky said that the era of apish imitation—whether of nature or of the Greeks—was over.

But why? Here is Kandinsky again: “When religion, science and morality are shaken . . . man turns his gaze from externals in on himself.” Is this one reason both Mark and Huma gestured to the world of art as an alternative to the crass materialism that has brought us to our current crises? Kandinsky seemed to think so.

Here is the one part of Winckelmann’s grand aesthetic program that is not finished, it seems to me. Kandinsky rejected his fascination with the Greeks and with imitation, but if anything, he intensified Winckelmann’s passionate commitment to the soul of the modern artist, who is now the creator of epiphanies aiming at a “spiritual revolution.”

When Huma offered her welcome glimpse into the explicitly soulful and meditative experience of her own studio, she struck a deep and resonant chord. And when Krista spoke of rediscovering “beauty as a core moral value,” a key turned in the proverbial lock.

In 1911 the operative idea seemed to be that “the old gods are dead, and new ones have not yet been born.” Whether this makes art a supplement to religion, or an enemy, or an antidote, is a central question for our time.


Mark C. Taylor

I’d like to take up the important point that Krista makes about the way in which providence becomes faith in market forces. Theology and economics intersect in the death of God and, taken together, these two trajectories create the conditions for both financial capitalism and its artistic counterpart, postmodernism.

Earlier I noted that God disappears in the West in two ways. Either the divine becomes so transcendent that that God is irrelevant to life in the world or the divine becomes so immanent that the God and world are indistinguishable. During the 1960s, there was a resurgence of interest in Nietzsche, which led to the much misunderstood “death of God” theology. The death of God theology represents a radical incarnationalism that locates the divine as fully present here and now in time and space. In the past, I have argued, in all seriousness, that the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth is Las Vegas. Vegas is where the real becomes virtual and the virtual becomes real.

In 1971 Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard but tried to maintain fixed exchange rates. After two years, this system failed, and he was forced to let the currencies float, i.e., the value of each currency was determined by its relation to other currencies. Going off the gold standard was the economic equivalent of the death of God. God and gold are both signs created to deny their value as signs and thereby ground all other signs. In semiotic terms, what had been taken to be a signified that serves as the grounding referent of a signifier is really another sign and, thus, the sign is always the sign of a sign. With this shift, value has no secure foundation but rather is the function of a play of signs.

The same year we went off the gold standard, Reuters installed the first electronic global trading system. When signs are signs of signs and currencies are exchanged globally on electronic networks (i.e., currencies are current), we have entered a new stage of capitalism—finance capitalism. At the same time, postmodern art and photography were trafficking in signs of signs, and reference gave way to simulation.

There is a further dimension to this process that few people recognize. Everyone knows that Adam Smith used the image of the invisible hand to describe the machinations of the market. But what almost nobody realizes is that the first person to use that image was John Calvin, who used the notion of the invisible hand to describe divine providence. Smith was a Scot, and Scots were Calvinists. Smith internalizes the notion of providence to interpret the market. Years later, when capital was becoming virtual and markets wired, neoliberal economists like Milton Friedman were arguing that markets are omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. The market, in other words, is God in a more than trivial sense.

As the market became God, art became financialized and securitized. Warhol had declared the next form of art to be business art. This insight reflects the conditions of consumer capitalism, in which currencies are exchanged for products. But finance capitalism moves beyond consumer capitalism by trafficking in nothing but signs. Capital is virtualized in a play of signs that are completely ephemeral. It took Koons and Hirst to translate finance capitalism into a new form of the art market. And this new art market, I would argue, came to an end with the financial meltdown in 2008.


Jania Vanderwerff (Jane Van Werff) wrote :

Sheldon Cheney wrote that "Kandinsky described his paintings as soul-expression."

For me, the visual language is more expressive and easier to navigate than text. When I paint, the intimate relationship of the Spirit and the canvas or paper resonates best when the intention of my piece is not primary allegiance to the marketplace.

When we invite the soul into the conversation, in my humble opinion, the colors, the lines, the images in our work address a visual telling of a truth for the viewer.

While in Europe this summer I was captivated by the thoughts of the artists I met. The work for some artists measured 30 plus years. I concluded that to soldier on for that range of time and focus had to be more than a commercial venture. It had the mark of a Spirit of wonder and creation.

The industrial age had it's say.

Are we better now for having Art and stuffed sharks on the same page?

Jania Vanderwerff (Jane Van Werff) posted on 10/21/09
stacey wrote :

But spiritual can mean so much more than religious. It can be a feeling of euphoria, lifted from the spirit, so to speak . . . .
stacey posted on 10/20/09
Dwight Frost wrote :

The idea of art being spiritual is simply part and parcel of the "sales pitch" that usually is necessary with "modern art." The idea of the spiritual may exist in some art for some people; however the hyperbole of such in this instance acts as simply a posture, arrogant and distracting for me.
Dwight Frost posted on 10/20/09
jacqueline jones artist wrote :

This is indeed a question which many artists have explored. I believe that science needs art more than ever. Spirituality is an energy which is a part of everything. All things come out of mystery even scientists have that inspired moment. Artists find and so do scientists. To do this they have to have imagination which involves and uninhibited way of seeing.
jacqueline jones artist posted on 10/20/09
Milly wrote :

Re: >Where would all of you have us look for illustrations of the unnamed, perhaps unconscious interplay between art and religion in the present, and what do you see there?< You assume "the link between religion and art became invisible." Beware the use of the passive. Who failed to see the link between religion and art?
NY/London art world of collectors, artists and critics? The Vatican? People gathered in a Kansas town to decide on design/architecture for a church building they would be collecting $ for and having built? Tibetan monks? Saudi clerics? Grand philosophic language often hides particular realities.

While you are at it, please give credit to Mary Daly for showing the connections between language and thought by changing spelling. You use "re-turn" in your title.
Milly posted on 10/19/09
KT wrote :

The most memorable line, for me, of Kandinsky's famous treatise is the very first of his introduction: "Every work of art is the child of its age." There were so many notable discoveries and studies published during Kandinsky's era. H. P. Blavatsky and theosophy influenced Kandinsky's spiritually, and Sigmund Freud was dissecting the human psyche. Darwin had published The Origin of Species in 1859, throwing a wrench into the age-old belief that everything had been created in 6 days. Mid- to late-19th century was a time of extreme polarization of philosophy, religion, and science. Needless to say there is still polarization today, on an arguably greater scale, but during the time Kandinsky was working, these publications and discoveries were unprecedented.

What Kandinsky didn't have was a commodified, globalized art market, which I think Mark Taylor touched on above in mentioning "the commodification, corporatization, and financialization of art." The current atmosphere of the art world is unlike anything that Kandinsky would have contended with. Artists have to try to "out-edge" each other, to nudge their way in and hopefully have that spark that ignites and keeps them going—both creatively and in the market. It seems as though the spiritual aspect has been drowned out for now, though not totally lost, by work that sells to collectors. Kandinsky himself wrote in Concerning the Spiritual in Art that "inner tendencies" reemerge if they are similar to ones held before. If it's true that spirituality is an undercurrent, though hidden, it may crop up again. What may be the biggest determining factor of its staying power is whether or not returning to the subject of "spirituality" is edgy enough to push emerging artists up and out into the current art market.
KT posted on 10/19/09

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