The Spiritual (Re)Turn: Session 3


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 3


Krista Tippett

I’m utterly taken with Huma’s analogy likening spirituality today to fire in the prehistoric world—“something precious and precarious, a resource that needs to be protected and somehow increased.” Such language is a contribution to a wider conversation, an expanded awareness that this forum might both illustrate and energize. Huma despairs that Kandinsky lived in an age when, in contrast to ours, art, democracy, and the spiritual still seemed vital and full of potential. But I’m not so sure our moment is that different from his. Like us, he lived in a fin de siècle, transitional time. The narratives and structures that dominated the twentieth century are now up for grabs, and all isms have indeed crumbled. This is precisely the kind of fluid intellectual, social, and spiritual environment that both allowed and compelled Kandinsky to shape new visual forms. Even as we are most immediately aware of what is declining and has become useless, we are in the process of reimagining the vitality and potential of art, spirituality, and democracy.

In our exchanges of the past few days, we’ve driven energetically towards a broad, shared view, a consensus of sorts on the failures that bracket our collective emerging “inner necessity” to innovate and create. I’ll state it this way, and offer it up for nuance, correction, and expansion by both our panelists and the public: we are faced with the death of the death of God and, at the same time, as Mark puts it, with the death of “both financial capitalism and its artistic counterpart, postmodernism.”

Louis helps us begin to articulate the positive challenge this might present if, as we’ve also all agreed, human spirituality and artistic creation are kindred impulses. Let’s take the questions he suggests as another focal point: is there a new or special place for art, and for the spiritual and social sensibility of the artist, in a moment when the old gods are dead—including the god of fashionable nihilism? In a moment like this, is art a supplement to religion, or an enemy, or an antidote?

And, finally, if these are central questions for our time, how will they begin to find expression beyond the inner circles of art and religion? Huma puts her finger on the urgency of this subject. This twenty-first century needs, I would argue, the perspective she as an artist brings to living “in a world of violence and barbarism, negotiating between physical beauty and spiritual angst.” She discerns that she is at once an entertainer, a spiritual conduit, and a witness. What role can and should people like Mark and Louis play as conduits and translators in and of their networks of religion, philosophy, art history, and cross-disciplinary communities of scholarship? What role can I play as a journalist?

I look forward to our panelists’ final responses as well as our next, slightly more immediate encounter, via live chat on Thursday at 2 pm EDT.


Huma Bhabha

Before I add anything else, I just want to say how much I’ve enjoyed and learned from everyone’s responses on this subject, including the other panelists, Krista, and the public.

Thinking about spirituality, art, and religion over these last few days has led me to the topic of religion’s timeless corruption by politics and power. How can spirituality thrive within an institution where control of land, ethnic purity, and other unenlightened ambitions and ideologies thrive? On an individual basis, spirituality through religion can obviously thrive, but it then exists in a private, disconnected world. Artists have the opportunity to make these individual practices public. Maybe the German artist Jonathan Meese is on to something when he gives his comically messianic performances declaring the power of art to save the world.

Meese’s faith in the healing power of art obviously draws much inspiration from Joseph Beuys. Earlier I stated that spirituality has in some ways gone underground, and I think the same can be said of Beuys’s influence. While artists continue to draw inspiration from his work, he is rarely discussed in mainstream critical dialogues; it is almost as if distant hysterical attacks against him (see Benjamin Buchloh’s review of his 1979 Guggenheim show, for example) still cast a shadow on his critical reputation. At a time when many artists seem to reside in a luxurious Biosphere of wealth alongside their patrons, leaving the world outside to fall apart, there may be great opportunities to negotiate a process of desegregation through art. Beuys’s project to connect art to history, politics, life, etc. could prove to be an important template for the task at hand.

I would like to end with a quote from Beuys: “I generalize the concept of ‘economy,’ expanding it to include society’s spiritual forces. By generalizing the notion of art, a generalized concept of ‘economy’ dynamically arises out of it.”


Louis A. Ruprecht Jr.

Prometheus was a Greek god who stole fire from Olympus, to make a gift of it to humankind. If, as Huma suggests, spirituality is like primeval fire, then the rebel against the gods is ironically the one who gives us the gift of spirituality. Nietzsche made much of this myth in his first book, published in 1872, called The Birth of Tragedy: Out of the Spirit of Music.

The spirit of music. Here is the idea I would like to explore in this third and final posting: The artist is a tuning fork for an out-of-tune and unlyrical society.

This Forum, and the engaging swirl of ideas it has generated, has taken me rather far from where I first intended to reflect on “the spiritual (re)turn” in art. While I have written mostly about museums, and a bit about the economy, my fellow panelists now force me to think about politics as well.

We live in a time when ethnic and religious nationalisms are on the rise around the world, and they may be subtly intertwined in places like Darfur. These new-old nationalisms can be incredibly, even hopelessly violent. It is hard to imagine artists at work in a place like Darfur. To paraphrase Adorno’s famous point, After Auschwitz, no poetry.

When the great alternative to these new-old nationalisms—civic nationalism, with its cosmopolitan commitment to the defense of religious and ethnic groups under the aegis of constitutional guarantees embodied by institutions—becomes hard to locate or secure, then it becomes more difficult to “place” or “locate” art as well.

I’m especially mindful of the fact that some religious and/or ethnic nationalists specifically target the visual, in an age of renewed iconoclastic religious revolution. One thinks of those massive Buddhist sculptures detonated by the Taliban some years ago.

But why target the visual? Because, ironically, the iconoclast senses its vast potential power.

Modern liberal states can no longer afford to fund the arts; as Mark notes, the financial meltdown was an ending of cosmic proportion. Prometheus stole fire; Wall Street stole the soul. After Madoff, no art.

Still, I wonder: as “traditional” religion grows more aggressive and even violent in public (and in politics), does art become gentler somehow, more private and inward looking? Is a part of what we are seeing today the response to an apocalypse of sorts, with the contemporary artist becoming more contemplative, serving almost as a gentle mystic for our time?

Both Huma and Mark have noted a trend in contemporary art away from the unserious, the narcissistic, and the trivial. Is there a renewed sense of purpose emerging in the art world, one that understands the political and religious stakes in the creative imagination, of imagining new ways of being in an uncertain world?

Krista clings fiercely to a delicate faith in the democratic vistas opened by the end of all isms. I do too. Her practice of this faith takes the form of a weekly radio show that invites this same creative reimagining of religion and the religious, grounded in a commitment to the cosmopolitan, democratic values so beautifully embodied in this Forum.

That we do not yet know where this journey will lead is no matter. Our commitment—to the practice and the pilgrimage—is the point.


Mark C. Taylor

Fire, we must remember, is not only something “precious and precarious, a resource that needs to be protected and somehow increased;” it is also dangerous, all consuming, and often is used to depict the apocalyptic end of history. The theosophical spirituality that attracted Kandinsky interpreted history in terms that date back to medieval Christian theologian Joachim of Flora, who identified three historical stages, the Ages of the Father, Son, and Spirit. In all such narratives, we find ourselves at the second stage, betwixt and between an ideal world that has been lost and a better world—the New Age—that is still to come. For Kandinsky, the New Age was to be realized in Russia, and its center was to be the Kremlin, which would be the new Rome.

The artist plays a critical role in bringing about this New Age. Indeed, in the notion of the avant-garde, initially defined by Friedrich Schiller in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), the artist displaces the religious prophet, and the kingdom of God on earth becomes a utopia that transforms the world into a work of art. The artist plays a critical role in bringing about this revolution. Throughout the history of the West, there have been two ways to change the world and bring about redemption: change consciousness to change the world (the mystical church) or change the world to change consciousness (the Church Militant). For artists like Kandinsky, the purpose of art is to alter consciousness in a way that will lead to the transformation of the world. There are, of course, secular versions of these two alternatives. Artists played a critical role in the Russian Revolution even when the explicitly spiritual inspiration was no longer expressed.

The story of transforming the world often involves fire: the destruction of the old prepares the way for the new. And this destruction is often violent; indeed, violence is a sign of the coming kingdom. In other words, spirituality sometimes leads to a world of “barbarism and violence.” The secularized version of the theological narrative of history in Russia led to the death of tens of millions of people. Needless to say, this vision of history is still with us today.

A final point. It is, I believe, a mistake to associate spirituality primarily with beauty. Again, there are different kinds of spirituality. Some forms of New Age spirituality idealize peace and harmony and seem to think that if the kingdom were to arrive, it would be in Santa Barbara. For others, by contrast, spirituality points toward those aspects of experience that can be neither understood nor controlled. From this point of view, the spiritual is much closer to the sublime than to the beautiful. Works of art, then, do not reassure but disturb by creating a sense of uncertainty and anxiety that we can never escape. Art that is serious should always disturb rather than reassure.


Jania Vanderwerff (Jane Van Werff) wrote :

Considering The Spiritual (Re)Turn event has been a very interesting window. Louis A. Ruprecht Jr. began to address the interaction of visual language and the viewer when he mentioned his Kandinsky show experience.

It is this "transcendent experience" as a painter (prompted by love, an expression of the living God and the Spirit) that I feel a fascinating responsibility to serve.

Art offers an illuminating comma and brings our world back together.

Thank you for all that you are doing for the art community and for the inclusive discussion.

Jania Vanderwerff (Jane Van Werff) posted on 10/23/09
B. Kalivac Carroll wrote :

Speaking as someone who has a history of interest in the conjunction of modernism and spirituality, I am excited about this forum and of course the Kandinsky exhibition. Since I am working on a doctorate in critical theory and the philosophy of art, and planning a dissertation about the spiritual impulse in modernism, I plan to fly to New York and spend a full week viewing the art and doing research at the Guggenheim exhibition. My first comment for the forum, then, is simply to observe that this broad and critically significant topic has been too long submerged and ignored in the fields of aesthetics, art criticism, art history, and art theory.
B. Kalivac Carroll posted on 10/22/09
Rosy wrote :

I'm coming late to the conversation and have a few thoughts that were sparked by comments made in all three sessions, not just this most recent one.

Huma Bhabha's comment that the spiritual aspects of art may have been shunned in the contemporary era (mostly post-WWII, in criticism and art theory) due to the "political potential"of spirituality seems appropriate. Spirituality, when it takes the form of a codified religion (and here religion and spirituality must be differentiated) can, at times, be quite dangerous because many (western at least) Religions with a capital R are often predicated on systems of rules that separate things or people into categories such as the saved and the damned, the holy and the profane. This separation can lead those who want to be accepted by the religion's God to perpetrate intellectual or actual hostility toward those who do not share these views and thus fall into the category of the profane. Toni Morrison in her novel "Paradise" articulates the difficulties in setting up a kind of (earthly) heaven. Paradise is a walled garden, and walls keep people *out*. Paradise and religion is a club. There is no perfection and trying to create it leads to the creation of its opposite—earthly hell. As Bhabha stated, being "beholden to no one ideology . . . is a spiritual act" and perhaps one of the safest, yet most radical ways of remaining spiritual.

The arts, it seems, may be able to play the role (a theatrical metaphor) of negotiator, of explicator, of tightrope walker, or even seamstress . . . stitching together the rent between material and spiritual. As Bhabha suggested, it may be that there is something to a strain of spiritual irony that can be further developed or turned. The '90s saw the rise of irony as the new honesty. Many (Americans, at least) saw frank emotion and/or an open spirituality as naive and as evidence of being suckered in by false hope and promises. Art can walk the line (if one admits that such a division exists) between the spirit and the body, the financial and the market-valueless, sincerity and irony.

It is interesting that Kandinsky (as well as many other artists around the last turn of the century, such as Mondrian and Kupka) embraced *occult* spiritualities, NOT mainstream religions. Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Rose et Croix, etc. sought to provide alternative ways of interacting with the world that did not rely on established religion and did not cast off all ties to the spiritual. Today we see a resurgence of an interest in alternative spiritualities: witness the popularity of Dan Brown's books on the Illuminati, Opus Dei, and most recently Noetics. Today the New York Times reports on the deaths of 3 people participating in New Age sweat lodge ritual...people dissatisfied with their lives seek some kind of connection to a new kind of spirituality, sometimes paying with their lives. Art can perhaps provide a critical rejoinder to such wholehearted embraces of such new schemes that play on people's desires for connection.

Finally, I wanted to connect the comment made by Ambon Pereira that spirit is flow (and thus inductively Religion is in a kind of stasis) to Mark Taylor's comment that when the US went off the gold standard, God and gold became unhinged and entered a kind of floating realm of perpetual flux. By connecting these two ideas, spirit and the market could be thought of as part and parcel of one another. In a strange reversal, it is interesting to think that if this were true, art could serve to materialize and critique both spirit and market, instead of serving as an injection/antidote to a spiritless world based on pure materialism. Take the work of Yves Klein in which he sold a zone of pictorial sensibility for gold, half of which he threw into the Seine. In addition, Klein stated that the zone, as I recall, could only truly be considered "owned" when the proof of ownership was destroyed. This work is alternately interpreted as evidence of Klein's true interest in spirituality over materiality (his destruction of half the gold), and as a critique of the market itself, and quite obviously, it seems to walk the line between both. The zone is sold is only owned when all proof of ownership ceases to exist; Klein profits, but only by half.
Rosy posted on 10/22/09

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