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.
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.”
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.
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.