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Concerning the Spiritual in Art in Our Time?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Concerning the Spiritual in Art in Our Time?

From Kandinsky's abstraction to ecological art: Imagining an exhibition, 100 years after Kandinsky published “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” What is the spiritual in art in our time? This is a question that has been burning in my heart since 1979. A few years later, it was my heart again, (a broken heart this time,) that turned me into an artist. I could no longer bear what was happening to the Earth. From my despair came the revelation that my form as an artist would be ritual. Recently, the old question that I first explored as a seeker and a curator was reawakened during a visit to the Wassily Kandinsky retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. The artist's famed essay “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” published a hundred years ago, is the seminal work on this subject. (1) In this essay Kandinsky says that interpretations of art reflect the evolution of consciousness and culture. Kandinsky's understanding of the spiritual was rooted in 'perennial philosophy' or 'ageless wisdom'. (2) One of the 'perennial' spiritual principles (whatever tradition it comes through) is that of the oneness and interconnectedness of all things. The spiritual and art do not limit their search to finding interconnectedness among like or similar cultures. Rather, they reveal the oneness beneath apparently disparate and conflicting statements. But how could one exhibition express such complexity and oneness? Today, the global nature of our world makes us aware that oneness must be expressed through multiplicity and diversity. So, to reflect our time, an exhibition on “The Spiritual in Art” would have to include many different approaches and media. As Kandinsky states at the beginning of his essay, “Every work of art is the reflection of its age... It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own...” But beyond the multiplicity of this era, how would an exhibition single out the art movement which defines multiplicity. Can any art find the soul of our complex world? This is where words can be numinous. While some synonyms of spiritual are oneness, interrelatedness, others are (unconditional) love, compassion. When the impulse for art is compassion and love, the resulting expression becomes universal, no matter how seemingly unique the culture that produced the art may be. Understanding the spiritual is a process of discovery (re-discovery), uncovering layers. A century ago, Kandinsky was affirming that art should come from an “inner need” which called for the artist to work solitarily. (In retrospect, it is understandable; the beginning of the twentieth century was the time to get away from the rigorist academic directives bearing down on society and souls.) Today, we live in a time when the pendulum swings back, inviting us to reach out rather than draw back. Science is helping us discover the world and the universe as a whole, fluid system. We realize another 'perennial' concept: that the “inner need” is not separate from the need of the 'other.' (3) Science and the shrinking global world are transforming our consciousness. It is not surprising then, that this evolving awareness must foster new form and content particular to our time. The spiritual today is action-oriented. Some may call it service, which is an intrinsic part of a spiritual path. Artists may not put it in this way, but the heart, speaking in no uncertain terms, seeks a place to express compassion. Kandinsky's “inner need” of one hundred years ago may well be changing into a seed to find the self through service. It may be that art's inherent quality of unifying and healing is only now to be revealed. (Art italicized since the term did not exist at a time when the shaman was the main 'performer' whose task was to create harmony on the personal and communal levels.) Humanity is reaching a “great turning' by realizing the devastation it has caused to the Earth. Before we lose her, (or we are lost to her,) we are being forced to wake up. In T.S. Eliot's words, we are “to go back to the beginning/And know the place for the first time.” What growing numbers are coming (back) to is that spirit is synonymous with Earth. We are finally understanding the indigenous intrinsic ways of oneness with the Earth. “The Earth and myself are of one mind,” said Indian leader Chief Joseph. (4) In Northern New Mexico, where I live, a statement in the Pojoaque Pueblo Poeh Center contains a profound truth: “Our ancestors' guide for living was to use the natural world as a model for structuring their world, the Tewa world.” Ten years since the beginning of the new millennium, with the environmental crisis so much more blatant and acute, it is perhaps not far-fetched to conclude that the spiritual in art today may be the work of reconnection with and the healing of our relationship with the Earth. An art movement that concerns itself with Earth has been emerging since the sixties, not unlike a new spring flowing out of layers of humus. This new voice for art is not only about recognizing the oneness of community, be it human, animal, plant, mineral, or all, but also about participating in creating it. In what is referred to as ecological art,“a worldwide art movement that is encouraging the fusion of culture with environmental stewardship,” artists are creating community often by mobilizing it. It's about “the artist act (ing) as aesthetic choreographer of collaborative action as well as premier danseur.” (5) Just by itself the movement, which is leaderless, is a wide field from land art to ecological art.

In my view, to be called to the spiritual in art today is to work consciously toward establishing “the reciprocal connection between humans and the more-than-human world.” (6) Once, there was no separation between spirit and art. Prior to Kandinsky's essay the world had not seen the relationship between art and spirit as a subject for intellectual discussion. The essay revolutionized art. A century later, we are posing the same question in light of our times... our answer growing out of today's need is for humans to see themselves as part of a larger whole. As someone who always tries to grasp the bigger picture, this revisiting to me is a notch up on the spiral turn of evolution.


I am a seeker whose question about the spiritual in art in our time came from a deep personal quest. This journey compels me to send forth a cri du coeur. We must act as artists in service to the Earth. But, first I welcome a dialogue.

I would propose a second round of “Les Magiciens de la Terre,” an exhibition held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989, that asked one hundred artists to define art along with showing their work. I would simply change the question and ask artists to offer a definition of “what is the spiritual in art.” (7)

(1) Published December 1911, but dated 1912, from the book Kandinsky published by the Guggenheim Museum. (2) Perennial philosophy (Latin: philosophia perennis “eternal philosophy”, also Philosophia perennis et universalis) is the notion of the universal recurrence of philosophical insignt independent of epoch or culture, including universal truths on the nature of reality, humanity or consciousness (anthropological universals.) (Wikipedia) (3) Systems theory is the scientific explanation of what 'perennial philosophy' has known. Physics = Metaphysics. Interesting subject to be explored. The one great book about this (“one of the 10 great books of the twentieth century) is “the Dream of the Earth” by Father Thomas Berry. (4) Quoted in “The Transformative Vision” by Jose A. Arguelles (5) Marie Jo Aagerstoun, PhD (6) The term “more-than-human world,” coined by the eco-philosopher David Abram, denotes “Nature” while pointedly including human beings within what people call “nature. (7) The exhibition “The Magiciens de la Terre” (The Magicians of the Earth) asked the question, “What is art” from the one hundred invited artists (50 contemporary Western artists and 50 traditional non-Western artists) and every answer was different.

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