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Thoughts on the Spiritual in Art

The desperate modern question is how art serves life, that is,

what place art has in modern life.

— Donald Kuspit, Reconsidering the Spiritual in Art, 2003

Whatever our race and religion, ecology binds us all together. Thus ecology is the religious project of our times... The Divine has spoken to human beings in many tongues and its voice included many themes. Now it speaks to us with the voice of ecological awareness as it prompts us to safeguard the integrity of the Earth, which means the integrity of our own lives, which means the integrity of our spiritual lives.

— Prof. Henryk Skolimowski,

Father of eco philosophy (italics by the author)

In the last year two major events have upended my life: my partner's passing and my subsequent home move. Now, as a way of reconnecting, I have spent time revisiting my life's passion: What is the spiritual in the art of today? I re-read books, reviewed my archives and pondered the question.*

There was a lot of material to review. After all the spiritual in art has been my quest since 1979. I began as a seeker, gallery director and curator. The quest led me to many different art forms, but the ones that spoke to me the most were art works tuned in to the Earth. They were compassionate, “useful,” collaborative and participatory. Little did I know that in 1986 I would be led to speak as an artist, and as I termed it, to do art for the Earth. Since then, I have been associated with eco-art through my ritual performance The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande (1987-1994).

In one of the books I reviewed, Charlene Spretnak's The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art, in the Afterword, called Spirituality of Immanence, I especially noticed a statement "to spark a new aesthetic of engagement with their great love: the land." How refreshing to see the words love and land together! Love (empathy) is an essential value of eco-art, and eco, from the Greek oikos, means home. My question to all the writers on the topic of the spiritual in art is why in all their books, the categories eco-art or environmental art are not mentioned, even though the environmental artists Josef Beuys and Andy Goldsworthy are. Spirit is oneness, unity, peace, love, compassion. Our comprehension of Spirit is very different from what it was for the Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky. You could say the times have gone from the search for Transcendence to the need for Transformation. The spiritual "inner necessity" he spoke of then is now reflected in a dying planet. Even if some artists don't like to use the word spiritual because of earlier negative experiences with their religions of origin, their work of embodied empathy for the Earth or for community, and their tendency to live out unity through their collaborations with scientists, for example, are a testimony of the spiritual consciousness now sweeping art. In 2014, Charlene Spretnak wrote: "The mechanistic worldview has left us so oblivious to dynamic interrelatedness that we cannot even seem to perceive the meaning of extremely urgent reports on the global climate crisis, let alone the spiritual explorations by artists in this book." Nine years later, let's hope that the United Nations' recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will reach the ears of our hearts. We are reaching a tipping point; that reality is apparent.

Why am I clamoring for the recognition of eco-art and environmental art? Because we are doing art for our time. We are doing art for life's sake. We need to be heard and seen, not for personal gain, but as one of the signs of the awakening of Spirit, and that the Spiritual is key to the evolution of our world.

* My readings:

  • The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present, Charlene Spretnak (2014)

  • Encountering the Spiritual in Contemporary Art, Leesa K. Fanning, editor (2018)

  • Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacobs (2004)

  • Various articles from my archives.

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