Is there a special relationship between art and spirituality? There are many reasons to think so; indeed, there seems to be a rich web of relationships between the two. The arts have always been integral to religion. Sacred pictures, sacred symbols, sacred dances, chants, hymns and tunes have been used in rituals, in places of worship, and as aids to prayer and meditation in every religion. Judging by this alone, the arts seem to be natural vehicles for expressing or connecting with the transcendent. The great art of the medieval Christian west is religious art, as is that of the Orthodox Christian east. For Hinduism and Buddhism it is the same. Even religions like Judaism and Islam, which consider images of God idolatrous, use decorative designs to embellish places of worship and sacred texts. Outside of formal religious contexts, religion has traditionally been as integral to the arts as to the rest of culture. The arts in traditional cultures transmit the central beliefs and values of those cultures, and those beliefs and values have a strong religious or spiritual dimension.
But what of the arts in the modern, secular west? Have they also become secular? It is true that the vital center of the arts has moved away from institutional religion: it is hard to find great or even good mainstream religious art in the modern and post-modern west. Yet the connection between art and spirituality has remained. This was especially true for the pioneers of modern abstract art at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Spirituality and the Pioneers of Modern Art
The beginnings of modern art, especially abstract art, have strong spiritual roots. This fact is not always obvious from textbook discussions of the work, which are more likely to focus on the many formal innovations of twentieth century art.
While these formalistic accounts are valid so far as they go, they omit what may have been the most central motivation of the pioneers of modern art. Kandinsky, Mondrian, Arp, Duchamps, Malevich, Newman, Pollack, Rothko and most of the other giants of early and mid-twentieth century painting shared common spiritual roots. For many of these men and women, art was primarily about spirituality, and was perhaps the most appropriate vehicle for expressing and developing the spirituality that the new century called for. Kandinsky expresses this conviction in his 1912 publication "Concerning the Spiritual in Art"; Mondrian mentions it in many of his writings; and so do many other painters, poets, musicians and dancers. Here is Kandinsky, in a selection from his influential 1912 booklet Concerning the Spiritual in Art:
When religion, science and morality are shaken (the last by the strong hand of Nietzche) and when outer supports threaten to fall, man withdraws his gaze from externals and turns it inwards. Literature, music and art are the most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt. They reflect the dark picture of the present time and show the importance of what was at first only a little point of light noticed by the few. Perhaps they even grow dark in their turn, but they turn away from the soulless life of the present toward those substances and ideas that give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul. (Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p. 33)
Whether they saw their quest as primarily personal, or whether (like Kandinsky) they saw the artist as a kind of prophet in the vanguard of humankind's spiritual development, many of the great artists of the twentieth century saw their art in spiritual terms. For many of them also, the spirituality expressed in their work derives from eastern sources. Hindu and Buddhist ideas and practices had a strong influence on these artists, in some cases directly, in many others through the influence of Helena Blavatsky, Rudolph Steiner, and the Theosophical Society. Mondrian was a member of this society, and Kandinsky writes approvingly of it. The goal of these and other artists was to develop an art which expressed a reality beyond the material, a consciousness like that of a meditative state in which ordinary reality is transcended. Knowing this purpose casts a different light on the blank or monochrome canvases, the empty spaces, and the simple geometrical or biomorphic shapes of many abstract works. They might best be seen as meditative aids meant to reveal the transcendent or provoke a transcending consciousness. (In fact some of them strongly resemble asian works produced for exactly that purpose.) The same is true for work like that of Jackson Pollack, strongly influenced by Native American spirituality, whose drip paintings are meditative healing exercises like those of Indian shamans and Navaho sand painters (see The Spiritual in Art: Abstract painting 1890 - 1985, pp. 281 - 293 for these connections).
Some Readings on Spirituality and Art:
The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 (NY, London, Paris: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Abbeville Press, 1986). The catalog for an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, also shown at the Chicago Museum of Modern Art and the Haags Gemeentemuseum in the Hague during 1986 and 1987. The lavishly illustrated exhibition catalog is still in print; it includes seventeen extensive essays by various scholars which trace the spiritual interests and motivations of abstract painters during this period. A wonderfully rich source for this topic.
Kandinsky, Wassily: Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912) Influential early essay by one of the founders of modern abstract art. Kandinsky sees human consciousness and spirituality as evolving, and the artist as the leading prophetic voice at the forfront of this development. The work includes a detailed explanation of the symbolic weight and significance of various colors and shapes.
Lipsey, Roger: An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art (2nd edition) (Jan 1997, Shambala Publications). A careful tracing of the history of twentieth century art from the perspctive of its spiritual motivations.