Concerning the word ‘spiritual’ in art

“The artist is an exile from the city. He has renounced his ties with friends and family, church and country. In isolation, he seeks to cultivate the traditions and techniques of his craft, to recreate life artificially… In the days of decadent Rome, a mind like Augustine’s could take refuge in the Christian conception of a City of God. With the modern intellectual, art has taken the place of religion. He feels the need to create a city of art…” 1

This high-modernist conception of art as the new religion appears to have been confirmed in our post-modern culture, if Sunday attendances at Tate Modern are anything to go by. Even before it opened, Andrew Marr prophesied in the Observer that, ‘If modern art is the new British religion, the Tate’s Bankside gallery will be its St Paul’s’, while Nicholas Serota elsewhere described the building as a ‘magnificent cathedral’ (it is worth noting here that ‘cathedral’ is technically not an architectural term, but ecclesiastical, from the Latin cathedra, meaning ‘seat’ of the Bishop; sure enough, Andrew Marr goes on to refer to Serota as the ‘art-bishop’).2

Where did this idea come from? The pioneers of modernist abstraction – Malevich, Mondrian, and Kandinsky – were all associated with Theosophy, an esoteric system founded in 1875 by Madame Blavatsky, which mixed elements of Eastern mysticism and Western scientism to form “a scientific religion and a religious science” which was “not a religion in the ordinary sense” and “not a Church in any sense”3. Mondrian joined the Dutch Theosophical Society in 1909, just before his move into abstraction, and his theory of this work clearly reflects Theosophist ideas. It was not only Theosophical theory that was influential, however; it is instructive to compare Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant’s Thought Forms paintings of auras and other supposed spiritual emanations – published in 1901, with Malevich’s Suprematist paintings of 1915. Kandinsky’s manifesto Concerning the Spiritual in Art of 1911 drew heavily on Theosophical ideas of synaesthesia, and again, his paintings of this period look very similar to so-called “thought forms built by music” wherein “sound produces form as well as colour… clearly visible and intelligible to those who have eyes to see”.

Combining Western notions of evolution with Eastern transcendentalism, Theosophy proposed that the human race was about to progress from the material to the immaterial, or spiritual dimension. However, in order to move into this ‘New Age’, humanity must become attuned to a different mode of perception. For the avant-garde, ‘non-objective’ abstraction was the way this was to be achieved, and in the process, a new status for artists was established. The introduction to the first English translation (1914) of Kandinsky’s book made this explicit: ‘Modern artists are beginning to realise their social duties. They are the spiritual teachers of the world…’ 4

The World War of 1914-18 brought such optimistic notions of modernist progress into grave doubt; nonetheless, a century later it may still appear that the contemporary arts are a more progressive force than traditional religion, given recent attempts to ban books (eg Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses) and close down exhibitions (eg Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary) on religious grounds. However, there is another side to this question of authoritarian control.

In 1995, the Irish poet Eavan Boland wrote that “over the last century, while the relation between literature and religion has failed, the rise of the religion of literature, the hubris of the imagination and its sanctity has been an undercurrent of a great deal of the analysis and discussion of art.”5

She traces this back to Matthew Arnold’s ‘argument that the imagination is a sacramental force and that the poem can usurp some of the functions of religion… In a time of lost power it makes a claim for increased privileges for the artist. The irony of this is that it brings us back to something more primitive again. To invest, as Arnold does, the imagination with sacramental force restores to poetry not its religious force, but its magical function… the old status of arbiter of reality.’

What constitutes this reality? In terms of art, the modernist notion of progress is, in its Theosophist origins, actually based on the old Gnostic heresy that the material world is a dirty and unworthy place, one that we need to escape from into the ‘spiritual’ realm – with the means provided by gnosis. However, my religion tells me that the created world is not bad, but fallen, and it is not esoteric knowledge that will save us, but God, in person.

As a practising artist and a practising Christian, I believe that the Spirit of God is involved with all human activity, including art; I have experienced the fruit of this relationship in my own practice, and in the work of others. However, the idea that artists have some special access to the ‘spiritual’ is fundamentally rotten. Art is not the new religion; religion is – or should be – the new religion. What art is – or could be – remains (thank God) an open question.

[1] Harry Levin, James Joyce: a Critical Introduction, 1941
[2] A Marr, The Cathedral of Cool, London: The Observer, Sunday April 9 2000
[3] William Q Judge, Ocean of Theosophy, 1893
[4] M Sandler, Translator’s Introduction to W. Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, New York: Dover, 1977
[5] E Boland, When The Spirit Moves, The New York Review of Books, Volume 42, Number 1, January 12, 1995

Excerpted from a paper delivered at Art & Compromise (IV), Beaconsfield, London, Feb 2011 
Published in a-n magazine, March 2011
Read a further excerpt here