On Contemporary Art and Spirituality

“The dialogue between contemporary art and spirituality is broader and more complex than it was during modernism because contemporary art is more varied, and because spirituality as a discourse is more diverse including religious traditions that go beyond Judaeo-Christianity.”

Dr Rina Arya is a Reader at the University of Wolverhampton who is interested in the visual and material culture of religion. In this exclusive interview she discusses nature of the dialogue between art and spirituality, how they come together and what form they take.

Richard Bright: Can we begin with you saying something about your background?

Rina Arya: My academic background is art history and theology. For a number of years I wrote about the twentieth-century artist Francis Bacon. I was particularly interested in the way he used Christian imagery in his work to non-religious ends although the interpretation of which can be highly religious. In studying Bacon, I became fascinated by the overlap between Western art and religion especially the continuous but fractious relationship that has existed between the two domains. What interested me the most was art work that wasn’t religious in conventional terms in that it did not have religious content but which elicited feelings that could be described as spiritual, in that they prompted reflection on the deeper questions of life.

In parts of the West, and even beyond, institutional religion is losing its appeal and relevance and polls have shown that there is a willingness to describe oneself as ‘spiritual not religious’. In my research I have interrogated what this means within the context of art.

RB: One of your interests is in the role of the spiritual in the arts and culture, particularly contemporary secular culture. How do you define the term ‘spirituality’ in relation to art?

RA: I agree with Philip Sheldrake’s definition of spirituality as that which “refers to the deepest values and meanings by which people seek to live (2007, pp. 1-2).” It involves thinking about life (one’s own and that of others’) holistically with a cognizance of what may lay beyond the here and now, the material conditions of life. A different formulation, which resonates with contemporary use, is where spirituality is viewed as an individualistic project of ‘self-realization’ that typically takes the trajectory of ‘inwardness’ or can be directed outwardly, in a consumerist sense, to promote various lifestyle choices like “fitness, healthy living, and holistic well-being (2007, p.2).” Since the 21st century, there has been a drive toward an expanded sense of spirituality that goes beyond the quest to fulfil or orient the self to using it as the basis of policy formation in fields like social work, education, health, psychotherapy and even business.

The relationship between art and spirituality has been historically mediated in the West through the relationship between art and religion, something which has been periodically problematic throughout the centuries. But in spite of the decline of organized religion in Western Europe, there has been growing interest in spirituality in areas of cultural life, especially in art. Many people no longer view traditional religion, in the sense of institutionalized religion, as adequate for exploring their spirituality and look to new forms of spirituality as alternatives for finding ultimate meaning and addressing the profound needs of humanity. Central to the role of the artist has been a preoccupation with the deeper questions of life, often to reveal contingencies that are normally kept hidden from the public gaze and to challenge entrenched beliefs. The process of creating art is often described in quasi-mystical terms, whereby the artist-as-shaman unleashes or channels special creative powers in a process of making that transports the viewer to a different realm of the imaginary.

Given these affinities between the roles of art and spirituality, it is unsurprising that spirituality is an enduring feature of contemporary art. Engaging with art can be a spiritual experience. Art that is described as spiritual concerns feelings stirred or probed by the art, which may prompt reflection on the meaning of life, often drawing on existential questions. The spirituality elicited may reference a particular religious tradition or it may be generic.

RB: There have been other writers and curators – for example, Herbert Read, James Elkins, Sixten Ringbom, Maurice Tuchman, Linda Dalrymple Henderson, Robert Rosenblum and Jacquelynn Baas, to name but a few – who have ‘made the case’ for the acknowledgement of the spiritual content in many modern artworks. What approach do you take?

RA: I think the spiritual is an important notion in modern and contemporary artwork. The problem is that the term is often used too vaguely, to refer to anything that is meaningful. There are different definitions of spirituality, and it is important to tighten up the way it is used by critics and theorists. That isn’t necessarily the job of artists or viewers, but in order for the spiritual to have currency, its meaning needs to be fleshed out. In the contemporary climate we can talk about the spiritual in the wake of 9/11, which I take to mean an engagement with the challenges and consequences of what it means to be human in an age of atrocity.

I suspect that the subject of spirituality will always be important to human beings, and will continue to be important in the context of art. Certainly many viewers describe their experience of art in spiritual terms, and art can fulfil spiritual needs in that it makes you reflect on existence.

RB: What is the nature of the dialogue between contemporary art and spirituality, and how do the two come together?

RA: The dialogue between contemporary art and spirituality is broader and more complex than it was during modernism because contemporary art is more varied, and because spirituality as a discourse is more diverse including religious traditions that go beyond Judaeo-Christianity. To address these two terms in turn, contemporary art goes beyond the traditionalist modern art forms of painting and sculpture to encompass newer art forms, such as installation art, ‘new media art’ (technological and digital art forms from the 1980s onwards), performance art and multimedia forms. The range of multimedia brings novel forms of encounter occurring outside in the gallery and other spaces involving audiovisual and other means of articulating the spiritual. There are numerous possibilities that are open to artists in the current day as a result of fewer prescriptions or expectations about what forms spiritual art should take. The situation was very different for artists before modernism, as they were bound by the particularities of iconography and the proposed setting, and were sometimes obliged to work in the service of the Church. In the present day, artists are at liberty to combine genres, materials, and forms and to represent a range of global subjects, some of which refer directly to societal issues, whereas others are more universal and timeless.

Spirituality in the contemporary era is more varied. Some artists explicitly use ideas and symbols from religious or mythological traditions in the expression of their ideas; others have a more ‘pick-and-mix’ approach to spirituality, where aspects from different traditions, including private beliefs, are amalgamated. It is far from necessarily the case that the most meaningful spiritual reflection is found in explicitly religious art.

RB: What form does it take? Can you give some examples?


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One Response to “On Contemporary Art and Spirituality”

  1. Avatar
    Annalisa Burello
    February 14, 2019 at 3:54 pm #

    I have a couple of personal observations to Arya’s interview and other writings in regards to the more wider claims that art can lead ‘to a deeper understanding of life’ and ‘become a route to self knowledge’, which I have also seen from other spiritually concerned art critics like Leesa Fanning or Robert Wuthnow. I am skeptical that experiencing Bill Viola’s installations (or any other artist’s installation) without any context or knowledge about his practice and without being a so called ‘initiate’ to spiritual art or even art in general, will lead to anything at all other than a weird experience. What exactly am I supposed to learn about myself when I experience ‘He Weeps for You’? What’s the metaphor about? If I haven’t previously reflected on certain issues, I do not think that the installation alone will suffice. Without sounding controversial, I’m skeptical that art, just like any religious iconography for that matter, can instantiate a spiritual experience outside of a wider conceptual context. What I am more willing to admit is that art can induce at the very least cognitive dissonance and at best an ‘otherworldly’ experience which may be assimilated to a feeling of transcendence (like when we enter an ancient temple or a gothic church). The other observation I have regards branding Shirin Neshat’s work as spiritual. I think hers is highly political. Does spirituality include politics and issues of gender and cultural identity, social and economic justice, maybe even globalisation and environmental issues? Wouldn’t we cast the net too wide and end up with a very loose and therefore flaky concept of spiritually concerned art? Wouldn’t it be more productive and helpful to have tighter or clearer boundaries? Maybe we should distinguish between form and aims? Aren’t we risking to brand all artists and artwork as spiritual? It’s not that I personally object to the idea, but I feel many people would. There are artists who are purely conceptual or materialistic. One may even claim that ALL art is spiritual. If that is the case, then why the distinction?

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