On the role of the spiritual in contemporary art

This post refers to the speech by 29.75 year old Leonard Cohen that I transcribed and posted yesterday. His statements are positions on several interesting questions: can there be spiritual content without language? Must spiritual content transcend an alphabet? Should a writer/poet play a prophetic role? What does it mean to be a real [insert identity] writer–or artist in general–isn’t it the nourishment more important than what’s on the label? “… the world is hostile to any man who will hold up a mirror to the particular kind of mindless chaos in which we endure.” And in broader terms: is the over-emphasis on identity and symbols not simply obscuring what he calls a “disease”, that ultimately we have not only lost a balance in our dialectic between the material and the transcendent worlds but that the scales have tipped so far that we have lost spiritual content “the light” altogether. Not just in art but also in religious practice itself: “Let us declare a moratorium on all religious services until someone reports a vision.” He ends by calling for us to make a tradition for the “dirty saints” and the “monstrous hermits” “for they light the world.”

His call is not unique to its era. The beat poet emerged within in the preceding decade, and espoused similar values: rejecting superficiality and materialism, exploring religion (including eastern religions), experimenting with drugs and producing a counter-culture replete with dirty saints and monstrous hermits. And it’s no coincidence that Cohen conflates religion and art in his talk. Both were once simply means of communicating with the divine. Both are now divorced from that role and have mutated into intellectual experiments (or he calls them “intellectual orgies”). There are many competing definitions of Modern Art, particularly its beginning, and some scholars go as far back as Jacques Louis-David or Edouard Manet. Regardless of when or where it began, it is marked by an important break from tradition: a painting was no longer a “window onto a world”, it was simply a flat surface and was not to be an ideological tool but a means of individual expression. Modern artists brought truth to their materials by making this evident in their work, typified best by geometric abstraction and monochromes.

This is a kind of purposeful rationality applied to art that continues into the present. Interestingly, it reached its peak after WWII, after the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and after intensely rational enlightenment principles were used by the National Socialists to carry out an efficient genocide. Clement Greenberg wrote “Modernist Painting” in 1961, penning a highly rational progression of art to its “logical conclusion” (flatness, lack of illusionism, etc). In between Manet and Mondrian were artists like Kasimir Malevich in Czar Nicholas’ Russia, who made abstract interpretations of icon paintings, small paintings done for domestic settings, depicting divine scenes. His aim with non-objective painting was to escape the drudgery of reality and create a new world through painting, in which to escape. Abstraction, therefore, was a means for experiencing something other-worldly and divine in a sense that was just divorced from organized religion. So the spiritual content was still there, it was simply transmuted and separated from something that was beginning to lose its sanctity (religion, which two years later would be outlawed following the October revolution).

Unlike the beat tradition, Conceptual Art which developed from the 60s into the 70s stemmed from Greenberg’s rational, logical framework devoid of mystical or spiritual content. Jannis Kounnelis, a Greek artist who lived in Rome, described Conceptual Art as “Victorian” (in an interview with Willoughby Sharpe for Avalanche magazine in 1972). He said, “I don’t know if I’m making myself clear, but if I were to accept the mechanism of conceptual art, there would no longer any reason for me to exist.” So of course there were many competing strains of art; but the legacy of Greenberg remains and contemporary art in society today has no relation to religion much less formalized mystical, or sensual traditions. (This is not to say that artists aren’t interested in this as content in their work, I mean regardless of its content, which is limitless, contemporary art does not have a formal religious or spiritual function in our society. It has an economic, cultural, and even educational role. The Catholic church engages with contemporary art in interesting ways, such as their collection and museum Kolumba in Cologne, Germany, but does not include contemporary art in religious devotion as it did with icon paintings, liturgical painting, etc. of earlier centuries).

Interestingly, within two years of Cohen’s talk, in 1966, Susan Sontag penned “Against Interpretation” in which she called for biblical texts to be taken at face value or else discarded and not interpreted into something else entirely. She extended the same call to art, criticizing the impulse to interpret an element of an artwork by saying that X is really Y. Let X be X.  Instead of “hermeneutics” she ends that text with a call for an erotics of art. A topic of a future post.

Cohen also draws a relationship between the status of the Jew and the Canadian: the former experiences an ancient version of the same “failure of courage.” The courage refers to exile. Jews found meaning in the exile from the holy land because their relationship to the light of the world was not dependent upon land or architecture. The settlers who colonized Canada in the name of the British and French must have been either duped very badly or else were totally fearless (or only God-fearing in the case of the Jesuits), to have gone there in the first place, not to mention the indigenous populations who arrived and endured for millennia prior (yet suffered greatly since this contact). Like the Jews, Canadians lost those original spirits (he is likely referring only to post-contact Canadians, particularly as the novel he refers to writing at the time is Beautiful Losers, which centers around a Mohawk character) and devolved into a place obsessed with symbols and status quo, happy to take in culture produced in the United States and allow foreign investment, etc. “We do not wish to own ourselves, to accept the dangers of national loneliness.” And this is as true today in Canada as then, and changed of course, thanks to the internet and the intensification of a particularly neoliberal globalization, which entails the consolidation of wealth and power, and therefore cannot be anything but homogenizing.

But the overall question concerns the role of spirituality in art. This shouldn’t mean a call for organized religion (Cohen is saying the opposite) or even an insistence on the belief in God. Cohen refers to an obsession with God as criteria for Jewish inclusion–which is different. He calls for accepting loneliness and making self-annihilation (the idea that if you pray alone and become so close to God and separated from the material world that you might cancel yourself out completely) a danger again. A funny and enduring point in our “selfie age.” In a way this has to do with a debate as to whether or not humans have souls, that which connects to and judged by a higher power, and by extension is there a higher power. I can’t remember ever hearing someone who works in contemporary art talk about God, except in the past tense (referring to a former belief or upbringing, etc.). It’s simply not art’s concern today, and I’m thankful for that.

Contemporary art is an atheist practice and it is defined by its lack of function. In theory, it is something to be contemplated and conserved, but it should not serve a specific purpose beyond that, and it should not be the propagandistic tool of any institution. In practice, it is a tool of finance, nation building, corporate marketing, and display of power while also serving as objects of contemplation which require conservation. I would have no problem with contemporary art being a religious tool any more than I have problems with the interests I just listed. The question of the role of God in art relates more to Sartre’s view on God in general, that God’s existence matters less than what the belief in a higher power does to the individual. And since the balance between a material and spiritual dialectic is tipped so far toward the material today, which resulted in self-obsession so great and so wide spread that the DSM must need to redefine narcissism, something, if not God or something “higher” is obviously missing to take us out of ourselves. To extend Cohen’s metaphor of the “mirror”, how to point it away from ourselves and back out at the world, to “hold up a mirror to the particular kind of mindless chaos in which we endure. That is the glory of the poet, that is the glory of the writer, that is the glory of the Jew: that he is despised, that he moves in this mirrored exile, covered in mirrors, and as he passes through the communities that he sojourns, he reflects their condition, his condition.”

And to repeat his final call again:  “Let us encourage young men to go into the deserts of their heart and burn the praise of perfection. Let us do it with drugs, or whips, or sex, or blasphemy, or fasting, but let men begin to feel the perfection of the universe.” There are many contemporary artists working in this vein, and there should be no normative criteria for art that prescribes and judges artists by the moral responsibility of their output. One should look instead to the structural conditions of being an artist today. There is statistical data that museums reward commercially viable practices, and they do this as a result of the neoliberal disintegration of public funding and the decline of traditional philanthropy (charity for charity’s sake (if that ever existed, at least it did as an ideal, it was connected to a belief in God) vs. charity for social gain, etc). So in closing this is not a call for God in art or society but instead a consideration of what has become of art and art systems that are wholly separated from divine function and responsibility.

Image caption: Installation view of Transit Mode – Abenteuer, 2014–16: Journey of Self Discovery, 2016 by Anna Uddenberg in the 9th Berlin biennale, 2016. Photo: Timo Ohler.