Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Vital Importance of Spirituality in Art

'Heart II," oil on linen, 36"x 48", 2007-8

No, it's not hubris. It could save our culture.

This week Ed W. was discussing the latest, predictably overblown controversy on art and death threats:
It's almost become a punchline, the notion that any artwork exploring both sex and Islam will be met with a flurry of extreme reactions (death threats, riots, burned-down embassies...again?). The controversy in question this time involves the Iranian artist who goes by the name Sooreh Hera, whose photography of naked gay Muslim men wearing a mask said to depict the prophet Mohammed was pulled from an exhibition at the municipal museum in The Hague once it became clear to the museum director that that's what she was showing.
Ed, and most of the other artists on the thread, see this as a Freedom of Speech issue; just about everybody seemed to take it for granted that violent Muslim extremists need and deserve to be publically taunted, provoked, and confronted in a way that is bound to cause an extreme reaction. Failing to do so is labelled cowardice and censorship.

It never, ever seems to occur to anyone that there is more than one way to confront an extremist; still less that said extremist could be, in any way, worthy of attention or respect.

This attitude, in my opinion, could lead to the end of civilization as we know it. It is already leading to the trivialization, degeneracy, and near-total irrelevance of Fine Art, as it is viewed by the vast majority of people who are not intimately involved in the elitist, hubristic, self-involved Art World.

I've already written about the Art World's tendency to dismiss anything that remotely hints at a spiritual context, in a way that is much stronger even than 'that's not trendy right now.' I believe that this is one of the ways that the sense of an elite, exclusive club is maintained; it's a way of separating ourselves from the deluded masses out there, some of whom are fundamentalists ready to kill and be killed for their delusions. We, of course, are Above All That, and any artist who outspokenly says she's not is obviously Not One Of Us.

The fact is, it is human nature to be drawn toward the transcendent, in whatever context. When a concrete, workable religious tradition is absent, we channel this impulse into politics, or career, or environmentalism, or art. There's a reason that apparently sane people get sucked into cults and stripped of their money and sense of individual identity; the pull toward the spiritual is so strong that when it is ignored or suppressed, it is all the more vulnerable to manipulation.

Moreover, as Karen Armstrong elucidates in 'The Battle For God,' extremist fundamentalism is a relatively modern phenomenon, which arose as a natural response to the rapid and traumatic changes brought about by technological, political and social revolution. Religion not only provides a channel for our spiritual instincts, but a basis for stable society; when religious law and tradition is rapidly, obviously flouted by extremely disorienting and destabilizing change, the backlash is equally extreme.

Thus, in my opinion, whatever you may think of the fundamentalist mentality, the worst possible thing we can do to contront it is to use our media, our 'elitist' bully pulpit, and our creativity to deny the spiritual, and smack people in the face with puerile, shallow affirmations of secularism.

Ed says, "Perhaps part of the problem there, though, is the difference between cultures in the significance/taboo/sacrity of images. How do you visually discuss Allah, for example, when any image of him is forbidden and I suspect any proxy would be open to intense scrutiny."

Oh, please. We're visual artists. We don't have to be literal, transgressive, or confrontational in order to evoke a response; still less do we need to write a ream of unreadable text, in a language that our audience doesn't even speak, in order to communicate across cultures. We merely need to reach deep into our own hearts for what is universal.

We sell ourselves terribly short when we assume that shallow, literal, provocative statements about 'This is good, this is bad, this is what I like' are the best we can do as artists. We sell ourselves short when we allow the Art World Game to pigeonhole or ignore us entirely.

Music communicates across cultures; two people who agree on nothing politically will calm down and cease arguing when a mutual favorite song comes on the radio. You don't need to understand someone's language, religion, culture or tradition to listen to their music and respond to it on a visceral level. Art can communicate this way as well, if we shut up with the conceptual blather long enough to allow it.

As a parenthetical note--even though I am a die-hard Obama supporter, I think that Andrew Sullivan's article in the Atlantic about him was maudlin and over the top. But his point about Obama's face being a statement in and of itself is analogous to my beliefs about the transformative power of visual art:
The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

Are we going to prove to the fundamentalist extremists of the world that we, as artists, are every bit as depraved, shallow, and soulless as they believe us to be, or are we going to work to create powerful images that speak to our common humanity?

collaboration update: also, Susan has a new blog!


Desert Cat said...

Interesting you should mention Karen Armstrong. I was reading up on her a bit recently.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I especially like that you expect visual artists to be capable of representing Allah without being literal.

That's the crux of this argument, it's a kind of complexity that is sadly missing from the world.

American Genius said...

great post, and I agree, Most times the offending idea, or whatever, is not as extreme, usually mundane and no one notices, but in that way, we are all bowing down and giving in to the extrememist ideology and giving up freedom

Jason Brockert said...

Excellent Post. Its funny to read and hear over and over how tired we artists seem to have become of the over-conceptualization of what we do yet that same over-conceptualizing continues.

The art world is so afraid of not being taken seriously that it seems to overcompensate at all turns in being overly serious. I wish there was more humor and spirituality talked about and promoted. Your analogy of the song on the radio is particularly striking - I feel the same when I visit a favorite piece in the museums and I wish I felt the same more often in contemporary galleries.