The Great Denial
The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art:
Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)
As its title suggests, the subject of Charlene Spretnak’s most recent book is the long history of artists’ engagement with the spiritual dimension throughout the trajectory of modern art. An even more apt—if somewhat less elegant—subtitle might have been “and its Curiously Persistent Denial,” for the general distaste for the subject in contemporary art discourse, so palpable to anyone who has tried to engage it, is no less central to the book’s thesis. (Indeed, if one were to make a master list of art discourse “untouchables,” the spiritual underpinnings of modern art would surely be somewhere at the top.)
Why the disdain? What is the source of our collective unease with this aspect of artistic life and practice—a discomfort so deeply entrenched that the spiritual has been all but erased from modern art history? More than just a revisionist account seeking to correct the historical record, what Spretnak offers here is a comprehensive cultural history determined to address these larger questions. An exhaustively researched chronological survey of over 200 artists punctuated by illuminating explications of a wide range of spiritual orientations, the book draws extensively on the artists’ own statements. Structured as a compelling narrative that will appeal to both art-world professionals and a general audience, it is presented in six chapters, each encapsulating the dominant art movements of the period by placing them in the zeitgeist in which they arose. The result is a powerful retelling of a familiar story that reveals as much about ourselves as about the artists profiled.
While other scholars have made similar—if more partial—attempts to expose what Spretnak calls “the great underground river that flows through modern art,” her approach to the subject is unique. A professor emerita in the department of philosophy and religion at the California Institute for Integral Studies, she comes to art not as an insider but as a cultural historian with a holistic perspective. From her vantage point, art is not an autonomous field functioning independently of the rest of culture, but one facet of it acting in dynamic relation to the larger whole. Though she is an intellectual native of religious studies and treats her subject with the utmost rigor, she is also someone with rich spiritual roots of her own. Raised in a Catholic family during the postwar era, Spretnak has been a practitioner of Buddhist meditation for much of her life. This experiential authenticity infuses her writing with a warmth, passion, and humanity atypical of the genre.
Indeed, Spretnak’s language is central to the strength of her argument. For those who are not themselves spiritually inclined, the language surrounding the subject is often the first (and final) barrier to entry. Too often it is either unpalatably dogmatic, woefully abstruse, or else riddled with vague and trite pronouncements. In her introduction, Spretnak defines “the spiritual” in a way that both encompasses and distills its myriad manifestations without lapsing into the usual jargon. For her, the spiritual refers to “a sense of our embeddedness in the larger context: the exquisitely dynamic interrelatedness of existence, the vibratory flux of the subtle realms of the material world, and the ultimate creativity of the universe.” If that fails to stir the reader, here’s one of the many alternatives that interlace the text: above all, the spiritual is a concern with “the more-than-human field of existence.” Given such definitional generosity, it is difficult to imagine how anyone pursuing a meaningful life could object.
Most histories of modern art begin with the Impressionists, whose formal departure from academic painting is generally understood as a rejection of tradition, conventional norms, and, above all, religion. This one, however, begins not with a stylistic advance but with the matrix of values and attitudes from which modern art arose: modernity itself. Shaped by four momentous cultural shifts—Renaissance humanism, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment—the mechanistic worldview that had achieved ascendancy by the 19th century was the crucible in which modern art was conceived. This new worldview ushered in an era of unprecedented rationalism fueled by a philosophical materialism that denied reality to all but the physical world. Modern art, Spretnak asserts, began not as a rebellion against tradition and religion, but as a revolt against the deadening effects of the modern worldview. Thus understood, “modern art” becomes something of a curious misnomer.
Beginning with William Blake and his rage against the new mechanical philosophy, Spretnak takes us through the various 19th-century movements born of similar anti-rationalist fervor. When she reaches the Impressionists, those much-lauded protagonists of the standard narrative, we find, not a fierce secularism obsessed with formal novelty, but a deeply spiritual—albeit largely anticlerical—reverence for the divine in nature. By examining the formative experiences of many of the movement’s key figures and offering rich biographical details and rare quotes, Spretnak illuminates the various spiritual influences that informed their development. To establish a new paradigm, she provides a multitude of fresh descriptions of the artists’ work, scrupulously avoiding making critical assessments. Monet, she suggests, “painted interrelatedness,” Mary Cassatt “the richly complex moral, relational, and spiritual universe of women.” In what becomes one of the book’s thematic refrains, it is noted that most of these artists—and indeed a significant majority of those in the larger modern art pantheon—had early childhood experiences in the Catholic tradition. While most parted ways with the institution of the Church, all seem to have retained a sense of deep communion with the world.
As the chronology unfolds, Spretnak traces modern artists’ pursuit of the immaterial realm in a world being increasingly denuded of meaning. Kandinsky, of course, is a seminal figure here, and she draws on his copious writings to make her case. That Kandinsky was interested in the transcendent—indeed, that his entire artistic life was dedicated to the perception and expression of an unseen order—should be beyond dispute, so unequivocal is the evidence. But Spretnak cites a host of denialist assertions, most notably that offered by MoMA in its 2013 exhibition “Inventing Abstraction.” There, the curators attempted to rationalize Kandinsky’s ideas, effectively voiding them of their spiritual content; hewing to the “acceptable” story, they insisted that the founding of modern abstraction was chiefly a formal breakthrough. Legions of other pioneering artists pursuing the immaterial or transcendent also speak for themselves here, among them Mondrian, Malevich, Duchamp, Arp, Miro, Klee, Rothko, Reinhardt, and Newman.
The force of Spretnak’s argument reaches its climax when we arrive at contemporary art, for here the suppression of “illegitimate content” (to use Clement Greenberg’s telling phrase) is most salient. The reader will likely be surprised to learn that Gerhard Richter, considered by many the greatest artist of our time, has issued emphatic statements equating art with “religious feeling,” “transcendent being,” etc. And in a particularly moving passage on Sean Scully—another of our most highly acclaimed contemporaries—we learn of the artist’s early roots in Catholicism, a subsequent spiritual trauma, and a lifelong practice of art-making that is profoundly spiritual in nature. Spretnak interviews and profiles scores of contemporary artists working in a wide range of media—from sculpture and architecture to installation and video—and many expose their spiritual concerns for the first time.
The question looming over every page of this book—that regarding the “great denial”—is answered implicitly throughout. If modern art arose in defiance of the ideology of modernity, the latter, like all ideologies, has little interest in acknowledging any challenge to its most deeply held premises and assumptions. And despite of the various cultural efforts to move beyond modernism, it seems the field of art history—and indeed our culture at large—is still mired in an ideology of separation: nature from culture, self from cosmos, all of us separable bits of matter acting as autonomous agents disconnected from any larger whole. To naysayers who might argue that any reversion to the sentimental anachronisms of spiritual art can have no relevance in today’s culture, Spretnak has this admonition:
The mechanistic worldview has left us so oblivious to dynamic interrelatedness that we cannot even seem to perceive the meaning of extremely urgent reports on the global climate crisis, let alone the spiritual explorations by artists in this book. We moderns have long been slipping into a detached solipsism that shrinks us further into ourselves and the binary logic system of our electronic devices. This societal trajectory away from the vital and the profound was set in place long ago—but the great works of modern art have never surrendered to it.
Instead of insisting that art conform to our way of thinking, why not allow it to do what it has long done, which is to act as an agent of communion? This book makes a tremendous case for a long overdue unearthing of the “great underground river”—a move that might just give us a formidable font of wisdom in some desperately arid terrain.
TANEY RONIGER is an artist, writer, and frequent Rail contributor.