Updated: Oct 5
Spirituality in art is back (again). With a renewed interest in spirituality in the arts, museums, and galleries are bringing into the light the work of late and forgotten artists who devoted much of their time to an exploration of the mystical.
Such artists as Hilma af Klint, the groundbreaking Swedish artist who created many paintings based on her esoteric and mystical studies exhibited at the Guggenheim in 2018-19. Mystical painter, Agnes Pelton who was a member of the Transcendental Painting Group had a show at the Whitney Museum in 2020; her work was often filled with radiant light and had the quality of dreamlike landscapes.
The German writer and painter Unica Zürn, Spanish artist Josefa Tolrà, and British artist and spiritualist Georgiana Houghton were all featured in the 2022 Venice Biennale. What is evident in their work is that all three were bound together through their interest in spiritual and mediumistic practices.
The contemporary Iranian sculptor and painter, Parviz Tanavoli infuses his work with secular references combined with the religious iconography of Shi'a Iran. “The resurgence of spirituality is more present than ever in contemporary art,” he said in a recent interview. More and more artists are turning to spiritual concepts and philosophies to explore their own internal world, their beliefs, and their relationship with society and the world at large.
The relationship between art and spirituality is of course nothing new. In fact, art has always been a uniquely powerful method to connect with the transcendent. We can see this from the earliest religious images and icons created in previous centuries right through to contemporary times. Artists such as Mark Rothko attempted to convey the emotional charge and sublime state of transcendence in his abstract paintings of the 1940s and 50s whilst in the 21st century, others are using their art to explore their connection to their spiritual selves.
Why Spirituality in Art is Important
As the Indian spiritual teacher and philosopher, Krishnamurti, once said, “As long as you are attempting to be creative within the field of your conditioning, you cannot be creative.” This is a very powerful statement and one that has the potential to undermine much artistic output, were it not for the fact that artists are, by and large, very much aware of the need to transcend their own conditioning even if many are unable to do so. There is very little creativity when it’s sublimated to the constraints of the conditioned self.
Perhaps creativity is something that can only truly be experienced and understood when there is an understanding of the self in relation to the process of creation. To do that requires an effort of will, to transcend the conditioning of society.
To create, to be revolutionary in your thinking, and to be in a state of flow that honours your essential self is to step into the world of your true self and away from the conditioning of society and culture.
When we’re in a reactive state, we are still conforming to the external world. We are in a state of opposition to it and thus constrained by dualistic thinking that acknowledges the existence of the external that we are trying to break away from.
To be free of this and to be in a state where creativity is not subservient to social conditioning, requires a submerging of oneself into the inner world of our own processes, and the nature of who we truly are as well as an awareness of our own conditioned state. It’s a deliberate and concerted movement away from our programming through a process of conceptual mode analysis and perceptual mode intuiting.
Mike had asked me to make a piece of sculpture based on the idea of a chair but to remove all my conditioned notions of what a chair was, what it was for, what it should look like, and so on. I often refer to this moment as my first Zen teaching.
As a 19-year-old I had no idea how to go about such a monumental task. How was I to remove from my consciousness everything that I had ever learned, experienced, or knew about the functioning, look, and feel of a chair, not to mention the thorny subject of aesthetics, which itself is a whole other area of social conditioning? I had no idea. The piece of work that I eventually produced, was mediocre, to say the least (at least, in my eyes). I can still picture it clearly in my mind’s eye (sadly, I don’t have any photos to publish with this for you to make your own assessment). It was a large work, that included not only a chair but a table as well, all wrapped in grey foam with other objects sitting randomly on their surfaces, also wrapped in grey foam. I think I missed the point of the exercise.
However, the important thing that came out of that process for me was the realisation that everything I knew, and still know about the world, is the product of my past conditioning. I became acutely aware of the fact that the world I was seeing and relating to was not the world as it truly is, but the world that my mind had constructed through layering up various experiences, teachings, bits of information, and all manner of sensory data that had gone through the filter of interpretation.
It also became clear that subverting that conditioning was more than simply a process of reacting against it. To react was to still be in the state of accepting the reality of the illusion in front of me as if it were real – something substantive and real that could be reacted against. The truth was that to move beyond that conditioning required sinking deep within; looking at the conditioning process itself and unraveling it from the inside.
That movement inwards is something that is at the core of all (meaningful) expressions of spiritual art, indeed at the core of all expressions of true creativity. This process is about coming to terms with and understanding the processes that not only lead to conditioned responses to the world around us but also to truly understand who we are and what we’re all about. In fact, it’s ultimately a movement away from the whole concept of ‘I’ and an abandoning of the notion of ‘me’. When (if) we can do this, then we can engage in a process of sublime creativity without a plethora of underlying agendas.
Again as Krishnamurti has said:
“I exist and express myself – is that creativity? Or is creativity when the ‘I’ is not, the absence of the ’I’? When there is the absence of the ’I’, do you know that you are creative? When you are doing something with a motive behind it, of becoming popular, famous, having more money, that is not doing something which you really love to do. A musician who says, ’I love music,’ but is watching how many titled people there are in the audience, how much money he is going to make, he is not creative, he is not a musician; he is using music in order to become famous or to have money. So, when we use these words, ’I must express myself,’ ‘I must be creative,’ ‘I must identify myself,’ it has no meaning. When you really see this, live that way, and understand it, your mind is already free of the ‘me’.”
To move beyond the ‘I’, to break through the conditioned response to the world around us means to engage with our own true nature, which is itself a commitment to understanding ourselves from the perspective of Ultimate Truth, tapping into our true spiritual nature.
This is why the process of engaging in some form of meditation practice is so central to the development of creativity. Meditation allows us to develop a level of awareness where we can observe with clarity our own conditioned responses, the way that thoughts hijack our perception and force us to see the world through their agendas, and how the notion of ‘I’ is constantly getting in our way and pinning us to the conditioned world around us, because it is also a part of the tapestry that we have created and has no substantive reality beyond our own conditioning.
The practice of meditation then is a doorway into an understanding of the infinite potential within each one of us as it opens us up to an understanding of the true nature of ourselves and the manifest universe and moves us back into a state of flow with the whole of creation, uninhibited by the limitations of our conditioning.