Charlene Spretnak is a scholar who has blended interests. She has written books on ecology, ecofeminism, politics (she is a cofounder of the Green Party in the US), art, and spirituality. With a formidable CV and a demonstrated knowledge of art and art history (she has taught art history, inter alia, at the California Institute of Integral Studies), she is not however a member of the anointed art world cognoscenti.
Which is probably why she could write the book I have been waiting to read for years.
The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present, is a much needed counter punch to the predominant narrative about modern art that has squelched this particular story line. While Spretnak does not embrace a conspiratorial view as to why the spiritual has been eliminated from the etiology of contemporary art, she is very thorough in demonstrating that the denial has been both deep and wide. By going to original sources and finding statements made by many prominent artists, both historical and contemporary, she successfully uncovers a significant interest in the spiritual aspects of art making.
As Spretnak begins to unravel this buried story line, she asks a number of her friends—John Walsh, the director of the Getty Museum at the time, and art historian Peter Selz—why the spiritual was frequently denied or squelched. Both answered that question with the exact same words: “We just weren’t taught that way.” With a generosity others might not embrace, Spretnak points to experiments in psychology that have demonstrated that “once someone is educated in a particular frame of reference during his or her formative years, subsequent events and information that do not fit within that framework often do not register.”
Spretnak does nail a few particularly guilty parties, deservedly. Alfred H. Barr, Jr, the first director of the Museum of Art, curated an exhibit called Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936. In that show Barr presented an entirely formalistic interpretive framework for the new art, influenced as he did so by Heinrich Wölfflin‘s principles of “scientific art criticism.” Barr asserted, amazingly, that cubistic and abstracted art arose because “the artists had grown bored with painting facts, that is, naturalistic forms.”
Although his exhibition displayed numerous paintings by artists who had published clear statements about the metaphysical meaning of their art, those were not referred to in his essay in the catalog. The spiritual dimension was simply removed from serious discussion of the art. Not only was this exhibit influential in New York but it then traveled to six cities. By the 1950s the entire history of modern art was framed by the premises of formalism…In this exclusively formalist narrative, the subject matter of the paintings, whether it may have been spiritual or otherwise, is entirely beside the point.
And then of course there was the legacy of formalist art critic Clement Greenberg.
The general attitude that denies a spiritual dimension in modern and contemporary art has, according to Spretnak, “wobbled” a bit in the last few years and is less severe than it was in the 50’s and 60s. But Ken Johnson, writing in the New York Times in 2005, still observed that “Academic art historians and critics still tend to discourage talking seriously about the spiritual in art. But considering how many artists continue to be motivated by spiritual urges, however the word spiritual is defined—this is something worth discussing.”
How that word is defined IS an issue. At a time when religion and spirituality take on so many connotations, it can be problematic. “Some feel the term spirituality has been so stretched out and bounced around by pop culture and the media that it has lost any substantive meaning.” Wisely Spretnak turns to her friend, artist Richard Tuttle, to craft a more useful definition:
Given the vague, and sometimes trivializing, uses of the term in recent decades, I appreciate the artist Richard Tuttle’s comment to me on this matter: “What I want more than anything is a definition of spirituality that is trustworthy.” Indeed—and to be so it must necessarily extend beyond a focus on the self to a sense of our embeddedness in the larger context: the exquisitiely dynamic interrelatedness of existence, the vibratory flux of the subtle realms of the material world, and the ultimate creativity of the universe. The cosmos is infused with an unfolding dynamic of becoming and a unitive dimension of being. Spirituality is the awareness of and engagement with that unity and those dynamics.
Over the last nine years of writing Slow Muse, the theme that underlies so much of what I have covered is in line with Spretnak’s definition of spirituality. This book codifies the many urgings, intuitions and personal proclivities that I have tried to assemble in the content of this blog. So of course I have marked up and underlined every page of this small book, and I read it through twice as a way of grounding Spretnak’s arguments into my nomenclature. Many of her chapter heads are useful categories for moving through a landscape that can feel a bit muddled. Esoteric spirituality, allusive spirituality, the spirituality of immanence—these are useful terms.
This isn’t a book for just browsing. There is so much of value on every single page. The quotes Spretnak has uncovered from several of my favorite artists are ones I’d like to memorize as a way of reminding myself what this mysterious process is really about—not just for my kind of art making, but for the art making of so many others as well.
Once the evidence is truly acknowledged, the history of modern art looks quite different from the proscribed narrative. It is less a linear account than a richly varied landscape, made verdant in numerous places by the great underground river of the spiritual in modern art. Hence the aim of this book is rather like the process in ecological restoration known as “daylighting” underground streams by removing the cement culverts that enclose them and allowing them to be seen in their natural habitats.
I can’t imagine a single reader of Slow Muse who wouldn’t love this book. Finally, the daylighting has begun.