Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Constant Crisis of Faith : Open Thread

We recently saw the film version of Doubt and that got me to thinking about the issues of certainty and how debilitating uncertainty is and whether it's something that is increasing in our time (with the economy and terrorism and global warming and the global crumbling faith in the nation synonymous with Democracy) and then I read the recent ARTnews Retrospective column in which they look back at issues past and consistently demonstrate how little actually changes in the way we look at or think about art (or, in other words, how we look at or think about ourselves). So many times over recent years I've heard desperation expressed by artists about the state of things, how we've moved away from what was important or true, how perhaps we need a return to this or that basic, or at least a new focus on spirituality. And then there's this:
75 Years Ago
The modern artist suffers even more than society as a whole from the lack of any vital religious impulse.
—“The Religion of Art,” January 6, 1934
So when contemporary artists express a longing for that time when there was a more vital spiritual impulse in society, they're referring to some time pre-1934?

Or maybe I'm reading that wrong. Maybe there's a critical difference between "vital religious impulse" and "vital spiritual impulse." Maybe the 1934 modern artist suffered more than society as a whole from the lack of a religious impulse because that meant fewer commissions from churches or other houses of worship. But a spiritual impulse might be entirely different. Maybe the lack of that comes later, as a result of a lack of any vital religious impulse and does indeed leave artists floating about, looking for solid ground on which to plant their creativity.

Or maybe there has always been a constant crisis of spirit among both society at large and especially among the artist community because that's simply the human condition. Doubt is merely part of being mortal. Certainty is a curse reserved for the gods. Anyone with their finely tuned antennae out would have to notice and be affected. No?

Consider this an open thread on vital religious/spiritual impulses, art making, and whether or not any of this is new.

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21 Comments:

Blogger George said...

For the sake of discussion, I don't think that "religious impulse" and "spiritual impulse" are interchangeable.

12/30/2008 09:25:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Hmm, I should read the whole thing first, you said that.

"Maybe there's a critical difference between "vital religious impulse" and "vital spiritual impulse.""

12/30/2008 09:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Robin Cembalest said...

For purposes of discussion (or not): The (uncredited) author goes on to write, "Like the individual who has been forced to find his own salvation, our painters tend to fall back upon exaltation of individuality as the way out....This state of affairs has produced and found an audience for most of the fashionable but transient movements of our day and since all else has failed, Freud has become the God of those nations which have not fallen under dictatorships...."

12/30/2008 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger Catherine Chandler said...

Honestly, being quite non-religious myself, it actually surprises me when I meet people who go to church regularly and ARE religious. Doubt is a human emotion--it's been within us since the dawn of time. Even the highest spiritual and religious professors and officers have felt it. It compels those with faith to search harder, to believe more. Those who question spirituality and religion often go through doubts of their own. As for artists...isn't questioning reality and authority, and the world around us, part of what makes us create?

12/30/2008 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks for the continuation of the quote Robin. It reminds me of the way they're dealing with the Reformation in "The Tudors"...showing how the bloodbath that surrounded it had more to do with a discomfort of the new or a potential loss of power than any real debate over the issues. A budding protestant shouts some Lutheran rhetoric at a Catholic and in the next scene someone's being burned to death. In other words, God or what His true designs are have nothing to do with how people act, despite what they claim. So when the uncredited writer notes "This state of affairs has produced and found an audience for most of the fashionable but transient movements of our day and since all else has failed, Freud has become the God of those nations which have not fallen under dictatorships...." I think Freud or money or whatever always is the issue anyway...God is merely the excuse. In that way, artists focusing on Freud are very likely being more truthful. Artists hiding behind God are not, IMHO.

12/30/2008 12:07:00 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

..."on vital religious/spiritual impulses, art making, and whether or not any of this is new."

Ecclesiastes:
"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."

Plato:
"The man who arrives at the doors of artistic creation with none of the madness of the Muses, would be convinced that technical ability alone was enough to make an artist... what that man creates by means of reason will pale before the art of inspired beings."

12/30/2008 12:43:00 PM  
OpenID deborahfisher said...

You could argue that "crisis of spirit" = modernity, and that the artistic drive to express one's individual vision or genius is, basically, an expression of that crisis of spirit.

But the problems facing us right now, while they are terrifying, are decidedly not Problems of the Individual. The most interesting thing about global warming is that individuals are so uniquely powerless in the face of it, even though it's a really simple problem that we are completely capable of moving beyond as a species. Similarly, the broken government, the broken economy, war in the Middle East--these are all problems that are not unsolvable unless we privilege our sense of ourselves as individuals over our collective selves and a set of common goals.

What will be interesting is the way art will shift from expressions of individual vision toward expressions of collective vision, and what that shift will illuminate in terms of faith.

God or no god, we are all going to have to start trusting one another, government, and common goals a lot more than we ever have, and we are going to have to start doing it really soon. Otherwise, how do you get even the simplest forward movements? Without that kind of faith, how do you get a gas tax?

That kind of faith in community is way nerdier and heretical-seeming than religious faith--it flies in the face of what all of us have been taught to consider "avant garde," even though it is in fact the only tenable future.

12/30/2008 01:17:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

artists focusing on Freud are very likely being more truthful. Artists hiding behind God are not, IMHO

Really? The truth is what we are willing to believe, God or Freud, it really doesn't matter.

12/30/2008 01:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Heidi said...

people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend

12/30/2008 02:37:00 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

This is a brief passage by Barbara Rose from the book 'Monochromes: from Malevich to the present'

For a number of artists, spiritual transcendence of the realm of the material was the only route art could take. For others, concrete materialism offered a stubborn resistance to illusionism, whether metaphorical or actual. For if religion was the illusion that Neitzsche and Freud defined as having no future, then progress, in the sense of ethical evolution, was yet another lie to be exposed as such in the exemplary rejection of illusionism in art.

It's great stuff, Christopher Ho contributes to the book as well.

12/30/2008 03:46:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Christopher Ho contributes to the book as well.

Christopher Ho is so much smarter than I'll ever be...I hope to get a bit smarter by occasionally being in the same room he's in. :-)

12/30/2008 03:49:00 PM  
Blogger Edgar said...

I remember reading that Picasso said, after emerging from the caves at Lascaux, "After 17,000 years, we have learned nothing."

If man hasn't significantly evolved in that time, can we really expect our fundamental concepts to have run ahead of us?

12/31/2008 01:00:00 AM  
Blogger Ben Volta said...

Artworks, exhibitions, writings, creative acts can all be interpreted as gifts, and what is more spiritual than sharing these gifts with others? Possibly the (modern er...) shift toward self importance tarnished the greater significance of our gifts? For me my faith tradition continues to provide a space to forget about my own self importance. And as far as doubt.. I often wonder how I have remained connected to a church for so many years. I know there is something that happens to us when we learn to live for others as well as ourselves. I know that I have found many ways to balance this throughout my collaborative art practice and I am extremely thankful for it. I sense that you have found ways to balance this as well.

12/31/2008 02:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Art + uncertainty....oh my God.

12/31/2008 07:12:00 AM  
Blogger Aaron Wexler said...

Crisis and Spirit go together. You need spirit to get through a crisis. Spirit is often born out of crisis. On and on...

You want some real spirit though, you should visit the african church diagonally across from my apartment on a Sunday afternoon.

And seriously, put down your text book on "spiritual transcendence of the realm of the material". Is that really going to show you who you are (what your work is about) in moments of doubt?
As an antidote (and to add another movie to this posting) I would recommend "The Visitor" - 2007, directed by Thomas McCarthy.

Not without some guilt, I just posted my most sardonic blog entry a few days ago. Not in my best character. I plan to keep it up for a bit as a reminder that crises comes in waves, it ebbs and flows with all the wonderful stuff.

Happy New Year!

12/31/2008 08:09:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

For Good Self-Control, Try Getting Religious About It

12/31/2008 10:07:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

First of all, certainty and doubt are fundamental catalysts to an enormity of social and political threads that are woven into our cultural makeup. As too much of anything can be potentially dangerous, certainty and doubt dwell precariously on both ends of the spectrum. The extremes of certainty and flirting with ideology can lead to what Adorno calls the “potentially fascist individual” (Adorno, The Authoritarian Personality). On the other hand, too much doubt without any pursuit of truth also becomes an ideology of sorts. Both extremes of certainty and doubt place us in the arena of an apathetic culture industry where compromise seems to be our only option.

It is fruitful to question all things, but tasteless to question without pursuing an answer. Questioning for the sake of questioning seems to be the popular way a post-modern society runs. And as it might seem to have a good utilitarian ideal in mind, that is the greatest good for the greatest number, it deploys our collective understanding of Truth into a vacuum and leaves us without a foundation upon which Truth was once built (God). This does not keep us from building onto what we already know about our history-- but where we find ourselves is a strange place of longing for some abstract original state of being (perhaps in the Garden with me and God), while combating our material tendencies (perhaps in the penthouse with me and myself). How did we get to a point in history where all things may (or may not be) considered as Truth? By using philosophy (modernism), politics (capitalism), economics (labor), and religion (Protestantism) as benchmarks, The Self is arguably becoming more and more central to contemporary thought and is the very foundation of post-modernism.

"The modern artist suffers even more than society as a whole from the lack of any vital religious impulse. Like the individual who has been forced to find his own salvation, our painters tend to fall back upon exaltation of individuality as the way out....This state of affairs has produced and found an audience for most of the fashionable but transient movements of our day and since all else has failed, Freud has become the God of those nations which have not fallen under dictatorships...."

I personally do not trust in boundaries put between the world and the “art world.” As separate entities, like any other economy, these two positions are much more homogenous than we make them out to be. Therefore to say one is suffering more than the other is a violent misunderstanding of Arts’ relationship to the world. And true as it might be that Freud has become the God of our time is a way for us to point fingers and evade social responsibility to our own shortcomings. “All else failed” is a gesture to our fallibility. We point in whatever direction we can, but until we realize that we have been fallen from the beginning and we are a world in need of redemption, there is little we can do to “find our own salvation.”

I appreciate Kristin’s reference to Ecclesiastes that there is in fact nothing new under the sun. Point being that it is not God’s position that has changed, but our own position by our own doing.


All things are wearisome;
Man is not able to tell it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor is the ear filled with hearing.
That which has been is that which will be,
And that which has been done is that which will be done.
So there is nothing new under the sun.

(Ecclesiastes 1:8-9)

Uncertainty is not new to artists, let alone the rest of the world. The degree to which certainty has slipped from our grasp is due in part to our own mishandling of Truth as well as our ambition to rid it from those who have abused it. Uncertainty is our own doing and as it is our responsibility to combat cultural apathetic tendencies, it is our obligation to seek certainty, seek answers and work against the currents of popular culture so that we can gain a deeper understanding of the world. It is for this reason that artists tend to find themselves in the margins of society, pushing against the grain- but these are old paradigms which are beginning to tarnish as terms such as ‘artist,’ ‘curator,’ and ‘platformist’ begin to blur into one another.

This religious impulse is something that we desire to plug into but refuse to hold on to. We are built in skeptics who find no comfort in being certain of anything with the exception of that which is uncertain. Certainty is an impossible circuit to tap into if we continue to hold onto our doubts. This is why the notion of Faith is such a large fish to swallow. It requires of us a certain letting go of uncertainty in order that we might understand that which is certain (God). And this is why scripture continually refers to the notion of “dying to self” in order to gain life.

I do not intend to evangelize or impose any sort of belief system onto those who choose to read this post, I am merely referring to that religious impulse that we desire so much to have but are too selfish to attain. And if we were to attain it, chances are we would transform it into an ideology which would in turn make us into Pharisee. Understand here that when something requires a certain amount of uncertainty, we make it into something we can be certain of and make it something that it never was. That is the desperate condition of the religious impulse that we ourselves are unable to attain by our own doing.

12/31/2008 01:09:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

What Deborah said.

The kind of community awareness she is talking about is discussed at length in the works of M. Scott Peck, most specifically 'The Different Drum; Community Making and Peace'. He points out the obvious fact that people are not all in the same place, spiritually, and the less-obvious fact that people tend to follow fairly distinct and definable stages of spiritual development.

Briefly, he divides these stages into 1) ego/anarchy/moral chaos; 2) rigid, rule-based, authoritarian religious morality; 3) scientific skepticism; 4) 'spiritual, not religious.' Each of the successive stages include elements of the former ones, and all are necessary to build a strong understanding of human nature and interactions.

So of course 'spiritual' and 'religious' are not interchangeable terms, but they can be related. In my view, religion is like training wheels for the spirit; it provides a set of easily understandable rules for beginning to expand your consciousness beyond your ego.

One thing I would caution about is flinging the word 'collective' around too casually. A true community values the unique individuality of all of its members; the word 'collective' calls to mind a sort of totalitarian groupthink which is the opposite of this.

Thus the only way to get to an art and a society which expresses a healing 'collective' vision is through individual growth and transcendence, which evolves into an appreciation and understanding of the group as a whole. That's practical spirituality.

12/31/2008 01:16:00 PM  
Anonymous nemastoma said...

"Doubt is merely part of being mortal. "

Isn't doubt not at the very basis of the Western philosophical tradition? The entire Socratic method is based on doubt, that there are no certainties. Isn't it extraordinary hat Plato reverses himself in the Parmenides and brings doubt to his very own Theory of Forms, that he thus sheds doubt on his very own theory, and - what is so stunning-, that he does not give us the answer? That we are the ones to find an answer.

12/31/2008 04:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

One of my formative intellectual experiences was playing scenes from Amadeus, the struggle of pious, mediocre Salieri to understand his lot in relation to the Id-driven but brilliant Mozart. Since then I've suspected the impulse to apply spiritual solutions to aesthetic problems. Art requires a pagan ethos as the Greeks practiced it, which means regular, moderately intemperate celebrations of food, sex, alcohol, and athletic feats as crucial aspects of religious life. Greek art proves this. In the absence of an equivalent attitude in modern religions, one can only try to act accordingly.

Personally, I call for a return to materials, not just the materials of art, but the materials of people, the mechanics of looking and moving, and the sensory exploration of why some experiences feel more valuable or pleasurable than others. Augustine lamented that people gawk at all sorts of marvels but pass by themselves without wondering. Dogen insisted that there are no Buddhas apart from ordinary beings. I believe that there is something wonderful waiting to be found in the realm of ordinary being and it would be fruitful to make art accordingly. Whether that would be more spiritual or less I can't say.

Boston is ten degrees before reckoning windchill tonight, so we're opening a bottle of champagne and sitting by the fireplace. Happy New Year to all.

12/31/2008 07:35:00 PM  
Blogger libby said...

A year and a half ago, I quit my career, discovered neuroscience, traded in religious stumbling for atheism and went back to college to study fine art (at age 34). Doubt? Fuck yes. But creative and financial doubt beat waking up in a nightly sweat, wondering where and what the point is.

It's not an easier struggle. It's just different, and just a LITTLE more vulnerable. Heh.

This is a great post/discussion. Thanks.

12/31/2008 10:43:00 PM  

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