—2 Corinthians 4:18
It's not what you see that is art, art is the gap.
In born-again America's renewed culture wars, it's a fair guess that contemporary art and mainstream religion won't end up on the same side. Consider the teams. There are the defenders of Christian values whose perceptions of cutting-edge art are clouded by memories of Andre Serrano's pee-dunked crucifix, Robert Gober's Madonna with a culvert through her chest, and the dung-gobbed Blessed Virgin by Chris Ofili that sent Rudy Giuliani through the roof. Then there are artists, people whose values of diversity and constant questioning make them unlikely bedfellows with evangelical Christians. But, just as the myth of red states and blue obscured a reality that's more purplish in hue, perhaps there's a place — somewhere between George W. and Gilbert & George — where spiritual seekers and artists can find common ground.
It's not such a longshot. Artists and spiritual searchers have long grappled with the same existential issues and shared the same wonder of the sublime. English art critic Clive Bell linked aesthetic and religious rapture in 1914 when he wrote of "two roads by which men escape from circumstance to ecstasy," and Jean Cocteau once described de Chirico as "a painter of secular mystery." That mystery is evident in both how we discuss art and how we experience it. We refer to an artist's inspiration (literally, bringing in spirit), an object's animation (the imbuing with animus), or the "leap of faith" prompted by an empty canvas. Duchamp's "gap" recognizes that art is the realm of transubstantiation — a mere object is transformed into a conveyor of profound meaning simply by being encountered by a viewer.
The paths of art and spirituality intersect at many points: artists marvel at the miracle of creation (Andy Goldsworthy's ephemeral interventions in nature); artists suggest the kind of mindfulness Buddhist's seek (by focusing on soup cans, Andy Warhol suggests a reconsideration of the mundane); artists openly explore taboo subjects that religions have long ago rendered verdict on (Marlene Dumas' sexually explicit portraits). But it's the social aspects of art that have such potential for bringing people together: art can illuminate our interconnectedness.
In explaining why he writes, Kurt Vonnegut could be speaking on behalf of many artists: "Many people need desperately to hear this message, 'I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don't care about them. You are not alone.'"
Witnessing is another social role of art that resonates with religious tradition. "Art is prophetic," says artist and former Trappist monk Ernesto Pujol in the book Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art. Artists can bear witness to injustice, delivering "messages the powerful may not care to hear." In the age of Jessica Lynch and Fox News, the world needs alternative reporting by the likes of Alfredo Jaar, whose famous photo series compared sky-high gold prices with the low wages and harsh conditions endured by Brazilian miners, or Picasso, whose Guernica recorded the horrific saturation bombing of an ancient Basque city. As the old Catholic hymn goes, "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me"; on this count, artists are among those keeping score.
Art, it seems, allows us to ponder the sacred in non-dogmatic terms — i.e. divinity for the reality-based community. Of course now is not the heyday for that bunch. But perhaps there's hope in what theologian Finley Eversole called a "spiritual underground." For him the term referred to a complex notion that artists who confront the emptiness of a godless world — writing in 1963, he was thinking of Rothko, Pollock, and de Kooning — connect us to the holy by presenting its inverse: "If our artists have been incapable of religious faith, they have at least shown us that modern man is incapable of unfaith."
But I suggest that artists make up a spiritual underground in a different sense. While many mainstream religions are being hijacked by rigid fundamentalists, contemporary artists make up a loose-knit band of the covertly spiritual. If artists of the "secular mystery" can create work that resists co-optation by religious and political ideologues, perhaps we can call on them in more enlightened times to reacquaint us with the joys of asking questions we don't yet have the answers for.
My latest from the new issue of Adbusters.