Art's Longing for 'Connectedness'

Artists are increasingly expressing hints of idealism and spirituality in their works, reflecting society's search for deeper meaning

A quiet renaissance is occurring in pockets of the art world. In place of the modernists' battle cry "art for art's sake," other voices are rising that speak of art and music as expressions of idealism and spirituality.

The signs of heightened interest in spirituality and art are small but significant, according to artists, musicians, curators, theologians, and critics. In the past 10 years, this interest has led to museum shows, concerts, and workshops that link contemporary art and music directly with spirituality.

Public television has contributed to broader understanding of religious traditions by showcasing teachers such as Huston Smith and the late Joseph Campbell. National newsmagazines have featured cover stories on such topics as Christ Jesus and angels. "Chant," a compact disc of medieval Christian songs performed by Spanish monks, topped the classical-music charts. As Michael Brenson wrote in a 1986 New York Times art review, " 'spiritual' is no longer a dirty word."

For people who value art and spirituality, the important questions to ask are: Where are the artists and musicians who make new work that reaches beyond themselves? What has happened to artistic expression in the service of an ideal?

The answers, according to those engaged in the arts, are more varied and positive than one might expect. Although artists and musicians are more open about discussing spirituality, they resist religious labels. Some observers contend that what looks like increased interest in spirituality is a reaction to late-20th-century materialism. Others see a parallel to society's search for a personal connection to God. Still others argue that artists are doing what they have always done - seeking the truest expression of themselves.

Trevor Fairbrother, deputy director for art at the Seattle Art Museum, describes the phases he has seen over the past 30 years. He says in the '60s and '70s, artists were moving away from commercialism and taking art to the streets. In the economic boom of the '80s, the dominant artists played to the market by making collectible paintings. Now, in the '90s, the pendulum is again swinging away from materialism. "It's interesting," he adds, "that the whole 'grunge' scene affects the way people make art. It may not be spiritual-looking, but it has a point of view not unrelated to spirituality."

Theologians and the clergy keep a watchful eye on cultural cycles. They view the arts as both evidence of spirituality and a barometer of social attitudes.

As a society, "we've gone too far into disbelief in God," observes Victoria Sirota, vicar of the Church of the Holy Nativity, an Episcopal church in Baltimore.

Max Stackhouse, professor of Christian Ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J., makes the case that "we're the first generation to have arrived with every tradition essentially thrown out. Because all the systems have been changed, people feel insecure and are scouting for anything that can offer meaning."

Artists are in the vanguard of this search for meaning. Cynthia Nartonis, a Boston-based artist, confirms this observation. "I see a longing for 'connectedness' in contemporary art," she says. Such things as longing for grace, honesty, and unity give purpose to many artists' and musicians' work.

A current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago offers a good example. The show, "Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives," draws connections between ancient religious art and modern abstract paintings. The museum's chief curator, Richard Francis, organized the exhibition around "artists who are yearning for a spiritual position and a means of expressing it," he says.

While most of the 20th-century artists featured in the Chicago show, such as Agnes Martin and Anselm Kiefer, are hardly new on the contemporary art scene, their eclectic approach to spirituality sets the tone for the 1990s. Artists and composers today draw on a broad palette of influences, including Zen Buddhism, native American beliefs, ecology, yoga, Taoism, Sufi Muslim practices, Hindu ceremonies, and Jewish mysticism. Many of these artists make a distinction between religion (participating in a specific denomination) and spirituality (accepting that there is more to existence than what we see).

That's not to say that Christianity and other Western religions are ignored in the arts. But artists today tend to demand more from mainline religions. Art in the '90s often directly addresses business ethics, environmental degradation, religious corruption, and sexism.

Contemporary music can also draw attention to political and social issues, but its nonvisual appeal gives it an advantage in religious settings. Churches have long used music to enhance worship services, teach scripture, and inspire congregations. J.S. Bach was employed as church organist and music director at St. Thomas's choir school in Leipzig, Germany, where he wrote hundreds of works that celebrate events in the liturgical calendar.

"This century is the first time our greatest composers haven't written specifically for the church," says Richard Dyer, music critic of The Boston Globe. But, he quickly adds, "churches haven't stopped commissioning new music." He blames the lure of commercial success for turning some composers away from writing sacred music.

Adrienne Tindall, a church organist, composer, and member of the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada, started Darcey Press to publish new sacred solos and organ compositions. She takes issue with Mr. Dyer's assertion: "Composers who focus on sacred music are not always important in concert halls, but this does not mean they aren't 'great,' although it may mean they are less well-known."

The Rev. Victoria Sirota in Baltimore has been involved with church music for many years as an organist and choir director. She says she knew little of contemporary music until she met her husband, composer Robert Sirota. The spirituality that she says was evident in his work deeply inspired her. "Musicians can help theologians listen to God," she says. "Our creative artists are our strongest prophets."

Patricia Van Ness composes ethereal, medieval-sounding songs with one ear tuned to the 20th century. Before the recording "Chant" became a hit, she was exploring Gregorian chants. Van Ness muses that the popularity of medieval music must have something to do with its simplicity. "Chant has been called 'prayer on pitch.' Its starkness and austerity touch the imagination." The composer continues, "I wonder how much of spirituality is engagement of the imagination."

A group of artists in the Southwest hopes to engage more than viewers' imaginations. The International Friends of Transformative Art, along with groups like the Healing Arts Network in California, is concerned with art that not only uplifts but, they say, can bring healing.

"The painter has to be in that higher state of consciousness," according to Arizona-based artist Beth Ames Swartz. "You can't be a phony. You have to have lived it in order to infuse the work" with a healing message. Swartz has made pilgrimages and studied numerous religious teachings. She is convinced that inspired art can "encourage a person to become a participant in their own healing process." Swartz's most recent installation, "A Moving Point of Balance," uses pools of light, recorded music, and large paintings to create what visitors have called a peaceful, balancing environment.

Other artists and musicians interviewed say they're uncomfortable with such lofty aims. They see art as a way of "making sense of the imponderable," as Adam Sherman succinctly puts it. The Somerville, Mass.-based artist says that for him, making art is "akin to what other people describe as a religious experience," but he resists overdramatization. "Having an awareness of one's spiritual side should not be seen as some lightening-bolt experience," he argues. "It's part of everyday life."

Modern Touchstones In Spiritual Approaches To Art

1912 Artist Wassily Kandinsky publishes treatise "On the Spiritual in Art" in Munich, Germany.

1920s Composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger, whose leanings were toward Roman Catholic mysticism, begins her career. Over the next five decades, she will teach and influence important composers including Aaron Copland and Virgil Thompson.

1963 Leonard Bernstein, son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, premires "Kaddish" (Symphony No. 3) set to text from Jewish prayers for the dead.

1964 "Markings," the spiritual journal of Swedish diplomat Dag Hammerskjld - secretary general of the United Nations from 1953 to

1961 and influential art patron - is published posthumously.

1965 Composer Charles Ives's "Fourth Symphony" receives its first complete performance. Ives played organ in church and incorporated motifs from Protestant hymns.

1971 Bernstein's "Mass," with text based on the Roman Catholic Latin mass, is first performed.

1986 Whitney Museum of Art installs exhibition "Sacred Images in Secular Art" to showcase current fascination with religious iconography.

1986-87 Los Angeles County Museum of Art mounts major exhibition, "The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985," which travels to Chicago and The Hague, Netherlands.

1987 Composer John Harbison wins the Pulitzer Prize for his opera, "The Flight Into Egypt," with text from the Bible.

1988 Author and scholar Roger Lipsey publishes his book, "An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art" (Shambhala Publications).

1993 Los Angles Festival celebrates "Home, Place, Memory," a series of installations, performances, and community projects broken into five "theme" weeks: "Spirituality in Art," "Voices of Liberation," "Life and Art of the Streets," "Reclaiming History," and "Cultural Survival."

1996 Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago juxtaposes ancient religious artifacts against postwar modern art in "Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives" which continues through Oct. 20.

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