Thursday, March 31, 2011

Revisiting the Spiritual in Art

From March 30 through April 8th the BFA Fine Arts Department at the School of Visual Arts, New York, will be hosting an online Symposium having as its theme the publication of Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art a century ago. The project, Beyond Kandinsky: Revisiting the Spiritual in Art, will feature a number of noted artists, writers, filmmakers, and educators brought together online by this common theme. Session I: The Spiritual Then and Now, raises a number of questions relevant to this dialogue. In response, one of the presenters has noted:

As the focus of this symposium is “Going Beyond” the views Kandinsky presented about art and spirituality in one book, On the Spiritual in Art, it’s important to realize that he was strongly influenced during the eight years or so of journal entries that became that book by the enthusiasm among young artists in Germany and elsewhere then for the spiritual orientation called Theosophy. (Before and after that period, Kandinsky’s main spiritual orientation was Russian Orthodox Christianity.) When Mme. Blavatsky framed Theosophy in her two major books, Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), her goal was to jump in front of the “parade” formed by the huge following that Darwin had. She trumped Darwin by announcing that the evolution he describes is merely material but that the evolution she describes is far larger, greater, more subtle, and encompasses “the merely material.” This idealist, anti-material bias to the spirituality in Kandinsky’s book is still available in many quarters (in fact, Theosophy itself still lives), but with our planet in extremely serious ecological peril, attention to transcendent levels of being without attention to the physicality of our existence and that of the entire Earth community is irresponsible and destructive. The idealist orientation is clearly something we need to “go beyond.”

Yet, Blavatsky may not be as other-worldly as the writer imagines. In her last lead article, “Civilization, the Death of Art and Beauty,” she warned:

Owing to the triumphant march and the invasion of civilization, Nature, as well as man and ethics, is sacrificed, and is fast becoming artificial. Climates are changing, and the face of the whole world will soon be altered. Under the murderous hand of the pioneers of civilization, the destruction of whole primeval forests is leading to the drying up of rivers, and the opening of the Canal of Suez has changed the climate of Egypt as that of Panama will divert the course of the Gulf Stream. Almost tropical countries are now becoming cold and rainy, and fertile lands threaten to be soon transformed into sandy deserts. A few years more and there will not remain within a radius of fifty miles around our large cities one single rural spot inviolate from vulgar speculation.

In scenery, the picturesque and the natural is daily replaced by the grotesque and the artificial. Scarce a landscape in England but the fair body of nature is desecrated by the advertisements of “Pears’ Soap” and “Beecham’s Pills.” The pure air of the country is polluted with smoke, the smells of greasy railway-engines, and the sickening odours of gin, whiskey, and beer. And once that every natural spot in the surrounding scenery is gone, and the eye of the painter finds but the artificial and hideous products of modern speculation to rest upon, artistic taste will have to follow suit and disappear along with them.

Information about this Symposium and comments by the participants can be seen here.

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