ART AS SPIRITUALITY
by Marios Siakantaris
When Albrecht Duerer portrayed himself in the iconography of Christ, he made a hitherto unheard-of statement, and a very important one, too. Duerer defined, by this portrait, the artist as a creator similar to the Creator of the Universe. But it also meant that artistic creation shares certain aspects with the creation by God, and he tried to establish a secure bond between the spirituality of faith and the spirituality of art.
Notably another Greek artist, Domenikos Theotokópoulos, better known as El Greco, did the same in a certain way. Trained as a painter of icons in the Byzantine tradition, and therefore endowed with a rich spiritual and religious background, El Greco developed an individual style, a very expressive one, which was extremely unusual at the time and not universally applauded. Being so very special, too, was his way of communicating the Godly creative spirit in art, meaning that the greatness of God and his creation shines through in his art. This is a characteristic that does not only link Duerer and El Greco, but also very many other artists, and even more of them, when you turn away from a specific religion towards a universal spirituality.
For me personally, it is the Christian faith, which is at the core of the energy source firing my creative powers, as I have realized that being an artist is, for me, a calling "ad maiorem dei gloriam" - to let God's glory shine through my art. People not sharing my faith will, nevertheless, be able to catch a glimpse of eternal spirituality in my works, which may eventually develop into something greater.
Contemporary art of all times has always been the target of criticism. Sometimes the subject matter was at the core of the assessment, sometimes the style of execution. The impressionists were once dubbed "daubs". This has changed with the times, and all existential art criticism based solely on judgments of taste have landed in the waste-bin of history.
Regardless of one's personal beliefs, It has always been felt by different social groups taking part in the ongoing aesthetic and artistic discourse of their time that there is a "loss of the center" to be noticed. Be that for the decay of traditional norms, perceived meaninglessness, cynicism, or, in fact, for the absence of a religious or spiritual core.
There are, however, many ways to regain the centre, and religion is one way, something that can be seen in much contemporary art right now. For me, it is the most important way, because it is, to say that again, the core of the source of power, which makes me carry on. And, not only for artistic power, but also for cultural and spiritual life and existence in general. But that is, of course, also due to the fact that artists are always creative persons in a quite comprehensive manner, regardless of what they do, whereas other people very often are divided into different personalities or part-personalities which are not closely connected. So the fact that somebody is a caring family father may not be linked to his profession as a chartered accountant, and the fact that he is playing darts may in no way be connected to his also being a supporter of a local football club. Artists, however, will always be artists, regardless what they do, and they will also integrate all aspects of their activities and personality into the whole.
Ever since the advent of culture, art has played an important role in that context. It has always been the purpose of art to convey a certain message, be it a religious one, a political one, a cultural one, or something personal. In the latter case, art will always expand the personal to the generally meaningful.
How do we look at art? We look at art the same way we look at any other object: we only have one system of perception. We find information, we find style, and we find aesthetics. Information poses no problem whatsoever - we either understand a certain story or we don't. Style, in this case, is largely to be understood as a breaking through expectations. There is a general feeling of what is normal, and anything that breaks through these barriers of normality, does so because of a characteristic we are used to call style. So a personal conversation, which may serve here as the everyday and normal case, will have, when it is turned into a news item in the paper, for instance, a certain difference in style compared to the original conversation. So style is what makes a work of art stand out. But in a work of art, we also look for aesthetics.
There is a basic kind of a aesthetic (redundancy) which pervades all kinds of communication, from personal conversation to the highest forms of art. But for art, there is a special set of characteristics, which makes it stand out. In poetry this comprises, for instance, rhyme and rhythm. And in painting, drawing, and sculpture we find a different set, like composition, color scheme, and so forth.
It must be noted that aesthetic elements don't have any meaning. We find the same element of aesthetics at work in completely different contexts, being attached to completely different, even contradictory, meanings. But what aesthetics do carry, is a kind of emotional aspect, and coming to grips with it is a very important, and a very complicated, and very intricate process.
What we do with the aesthetic elements In the perception of a work of art is vital to its understanding. We know that colors are seen differently in different cultures, meaning that different emotional qualities are attached to them, and we also know that even in any given person’s cultural environment, in relation to colors people are different. Some people see blue where others already see green, and, moreover, people have a different mental architecture, which gives different locations to the perception of color. Some people don't like purple, some love it. So the artist will always try to strike a balance between his emotional alignment with color and that of his public .
Art has always been also a kind of worship . By its standing out as something special, works of art will always capture people’s imagination, unless they are for some reason or other immune to it. This is a general characteristic, because most people find babies cute, others are very much less affected by them. Scholars speak about "impression blindness". So for everybody not suffering from that condition, art is something that captures your attention, fires your imagination, makes you ask questions, even may lead you to spirituality, be it religious or not
Of course it is no wonder that art, also in the context of the culture within which it is produced, undergoes an inevitable historical development. And here again we find a clash of norms like in all sectors of society. The basic division is the one between biological and cultural norms, and all culture, and civilization, is largely based on the equilibrium between biological norms and cultural norms, and the latter, in the end, can very often prove to be the stronger ones. Just one example: most people will find slender persons more attractive than obese ones. But there are cultures in which, at least a certain degree of obesity is preferred. Of course such preferences can be simply individual, but here we are talking about general, common cultural preferences.
In art, there has always been a clash between normative tradition and avant-garde revolutions. Like in all other sectors of historical development, the traditionalists are fighting a lost cause. They may prevail for a certain time, but not for always, and what once was revolutionary, will soon become the norm, the mainstream, and face opposition of its own.
One will, in analyzing this situation, always have to find out whether opposition (or support) is based on a judgment of taste or a judgment of quality. The first is totally irrelevant, the latter difficult to argue - but not impossible.
This is not a linear development however, it is a development which sometimes has to take two steps back in order to be able to progress again. It's something like the Masaccio/Masolino problem. Masolino was the better-known artist, a highly respected traditional, mainstream Late Gothic artist, whereas Masaccio was the young Renaissance revolutionary - and prevailed.
On a social level, the reception of art fights its most bitter battles. Especially when linked to political issues, ideological issues and the like, new and different stories are very often met with fierce opposition. This criticism sometimes is even right, maybe here and there for the wrong reasons, but it is not always unfounded. Because the information is linked to personal convictions and subjective judgments, a different story may seem to be void of importance, void of any meaning, and even detrimental to the aims a society tries to achieve, at least seemingly so. In the end, after all toil and trouble, art will always be the winner, especially art, which is the true expression of its time, the true expression of people’s needs, beliefs, and their spirituality.
So it is no wonder that at the present time, a rather troubled time with innumerable atrocities and a notable rise of the dark – that there is a new growth of art with spirituality as its core, notably art with a religious background. Contemporary artists who are active in religious art, are standing on safe ground for two reasons: First, their religion is a solid foundation on which to base their lives and also, of course, their art, and the second is that this is not only true for the artists, but also for their public, even when they do not adhere to a specific faith. So an atheist art historian can love Spanish religious art of the 17th century, not because he thinks that the story is important, and not only for his admiration of the aesthetic execution, but mainly because of the intensity and strong spirituality these images convey.
If contemporary religious art, no matter in what genre, meets a responsive public sharing the same convictions, we have the fortuitous situation of the centre regained, which does not mean that religion is the only way to regain a centre lost or better: felt to be lost.
In art, the sacred and the profane stand side by side. A notable example is the work of 18th century French painter François Boucher, whose oeuvre comprises both religious and non-religious works.
As art is a form of spirituality in its own right, it is no wonder that artists are the first to field with inspiration from either the Holy Spirit or some other spiritual content. This strong bond between religion/spirituality is one of the main reasons that the church and, after the Reformation, the Catholic Church was one of the great custodians of art, giving thousands of commissions to artists.
But there are, however, some misconceptions. Mediaeval church windows, for instance, with images of Saints and episodes from the Bible are less oriented towards the simple believers, but rather to the educated, the higher strata of society. They are, mainly, works of art, through which, often literally, the light – seen as the light of God – shines through, and so they are there for the greater Glory of God. And the artists, who made these windows, took great satisfaction from this fact, which is also true for the sculptors who ornated the cathedrals and so forth. One might say that all artists find consolation in this situation, and that through their art the Light of God comes into the world. This is another reason why Duerer painted himself as Christ.
This is also true for artists who may not adhere to a specified religion, but who, nevertheless, want to bring the transcendental light of spirituality and creation in to this world. Of course, for religious artists, their creations are also a form of worship. But so are all works of art by all artists – only that they show a different orientation and in this may differ to larger or a smaller extent.
All artists hear a calling. It may be a calling nobody else can hear, but the results of which are there to be seen by everybody. Some speak freely about it, some keep it secret. But in the end all artists create something, which is also a form of worship. They may worship creativity or spirituality as such, or even themselves, and little do they know that this is just another form of worshipping the Supreme Being.
There are people who have always seen the danger of idolatry in this. Hence the relative aloofness to art in the Protestant Churches and Islam. Whether this is so or not, may be open to discussion. But for artists creating works, also those creating representational works, in which one can perceive natural forms and human beings, do so in order to worship creation, just as Claude Lorrain did, who wanted to enhance the beauty of nature by the beauty of art thus bringing it nearer to the eternal ideal beauty of God’s creation.
It is one of the wonders of art that it can trigger spirituality or religious feelings, insights, and convictions, although there is very little that deals directly with the subject. Many beholders correspond to items they perceive in artworks with experiences from their personal background, without – at least at first – putting them into perspective. And this is true for all works of art. Everybody has a first impression, and only later processes it in a personal or a generally historical, or an aesthetic and artistic perspective.
The real reason of being, the raison d’être, for art is to establish communication between the artists, their work, and the public. It is an ongoing dialogue on a social level. No wonder that art is, therefore, also closely connected to spirituality and/or religion. There are artists who have taken a kind of position as a priest, celebrating the religion of art. Or a similar position, putting their art to the services of religion. So there is at least a quasi-religious element also in non-religious art, because spirituality as such doesn't need any priest. In a purely spiritual way, everybody, artist and beholder, is his own priest. If an artist takes on the role of a priest, he is up to something more elaborate. Truly religious artists, however, hardly assume the role of some kind of priest, they see themselves more as a parallel to a priest, communicating with the sublime and profane in a like way as a priest, but not with quite the same message. The difference is that the artist is always concerned with God and God’s creation in a spiritual way, whereas a priest is doing this in order to widen the path to salvation. A small, but important difference, as the real priest does not need works of art to achieve that, whereas creating art is the prime tool for the artist.
It is very important to understand that a work of art can speak about the Glory of God although it may, at first glance, look ugly and downright terrible. Many of the works of Otto Dix, for example, showed this characteristic. The gruesome works of his, showing the atrocities of war, Picasso’s Guernica, or Goya‘s etchings about the disasters of war (Los desastres de la guerra) all come in for this.
They may show terrible scenes, but they do show them in a very artistic, and an aesthetic way – the aesthetic, in scholarly discourse, is never to be confounded with the beautiful – but all in all they do demonstrate that there is something fundamentally wrong in human activities motivated by the dark forces. And, sometimes without naming it, they make it clear that the solution to the problem is the Glory and the Clemence of God Almighty.
If an artist puts this in his works in a personal, unique way, like El Greco did, he has a very good chance of establishing himself as the voice of God, the bearer of the transcendental light.
In this way I position myself as a kind of soul mate to El Greco, who counts among my great spiritual mentors. One doesn't have to be Christian to understand and appreciate my works. As „sol lucet omnibus“ (the sun shines for everybody), so the Prime Mover is capable of lighting up everybody's life. And whether this leads to a religious awakening or not is something that goes beyond the power of the artist. That strictly belongs to the Supreme Being.