Tuesday, February 4, 2014

On Sacred Arts - reflections

"A Navajo rug may be a commodity for trade.
It also may be the voice of the weaver’s prayers and dreams"
 I once had a brief conversation with a young woman who mentioned that spirituality (or religion) is "taboo" in the world of contemporary art. I agreed at the time, although  perhaps things have changed  since the 1980's when I received my MFA.  To be honest, I don't keep up with what's happening in the contemporary art world much, finding my relationship to my art mostly contemplative and devotional.

 I remember emerging from graduate school with a body of work ("A House of Doors" and "When the Word for World was Mother") very much concerned with metaphysical and spiritual exploration, and I felt  angry at the resistance I received in the program for my subject matter.  This was the height of "New Age", and  I had an enormous desire to find out who, what, and where art and spirituality were united in contemporary life, outside of the church, of course.

"Hands" by Lorraine Capparell
"If you bring forth what is within you it will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you, it will harm you."

.....from the Gospel of Thomas

So I did what I've always done, took off travelling on a "vision quest" that lasted almost 5 years, visiting California and New York City, and points in between. The result was a collection of interviews I intended to make into a book called "Seeing in a Sacred Manner:  Interviews with Transformative Artists".; The book was never published, although some of the interviews were published with the kind permission of those artists who granted them to me, among them Alex and Allyson Grey (The Sacred Mirrors), Rafael Ortiz (Physio-Psycho-Alchemy), Rachel Rosenthal (Pangaean Dreams), Kathleen Holder (The December Series), and others. In retrospect, I wish I could have made their conversations more available to others, because what they had to say was so profoundly inspiring to me, and so important to others seeking to understand the same questions.  Some of the interviews are on my website, www.rainewalker.com.

Artists in our world have an "identity crisis". We are surrounded with structures that say art is important - schools, museums, galleries, magazines, books, churches. And yet, a contemporary practicing artist is often not given credit for pursuing her or his profession, often not seen as doing something with social significance. I cannot tell you how many times people have asked me what I do, and afterwards responded with "so what's your real job?".  "Real job?"   We define value in monetary terms, and equate quality or "professionalism" to how much money a "product" makes - which is an insane way to evaluate the "worth" of an innovative work of art, or any innovative work for that matter. 
Illuminated manuscript by Hildegard Von Bingham (11th century)

Many of the greatest, and most profoundly transformative, contributions to our world had no "monetary value" whatsoever. Among them, the works of poets such as Rainier Maria Rilke, Rumi, and Gary Snyder, the solitary musings of Emerson at Walden Pond, the great visions of Lakota Medicine Man Black Elk and Hildegard von Bingam. When Van Gogh went into the fields to ecstatically paint the energy he saw in sunflowers or a star strewn night sky, when Georgia O'Keefe gathered bones she found in the New Mexico desert and contemplated them in her studio, when Louise Nevelson found pieces of cast off wood and furniture in the rain- slick streets of New York city.....they were responding to the beauty and story they each saw, the creative energy that welled up from that source.

"Compassion is the rooting of vision in the world, and in the whole of being"

....David Michael Levin

I often think of Bali, the amazing way art making, ritual making, music making are so much a part of daily life, from the woven offerings that women make first thing in the morning to the elaborate festivals held on specifically auspicious days. For the Balinese, art is a devotional activity, constantly renewed within the traditions of their Hindu religion.  Certainly, our modern "identity crisis" would not be understood by such a traditional society, the questioning of "what is art", the sometimes arbitrary separation we seem to make between "high" and "low" arts, "fine arts" and "crafts", etc.  I'm not sure, after 40 years of being an artist, i understand it myself.  I do remember feeling quite at home in Bali, when I studied mask making, quite at home with the flow of art, ritual, and culture, seamless, and wishing I lived in an environment myself that had that quality.

 So what is "art process"?  I've been thinking lately that it helps, on so many levels, to think of it as a  spiritual practice.  You don't have to live in a traditional culture like Bali, or even be affiliated with a traditional religion, to give the making of art that devotional respect.   I think if one considers it in that light, it becomes so much easier! Making art gets me out of the tyranny of my mind, and into a greater world of seeing, sensing, color, light...... of being. I can engage with my ever evolving, personal, and yet archetypal, symbol system, the emergent place.  Sometimes (like with the "Prayers for the Dying" series I did for my brother) it helps me to understand grief, to heal emotional losses or conflicts. Increasingly, I am interested in sharing the creative process with others, finding ways to connect with others in creative community; in this light, it becomes a form of entrainment, of ritual, of prayer.

 Rachel Rosenthal: "It’s easier for people to anthropomorphize something abstract. That is where the metaphor of Gaia comes in - it is easier to think of a mother, a nurturing parent. By giving a name to it, you can talk to Her. That’s the purpose. Otherwise, you are lost in abstractions, and lose the emotional content of the issue."
LR: In that sense, there is a degree of hope?
Rachel Rosenthal:  " There is a degree of hope, if we hurry."

I take the liberty of quoting myself, the introduction to the (unpublished) book I wrote for it in 1990.  Perhaps I've mellowed, and understood things more comprehensively since, still, not much has changed in my perception since. It's good to revisit.........
"The Sacred Mirrors" Alex Grey
"Everything was made for the greater meaning and use of the the tribe. A spoon was more than a spoon, and a sacred pot was also used to store grain in - because they understood that there had to be a weaving between the material world and the other worlds in order to live right and well. An artist was one of those who did the weaving." ...... Sarah Mertz
 It was my privilege, in the late 1980's, to share conversations about art, spirituality, and cultural transformation with some extraordinary artists. Travelling across the country to meet some of them in New York City, in Arkansas, or in California, not long after graduate school, I realize now I was really trying to understand my own reasons for making art. "Your work is about your life" painter Kathleen Holder told me, "and if you are fortunate enough to do great work, it not only is about your life but it transcends your life and touches many others. "

As a student of art history, I find it ironic that spirituality was a significant impulse in the early development of Modernism. Theosophy, the Golden Dawn, Anthrosophy, as well as Einstein's new physics, enormously inspired the work of such innovators as Mondrian, Kupka, Kandinsky, Arthur Dove, and many others. But by the 1950's, spirituality, indeed, the idea of context itself, had become a kind of heresy among the institutions that defined what "high" art was. I'm not sure that has changed very much today.  

In the 1970's, Tom Wolfe argued in The Painted Word that art was becoming literature, more a media creation of art critics than the artists themselves, who were (and still are) floundering about at the edges of society seeking any kind of identity, even one invented for them. Social context, works created for political, therapeutic, or functional means - or as spiritual revelation - were suspect. The quest was for "pure" aesthetics, celebrated by influential critics like Harold Rosenberg, who wrote, in 1952, 

"The turning point of Abstract Expressionism occured when its artists abandoned trying to paint Art (Cubism, Post-Impressionism), and decided to paint - just PAINT. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation from Value - political, aesthetic, moral."

But to liberate art from aesthetic or moral value is to render it meaningless. It becomes a dissociative intellectual exercise, a lonely endeavor isolated from any larger social or cosmic context, isolated, often, from even personal significance. Performance artist Rafael Montanez Ortiz believes our aesthetics reflect a greater issue. "We can objectify" he said, "at the drop of a hat. We have no problem making an object of anyone or anything. If the logic of a culture permits you to abstract to that extent, it then permits you to live without conscience."

If we're to affirm an art with conscience, it must be, by definition, an art that provides an experience of context, of relationships of every kind. Social, ecological, spiritual, external and internal, visible and invisible. That's what transformative art is to me - artists who are reclaiming the roles of visionary, healer, community activist, and prophet within a grand context, an experience of communion that penetrates our lives on many dimensions of being. In traditional cultures, a shaman is one who "retrieves souls." That can also mean the collective retrieval of "soul", the redemption of imagination, beauty, and most importantly, a sustaining vision of the mystery and sanctity of life.

from "A Moving Point of Balance" by Beth Ames Swartz

"Vision that responds to the cries of the world and is truly engaged with what it sees is not the same as the disembodied eye that observes and reports,that objectifies and enframes. The ability to enter into another's emotions, or to share another's plight, to make their conditions our own, characterizes art in the partnership mode. You cannot define it as self-expression - it is more like relational dynamics.......Partnership demands a willingness to conceive of art in more living terms.

It is a way of seeing others as part of ourselves."

.........Suzi Gablick (The Re-Enchantment of Art) (1989)

"Between Land and Sea", Installation by Caroline Beasley Baker

 "I like the Aboriginal idea of "Singing the world into existence".  I once had a wonderful dream. I dreamed I was riding across the Australian desert at night. I was on a bus, and everyone was asleep. I looked out, across the dark, and saw, rising up out of the desert floor, these incredibly beautiful murals, in huge caverns lit by firelight. I knew they had been made by some consciousness predating humanity, that they had been here for millennia. They had never been seen in the world before, and were now rising up to the surface of the Earth.  Those paintings were more glorious than anything I've ever seen in my life! At the end of the dream, a voice said to me, "Caroline, that's the Earth dreaming".

 Caroline Beasley Baker (Interview, 1989)


Gail said...

You bared your Soul in this article. Thank you for sharing that deeply.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Isn't art, in every form, about spirituality and the sacred, about who we are as part of a larger collective? Fascinating post, Lauren. And I didn't realize you had a website. My bad.

Gail said...

Lauren, I'm responding to your Rain Walker Studio Site and your article on Freya. It led me back to here. Thanks for all the info.