The Spiritual in Art

Space has long been explored as a metaphor for the transcendental, the mystical, and the entity we call by various names, the spiritual.

It would difficult to find a better metaphor for all those subjects, because as we’ve longed known, science determined outer space to be infinite, it never ends.

Space shows up, no pun intended, in our stories of religion and the mystical.  Here, today in this blog I want to share how artists have materialized, or made physical, intangible space, and how they’ve related intangible space to metaphysical, spiritual ideas.

Our current exhibition, The Invisible Landscape, Paintings by Ethan Meyer portrays the artist’s interpretations of the metaphysical space, a spiritual dimension.

Installation view of Ethan Meyer’s The Invisible Landscape at Cedarhurst, photo: R. Freeman 

Meyer’s aesthetic is his own creative and original expression representing the mystical force that we feel created nature. The “mystical force” is unseen; absent from our sight, but we sense its presence.

Meyer’s painting teem with energy, thousands of multi-layered structures within structures animate his surfaces.  Meyer’s art is historically related to P. D. Ouspensky and Max Weber, both of who have made fascinating statements speculating that the metaphysical can indeed by represented in the 3D world in which we live.

Detail of Ethan Meyer, The Invisible Landscape,  2018, acrylic, yarn, photo: R. Freeman

Ouspensky said “Matter is a section of something,” that section a non-material space.  He also said, “Art is a path to cosmic consciousness.”

Weber was even more explicit about what the 3D world can do.  “There is a fourth dimension (or metaphysical space) which may be described as the consciousness (awareness) of a great and overwhelming sense of space-magnitude in all directions at one time, and is brought into existence through the three known measurements.”  (My emphasis.)  I love the boldness of Weber’s statement.  

Artists and poets since the beginning of time have tried to capture the presence of this absent signifier.  Representing the absent unknown is what artists, poets and musicians do best.

Jun Kaneko and the Japanese conception of Ma space characterize the function of empty space to create, literally and figuratively, the stories of our lives.  Ma has a consciousness.  Ma is spiritual.  For Kaneko, space and scale only exists and can only develop in a state of comparison.  The comparison is a kind of Yin-Yang relationship where each informs and develops the other.  For example, there is no conception of up without a down; they work together.  “Shape clay into a vessel; It is the space within that makes it useful.”

We think with metaphysical space metaphorically to define and enrich our physical spaces and our spiritual lives.  “The dream of art is not to assert what is already known, but to illuminate what has been hidden.” says the poet Louise Glück.

Art critic Donald Kuspit wrote “Reconsidering the Spiritual in Art” examining the role of art in today’s market-driven world and the role Kandinsky played in establishing a Western version of spiritual art.  Kandinsky published his own account in “On Considering the Spiritual in Art” in 1912.  Kuspit’s essay on Kandinsky is the best introduction to the artist I’ve ever read.  Highly-recommended.

WASSILLY KANDINSKY (1866-1944), Study for Composition No. 7, 1913, watercolor, 31×39”, public domain, courtesy of WikiMedia

Kuspit considered Kandinsky more of a revolutionary than Picasso.  Kandinsky was a very learned man, highly respected throughout his lifetime.  He believed all of his adult life that art could be a spiritual inspiration.

Kandinsky’s canonical art has an amorphousness quality seen as suggesting the immeasurable.  Remember my metaphor of the infinity of outer space as metaphysical?  As outer space is immeasurable, Kandinsky’s paintings were analogous to that immeasurability.

Color, for Kandinsky, represented emotion.  He experienced color as unmeasurable and thereby analogous to the infinite.  Color is sensed solely through the eye, and not the body.  You know color by sight, not by touching it.  Color thereby represents space and seems boundless and intangible.  Kandinsky did not use color to describe objects.  Color was used in his paintings as spaceless, timeless non-objective forms.  In Kandinsky’s paintings, color represents nothing but itself, which infers human emotions and implies a relationship with the spiritual.

Kandinsky regarded color as a sign of life and an indicator of mystical experience, of transcendence.  His paintings were intended to be mystical experiences.

During Kandinsky’s lifetime, he philosophically questioned the value and role of art in a time of rampant materialism (or as we know it today, consumerism).  It was also a time of unprecedented accomplishments in science and technology.  In that world, Kandinsky questioned the value of art; what could art contribute when compared to science or the crass lust of materialism?

Ultimately, Kandinsky hoped for the best and saw art as inspiring “the will to transcendence.”  Offering his paintings as the means for elevating one’s self.  Kandinsky regarded art’s potential over science and technology as a mediating one, standing between the outside materialistic world, and pointing to the spiritual plane.  The artist, in Kuspit’s words, had to be heroic as she or he pursued the spiritual impulse in a world going the other way.

Kandinsky sketched the relationship between art and the human spirit:  “The harmony of color and form must be based on solely upon the principle of proper contact with the human soul.”

The ultimate metaphysical space is the inner realms of existence within each of us.  Art, poetry, and music are some of the ways to access and celebrate that inner space.