"Art seems to me to be a state of soul more than anything else. " --Marc Chagal
The artist, Sharon A. Hart, in front of a Chagall painting at Miami Art Basel. "Being so close to a Chagall, seeing the tiniest of brush strokes evoked a sense of awe."
Holland Cotter, art critic for the New York Times, in an article entitled Making Secular Art Out of Religious Imagery averred,
“There is little question that contemporary art is changing yet again, and in ways that have little directly to do with the current economic crisis. After several years of submersion in lightweight post-Pop painting, clever design and quip-driven soft politics, we seem to be ready for something with a little more depth, breadth and soul.”
Considering the amount of kitsch that abounds in the contemporary artworld,, these may be seen as “fighting words.” However, there is truth in them. The sociological Jeremiah, Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin, was the son of a Russian icon-writer. He is best noted for having written several books about the excesses of modern culture. I'm confident he would feel vindicated had he lived to see this day, as the founding professor of Harvard’s department of sociology had prophesied our society’s fall into decadence and the emergence of a new ideational or idealistic era.
In Sorokin's controversial 4-volume tome, Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937-1941), he classified societies according to their 'cultural mentality', which can be ideational (reality is spiritual), sensate (reality is material), or idealistic (a synthesis of the two). Within these pages he analyzed and compared the history of art, ethics, philosophy, science, religion, and psychology, to explore general principles of human history. Based on his research, Sorokin predicted that modern civilization was moving toward a bloody period of transition. That interim period would be characterized by wars, revolutions, and general conflict, technological progress. He further prophesied our society’s fall into decadence and the emergence of a new ideational (religious/intuitional) or idealistic era. Sorokin further emphatically believed that altruism was the antidote to our destruction, and that we needed to seek truth and knowledge within the spiritual realm.
Artists have long answered the call to experience and interpret spirituality. The works they produce may not always been overtly religious, but those who have been touched by what in Spanish art is called Duende, (loosely translated as having soul.) cannot help but create works that reflect their personal or our collective experience with the Divine. The art that is produced will actually touch the viewer in a direct manner.
In his brilliant lecture entitled The Theory and Function of Duende Federico García Lorca attempted to shed some light on the spiritual essence that lives in the heart of certain works of art: " This ‘mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained’ is, in sum, the spirit of the earth, the same duende that scorched Nietzsche’s heart as he searched for its outer form on the Rialto Bridge and in Bizet’s music, without finding it---"
Earlier, Rumi addressed the same emotive expression using these words:
"In your light I learn how to love. In your beauty, how to make poems. You dance inside my chest where no one sees you, But sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art."
Obviously there is, indeed, a place in our society for artwork that is based upon spiritual themes and have depth greater than the patina on inexpensive kitchen cabinetry. The creative dichotomy that exists between the sacred and the secular is not something to be reconciled by the artist, but to be embraced. Ultimately one recognizes that the secular is sacred, if seen with clarity of spiritual vision.
For Marc Chagall, despite having studied with the cubist Robert Delaunay and the abstract expressionist Kazimir Malevich, abstract art was a product of a mechanistic world that lacked a sense of God. For him, the removal of figurative aspects from painting was tantamount to a desire to make a world without God. Examination of Chagall’s work reveals that throughout his career, he interwove spirituality, Jewish cultural life and folklore, and a close dialogue with the avant-garde. Recognizing the impact of one's roots on one's one, Chagall stated unequivocally: "If I were not a Jew (with the content I put into that word), I wouldn't have been an artist or I would be a different artist altogether." A deeply spiritual man, he was not disturbed when his art was declared by critics as “ too mystical.” In fact, he once told his granddaughter, "When I paint, I pray.”
Despite the uniqueness of vision, the experience of the artist who elects to explore the tension between the sacred and the secular is often challenging and is certainly not filled with significant monetary or critical reward. Consequently, it may be encouraging to take solace in the words of Robert Bateman,
“When one thinks of the real problems facing the planet and, indeed, civilization, at the end of the 20th century, the problem of whether art critics appreciate this form of art or that form of art or me seems so minuscule as to be virtually invisible. Being rebuffed by one's peers in the art world is, of course, hurtful, but that has always happened and always will and it really doesn't matter. It is still fun to discuss and dismember... I do it myself, as you may have noticed.”