Thursday, October 30, 2008

Art and the State of the Soul

"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.


Dave King said...

This is a simply tremendous post. I have picked up a great deal from it.
I did not know ofSorokin, for example, or of his3 realities as a way of classifying according to cultural mentality - which is in itself an interesting idea. I shall need to look him up and do a lot of further reading. Thanks for that.

S. A. Hart said...

Dave, Sorokin was a man ahead of his time, who had a impoverished childhood, survived the the Bolshevik revolution and established the first Department of Sociology at Petrograd University in 1919–1920. However, after he came under attack by the Soviet police for brutally criticizing the government as ineffective and corrupt, he ultimately emigrated to the US to teach sociology. Like many visionaries, his philosophies were not understood by his contemporaries. He researched human conflict from an integrated perspective, Sorokin was not content with identifying the problems of human society --- instead, he strove to improve the human condition. To this end, founded and directed the Research Center in Creative Altruism, focusing his energies on compassion, peace, and harmonious resolution to conflicts. Sorokin's writing is very scholarly and the language reflects the period iin which he lived. You'll find him a challenging but rewarding philosopher.

Like Sorokin, I believe in an integrated approach to life---one that includes the arts and not just the sciences.

Andrew said...

Chagall was such an amazing artist. I've also heard that his lithographs and etchings are quite valuable and a good investment. Here are some that I'm looking at: Chagall lithograph.

Thanks for this very interesting post!

S. A. Hart said...

Andrew, I would hesitate to buy a Chagall unless it comes with a certificate of authenticity from the Comité Chagall. There are more forgeries than original Chagall's out on the market today.

Relatedly, back in September, the the Moscow Museum of Modern Art lent three paintings attributed to Chagall to the Bunkamura Museum of Art in Tokyo for an exhibition. They, however, were discovered to be fakes, as a result of an examination of the painting techniques. If you are serious about collecting Chagall's work, I recommend you read The Chagall forgeries by James Lowe and only deal with respected galleries who can provide the appropriate confirmation of authenticity.

Having seen both originals and "fakes" of his work, I will also suggest that a true Chagall carries an essence of his spiritual fervor, as Chagall personally participated in every detail of the creation of his prints and lithographs. Again, no "original" Chagall should be considered as a purchase unless accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from the Comité Chagall.

Andrew said...

s.a. hart,

I agree with you that Comité Chagall is the voice for authenticating Chagall works, but they only deal with unique originals. I share your hesitation about purchasing due to forgeries. I believe works after 1982 should be avoided for this purpose.

I can't drop $250,000+ on a unique original, so I try to educate myself as best as possible and only deal with a reputable dealer when looking into lithographs. And galleries are out of the question due to their heavy overhead.

Kim said...

excellent post Sharon!!!
and I had goosebumps when I read Chagall's statements...
as you know he is one of my favourites and on several occasions in the last 6 years (since I have started painting again after a 20 year absence) I have felt an overwhelming desire to get down on my knees and thank God ...for giving me the ability (and motivation) to paint some of the portraits that I have....
I know that there has been a higher power (spiritually) that has aided me and I'm eternally grateful for that :)
ps I'm a great fan of Sorokin and his writings :)

S. A. Hart said...

Kim, I know exactly how you feel as I have the same experience when I paint or contemplate artistic expressions. I believe this sense of the spiritual we enjoy is not dissimilar to the concept of "Flow" that was introduced by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Maybe there's another post in that....will think about it. BTW, the photo of Chagall's painting at the top of the post was taken at last year's Miami Art Basel show.

Over The Top Aprons said...

What a marvelous site, I am so glad I came across it. I love how clear you are in your writing style and I will look forward to visiting you often. And I also enjoy reading your viewers comments.

Between your writings and the comments this provides great snippets of social, cultural, and art history. Thanks for the postings.

ESCUDERO said...

Hi Sharon - You are a controversial soul. Must I really comment on this article? First of all I want to say kudos to you for writing this incredible article re the artist's position in the spiritual world.

I thought it was incredible what Chagall had to say - "When I paint I Pray" This should be the essence of art. I'm going to remember this quote.

Now about Sorokin. I have never read the fella, but frankly I believe he is partly right when he says that we as artists should also incorporate the spiritual world into our work, and when he says that we are becoming more decadent as a society, I believe he is absolutely correct to say that. But....I am definitely not in agreement with him when he states that we will one day reach an idealistic society. That comment to me is not a prophecy at all. The only way it can be considered a prophecy is if he is referring to the millenium (1,000 years of complete peace once Jesus returns).

Other than that, I have read some of Lorcas books and I cannot put that guy on a pedestal. A duende is an elf, fairy, ghost, etc. Those to me are certainly not positive spiritual beings. I once upon a time believed in all of that, and all it ever did was bring me grief. I have found that it is extremely difficult to change your beliefs when you have been involved in the occult.

In conclusion Sharon, your article did motivate me to continue to incorporate Chagall's saying - "When I paint I pray".

Thank you for that beautiful word.

S. A. Hart said...

Hi, Veronica!

About Sorokin, he believed that society goes through cycles...the three he named and that we keep repeating the process. However, he hoped that humanity would learn from its history and move into a more spiritually-aware and compassionate state. Whether or not he felt that was to be the period of 1,000 years you mention, I don't know. But, he was optimistic we'd move away from the destructive and negative states that history has demonstrated as confirmation of one part of the cycles he identified.

And, yes, duende can be defined as you indicate. However, there are other definitions and understandings of the word; it's a sense of awareness of the Divine that motivates one to reach deeper and then act upon that experience. Christians readily could replace the word duende with "The Holy Spirit" and arrive at the same place in describing the experience. Someone from a traditional Jewish background might refer to it as an experience with the Shekinah, the majestic presence or manifestation of God which has descended to "dwell" among humanity. I suspect it's ultimately a nuance of cultural differences that directs the words we elect to use.

Am glad the Chagall quote was inspirational for you!

The Grumpy Grammarian said...

Excellent post. I always learn something from your blog even in the comments and it makes a nice change from all the blogs trying to sell something. I've also read Lorca's stuff --- he's brilliant. Keep on writing, I'll be back.

PurrPrints said...

I do agree that art that is soulful is preferable to vapidity--at the same time, I tend to get annoyed by art that crosses over from the soulful to the didactic, regardless of whether what it's "preaching" is something I already agree with or not--I'd rather be moved than told to be moved, if that makes sense...

I'm glad the kitties enjoy the tag and that it arrived safe and sound this time--if you end up snapping any pictures of one (or all!) of them wearing it, I'd love to receive them so i could show them to potential customers in the future as examples of what tags looks like in use.

S. A. Hart said...

Becca (Purrprints)-- I'm with you entirely here! I think that the difference between a artist and a technician is that the artist communicates through soulful expression, whereas the technician doesn't. Perhaps this is why we are moved by certain works of art, whether they are visual or audio, and yet other pieces created that upon immediate review look to "have it put together" still don't touch our hearts, minds, and souls. Yesterday I saw the work of an abstract painter that impressed me greatly, although generally speaking I don't like abstract works of art. I'm confident the difference is that the abstract works I saw were painted "soulfully", rather than "mechanically" (or as you defined it "didactly".) Truly there is more than technique operating here.

Hope Marcus said...

Sharon, this is one of the better blogs you've written, it is transcendent, journeying from the physical into the spiritual, or pure energy: beyond words and time and space. I am intrigued by a response that implies the return of Christ, and dates that return. In the absolute, for lack of a better word when one does not exist, there is no time. Most cannot imagine this; that our solid rock does not exist yet the artist or writer must assume it does to express clarity in randomness. Our given senses limit perception, and we strive to make tangible that which lacks form or shape. We invent mythology, folklore and religion — explanatory tales to explain that which logic defies. Revere the artist, the poet; those going into and coming out of — the spark, its search.

S. A. Hart said...

Hope, many thanks for your kind words. The American historian and Columbia University professor Richard Hofstadter won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction for his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life . He contended the nation's anti-intellectualism was a result of pragmatism, but there is also the possibility that many people prefer fluff to substance as it is easier to digest. Thanks for letting me know you prefer my "meatier" writing; it is greatly appreciated.

Linda Blondheim said...

Your blog is so informative. I enjoyed reading it so much.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that. I never come away empty-handed from your blog. Indeed, I always read your posts more than once and invariably I am struck by something the second time around - or subsequently - that I skated over first time. There are so many good things in this particular post. Chagal, for example, is one of the artists who stir me most deeply. His writings and sayings are fascinating enough, but his paintings are far beyond that. Thanks again.

S. A. Hart said...

Thanks, Linda and Dave! Your words mean much to me as you both have very interesting blogs that I make sure I read on a regular basis.