Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 1: Intro.

(above, one of the paintings featured in the Lipsey selection, Chardin, Blowing Bubbles)

Last post, I mentioned that I'd be leading a class entitled Investigating Art and the Spiritual at the Barnes Foundation, for the Fall 2009 semester. Well, that semester has begun, and I will be posting various things related to the class, on this blog. It will take various forms, but hopefully will normally include my class presentation and notes; perhaps a link to our reading if available; and a selection of questions and discussion that emerged. We have a good group of students (all returning students of the Foundation, incidentally) so I look forward to some great investigating!

The first week consisted mostly of my presentation on the scope and concept of the class; a reading-together of the weekly reading text (since the mailed papers had reached the students late); and a discussion time of that reading (this week, a selection from the introduction to An Art of Our Own: the Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art, by Roger Lipsey: a major inspiration for the class's core concept.

Even though I was somewhat nervously counting off hours before the first class period, hoping I had enough to fill the time, it's amazing how quickly two hours are eaten up by good discussion!

So, here are some of my introductory notes to the course:

-The class's title is not coincidental; in fact, I conceive of what we'll be doing truly as an investigation, in that we are not completely certain about the eventual outcome: much like a criminal investigation (deductive reasoning and intuition). Some of the questions we will ask may be complicated, and perhaps if we do find answers, they may not be what we expect.

-Generally, this class will be focused on investigating (and then identifying) those characteristics which present, determinedly yet however mysteriously, formal -- (by this I mean both Barnes' plastic elements: light; line; color; space -- as well as texture, composition, brushwork, etc.) clues that point beyond themselves, towards spiritual (i.e., non-material) concepts, ideas or even intent.

-Seeing the class, then, as a true investigation, I'd like us to think of ourselves as a team of investigators, picking up on clues from what we SEE in front of us; asking how our previous EXPERIENCE might connect with and inform those clues; consider what those things we SEE might be telling us, and identify what they may be pointing to spiritually, in light of what we've collected as KNOWING. (In this way, it is a cumulative process).

-In that case, since we will be working as a team, we must help each other along in our investigation, sharing our viewpoints and opinions, from our own unique perspectives and experiences, however either tentative or bold they may be.

-To that end, I've chosen a set of general characteristics which would almost universally be considered as distinctives of a spiritual focus and experience. Some examples include Timeless; Formless; Revolutionary and Transcendent. These will function as our weekly "skeletons of focus", and help to influence how we look and see and further understand the selected works each week.

-(Reflection on our reading will help establish some footing in definitions of what we mean by "spiritual", and "spiritual in art".) We will come to that presently.

-BUT, looking at the Barnes collection will constitute only part of the class's focus. The other large component will be to take what we identify as formal pointers to spiritual ideas and intent, and look for continuing and similar currents occurring in contemporary art (and by contemporary, I draw the distinction of "contemporary" meaning work by an artist who is still living). So, every week we will be looking at contemporary art and artists who seem to be interested in, addressing, and working with ideas rooted in spirituality in the arts. Since the Barnes collection is largely 2D work, we will normally link up with contemporary 2D work, so as to create an easier continuity of formal characteristics; though we may occasionally deviate from this.

-The general direction of each class time will look something like the following: I will lead us initially through some of my already-garnered clues and concepts gained through my experience with the collection, and having crystallized them on paper. We will accomplish this, normally, by moving throughout the galleries, talking about various works and ensembles having to do with our topic. Following this, we will open up the field for questions and comments, and then move into a group discussion about the weekly reading, finding some focus and direction through our collected direct questions to the reading. And, I hope for some lively discussions! (Think of the readings as a sort of outside nourishment, added to what we already have here at the Foundation...or grease for the wheels of conversation).

-This is a class led/facilitated by an ARTIST, not an Art Historian. (I make no claim of being an Art Historian). Of course, art history will continually inform us as we investigate, as to important and telling context, etc., but it’s important to note that our direct interaction and experience with the work and with its formal messages, is what we will mainly be concerned with. As art history augments that: all the better. I learned about, and to love, the collection face-to-face, so my teaching approach will lean heavily upon that style.

-A few general statements about my teaching philosophy: I will field all pertinent comments and questions within reason and the scope of the class topic. I love topical discussion, so I expect everyone to thoroughly read the weekly readings, and bring some questions to hand in and share with the rest of us. I will encourage each one of you to prepare, over the semester, a 15-25 minute presentation focused on spirituality in the arts (perhaps one which we’ve not covered), related to the Barnes collection in some way, and present it to the class near the end of the semester. And if it seems more to your liking, an alternative will be to write, again over the semester, a 6-8 page term paper, on a topic related both to spirituality in the arts, and the Barnes collection. Ideally, every presentation and paper would also incorporate some contemporary connections, though I'll leave this optional.

Our discussion on the reading centered around the question, what is the balance between finding the mystery in the ordinary, and the mystery in the intentionally transcendent? Other keywords that emerged were "pilgrimage"; "duality" [in the form of the artist's challenge of their greater purpose of sharing a spiritual and metaphysical message, and the material fact of hard-nosed decisions about timing, composition and when, literally, to stop/finish]; "everyday"; "intent" and so on. In some ways we were finding our footing as a group, and what form our conversation would take on (each group has a slightly different dynamic), but the conversation was still titillating and rewarding; leaving us (at least me) wanting more.

Our reading for next Monday is from catalog The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890--1985, and a wonderful essay by Donald Kuspit entitled "Concerning the Spiritual in Contemporary Art" (playing off the title of Kandinsky's seminal book). More on that next week!

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