Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 13: Where Do We Go From Here: towards continuing the investigation of the spiritual in art

Theodore Gericault, A Portrait of a Kleptomaniac (discussed in John Berger essay).

Where Do We Go From Here: towards continuing the investigation of the spiritual in art.

Throughout our investigation into the possibilities of the spiritual in art, we have heard from many different avenues, directions and styles – we have heard from many different voices; we have listened to each other's voices. And still the most important thing to remember is that the strongest and most influential voice to our “quest,” indeed the reason for this course existing at all, has been that of the Barnes Foundation – the polyglot that it is. It has been both impetus and result; both informer and questioner; and has functioned as a door, as a window, and occasionally a wall. Nevertheless, throughout our time together here, we've centered on this place and its treasures, and circulated questions, answers and everything in between. We have attempted to do this through using a series of aspects of the spiritual as lenses, along with artistically formal “signposts” of the spiritual, to inform and guide us towards some possible answers. We've covered contemplation; harmony; revolution; transcendence, etc. I would like to briefly wrap up my class comments, by using two components. One: a short consideration of an additional aspect of the spiritual in art, and two: a question for us to absorb and ponder.

There's an aspect of the spiritual in art we did not cover (among others, of course; our selection was not exhaustive by any means) which I think is both an important aspect of all spiritual yearnings, as well as more specifically religious beliefs. It is a prime driver towards participation in a spiritual quest and expression. That aspect is hope, or hopefulness. We might begin with a rhetorical question: why would anyone exert effort to create spiritual wholeness in their lives and practice, and why would anyone continually ask inquisitively of, and act accordingly to, those things which are largely unseen, unless there was a throbbing kernel of hope driving them on to do so; unless there was something pushing them to keep searching for the needle of answer in a haystack of questions; to keep spending time brushing back layers from a buried treasure, which one simply knows bears great and powerful potential to alter one's life irrevocably? (This notion of treasure will tie into my question for us to ponder). I believe a sense of hope runs throughout this Foundation generally, and specifically in the underpinning philosophy, and pragmatic acting upon that philosophy, by Dr. Barnes. And whether or not a particular piece, or a particular ensemble directly addresses the aspect of hope, or sets up a contrast of hope which thus points towards it and creates a vacuum (a desire or need) for it – as I believe is happening here in the Rousseau Scout Attacked by a Tiger – a current or vein of hope runs throughout the entire place. Like we did to the spiritual aspect of hope, we might ask a similarly rhetorical question of the Foundation – why would Dr. Barnes invest untold amounts of time and money towards, firstly, educating the “plain people” of his factories and neighborhoods, and then secondly, establish an institution where serious, intense and unadorned, unadulterated study of art and cultures could be carried on; an idealistic, almost utopian vision of democracy, education and societal betterment – unless he had hope? Unless he had hope in knowledge and in the senses; hope in independent thought, democratic experience; the life-altering possibilities of art – why would he do any of this?

The story is often told of Dr. Barnes as a young person, being taken by his mother to the African-American revival tent meetings, and being overwhelmed, overtaken by a spirit of sorts, soaring him past the tent to a place both way beyond himself and within himself; a place to which he tried to return, and a sense he tried to foster, seemingly by every action involved in forming his foundation. And an important point can be made here, which again will lead towards my question for us to ponder: Barnes did not create this place solely for himself. In fact, any claim that this is the case couldn't be further from the truth; all evidence in the galleries, let alone the archives, shout against this notion. Certainly, he was subject to whims of anger and begrudging when powerful and influential people and institutions pooh-poohed his efforts. But redirecting him to the core, hope ran through his untiring efforts. This amazing, special place was created for many things: firstly, simple perpetuity of an idea and a time. But even more importantly, this place was created for continual prophecy to the hearts of the people. And when I say prophecy, I don't mean the stereotypical jeremiad: I mean a speaking of truth into the lives of people. Prophecy is much more often a vessel of hope, rather than its stereotype of a harbinger of doom.
To continue our focus on finding formal aesthetic avenues into the spiritual nature of these artworks, let's consider briefly the north wall (which we've discussed piecemeal before, but now we’ll consider it as a unit). Now, firstly I must say that, as I'd hoped for this class, the informing has been egalitarian – it's come from all of you as much as from me. So, even though I suggested that this painting is a contrast to the idea of transcendence in the Cezanne Large Bathers (a concave reality, rather than a convex possibility), one of you (Phyllis) pointed out then, rightly so, that the beautiful blue sky shining here, beyond the darkness of the strange, threatening jungle, is a certain, strong symbol of hope; the counterpoint to the vacuum created by the concave space of the dark forest – pointing towards the truth of hope beyond immediate despair. This is, interestingly enough, linked to that touchstone for Dr. Barnes' interest in the arts in general, and spiritual expression particularly: the spiritual songs at the tent meetings (which he was interested in for the rest of his life): those songs were often written in that same type of counterpoint/response to immediate despair (slavery and later discrimination alike), that we see here on the north wall, and in the Rousseau. But, as we know the center of an ensemble is usually only the beginning, so let's consider briefly how the aspect of hope may continue on into the wings of the ensemble. There seems to be two major allusions to, or symbols of hope in this ensemble. One of them is horizons, and other is flight. These two radiate out from the central, main struggle between hope and despair we see in the Rousseau. Firstly, the possibility of horizons, a symbol of protracted hope in the future, and related to both sunsets and sunrises (as we discussed in the talk on the revolutionary, with the Redon and Pippin in G 12). We can see the role of horizons in the Redon; the Renoir in the position opposite to the Redon; the Von Ruisdael; the Tintoretto (a companion to the Pippin, but with a different emotion). The theme of flight can be found in the Courbet; the small Cezanne at the upper left of a girl and birdcage; the Veronese (which also combines with the theme of horizons); the metaphor of flight can be found in the same Renoir as above, and so on, including the two Pennsylvania German carved parrots (Boppagoyen) below. In fact, the themes of horizons and flight are related; one flees (takes flight) to the horizon, which holds out hope for change; newness, and if nothing else, a change of scenery. Indeed, in paintings such as the Tintoretto (Woman at the Well), psychological as well as physical flight is implied: that age-old cooperation of the interior and exterior realities that we’ve discussed several times. Because of psychological stress, how many have fled physically? The refugees from spiritual and psychological turmoil are of an untold number. And the Renoir, though a more leisurely version of flight, corresponding more to the idea of escapism, akin to a pastime which allows temporary escape from pressure and pressing concerns of reality, is as much about finding psychological and spiritual release through physical flight. Flight, taken more literally with the symbol of birds, breaks off into two different possibilities: arrival and departure. In the Courbet and the Veronese, an arrival is shown: hope has arrived, from the horizon (not unrelated to Noah, of Noah’s ark fame, releasing then receiving back the dove carrying an olive branch, signifying the hope of peace from natural turmoil and divine judgment, and the hope of dry land!). In the Cezanne, we see an implied departure towards hope; a caged bird is let go, and happily too. I could continue, but I think the point is made, and the theme is established. Several of the paintings I'm unsure of how they fit into what I believe the rest of the ensemble is pointing towards and relaying, but this is not detrimental to the thoughts already put forward – an enduring element of mystery of the hanging's message and meaning is both incentive to keep questioning and connecting, and moving towards the hopeful horizon.

Now, on to the second part, the question which this aspect of hope points towards, and prepares a path for – What do we owe, having been given this treasure? And I want to stress that this is not my question, per se; it is rather a question I have felt; a question that I am asked by the Foundation. What is our responsibility as participants and receivers? What is our response; what is the price we should pay for our privilege? I will not put forward any more answers to this question; however I strongly encourage you to write it down, and return to it when you come back to the Foundation, either in body or spirit. There is one possible response I'd like to posit, and it's only mine by virtue of being chosen as a reading by me. I'd like to read this essay for you all, as a possible formation of an active movement towards answering the question I've posited. So here it is, “A Man with Tousled Hair”, chapter nineteen of John Berger's wonderful little book of essays entitled The Shape of a Pocket. Berger’s language can be a little thick, as well as highly original and thought-provoking, but I think once we near the end, hopefully you will see how it is related to our discussion; both our final aspect, and the final, closing question. So here it is; and I have copies of the essay you can take along with you if you like, to read and ponder further on your own.

(Unfortunately, as much as I'd like to include a transcript of the essay here, it is almost impossible to find online - at least when I looked. The best I can suggest is to find a used copy, or check your local library.)

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