A quiet renaissance is occurring in pockets of the art world. In place of the modernists' battle cry "art for art's sake," other voices are rising that speak of art and music as expressions of idealism and spirituality.
The signs of heightened interest in spirituality and art are small but significant, according to artists, musicians, curators, theologians, and critics. In the past 10 years, this interest has led to museum shows, concerts, and workshops that link contemporary art and music directly with spirituality.
Public television has contributed to broader understanding of religious traditions by showcasing teachers such as Huston Smith and the late Joseph Campbell. National newsmagazines have featured cover stories on such topics as Christ Jesus and angels. "Chant," a compact disc of medieval Christian songs performed by Spanish monks, topped the classical-music charts. As Michael Brenson wrote in a 1986 New York Times art review, " 'spiritual' is no longer a dirty word." For people who value art and spirituality, the important questions to ask are: Where are the artists and musicians who make new work that reaches beyond themselves? What has happened to artistic expression in the service of an ideal? The answers, according to those engaged in the arts, are more varied and positive than one might expect. Although artists and musicians are more open about discussing spirituality, they resist religious labels. Some observers contend that what looks like increased interest in spirituality is a reaction to late-20th-century materialism. Others see a parallel to society's search for a personal connection to God. Still others argue that artists are doing what they have always done - seeking the truest expression of themselves. Trevor Fairbrother, deputy director for art at the Seattle Art Museum, describes the phases he has seen over the past 30 years. He says in the '60s and '70s, artists were moving away from commercialism and taking art to the streets. In the economic boom of the '80s, the dominant artists played to the market by making collectible paintings. Now, in the '90s, the pendulum is again swinging away from materialism. "It's interesting," he adds, "that the whole 'grunge' scene affects the way people make art. It may not be spiritual-looking, but it has a point of view not unrelated to spirituality." Theologians and the clergy keep a watchful eye on cultural cycles. They view the arts as both evidence of spirituality and a barometer of social attitudes. As a society, "we've gone too far into disbelief in God," observes Victoria Sirota, vicar of the Church of the Holy Nativity, an Episcopal church in Baltimore. Max Stackhouse, professor of Christian Ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J., makes the case that "we're the first generation to have arrived with every tradition essentially thrown out. Because all the systems have been changed, people feel insecure and are scouting for anything that can offer meaning." Artists are in the vanguard of this search for meaning. Cynthia Nartonis, a Boston-based artist, confirms this observation. "I see a longing for 'connectedness' in contemporary art," she says. Such things as longing for grace, honesty, and unity give purpose to many artists' and musicians' work. A current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago offers a good example. The show, "Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives," draws connections between ancient religious art and modern abstract paintings. The museum's chief curator, Richard Francis, organized the exhibition around "artists who are yearning for a spiritual position and a means of expressing it," he says. While most of the 20th-century artists featured in the Chicago show, such as Agnes Martin and Anselm Kiefer, are hardly new on the contemporary art scene, their eclectic approach to spirituality sets the tone for the 1990s. …