Haunted Visions: Spiritualism and American Art

Haunted Visions: Spiritualism and American Art

Haunted Visions: Spiritualism and American Art

Haunted Visions: Spiritualism and American Art

Synopsis

Spiritualism emerged in western New York in 1848 and soon achieved a wide following due to its claim that the living could commune with the dead. In Haunted Visions: Spiritualism and American Art, Charles Colbert focuses on the ways Spiritualism imbued the making and viewing of art with religious meaning and, in doing so, draws fascinating connections between art and faith in the Victorian age.

Examining the work of such well-known American artists as James Abbott McNeill Whistler, William Sydney Mount, and Robert Henri, Colbert demonstrates that Spiritualism played a critical role in the evolution of modern attitudes toward creativity. He argues that Spiritualism made a singular contribution to the sanctification of art that occurred in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The faith maintained that spiritual energies could reside in objects, and thus works of art could be appreciated not only for what they illustrated but also as vessels of the psychic vibrations their creators impressed into them. Such beliefs sanctified both the making and collecting of art in an era when Darwinism and Positivism were increasingly disenchanting the world and the efforts to represent it. In this context, Spiritualism endowed the artist's profession with the prestige of a religious calling; in doing so, it sought not to replace religion with art, but to make art a site where religion happened.

Excerpt

The flourishing of Spiritualism in the second half of the nineteenth century coincided with a growing willingness on the part of many Americans to hold the fine arts in high esteem. The simultaneity was not entirely fortuitous. Puritan austerity and republican simplicity seemed increasingly passé to the consumer culture that emerged in the Victorian era. But old mores had to be replaced with new ones that endorsed the pleasures commodities now offered. Painting and sculpture were especially problematic in this context because they seemed purely decorative; what greater purpose could they possibly serve? Spiritualism resolved the quandary by identifying them as the loci of psychic energies. Those intent on particularizing the enthrallment art exercised over its newfound devotees found an explanation in these magnetic powers. The sanctification implied was a ready resource for proponents of Modernism who sought to extol art as the last refuge of authentic experience in a society beguiled by commercialism. Faith and aesthetic theory commingled and proved an important motive in the advent of Modernism in this country.

Modernism’s identity continues to spark debate. It was long associated with the logic that prompted Max Weber to proclaim the “disenchantment of the world.” According to this outlook, the triumph of the scientific method obliges the rational individual to recognize that in the social and physical environment “there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.” This principle was given its aesthetic formulation in Clement Greenberg’s famous dictum about Modernism being an exercise in self-criticism, but in recent years scholars have begun to question whether the nice precision of such schemas comes at the cost of accuracy. This book takes its cue from Alex Owen’s remarks about the intellectual climate in Britain at the end of . . .

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