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
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
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
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. …