We hear lots of talk about spirituality but what is it—really? Probably everyone has some definition—so here is mine just for me. Of course, it’s yours if you like it.
Spirituality is that search for something I can rarely see. But somehow I’m convinced that a hint of something meaningful lies beneath, beyond or behind our everyday phenomenal world. Searching for a glimpse of it is my spiritual trek done mostly through story-telling in novels. I am relentlessly determined to find it.
Some people call it the ineffable which, to me, has a spooky air of mystery and magic to it. Simply stated it seems to mean something that is so great words cannot describe it. [A tough nut for writers!] Or something beyond human understanding [at least so far.]
People who are tantalized by this kind of perception frequently turn to artistic expression. Others search for it in nature or meditation.
Contrarians may well say, “You can’t prove that anything exists beyond this every-day world. If our five senses can’t tell us it exists then you have no proof.” My answer? Perhaps we lack that proof so far, but why do so many people keep searching for “it” if nothing is there?
After all, until the invention of the microscope, who ever heard of germs? More recently—at least fifty years was spent before the Higgs-Boson [God] particle was identified. We’re just at the beginning and so there is so much to find either through scientific discovery or poetry.
The Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, devoted his life to plumbing the depths of the human psyche. For him, the search was to unify our conscious and unconscious selves—to individuate. And he had much to say about the creative impulse.
This is the kind of search Joseph Campbell, the great teacher of myth had in mind. So often he spoke of tromping off into the forest on one’s own path. Both Jung and Campbell were after the same “thing” and I rather think it fits in nicely with my idea of a search for that golden treasure—the Holy Grail.
We all have our own Holy Grails
and Campbell gave lots of clues about where we might look for it.
BUT HOW DOES THAT RELATE TO ART—especially photography and painting? Let’s do an experiment. We’ll look at some photographs and paintings and ask ourselves if they have some spiritual aspect?
This photograph was taken by Dorothea Lange. It became known as Migrant Mother and it acquired a nearly mythic status, symbolizing the Depression era in the United States. Another photographer Edward Steichen described Lange’s photographs as “the most remarkable human documents ever rendered in pictures.” There is no doubt that this photograph epitomizes all the hardship and heart ache of the Depression. But does it have a spiritual aspect?
Yes: Migrant Mother vividly portrays the human condition. It makes us think of the society we live in which “allows” this to happen. Loudly and clearly, it speaks of the strength of the human spirit needed to survive such conditions. She was a mother of seven children.
NO: I don’t want to detract from the brilliance of the photograph, but I don’t see that element of spirituality or ineffability in this photograph. What am I looking for? I want to see if the artist has created a glimpse of whatever lies beyond. Do I get a peek at the ineffable? I don’t think so. For me, it is too rooted in the here and now suffering of “this world.”This photograph by Paul Strand is called Wall Street. For me, it has a real spiritual dimension. Why? The light, the angle and the figures dwarfed by the building [the Exchange/ aren’t we all dwarfed by Wall Street?] help create this sense. But in Migrant Mother, we might say something similar—that the deep shadows lead us into contemplation of the beyond. Although technique, composition or skill may help create or highlight that spiritual sense, I think it comes from somewhere else. Where could that be?
In Strand’s photograph, I get the sense of “another world” setting. The people seem to be scurrying along almost like ants. For me, there is a glimpse of something beyond this everyday world. I couldn’t tell you what I glimpse but I just sense it [that other dimension] is there. Perhaps it’s the abstraction in the work which removes it slightly from our here and now world. Could it be that the spiritual sense I get from this photograph is created by Paul Strand from his own spiritual sense?
I started out with photography. But let’s look at a painting or two. Edward Hopper is the artist who first made me aware of depicting something “not of this world”.Here I see people almost in a state of limbo floating between two different worlds waiting for something. Could they be transfixed by something only they can see?
That gives me the spiritual sense of something lying behind the surface of life. Most of Hopper’s paintings impress me that way. Recently I learned that Hopper was a great student of Carl Jung and so perhaps the depth in his work is not surprising.
This is a painting by the artist, Norman Rockwell entitled America. Here we have a group of people all looking in the same direction. In that respect only does it remind me of Hopper’s. Does this painting have a spiritual aspect or dimension? Although they seem united in purpose and vision, I don’t sense any spiritual aspect. They appear to see something not readily apparent but, just like in the Lange photograph, Migrant Mother, their vision is solidly rooted in the here and now. They love their country and are very proud of it. They see an inspiring idea or ideal in their world.
But you may well disagree with me and that leads me to another point.
For artists, I suspect most of this creative process is unconscious. If they reach down into their own psyches, they may well bring back that glimpse of the ineffable to express in their form of art.
Readers of literature and viewers of art may well disagree whether a work has a spiritual aspect. I doubt that an artist can create unless she explores some spiritual aspect of herself.
We often hear that an artist puts something of himself [more than choice of subject matter and technical skihe artist may well have dug deep into her psyche and brought back through her art a glimpse which my friend treasures. ll] into his photograph, novel or painting. And that “something of himself” is his spirit or spiritual aspect.
But what if I see no special expression of spirituality? Does that mean it’s not there? How can that be if my friend is transfixed by the same work I have just dismissed?
What could be more personal than a sense of a spiritual dimension? TAt the same time, I may shrug and walk away. That is because the artist’s spiritual sense resonates deeply with my friend’s and not with mine.
Spirituality in a work of art doesn’t lie in the subject matter or the technical skill of the artist. It lies within the artist himself. The artist has experienced a spiritual aspect within himself and has found a way to express it through his art. His creation of his art is his exploration and expression of his spiritual nature.
I think of the artist [writer, photographer, painter or sculptor] as a searcher of that ineffable “something” which lies hidden behind the phenomenal world. In her search, by magic, she apprehends something that lies hidden from the everyday world. She has discovered “something” which is spiritually meaningful to her. The artist doesn’t necessarily know what she is looking for. But she knows when she has found it more by instinct than anything else. Reason does not help her search. That’s for later perhaps in the editing process. Her art is the expression of what she has found.
But the job isn’t done yet. When he snaps that shutter or creates that paragraph to connect the artist with the audience, then we can say it is a spiritual experience.
You may disagree with everything I have said about these photographs and paintings. If you do, it would be great if you’d set out your views in the comment box[es] below. I also like to know if you agree so please let me know.
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing. Presently, The Drawing Lesson is a Wattpad Featured novel which you can read in its entirety right here Wattpad.com