A great debate has been
making the rounds in artistic arenas for at least a decade
now in relation to the question, "Whatever
happened to beauty?"
According to the critic Arthur C. Danto in his 2003 book,
The Abuse of Beauty, beauty rarely came up in art periodicals
from the 1960s on "without a deconstructive snicker." He
asks provocatively, “How can beauty, since Renaissance
times assumed to be the point and purpose of the visual arts,
have become artistically contraindicated to the point of
phobia in our own era?” Danto attributes the origins
of this phobic response to the Dadaists in Zurich, who, in
1922, pronounced beauty dead as a moral protest against the
ugliness of war. In noisy defiance of the horrors unfolding
on the world scene, Dadaists refused to make beautiful objects
for the gratification of those they held responsible for
the Great War. Creating beauty was considered tantamount
to sleeping with the enemy.
By all rights, anyone could argue that in our own globally
challenged and terror-stricken times, when bleakness colors
the world emotionally, the world is more than ripe for another
massive rejection of beauty. As a culture, it would seem
that we have lost much more than just the outward scintilla
and sparkle of beauty. What we have lost is the ability to
feel the divine in all things. Institutionalized religion
in our lifetimes has once again become a war-making tool.
How, then, do we get past our embarrassment about God? Everything
in modern society has progressed except our spiritual understanding.
We have yet to learn, for instance, that we can't survive
without beauty, and that the loss of it is killing us. But
before offering up any big Molly Bloom “yes” to
its recovery, we ought to ask what really matters today about
beauty. In what ways is it important? Is its influence conservative
or innovative? And why is the modern world so indifferent
to the spiritual power of beauty?
This exhibition is not, after all, just "about beauty." In
the confrontation between the oppressive and tyrannical fundamentalisms
of today—Muslim and capitalist Christian, each convinced
that its view of the world is the only legitimate and true
one—what we find here is an elaborate and personal
message from artists who work from a different level of consciousness—a
consciousness of inclusivity and interconnectedness that
appreciates and honors the contributions of all cultures.
The art presented here is "worldcentric": it embodies
an expansive and nuanced spirituality, liberated from rigid
ideologies and the stultifying dogmas of organized religion.
Let us say that it explores ways to weep beauty back into
the footprint of our flat, pragmatic, one-dimensional world.
Pivotal to my own sense of the meaning of beauty is a deeper
mystical awareness that beauty is linked to the recovery
of awe. Specific worldviews stifle or promote the cultivation
of awe: ours openly avoids it, preferring logical, linear
modes of knowing. We are immune to awe in our institutions.
How, then, do we learn to practice awe in our lives? And
if we don't already feel it, how can we awaken it? Maximizing
flow and abundance and all the wonderful nuances of life,
how do we recover what Umberto Eco calls "lay religiosity?"
Awe-based consciousness instills mystery, magnificence,
and bedazzlement into the pale, inert plurality of our material-minded
society. “Ultimately what most satisfies the soul,” Thomas
Moore has written, “is that which is captivating, spellbinding,
and full of charm.” Sensitivity to enchantment is the
common theme that unifies all the art in this exhibition:
seeing the whole of creation as a single living organism,
self-creating, flowing, abundant, and imbued with a deep
In a world that mistrusts and rejects magic, the making
of altars and shrines affords noble, wild prospects for the
soul as an expression of the way we arrange things. You can
make an inspired one with nothing more than the glow of a
single marigold, your love of a handmade doll, or the ash
heaps generated by prayer. Making altars has nothing to do
with making a living. Altars are not an aid to careers in
the marketplace. Beloved objects cross-fertilize, combine,
inspire, and grow into something new and fantastic. Altars
have talismanic power, nudging us toward an older, half-forgotten
mode of consciousness. They speak the language of enchantment.
T. Hanson, well-known for his earlier photographs of damaged
landscapes and toxic wastelands across America—the
inevitable consequence, he now believes, of our working without
imagination and affection—has switched
over to what he calls “a geography of hope,” photographing ritual
spaces that humans around the globe create to express what they hold most sacred.
These images range from primitive rural shrines to ornate temples and abandoned
In their ritual work designed to focus attention on protecting
the environment, Fern Shaffer and Othello Anderson, who have
been collaborating as artists since 1980, view the earth
itself as sacred, invoking it as an altar and transmitting
healing energy to specific landscapes under threat. Wearing
a garment of raffia and string, Shaffer dances herself into
a visionary state and offers prayers. The artists have written
about their work: "We recognize the forest in which
to meditate. We recognize the necessity of lighting the fire.
We acknowledge the importance of special prayer. We understand
the imperative of listening. We believe it is helpful to
believe in miracles. As we love and protect ourselves so
shall we love and protect the earth."
For Kathy Pinkerton, making altars is based in a love of
this world. They allow an appreciation for the world's spirituality
that does not have to be part of institutionalized religion.
You don't need a creed or a definable god to feel the presence
of the divine in all things. "Altars are my ultimate
art because I use everything I have absorbed from my entire
life for them," she says. "In return they provide
healing, play, joy, and spirituality."
In the language of enchantment, nothing is "merely" random.
There is an underlying order to the universe, and if you
are able to attune to its natural flow, you will find the
webs of connection, the sympathy that exists between things:
the linking principle that integrates spirit and matter.
Composing by means of these "fractal explosions of interconnectedness," represents,
for Hank Foreman, a way of "allowing all the different
facets of my personality to come into play, so I can be religious
and scandalous at the same time."
Opening to shakti-life as a flow of energy and consciousness
often hauls Jane Vance Siegle's work off to heaven. With
her multiple metaphors and colliding images, all the realms
mix and merge in a radiant form of free expression. Imagery
grows with the excess, profusion, and fertility of a plant. "I
remember a time," she says, "walking down a single
street in India and thinking, wow, this man is working as
if in the Bronze Age; ah, this is pre-history; here's a cyber-café;
here's the eighteenth century; here's colonial England. There
were all these simultaneous moments in history, not to mention
races and religions, tolerating each other well, without
judgment, without condescension, and with some understanding
of each others’ talents and traditions. Those layers,
co-existing in one place, have always seemed to me like healthy
bio-diversity, and are represented in my paintings in the
melange and sheer profusion of imagery."
In the language of enchantment, there is this sense of a
living continuum that cannot be cut up or divided because
of the symbiotic interactions and interpenetrations of everything
within it. The lexicon is enormously wide, its spheres of
reference global. Everywhere, categories overlap. Surprise
synchronistic connections lead us into spell-binding ecstasy.
Things configure in their own way, woven together as if in
some divine aesthetic kaleidoscope. This is not doctrinal
religious practice, but an aspect of "opening to shakti"—the
dynamic life force that animates everything. One could say
that these works are beautiful, except that the word itself
all but vanishes in the glittering of a thousand refractions.
Beauty here is not an end in itself, but has become a conduit
for the living reality of signs and wonders and meaningful
coincidences. Allusive repetitions come into play, and the
world is no longer lifeless, inert, and without soul. Penetrated
by powerful rhythms and by "the pattern which connects," with
unparalleled cunning, it comes back to life.
Suzi Gablik is an art critic, artist and
teacher. She is the author of The Re-enchantment of
Art and Conversations Beyond the End of Time.