In my last article (You Need Art!), I explored the connection between art and psychological wellbeing, how it might help us navigate this period of extreme stress. In this installment, I want to delve into another important area of human experience in which art can play a central role—our sense of spirit.
This pandemic has starkly condensed our world, we are constantly considering what it is we truly need in order to survive. Governments too are assessing priorities, especially when it comes to granting access to public spaces. Not surprisingly, there has been enormous pressure to reopen houses of traditional religious worship. Communities all over the globe are sending clear messages to their leaders—people want/need outlets for the expression of their spirituality and faith, even if there is an associated risk.
However, not all who seek spiritual nourishment find it in chapels but rather in galleries, theaters and concert halls. Large numbers of people gain solace and inspiration from contact with the arts. For us, the language of art—the ideas and feelings expressed in its various forms—is our preferred version of ritual, our means by which to articulate hopes, fears and dreams. Months of separation from the direct experience of art has come at a cost, we are suffering from a lack of spiritual subsistence. The artist Meydad Eliyahu describes it best when he states that it is like a “dryness” that affects both body and soul.
I realize that some of you are doubtful, if not outright dismissive of this equivalency between art and religion–after all, how can a person get the same meaningful sustenance from a concert or a set of paintings as they can from words and music that are religious in nature? Well, I’m here to tell you that for me and many humans like me that is exactly the case. You see, there’s a spectrum when it comes to spiritual nourishment; some of us require a ‘mono-diet’ of one form or another, while most are ‘omnivores’, falling along a continuum on the artistic-religious spectrum.
Art viewing institutions have long been associated with spirituality. In the West, they were originally intended as sites to view holy objects (called ‘relics’), often housed in awe-inspiring cathedral-like structures. In the 19th century museums were deconsecrated and emphasis was place on offering public access to objects of beauty as a means to educate, elevate and improve. In the 20th century, a secularized vision of spirituality was returned to art spaces, promoting a contemplative, reflective environment. Each of these eras has left its mark. Today, the world’s greatest architects construct jaw-dropping edifices meant to pull us in and fill us with wonderment. Arts spaces become windows into a world of new possibilities and through them we are inspired to be better versions of ourselves.
There are many ways in which art museums are spiritual. Visiting them, we encounter the grand story of human ingenuity and industry. We experience different civilizations and manifestations of the human experience. We not only get the breadth of our story, but can also dive in deep, seeing how imagination and human determination have shaped our species. All this allows us to feel that we are part of something larger than ourselves. We become more keenly aware of just how much humanity is capable of accomplishing. We are touched by the universality of feelings and experiences we see in the art. We come into contact with the energy of creativity, that mysterious combination of imagination and mastery out of which amazing things are produced.
Rabbi Sivan Maas, head of Israel’s Secular Humanist Jewish movement, sees in art museums spaces for community building. She notes that artists, curators, volunteers and staff congregate on a daily basis, setting a welcoming tone for visitors. Families, classes and groups of tourists share a communal experience of seeing art and discussing aspects of the human condition. Rabbi Maas is fond of using the Israel Museum as a place to hold Bat or Bar Mitzvah ceremonies. Through it, a celebrant can demonstrate mastery and maturity by sharing the story of their people and commit to forging their own link in the connective chain.
Curator Timna Seligman reflecting on her role in forming community through art, sees in it parallels to the work of clergy. Both, she believes, are responsible for curating experiences, guiding people on journeys of thinking and feeling, experiencing themselves and the world around them in profound ways.
For most of us, the really poignant spiritual possibilities of art spaces emerge from our private encounters with the works on display. Artist Jacqueline Nicholls explains that unlike structured religious services, art viewing offers an open-ended, independent opportunity for reflection and inspiration. One can move freely, spend as much or as little time with a piece, allow an entire gallery to ‘wash over’ or linger with a single piece that feels especially moving.
Artist Andi Arnovitz begins her at viewing ritual by removing all distractions and entering a “slower everything… breathing, one pauses before a great work of art, one reflects and very often, one is moved deeply.” Timna Seligman describes her process in similar terms, a “long, slow exhale” meant to release and give focus. To me, this is reminiscent of the Hassidic hitbodedut ritual where one withdraws from the external world in order to make space for spiritual energy.
Tamar Avishai, art historian and creator of “The Lonely Pallette” podcast, has dedicated her career to giving us (whom she lovingly refers to as “the masses”) greater access to art. She believes that a spiritual moment can stem from “The earnest, soulful relationship that a visitor develops with an art object”. Tamar admits that getting there is not always easy. We need to open up and let go of the false assumption that we are ignorant, unable to see what we are ‘supposed’ to so that we can embark on a voyage with the art. Each work takes us down a unique path, they were created to draw us in and draw out from us different things. Some are open-ended, abstract with no obvious subject matter; we are partners in creating meaning. Others are more specific, working out issues or making statements. Here, we witness and are free to relate or react to the topics from our own experience.
Tamar says that:
Regardless of the painting, any artwork that makes you stop in front of it has the capacity (and the privilege) to get under your skin… Once you’re there and the connection begins to form, I think something truly transcendent can take place. And the crucial piece…is that it’s coming from you. What the artwork is grabbing a hold of in you. When I think of any spiritual experience I’ve ever had, in a museum or a temple…it’s because I was relaxed enough to let my thoughts soften, dive into my own memories, and tap into a feeling of deepest poignancy. The environment, text, chanting, artwork – they were tools to allow me to go more deeply into myself, like when warmed-up muscles allow for a deeper stretch. And a good museum experience relaxes and stimulates the visitor to tap more deeply into themselves and then builds on itself, opening our interior aperture to let more and more light in, until we look up high and realize that we’ve built our own interior cathedrals…And that, to me, is how we realize our souls have been spoken to.
For me (and many folks) art is faith. It is community, it is transcendence—it is connection with truth. It is the expression of the human condition; a protest against our worst inclinations, a celebration of our best. It allows us to find our place in the chain of human history; we see its past and envision its future. Through art we can connect with all that is elemental to our existence—pain, joy, fear, hope, disgust, the sensual, the ugly and the beautiful. Art spaces are for us tabernacles; they give us room to congregate, to process and to just be.
As I write this, some art museums have reopened in Israel. This is welcome news, though far from satisfying. Performance arts spaces remain closed–some may never recover. Those who find spiritual nourishment (or livelihoods) in these sanctuaries remain bereft.
There is work to be done. In the next installment, I’ll discuss the ways in which art spaces can and must improve in order to fulfill their mandate as psycho-spiritual centers and to allow greater access to all who might benefit from them.
Many thanks to those who helped me in the creation of this piece,
If you want to see what others are saying about art and spirituality check out: