Art-making post-Trump: an affirmation of the spirit

What kind of art is likely to emerge in the wake of the Trump victory?

In a recent column in The Globe and Mail, Russell Smith offered some speculations. Protest art, yes, he said, we will see plenty of that. However, he said, “historically … It has also been the case that periods of great inequality and economic anxiety and even incipient conflict can produce the most cerebral and abstract art … art that appears to ignore economic and social questions altogether, at least on its surface, and dives instead into questions of form.”

He provided examples to back his claims:  among them Russian suprematism, Dada, conceptualism … all of them, he said, “movements that changed the history of art and so could be said to be more significant in the long run than the folk songs were.” And he concluded his column by wondering if “some other kind of artistic development, something not quite so direct—perhaps one that embraces entirely new media and new forms within them—will also emerge from this stress.”

The two characters at the centre of my current fictional work-in-progress were intrigued by his views. They agreed that it is entirely reasonable to think that new and influential forms might emerge from the current social upheavals. However, they thought it far less likely that our artists would be driven to abstraction by the new socio-political conditions.

Rather, they thought, it is more likely that our artists will take on the task of confronting the moral and ethical issues that freshly confront us. Specifically, they think, what we might see is a move toward a more overtly spiritual art, as artists look for ways that the human individual can find meaning and relevance in an increasingly chaotic and morally compromised world.

What did they mean by “spiritual” art, they asked each other? The question led to the following exchange between them:

ISABEL: We shy away from words like “spirit” and “soul”—we live in an age of cynicism—but artists throughout history haven’t been afraid to speak about the great mysteries. Artistic expression is the way humanity has always tried to make a connection with the inner spirit, the transcendent, the soul—God, in some interpretations, the motive force of the universe, love at its purest. Belief systems of all kinds have used art as a means to make this connection: not just visual art, but music, dance, words. The great galleries of the world are treasure-troves of paintings and sculptures that explore faith in all its aspects. The places of worship, too—all that statuary, all those icons, all those magnificent Madonnas and Pietas and Calvaries, all that mighty music … a panoply of adoration and warning and story-telling, meant to teach and impress—to show the common worshippers there was a reason they were on their knees.

LEFTY: But that’s out of fashion, surely, in our cynical modern world?

ISABEL: To a degree, though probably less so than you’d imagine. Yes, there has been a growing recognition that the literal interpretation of the religious stories is not necessarily the only one, a growing understanding that they are merely a kind of shop window display for the truth at the centre of things. But humanity, which gains much of its understanding from metaphor, has always needed the notion of a supreme power that can be imagined in finite terms. Many religions offer that. But religion is only a means to an end, which is to help us conceptualize whatever it is that drives existence. It probably isn’t a God at all, in the religious meaning of the term, which is what makes it so hard to grasp. Art—not just “sacred” art—in its broadest scope has always been a way to make contact with that greater power.

LEFTY: Forty years ago Robertson Davies said he thought our society was in the same state as the Roman Empire when it started to go downhill—immensely superstitious and swamped with all kinds of religions. You can certainly see that today, perhaps even more clearly than forty years ago. People are yearning for something to believe in—some way to believe. Davies said he thought what we were going to see was the emergence of a new form of religion. Does that explain the great current enthusiasm for meditation, mindfulness—the gradual understanding that the divine that we were so keen to identify in religion has in fact been around us in nature all the time?

 ISABEL: Well, lots of rational people find it hard to hold onto a conventional God in the face of all the evidence, or lack of it. The mindfulness movement is perhaps another way for decent and thoughtful people to reach the state of bliss that religion has always promised without the awkwardness of all the unanswerable questions.

LEFTY: So God is dead?

ISABEL: That’s the problem with catchy phrases. Nietzsche has a lot to answer for. People who parrot “God is dead” haven’t thought it through. The definition will be different; the means of connection will be different; but the need for the presence of a greater good, a transcendence, something we can model ourselves on, aim for, be in awe of, learn from, be improved by, is overarching and everlasting. The current rise in popularity of mindfulness and similar self-regulating techniques seems to be at least partly society’s response to the need for this kind of spiritual succour in an age of irony and doubt.

LEFTY: The contemplative religions will tell you that meditation has been a means to make contact with the transcendent for millennia. It’s not even a religion. Allen Ginsberg once asked Leonard Cohen how he could reconcile his Judaism with Zen Buddhism. Cohen said that he wasn’t looking for a new religion, that he was well satisfied with the religion he had. Zen made no mention of God; it demanded no scriptural devotion. For him, Zen was a discipline rather than a religion, a practice of investigation.

ISABEL: Precisely. An investigation of whatever it is that is at the heart of existence. Truth. Goodness. A generosity that cushions us, a force far beyond our understanding. The elemental life-force—the desire to make it possible to continue, rather than the opposite. All of which we used to call God.

LEFTY: That’s like talking about the spirituality of the earth. People say that Emily Carr’s paintings capture that. She said herself that she wanted to“to paint so simply that the common, ordinary people would understand and see something of God.” Though I’m tempted to think that sometimes a cedar is just a cedar.

ISABEL: Smart-ass. I know some of the academics don’t care much for Carr and her Pantheism, but you don’t need to be a believer. Soften the edges of your soul and let her in. You’ll be surprised at what she has to say. Lawren Harris, too, who influenced her thinking. He was all tied up with the Theosophists and Madame Blavatsky and so on—a lot of the early modernists were—but you don’t need to know any of that to pick up on the spiritual scope of his mountain paintings. Or, for that matter, the spiritual connection with the landscape that you find everywhere in the Group of Seven—that sense of an unspoken, unrevealed presence in nature—or, more locally, in Gordon Smith and Sylvia Tait and Takeo Tanabe … well, once you start looking it’s hard not to see it. Jack Shadbolt talked about his famous butterflies as symbols of “the natural and spiritual will to survive through change and transformation.” But the artist doesn’t have to point the finger: you have the power to do it yourself.

LEFTY: Sometimes hard, though, to spot that connection in some of the twentieth-century modernists. Sometimes it seems to me that they just gave up on the whole notion of human civilization—couldn’t find ways to come to terms with the horrors of it all—and let themselves drift away into abstraction, the way Smith says.

ISABEL: Not at all. Jackson Pollock was letting his subconscious respond to those horrors. His drip paintings are tools for meditation, mindfulness, if we want to use them that way. The British composer Cornelius Cardew came to SFU once and performed a piece of “music” that consisted entirely of him striking a series of suspended stones for quite a long time. He said he was looking for a return to “elemental simplicity” in our lives. The “music” he played was a way for people to clear their minds. For the time that you’re listening to the stones, you’re not being exposed to pop music. Mondrian’s lines and rectangles work the same way—he said he wanted to get to the spiritual essence of the world. Kandinsky: he was fascinated by the whole idea of the expression of the spirit in art. And many others. Sure, to judge from the lack of readable narrative or figurative content in their work, these people might seem to have thrown up their hands in despair, but they were all intensely spiritual artists.

LEFTY: What about the ones who did throw up their hands in despair? Bacon, Schiele, Grosz, Picasso’s Guernica: twisted, violent, caustic, sarcastic … showing the whole ugly underside of the human condition.

 ISABEL: It’s a tradition that certainly goes back. Bosch perhaps being the most evident example. All those medieval Last Judgments … Brueghel … Hogarth … those anguished saints  and their complicated tortures … . Delacroix … Well, we can speculate all we like about what their political messages and intentions were meant to be, but there is no doubt at all that their visions of humanity spoke—speak—about deep spiritual concerns as well. The nihilism is just a means to an end, in my view. Under it all, they’re desperate to show us the deeply compromised human soul. Clearly, it’s as important a challenge today as it ever has been. I don’t expect our artists to shirk it. The next steps, of course, are up to us.

4 thoughts on “Art-making post-Trump: an affirmation of the spirit

  1. The discourse you have crafted is fenced by certain predispositions about what art is supposed to do. Isabel and Lefty move for their examples between an assembled cast of the great and a cozy group of locals. They inhabit a narrow range of disagreement. Surely there are some others like me who find Harris’s mountain paintings not so much “spiritual” as cartoon-like, the studio forms taking on arbitrary directions or naive patterns the further they move from the rugged drawings the artist made on the spot. So presumably the people who don’t “pick up on the spiritual scope of Harris’s mountain paintings,” aren’t quite spiritual enough themselves.

    The search for meaning is always personal and subjective, and Isabel and Lefty wander through all the tendencies, placing God and mindfulness on the same plane as means of finding a “kind of spiritual succour in an age of irony and doubt.” Was there ever any age without irony and doubt? As it happens this is remarkably an age in which more people than ever are living in peace, health and relative wealth, matters of supreme human importance in which art has played no part whatsoever. Art is a great mirror, but no guide to action.

    The attempt to turn art into a religion and set up artists as a form of priesthood was a spectacular failure when the idea was at its height in the late nineteenth century. Cultivated Europe pulled itself apart, some artists egging on the catastrophe enthusiastically, after which the thinking and arty sectors supported for decades the murderous regimes of Stalin and Mao. To Leonard Cohen’s point, religion demands the suppression of the ego and action compelled by faith and morals, even to the point of self-sacrifice. Ginsberg apparently saw practice, Zen, as religion. Religion is an ever-present challenge to the self. Goodness knows it has compelled people to do monstrous things, and secularists are especially censorious about them. But there is no safe place, and certainly not in the perfumed and undemanding bosom of art. Art inflates the self. The art-loving observer, even witnessing the outrage of a great artist; a Dix, Goya, Delacroix or Grosz, considers their work in an aesthetic framework. They are much more likely to feel pleased with themselves for appreciating the aesthetic message in its historical context than they are to act on what they have learned. Confronted with abstract art they don’t get anything except the buzz, and overlook horrors lurking behind the pretty pictures. Jonathan Jones, in a recent Guardian piece, cogently outlines aspects of this problem

    There is no more divisive project than the distinctions made in art, especially between the “high” art of any day and the popular, and between what kind of degenerate really is awful. Most people observing the work of Arno Breker are going to find it a lot more palatable than that of Otto Freundlich. The masses are always suspected of picking the wrong thing when the effort to pick the right one is said to take really so little effort and education. If the search for meaning is subjective, the search for aesthetic value is relatively objective. Isabel suggests that Jack Shadbolt didn’t have to conceive of “his famous butterflies as symbols of ‘the natural and spiritual will to survive through change and transformation’… the artist doesn’t have to point the finger: you have the power to do it yourself.” Actually the works offer no greater power to understand a revelation of this kind than would observing a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. The art is something else, and Shadbolt’s butterflies are popular because they look gorgeous. There are lots of them, not because it was vital for Shadbolt to create multitudes of symbolic representations of survival through change and transformation, but because he had so many ways to develop the form gorgeously.

    And so there they are, pinned on so many Shaughnessy walls, as their owners continue to figure out how to survive successive market transformations. They are unlike the multitude of images of Christ, of the Madonna and visions of hell of earlier periods because we don’t worship butterflies, we don’t ask them to intercede with God, and we are not afraid of endless torture in the afterlife. Shadbolt’s art is in public collections because it’s subject to objective formal aesthetic judgements. Pictures of butterflies that would not pass muster with curators could have as much metaphorical significance to many observers.

    One thing is for sure, we live in a more aesthetically generous period than say, that of the Bloomsbury Group, who would marvel disdainfully at the d’Orsay, with it’s floors of florid nineteenth century art below those of the Impressionists. The thought leaders in the arts have come to terms with the popular and the sensational. Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize, “La La Land” has demonstrated the great superiority of “American in Paris” and “Singing in the Rain,” Disney Studio backgrounds have a $200 book to themselves and Jeff Koons makes millions. All to say that we can’t depend upon art to make social or political change, but it can make people feel something. That’s surely quite wonderful isn’t it? With any luck, when we think of art we won’t be thinking about Trump.


  2. Thank you for these words. I would have loved to hear the stone concert! True form for “rock” n, roll? just kidding.
    Change is always difficult. Long ago I joked that when I retired I’d become a full time protester..This seems to be a constant.
    I am inspired by the unity and clarity of the issues being addressed worldwide.
    Aren’t you?
    It’s almost as if the house is being torn down as we stand watching. Maybe this new mindfulness will prevail in the senate. Artists will always lead in arousal. And maybe the media and government will actually re-read their job descriptions. As much as I love Colbert, it’s time for Change and Authenticity.
    When I came to Canada in the 70’s I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Government for the people by the people..Progressive and intelligent politicians..(now I’m watching it evaporate slowly as I spend my time writing MLA’s and signing petitions but I still have hope.
    There is a heartwarming story in this months New Yorker magazine, about how Arnold Swartznegger tried to deregulate, and a senator did his job and took the process to court and won.
    We will all be watching and communicating. (I’m not a writer it’s 1a.m. and I’m pooped)..Thank you for the dialogue. THANKS SO MUCH!


    • Thank you Susan for this thoughtful response. Re the stone concert: you can read my brief review/diary note about it on my website, which is a dip-and-pick collection of extracts from my in-process memoirs. Look for Cornelius Cardew–and yes, I did use the rock music line.

      Re change and protest: I can only admire your strength and doggedness. Health challenges stop me doing much these days, but I’ve spent my life doing in various ways what I can to make things better. Much of the time it was hard to get much purchase for change, and I am fascinated to see how social media has brought into such clear focus the problems that have been simmering for so long: the depth of corruption, greed and hate that has been engendered all around us–fear, too, perhaps fear most of all … and not only exposed them, but provided a place where those who look for change can gather (the unity you talk about). My own dream of the eventual revolution is that it will be a peaceful one, but I wonder.

      Don’t give up on Canada. Yes, there will always be opportunist politicians willing to stir up the basest instincts, but I still believe we have a chance to lead by example. I spent a few years on Canada’s behalf at UNESCO, where 190+ nation states establish international agreements and debate the future, and while our standing there has slipped (as has the standing of UNESCO itself) I still believe that the international table is the place where we can best make a contribution. This is not the most propitious of times to do it, given the levels of mistrust among nations/cultures/beliefs, but we can’t stop trying.

      Meanwhile, I know that artists will continue to do the groundwork, the softening-up of attitudes, the expansion of understanding–the opening of minds, to put it another way–that will be so necessary to lasting change. Bravo to you for all you do.



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