Response to 3.1: Is there a Spiritual Dimension to Form? (Daniel Hill)

     I do think there can be, absolutely, a spiritual dimension to the language of form. Two corresponding experiences during the April pandemic lockdown here in New York City amplified this topic in my mind. 

    First, I chose to re-visit Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (1914) while tucked into my quarantine cocoon (coincidentally I was reminded of the book by Taney). This had been a book of profound influence on me as an undergraduate student and played a significant role in me declaring my concentration of study in the fine arts. That 20-year-old version of me was allured by words such as “spiritual” but after years of reading as much as I could on the topic, I realized the word conjures such a wide variety of definitions that its use has become quite limited. It is useful to get a general idea, but with a realm so necessarily nuanced, I hoped another word would come about. It hasn’t. 

    Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And as I re-read Kandinsky, if I updated terms to satisfy that definition, the text came alive and indeed still seems vital one hundred and nine years after being written. I had parted with the notion of “spiritual”, taking the concepts and methods of science in its stead.  Yet science with all its crowning achievements still leaves us in a world with plenty of room for improvement.  We need science to solve problems like the coronavirus.  We need art to find meaning. (By that, I mean the type I referred to in an earlier post.)  Without the moral compass provided by the arts, the future tools of science create a scenario akin to toddlers playing with blowtorches.


    Kandinsky uses the metaphor of an inner world and I find this more apt. Practicing the examined life is a very personal realm where we quietly acknowledge we all have room for improvement. One doesn’t have to look far to see examples of how callous and mean humans can be to each other when inebriated with power, greed, tribalism, and ego. Therefore, we can see that growth within this inner world is an absolute necessity if we as a species hope to navigate the stormy seas of our collective adolescence. The language of abstraction serves as functional vehicle of this inner world. Visual abstraction has the capacity of carrying no temporal, societal baggage and thus possesses the capability of being pure metaphor for those jewels of human experience that are ineffable.  Visual abstraction then becomes a mirror for the viewers mind, recording and revealing a symbolic version of our inner world. It can then be examined as a complex web of tendencies, good habits, bad habits, emotions, intellect, etc.


    Second was my experiment of making a chalkboard drawing a day during quarantine here in NYC. This proved to be of crucial importance for me during such a stressful and anxious time. For me, the drawings are inner work made visible. The process of their making, and the reflection aided by them, were an anchor for me as my family and I recovered from the virus. Below are the exhibition notes for a video montage of these drawings recently on display and also a link to the montage.


    “As the coronavirus tsunami poured through New York City in Spring 2020 and we all hunkered down in the caves of our apartments, it became apparent that short of contracting the virus, successfully coping with the fear and anxiety produced by this extraordinary moment was absolutely essential. We were told to wash our hands, eat well and exercise- but no one mentioned our minds- that most important of elements. As an educator, I tell my students that a practice of seeing and making can benefit them in surprising ways. If such practices are not of indisputable value at a moment such as this, then their place in a future society is truly in peril. No longer able to go my studio and make paintings, I salvaged my kid’s old “Melissa and Doug” chalkboard slated for the garbage in order to make room for our new cramped quarantined existence. In a spark of intuition, I decided upon a daily ritual: I would make a chalkboard drawing a day while in quarantine and post that drawing on social media everyday whether I liked the drawing or not. During one of the most difficult three week periods in memory as my family and I dealt with coronavirus-like symptoms (we later all tested positive for antibodies), this chalkboard ritual emerged as a fundamentally grounding practice which instilled doses of discipline, reflection, and meditation so necessary during this very stressful time.”




Chalkboard Drawings Daniel Hill April 2020


Taney Roniger said...

Thanks so much for this, Daniel. While I want to let others respond to your terrific project itself, I want to pick up on one thing that struck me while I was reading your post. Kandinsky did indeed talk about the inner world (meaning our inner life as individual humans),but he also talked about the spiritual in art being a conduit to a transcendent realm, the idea being, presumably, that spiritual forms act on our inner psyches to propel us into that otherworldly place. From the perspective of posthumanism, I feel like he errs on two accounts -- first, by placing so much emphasis on the private subjectivity of the individual (arguably the very subject of most modern literature and art), and second by locating the sacred in some otherworldly dimension (basically the Judeo-Christian concept of God's kingdom thinly disguised). For this reason I think he's an excellent figure to bring up; now we can ask how a posthumanist spirituality might differ. I would argue that: (1) It's time to invoke a moratorium on all talk of private subjectivity, and (2) Instead of hurling it into some fictive elsewhere, let's bring the sacred down to earth and locate it in matter! And this takes us back to Jane Bennett and her apersonal "I." Can we reconceptualize the inner life as a dispersed, intersubjective, interdependent subjectivity that's radically entangled with its earthly surroundings, and an art of the spiritual that propels us outward, away from the private self, but this time into the Great Beyond of the real earth and cosmos?

Stephanie Grilli said...

I posted about Kandinsky a few days ago. From his psycho-spiritual perspective. there certainly was a life force that coursed through all things, and he believed that the tools of modern science would allow us to see the previously unseen, the numinous. In "Point and Line to Plane," he wrote "Only by a process of microscopic analysis will the science of art lead to an all-embracing synthesis, which will ultimately extend far beyond the boundaries of art, into the realm of 'union" of the 'human' and the 'divine.'

Taney Roniger said...

Thank you for that, Stephanie. I was thinking of his Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which seemed decidedly anti-material, as I remember it.

Deborah Barlow said...

Daniel, I am so glad that you shared the link to your video montage. While the story of how it came to be is deeply personal--your particular family circumstances, the cri the coeur of the artist in limbo, the use of a child's chalkboard and all the connotations that evokes, your tender weaving of delicate images and sound--there is still a visceral sense of a shared sensibility. We have all been living through a pandemic: together, alone, collectively.

(Just a note: What types of expressions will emerge and survive as emblematic and particular to this experience? One artist/curator friend has already started assembling intergenerational, globally sourced art made during the pandemic. From what I've seen so far, it is a wild range of work.)

On the topic of Kandinsky: Personally I keep him at arm's length these days. Like most artists who came of age in the 70s, that book was sacrosanct to me as a young person. Most of my teachers, trained by Ab Ex artists, held him with undisputed regard.

But now I view Kandinsky the theorist as more of a savvy strategist than a spiritual visionary. Aside from the claims made by Hilma af Klint art historians that Kandinsky might have pilfered af Klint's earlier ideas about pure abstraction by way of Rudolph Steiner, Kandinsky does not possess the humility and devotion to a higher consciousness that characterize a true spiritual visionary. (In today's terms he would be called a thought leader, a marketer, a mansplainer.) Kandinsky is historically important for bringing these ideas into codified form, but he is not the best source on the topic now with so many other options.

I am not dismissing the valuable commentary on his work from Taney, Daniel and Stephanie. The ideas laid out in that book continue to have a rich dimensionality that far exceed Kandinsky's personal story.

Steven Baris said...

Daniel: "The language of abstraction serves as functional vehicle of this inner world. Visual abstraction has the capacity of carrying no temporal, societal baggage and thus possesses the capability of being pure metaphor for those jewels of human experience that are ineffable." I'm not sure if I should be butting in to these discussions of the panelists, but what the heck. I like this sentence despite my and others' crits on specific terms and inferences, starting (as you point out) with the very term "spiritual." Also I would question the "no societal baggage" of visual abstract language, as, for example, Madison Ave. has rather successfully co-opted it for its own ends. As you know from our discussions, my interests tend toward the mystery artists' processes as much or more than the putative content. Everything about your chalkboard series--the drawings themselves, your description of the experience, and way you presented them--wonderfully manifests this.

Taney Roniger said...

Daniel, I just watched your video again, having not seen it since you posted it on Facebook last spring. Such evocative forms, and so perfect with the brooding and foreboding, slightly vertiginous music. The still image at the end should be a large-scale print. I can't help but note the resemblance between these forms and the ones Jon just posted!

Daniel Hill said...

Taney: My reference to Kandinsky does not mean that I adhere to all that you conjure of his ideas- most decidedly not. The reason for bringing him up is simply the notion that any human being can experience inner growth and a deeply meaningful connection to creativity through the language of visual abstraction and metaphor. I find Kandinsky not so interesting beyond that. But I employed this kind of method during an extremely stressful time with the chalkboard drawings, and it worked very well for me. The meaning I found might be subjective, but the process is not.

If I can understand this post-humanist world (must admit to still sticking on this term) perhaps I am thinking of it from the opposite end. In my response to Charles, I referred to the distinction between a top-down system and a bottom-up. Our current top-down structure is based on a central authority evoking the zeitgeist which then is passed down to the next rank and so forth until you finally reach the average human. The best example, and maybe a big part of the source of this structure, is the Roman Catholic church’s hierarchy of the pope > cardinals > archbishops > bishops, etc.

I think much of our problems arise due to trying to fit a technologically advanced (and growing) society into this outdated antiquated top-down structure. The question arises: could this dominate top-down system itself be the prime instigator of our human centeredness? I think it plays a significant role as it amplifies the individual ego and promotes a lust for power. I think we cannot move past a human-centered worldview until we move past an ego-centered worldview first.

I think art goes back so far in human history that it is innate. But we are not using it properly. If every human being was taught from a young age how to have a deep immersive creative practice with, an inner world or spiritual component, we would likely find a lessening of the ego. Even if not, it at least puts creativity in a bottom-up, distributed position that allows the emergence principle a chance to do its magic. (Stephen Hawking called emergence/complexity theory the science of the 21st century for a good reason.)

If creativity was in every human beings’ life- and I mean a genuine disciplined creative practice- we could then bring art out of the galleries and museums and into our lives- intimately- where it should be. Then art would be with us in its making (verb) and in its presence (noun). In this way, our post human concerns could be discovered as an emergent property from the bottom up, by individuals engaged in personal meaningful creative practices.

This perspective functions a bit like the Mandelbrot fractal: the deeper you go, the more you find. And by going within, one finds the outer world manifested. Metaphors are the lingua franca of the realm. Also, this employs direct personal experience. If the concepts require the reading of books as the primary/sole source, I am afraid those concepts will be unlikely to take root. Direct personal experience should play a role, for it provides a practice of discovery, which eventually leads to the books. This perspective has as a goal to expand the realm of art to every human being- for which the resonance of direct personal experience is elemental, understandable, and achievable. Granted this will not happen unless we have some serious reformation in how art is both considered and taught.

Daniel Hill said...

Thank you Stephanie for that comment and quote. Interesting quote by Kandinsky. I have not read "Point, Line, and Plane"- maybe I should check it out. And its been hard for me to read everything here, but I really like some things you said and want to go back and catch up on your posts.

Daniel Hill said...

Deborah- thanks for the comment. I tend to agree with you about Kandinsky. When I was in art school, we were taught that he basically invented abstraction! But now we see Hilma af Klint was making incredible work before him. And we also find that abstraction exists in caves dating back tens of thousands of years. So Kandinsky seems less significant for sure. But he was a big influence when I was in my 20's and I see some of my students really connecting with his work as well.

As far as "What types of expressions will emerge and survive as emblematic and particular to this experience?"- do you mean the pandemic? Or my chalkboard experiment? If the pandemic- wow- that is going to be a big one! I am hoping it plays out in favor of the independent artist having more control over their career, exhibition opportunities, and collaborations. The old system appears to be breaking down, and I say good riddance! I feel like a broken record, but again, we need a more distributed system to the art world than the tired old top-down hegemony.

Daniel Hill said...

Thanks Steven- and you are welcome to comment! Indeed your point is well taken in regards to abstraction being co-oped by the upper echelon for its own ends. But if one considers visual abstraction as an artifact of specific cognitive states, the eye/brain which is highly sophisticated information processing duo can, with some effort, distinguish between the motive of a true artistic inquiry and one that isn't. I made sure to phrase that sentence as "has the capacity"- for it doesn't mean it always does! But for instance take the abstract painting in El Castillo Cave (The Tectiform Corner)- we have no idea what this is referencing. It contains little of its society other than context and materials (which does tell us quite a bit). But on a visceral, tacit level- it is a time machine and we receive information directly through the vast expanse of time. Can anyone say what that message is? No, but in my opinion all we need to know is that it exists. It emphasizes that this is a language- a lexicon- that stretches back thousands of years. The motive to make these paintings becomes the subject for us.