Essay 13 1/2: Sources and Critiques of Sources

As I’ve said before, one of the biggest tasks I saw for myself in writing about my work was to find ways to talk about it and how the work relates to what can be called spiritual practices in a way that didn’t come across as flaky or sound new agey. I wanted to be able to talk about my work in a way that had academic rigor but I also wanted to do it without too much jargon. My goal was to find words to talk about my work that nonspecialists would be able to understand, but that at the same time wouldn’t be dismissed by specialists as lacking rigor. I wanted to find out what academic writing on the subject of spirituality in art was like in the 1980s, a time when relativism was becoming popular, and to find out who, in the twentieth century, was considered to have made so-called “spiritual” art. To this end, as part of my preparatory research, I read Roger Lipsey’s book An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art, published in 1988 by Shambala.

While I found Lipsey’s book interesting, I also found that it seemed to follow the standard modernist trope of tracing the course of spirituality in art from the perspective of pure abstraction, primarily through painting. His interest seems to have been in artists who were not followers of any orthodox religious traditions, and those who had studied—or identified themselves with—orthodox traditions but then moved away from them later in life. He includes theists and nontheists, but any time one of his subject artists talks about or otherwise wanders into religious territory Lipsey seems to go out of his way to defend or otherwise rationalize this as a kind of straying from the path.

Additionally, his omission—with a few exceptions, among them Henry Moore, Jim Dine, and William Bailey—of figurative and representational artists such as Chagall and Rouault as well as all of the Surrealists seemed strange to me. There may be valid academic reasons for these omissions. If anything Lipsey appears to omit figurative artists when he talks about the abstractionists of the first half of the twentieth century—except for Moore—and then reintroduces figurative work when talking about art from the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps it is because representation was not seen as innovative early in the century, but became viewed as such later on when practiced in this later period when abstraction and conceptual art had become the norm. I’m not well-read enough to speculate about this beyond what I’ve already said. I’m simply going to voice my opinion that there appear to be gaps in Lipseys scholarship.

I also feel that the omission of all but a few figurative and representational artists was shortsighted in light of the fact that many artists working today—and I assume the same for those working twenty years ago when Lipsey wrote the book—are at heart interested in the act of painting which is often a contemplative or meditative practice.

Around 2000, Canadian artist Laureen Marchand suggested to me the idea that though landscape painters are interested in the landscape, it in fact serves as an excuse, so to speak, just to play with paint. They are unwilling to completely eliminate subject matter and engage in this play with purely abstract forms. But this isn’t a cop-out. These artists see pure abstraction as its own tradition and for various reasons choose not to pursue it. They are formalists, interested in solving the “problems” of composition, movement, colour, and such, and use the landscape —or the human figure, or the still life, or any other recognizable imagery—as the vehicle for this problem-solving. Lipsey actually talks about something similar to this when he says

… artists have returned to the sonnet-like world of the Cubist collage to find out new things about it. The fundamental act of ordering, undistracted by the demands of realism, has retained its appeal. Such works return both artist and viewer to a contemplative simplicity in which all that matters is consciousness: the artist’s receptive and shaping consciousness, the viewer’s ability to grasp the order created by the artist and delight in it. (Lipsey 1988, 64)

I believe that what Lipsey says here is exactly what Marchand described and can apply to any art practice regardless of whether the work is abstract, representational, or somewhere in between.

Some of Lipsey’s quotes—from an assortment of the twentieth century’s most prominent and influential artists—could have come straight out of a Japanese aesthetics guide. His ignorance or ignoring of this link is astounding in light of the fact that he quotes two artists of Japanese heritage and fails—in my opinion—to sufficiently explore the cultural roots of their ideas. But perhaps it is unfair for me to criticize Lipsey for being unaware of Japanese concepts of aesthetics, especially considering the fact that many of these concepts are new to me.

In any case, to balance Lipsey’s modernist perspective—and as a sort of “know thine enemy” strategy—I started reading a couple of source books in postmodernist thought. “Postmodernism” as a movement or an idea is difficult to define. The following passage, from the introduction to the article “Postmodernism” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, does a good job of representing the challenge:

That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.

The term “postmodernism” first entered the philosophical lexicon in 1979, with the publication of The Postmodern Condition by Jean-Fran√ßois Lyotard. (Aylesworth 2005) [Aylesworth’s emphasis]

While this introduction is dense, filled with specialized terminology, and is difficult to parse, its readability is like a children’s picture book compared to some of the ideas the rest of the article refers to. In my more glib moments I tend to see the core of postmodernist thought as based on the central premise that nothing is true, but everything might be, and that regardless of its truth, everything is relative. There is a certain kind of postmodernist logic that would conclude that I shouldn’t make grand, all-encompassing statements, but the arguments eventually devolve into a circularity that makes it difficult—if not impossible—to get any work done. I look at some of these issues in Essay 11 (Hybrid Identity and Postcolonial Buttheads), especially in Note 1 about Orientalism.

Coming back to my research into postmodernism, the main book I looked at was Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, edited by Brian Wallis, and published in 1984 by The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. I know it’s not comprehensive, but I knew I had to start somewhere. It’s heavy stuff. Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, among others. Hmmmmm… a bunch of French intellectuals. Are they white? Are they male? Are they dead?1 Maybe not at the time they were writing, but they sure write as if they have no connection to their bodies. I’m sure many of the others—Kathy Acker, Rosalind Krauss, and Lucy R. Lippard among them—will be familiar names to those who have read in this area more deeply than I have.

As well as the challenges of reading this often heavy theory, there is some difficulty in getting a good perspective solely from documents that were central to the origin of the postmodernist “movement.” That there has been a lot of work in the field since the first publication of a lot of my primary sources—and the fact that defining the term “postmodernism” is still the subject of heated debate—created challenges of their own. Many of the papers I read gave me a sense of the times but gave a poor overview of the historical period. And some of the ideas in the papers I was reading are history, in the sense that the ideas contained therein lived, died, and are now buried, so to speak. What I realized in hindsight was that I should have first looked online, where there are many good introductory articles giving a variety of perspectives on the subject often with a great deal more clarity that the original documents that catalyzed the movement. Specifically, Gary Aylesworth’s above-quoted essay on the topic in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a reasonably balanced overview.

Having now looked at a reasonable sampling of postmodernist literature—not limited to what I’ve specifically noted here—I realize that many of my ideas have parallels with postmodernist concepts but many are tied to the modernist worldview. Still others are not anchored in any flavour of Western cosmology. Much as any other area of my practice, I continue to absorb and assimilate ideas that I find relevant and discard those that are not, regardless of their encompassing ideologies.

In addition to these major sources, I read web sources too numerous to mention. As I mentioned in my introduction to this suite of essays, Wikipedia has much, little, or no academic credibility depending on who you ask and which article you’re looking at. Nonetheless, it was instrumental in giving me a starting point or refresher for a number of topics. If the overview provided by Wikipedia wasn’t sufficient I tried to find more credible or thorough sources. On a similar level, though slightly more credible level than Wikipedia, was the motley assortment of art-historical coffee-table books from my local library. These were patchy in their methods and usefulness, but contained some gems of information.

The excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which I’ve already mentioned, provided thorough introductions—and beyond—to a number of subjects. While looking for information on other topics I was lucky to chance upon its articles on Japanese aesthetics and the Kyoto School of philosophers. Though these two areas of philosophical enquiry are only loosely related—primarily through their being geographically located in Japan—both provided a reasonably clear window into ideas that I was trying to invent terminology for. Graham Parkes’ article “Japanese Aesthetics” helped me make the link between spirituality in Western practices and various Japanese aesthetic concepts. The various articles on the Kyoto School of twentieth-century philosophy, though not directly related to anything I discuss here, gave me an alternative to the prevailing postcolonial ideas—usually set forth as binary oppositions—about the way cultures and intellectual ideas can influence each other.2 My only critique of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is that there is too much interesting stuff in it, and that despite this, I want the editors to find authors for the articles which have not yet been assigned, especially the articles covering East Asian topics.

Finally, although I read a great many sources from which citations did not make it into—and were not needed in—the final version of these essays, I have not provided a bibliography simply because listing the hundreds of online articles I read would be a task on too grand a scale for someone who simply wants to return to studio practice.


  1. This is an attempt at humour, referring to a comment I make in the introduction to Essay 2 (Between Abstraction and Representation) about the evolution of my practice, where I refer to an attitude I call “anti-dead-white-man-ism” that was coming into vogue when I was in art school. ^
  2. The philosophers of the Kyoto School were grounded in East Asian thought but had extensive Western training. In contrast to a great deal of East-West intellectual interaction, rather than striving for a kind of cultural purity—or attempting to mimic the West—they created a hybrid philosophy that used many Western methods to supplement Eastern traditions in their philosophical explorations. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article,

    The Kyoto School is a group of 20th century Japanese philosophers who developed original systems of thought by creatively drawing on the intellectual and spiritual traditions of East Asia, those of Mah√¢y√¢na Buddhism in particular, as well as on the methods and content of Western philosophy. (Davis 2006)

    But rather than grafting Western ideas onto Eastern ones,

    …not only is the Western influence on their thought more than skin deep, their philosophies are far too original to be straightforwardly equated with traditional Eastern thought. Insofar as they can be identified as East Asian or Mah√¢y√¢na Buddhist thinkers, this must be understood in the sense of having critically and creatively developed these traditions in philosophical dialogue with Western thought. It should be kept in mind that their primary commitment is not to a cultural self-expression, or even to a dialogue between world religions, but rather to a genuinely philosophical search for truth. (Davis 2006) [Davis’ emphasis]

    After having read so much postmodernist theory in which intellectual strategies are pitted against each other, this hybrid approach—wherein tools are recognized for their utility rather than for their novelty or geography, and used rather than criticized—was a refreshing discovery for me.
    The Kyoto School is not without its critics, especially those who look at Japanese imperialism, its supporters, and the resulting policies during World War II. But regardless of their ideological missteps—some of which appear to be arguable from many directions—the Kyoto School philosophers provide a useful model for what I am going to call intercultural intellectual activity. ^