Essay 3: Contemplation and Spirituality

or, How to talk about the ineffable without coming across as a flake

One of my biggest challenges in talking about my work is to talk about the ineffable, a phenomenon I’ve defined in Essay 1 (Imagery) as “something beyond words.” Aspects of my work go into territory that can be described as spiritual, but this is an inadequate word. My work is not the pseudo-mysticism of new age flakes sitting around crystals and communing with nondenominational higher powers. It is not the mystic visions of Jesus that we find in pre-Reformation Christianity. It is not the contact with other worlds that we find in visionary art or drug-induced states. It is not the shamanic journeying that we find in aboriginal cultures.1 I know how I feel about my work, know that it has historical connections to things that are more strongly grounded—intellectually and philosophically—than the vague handwaving that passes for spirituality in much of what I term the post-secular West. My research goal was to figure out where my work and ideas fit, and to find well-reasoned support material for my views. I hoped this would enable me to speak about the work and practices in a credible and authoritative way.

These days the term “spiritual,” in addition to—or perhaps because of—its connection to “new-age-ism,” has connotations of an absence of critical thought. Add to this the phenomenon of religious fundamentalists invoking spirituality as they declare themselves to be creating faith-based communities, and it becomes clear why the term carries too much baggage for me to want to use it. The word is too vague to be useful, akin to describing a restaurant menu as “Hot Asian.” How do you define it? Temperature? Spiciness? Popular with the trendy people? What part of Asia? And so on. In the same way, the term “spiritual” can be applied to my work, but I don’t see it as the core of my practice.

Yes, I have a very contemplative practice, and I use otherworldly imagery. I try to evoke the ineffable, and thus my work borders on visionary. But as I noted above, “visionary” is another word that carries enough baggage to ground a military-grade transport plane. Outside of their primary communities these words “visionary” and “spiritual” often reduce the credibility of statements that follow, and usually raise more questions and criticisms than they answer. They connote a happy-clappy, rose-tinted all-is-well-with-the-world kind of feel-good sensibility—to some observers a lack of sensibility—or a hedonistic attitude towards altered states of consciousness, neither of which are the focus of my work. Picasso described this inadequacy of language about the word “sacred” when he said

We ought to be able to say that word, or something like it, but people would take it the wrong way, and give it a meaning it hasn’t got. We ought to be able to say that such and such a painting is as it is, with its capacity for power, because it is “touched by God.” But people would put a wrong interpretation on it. And yet it’s the nearest we can get to the truth. (Picasso in Lipsey 1988, 19)

Much as loaded symbolism can cause confusion—an issue I discuss in the Iconography and Symbolism section of Essay 1 (Imagery)—loaded words are often easy to misinterpret. Because of this shortcoming of language I am cautious about using words like “sacred” or “spiritual” in talking about my work. This caution comes specifically from the fact that these words have so many meanings that come to mind before the meanings I intend. And being so vague also makes the primary meanings differ from one person to the next. Another artist who has experienced this conundrum is painter William Bailey, who

is said to dissociate his work from the spiritual in art, and rightly so if the spiritual is understood, as it often is, to substitute wooly thinking for a direct encounter with sensuous experience. That is not Bailey’s spirituality. His paintings convey a stripped-down spirituality… a reverent attention that reveals both how the world is and how the artist is before it. This spirituality is not an “answer” to the enigmas of experience; it is a concentrated willingness to question, observe, and feel the state of affairs. (Lipsey 1988, 426)

My work is not necessarily about spirituality, but contains an awareness that everyday observable materiality is only one layer of reality. This is not the same as Platonic and/or Neo-platonic dualism, which I sometimes invoked in earlier artist statements when referring to the influence of medieval beliefs on my work. Neo-platonism, a recurring theme in twentieth-century art, can be described as “the intuition of two worlds, the near one of surface appearance and individual ignorance, the far or high one of the universal to which we may gain access through inwardness.” (Lipsey 1988, 67) This division of the world into two parts was a foundation of much medieval thought, where the two worlds were the material world and heaven. I should say that while I don’t believe in a literal interpretation of this dualism, the phenomena of sacred space and various types of meditative activity lead me to believe that we can enter “other worlds” by cultivating awareness of our surroundings and state of mind.

Throughout the twentieth century, artists explored ideas that they could not put into words. This search for an expression of the ineffable—often manifested as abstract work—was often described in Neo-platonic terms and linked with spiritual exploration. Pioneering abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky’s book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, was first published in 1911. Since then many artists have used his example, as well as his quasi-religious language, to talk about work that is often secular. Lipsey provides an excellent description of what these artists were exploring:

The spiritual makes itself known slowly in the course of that work. It needn’t even be called “the spiritual,” but words of some kind will be found to describe an intelligence, a vitality, a sense of deliverance from pettiness and an arrival at dignity that always seem a gift. It includes a perception of grandeur in the world at large, which cannot help but strike one as sacred, quite beyond oneself and yet there to be witnessed and even shared in. (Lipsey 1988, 9)

In our rational, technologically-mediated age, these concerns have become unfashionable, and are often called into question because they cannot easily be analyzed and quantified through the scientific method. But the sheer number of people embracing religion or trying to find—either on their own or by looking to other cultures—spiritual paths that are not traditionally Western, is testament to the fact that though discredited by the techo-rationalist mainstream, these beliefs in unmeasurable phenomena have by no means disappeared. Lipsey talks about painter Henri Matisse and how

the word “Buddhism” served Matisse to indicate a certain inwardness that must have struck him as rare in Western culture, an inwardness that he experienced but could not confirm against familiar cultural markers in the West. Like [sculptor Constantin] Brancusi, Matisse reached above all for a satisfactory empirical answer to the riddle of sacred art in an irreligious era. It would have to be enough in our time to work well and bring forth art “helped by someone,” as he said. Sacred art requires no great elaboration of theory, but it requires a practice. He knew that the best he offered was spiritual in content even if it was not linked to a formal religion or path. (Lipsey 1988, 256) [Lipsey’s emphasis]

If the twentieth century was characterized by secularization, then recent history indicates that while traditional belief systems no longer apply the way they once did, the materialism we have replaced them with is also inadequate to fully address our interaction with the world. For this reason I call ours a post-secular society.

Over and over, Lipsey brings forth examples of the spiritual in twentieth century art. This is unsurprising given that exploration of this theme is the central premise of his book. But I wonder about his agenda in his practice of simultaneously trotting out examples, and then immediately couching them in terms that remove any religious trappings or rationalize any ideas based in traditions of organized religion. I think this must be a defense mechanism, one inherent in the writings of the artists whom he cites. I see it as an attempt by Lipsey to disarm atheistic critics who might dismiss any discussion of the spiritual as “wooly thinking,” and at the same time to remove the possibility of some pious adherent to an organized religion taking these artists and their thoughts as ammunition in an evangelical crusade. As well, there might be religious politics or anti-religious motivations at play here, but they are never overtly stated.

Lipsey’s dance around religion is no more apparent than when talking about sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
2 Lipsey says that “Asked whether art without the support of a spiritual teaching is an adequate means of refining the individual, Noguchi responded in terms that acknowledge Zen, without identifying with it.” (Lipsey 1988, 355) He goes on to quote Noguchi directly:

I don’t think that art comes from art. A lot of artists apparently think so. I think it comes from the awakening person. Awakening is what you might call the spiritual. It is a linkage to something flowing very rapidly through the air, and I can put my finger on it [he raises his finger as if to connect with something above him] and plug in, so to speak. Do artists need a spiritual way or do they need art? You can say that one is the same as the other. Everything tends toward awakening, and I would rather use the word awakening than a word derived from some system—because there are many systems. (Noguchi in Lipsey 1988, 355) [Lipsey’s brackets and emphasis]

I really like what Noguchi says here. It sums up my ideas about intuition and connectedness, about contemplation and awareness of the world around us. Artists have no need to blindly follow a path of doctrine and dogma in order to experiencing the ineffable because our art has the same origin or takes us to the same place. Perhaps this is the real reason Lipsey is uncomfortable with connecting art practice to religion. In my own case, I find that bringing religion into the conversation adds a great deal of institutionalized baggage which gets in the way of discussion. Because of this baggage, I tend to distance myself from organized religion. Furthermore my own beliefs are not anchored in any one specific tradition. While my own work may sometimes evoke elements from specific areas of doctrine, it is not about doctrine.

I think that the notion of the artist finding a parallel path to religious experience might be at the root of why I used to think of and talk about my work as a spiritual practice. In my early days in art school, I had read Kandinsky, Der Blaue Reiter, and as many other writings I could find that looked at the topic of spirituality in art expressly because I was seeking to understand my own practice and thereby somehow understand my place in the cosmos.3 This was in the context of my having been raised outside of an orthodox religious tradition but on the periphery of both Christianity and Chinese religions.4 I knew that my work had a spark of something in it, and as an artist I was seeking terms from within the literature to define that something. My work did not have the religious inspiration of Rouault, nor the background in Russian Jewish folklore of Chagall. My imagery, though strange, was not based in the dream sources of Surrealism. And as I’ve noted in Essay 2 (Between Abstraction and Representation ), I found pure abstraction and pure representationalism—as I had studied them—to be opposite sides of the problem of having little to say beyond technique and a willingness to play with materials and forms.5 In order to somehow bridge this abstract/representational divide and communicate to a wider audience, I found it was necessary to avoid alienating the viewer with things that were too unfamiliar—pure abstraction—and equally important to avoid banal mimicry of the material world.

So now that I’ve exhausted familiar Western sources in talking about what the practice is not, where should I turn? Perhaps “the gorgeous East” can shed some light.

It is said that people are only able to use the tools they are supplied with, or those that they have become familiar with. In the case of twentieth-century artists and their quest for spirituality, it is refreshing to note that many parallel concepts to what we, in the West, call spirituality exist within East Asian philosophies as what I believe are secular philosophical concepts.6 Picasso pointed out that language is inadequate to describe the sacred in art, the word “sacred” invoking too many religious connotations for his comfort. I would argue that given the evidence from Asian philosophy, this inadequacy is with Western vocabulary rather than with all language.

Until recently, I wrestled with talking about the evocative essence that informs my work. Then I encountered the Japanese concept of yuugen, sometimes described as “profound grace.”7 In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Graham Parkes describes yuugen as one of the most ineffable of Japanese aesthetic ideas, describing its Chinese philosophical origin as meaning “dark” or “mysterious.” Later he goes on to talk about

East-Asian culture, which favors allusiveness over explicitness and completeness. Yûgen does not, as has sometimes been supposed, have to do with some other world beyond this one, but rather with the depth of the world we live in, as experienced through cultivated imagination. (Parkes 2006)

These are all key concepts in my work, yuugen being a more attractive and appropriate concept than Neo-platonic dualism. Rather than searching other cultures for ideas to assimilate, my discovery and embrace of yuugen was more a matter of having a core property in my work that Western vocabulary was inadequate to describe, for which I found a concept in Japanese aesthetics. This concept is, I think, the same concept that Lipsey and the artists he quotes in the context of spirituality are talking about.

Regardless of my motivations, I’m sure my interest in this concept is influenced by my upbringing, where I was aware of, exposed to, and occasionally studied Chinese philosophy. In fact, as Parkes noted, there is a Chinese antecedent to what the Japanese call yuugen. Much as I’d like to explore this further, my access to texts on Chinese aesthetics is too limited for me to be able to do so at this time. As for my definition of my practice as “spiritual” for the last number of years, I think this is the influence of both the Judeo-Christian society I’ve been living in, and all of the modernist writings and ideas I absorbed in the early years of my practice. Since then, I’ve become much more aware of Asian aesthetics, and much more willing to try to explain—or at least talk about—my studio practice and motivations.8

What I’ve found since this brief foray into Japanese aesthetics is that almost every one of Lipsey’s examples from Western writings on art is a clear description of concepts that are a core part of Japanese aesthetics. I think that until recently in the field twentieth-century art scholarship there was very little familiarity with Japanese aesthetics—and probably ideological reasons for dismissing them.9 As well, much Eastern thought at the turn of the century—when many of the artists Lipsey discusses were beginning to formulate their ideas—were totally new to the Christian West and had to be translated into terms that were familiar. This is a common methodology in translation, but the overwhelming weight of Christian scholasticism and philosophy was unavoidable in early translations and interpretations of Asian ideas. The process seems to have been similar to the way the pagan Greeks were translated by Christian theologians, who couched their translations in terms that reinforced their own doctrines.

Let’s for a moment consider that East Asian aesthetics were likely to have been strongly influenced by their surrounding religious ideas and the fact that Western translators of Asian texts had different agendas than the earlier generations of theologians who translated the Greeks. Despite these factors, Asian aesthetic texts and concepts were coloured in the process of translation by an understanding of spirituality, divinity, and ritual dominated by Christian doctrines. Much as artists today need not mount a defense of abstraction, impressionism or other familiar historical styles, we no longer need to couch Eastern philosophy in Western terms. For example, in order to understand Zen Buddhist terminology and philosophy, it is no longer necessary to try to find Judeo-Christian equivalents, especially given the fact that while there are parallels, there are rarely exact equivalents.

I don’t want to try to call yuugen a universal, but my experience of it has not been limited to art practice. I talk about about this in Essay 1 (Imagery), where I give examples of this sense of the ineffable being brought on in many ways, among them natural beauty, music, athletic activity, religious ritual, and sacred architecture. I think this visual, nonverbal way of experiencing the world distills to the idea—often cited by pop psychologists—of being in the moment. It’s obvious when comparing just a few lines of Asian aesthetic philosophy with a multitude of examples from the history of twentieth-century art that there is a great similarity between Western exploration of the spiritual in art and the Japanese concept of yuugen. I’ll have to do further research, but it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that yuugen in art came from a desire to recreate the emotional state induced by observing natural events, and that the first images of this type were attempts to recreate those feelings.


  1. As can be guessed from its name, the term visionary art covers a wide variety of visual arts practices that are inspired by transcendent experiences. It is a genre that is concerned with exploring beyond everyday human consciousness and the material world, or documenting experiences of such, and takes inspiration from visions, metaphysical experiences, shamanic journeys, drug-induced hallucinations, or combinations thereof. I see the term as a bit of a catch-all, rather than an art movement as such. Many visionary artists are self-taught, and as such this category has overlap with outsider art, where artists are rarely full participants in the contemporary art world and are thus excluded from mainstream art venues. Practitioners of visionary art count a number of historical figures—among them Hieronymous Bosch, William Blake, Henri Rousseau, as well as the Surrealists and many others—as their influences and antecedents. I claim many of the same influences but don’t claim to make “visionary art.” ^
  2. Noguchi was born in America to a Japanese father and American mother, and studied in America and Japan. I believe that he is considered an American artist of Japanese ethnicity, rather than a Japanese artist. ^
  3. Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) was a group of artists based in Munich, Germany. They formed in 1911 but disbanded due in part to the outbreak of World War I, in which two members—Franz Marc and August Macke—were killed. This group, of which Kandinsky was a member, believed that there was a strong connection between art and spirituality:

    Within the group, artistic approaches and aims varied from artist to artist; however, the artists shared a common desire to express spiritual truths through their art. They believed in the promotion of modern art; the connection between visual art and music; the spiritual and symbolic associations of colour; and a spontaneous, intuitive approach to painting. Members were interested in European medieval art and primitivism, as well as the contemporary, non-figurative art scene in France. (Wikipedia 2006: Der Blaue Reiter)


  4. I grew up in a home in which my mother was Chinese and a devout Catholic, and my father was a former Catholic priest for whom the church no longer held much sway and who had become a scholar of Chinese religions. Meanwhile, my education was firmly rooted in the Protestant values of English immigrants to Canada, even if religious doctrines were being forced out of public school classrooms by then. ^
  5. For me, both practices may be interesting as demonstrations of technique and possibility within their media, but these aren’t sufficient reasons for me to dedicate my practice to them. I should yet again try to pre-empt complaints that I’m putting down a specific group of artists, in this case those who find such practices fulfilling. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not questioning the validity or value of the practices. In fact, I find a great deal work in both areas quite interesting to look at—and occasionally inspiring—and have been known to seek it out. I’m just not interested in making those kinds of art. As for my attitudes towards materials, I discuss them in great detail in Essay 6 (Materiality and Nonmateriality: Defining the Work of Art in the Digital Age). ^
  6. I have not yet done sufficient research to unreservedly declare my belief that these are, in fact, secular concepts. I’m sure there is religious influence, especially from Buddhism. But arguing about whether the terms are or are not secular is beside the point. What I’m trying to demonstrate is that there are aesthetic terms that are specific and unambiguous for what we in the West call spirituality in art. “Spirituality” is a predominately religious term to which artists have hung certain interpretations. As I understand them, the Japanese terms I am using are primarily aesthetic rather than religious. But as noted, at this point I can’t make an authoritative statement that my assumptions here are true, especially in light of the fact that I’m not a native speaker of Japanese, don’t have an insider’s familiarity with that culture, and I’m not yet well read in Japanese philosophy or aesthetics. ^
  7. There are a number of systems for romanizing—writing in the Western alphabet—Asian terms. There are often different and sometimes conflicting systems for each individual language. For example in Chinese, “Daoism” and “Taoism” are romanizations of the same word, using different systems. In my notation of Japanese terms, I have chosen to write the long vowel sounds using double vowels. In contrast, some of my sources notate the same long vowel using diacritical marks such as a circumflex accent (^) or a macron (¬Ø). Regardless, my rendering of the word yuugen has the same intended pronunciation as y√ªgen or yu ¬Ø gen. ^
  8. For many years I actively resisted talking about my work. This was partly motivated by a lack of clarity on my part, plus an inability to talk about the work in an articulate way. At the time I believed that if I couldn’t talk about my work well, I should completely avoid talking about it. I was also convinced that to verbalize the nonverbal motivations behind the work would be to somehow pollute or distort the practice in a manner similar to quantum physics where the act of observation—for me, the act of verbal communication—would have an effect which to my mind would be negative. Having since worked as a graphic designer—with clients who didn’t want to hinder my creativity by telling me too much about what they desired and then having them unpleasantly surprised by my inability to read their minds—as well as becoming more confident and articulate with words, I no longer shy away from talking about my work. ^
  9. Some have argued that twentieth-century American art—in the form of modernist abstraction—became a propaganda tool in the Cold War, providing a polar opposite of the collectivized social realist painting mandated in communist regimes. Add to this glorification of abstraction the view of postwar Japan as a country to be rebuilt under American guidance to American specifications, rather than one with a valuable history of its own. This paternalistic view of Japan as an American protectorate was replaced in the 1980s—when Lipsey’s book was published—with growing fears of a Japanese economic takeover of the West. While this is a wild guess on my part, the myopia induced by these phenomena of American cold war propaganda and anti-Japanese attitudes induced by economic fears might begin to explain some of Lipsey’s omissions. ^