Spiritual Literacy in Twentieth Century Art and Science

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Spiritual Literacy in Twentieth Century Art and Science
Mike King, London Guildhall University

Research Proposal for the British Academy Research Readership

"..., spiritual remains an old-fashioned word of vague meaning. Yet it is this word that Kandinsky seeded into twentieth-century art, and apart from any individual, it still speaks. It requires a positive response from us." (Roger Lipsey, An Art of Our Own — The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art)
"Physics has now absorbed theology; the divorce between science and religion, between reason and emotion, is over." (Frank Tipler, The Physics of Immortality)


Art and science in ancient times were not divorced from the spiritual. In the 20th C however both art and science are activities generally carried out independent of mainstream religious thought, though the spiritual has played an important part in the work of some individual artists and scientists. At the beginning of the century the painter Wassily Kandinsky was prompted by his interest in Theosophy to write Concerning the Spiritual in Art; towards the end of the century the physicist Paul Davies has produced a series of books relating quantum theory to theology, the most recent of which is titled The Mind of God. The reactions to the spiritual in art and science vary however: Waldemar Januszczak (commissioning editor for the arts, Channel Four) found the origins of Modernism in Theosophical and other occultisms to be 'a skeleton in the art cupboard', while Paul Davies has received the million-dollar Templeton prize for progress in religion for his books (remarkable, considering that he claims that 'science offers a surer path than religion in the search for God'). It is rare however for an artist or scientist to have received any formal or systematic exposure to the spiritual, and hence the questions arise: what kind of spiritual literacies do we find in 20th C artists and scientists, and how do they differ?

I believe that it is important to investigate the spiritual literacy of these groups because of the impact that they have on modern culture, and the impact they will have on the place of spirituality in culture in the 21st C. Artists who have a spiritual interest tend to write on it in a dispersed fashion, reserving the substance of their interest to appear in their chosen medium, for example painting or music. Physicists on the other hand, particularly in the closing years of the 20th C, seem to write copiously on the spiritual. In both cases it seems vital to build up a picture of the spiritual material that they draw on, the interpretations that they make, and the differing way that their respective occupations in art and science influence the choice of material and interpretations.

Background to the Research

I have a background in the artistic, the scientific, and the spiritual which I believe places me in a good position to carry out this research. I have been working formally as a researcher and lecturer in the electronic arts for some twelve years, which combines my training as a scientist and artist. More recently I have undertaken an MA in Studies in Mysticism and Religious Experience at Canterbury in order to give a third recurrent interest, the spiritual, a formal basis. Out of this has grown a long-term research project — 'The Spiritual in Art and Science'. The proposed research will focus on the question of spiritual literacy in art and science as a way of pinning down a few well-defined questions within this larger programme.

I have already laid the ground for the proposed research in an 18,000-word essay 'Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Science' submitted as coursework for the MA at Canterbury, and in a shorter version called 'Concerning the Spiritual in 20th C Art and Science' submitted to the arts and technology journal Leonardo. An important source of material has been Roger Lipsey's An Art of Our Own - The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art, which is a well-researched overview up to about 1985. I came across this and much other relevant material at the British Library. In the sciences I have been looking at works from the offerings by Fritjof Capra and Gary Zukav in the seventies up to Paul Davies' work and the controversial Physics of Immortality by Frank Tipler in the nineties.

The long-term project is beginning to take shape, as I am currently supervising a doctoral student who is examining 'Virtual Reality and Visionary Experience' (with particular reference to Hildegard of Bingen). I also have two Master's students on the MA Computer Imaging and Animation who have chosen to look at the spiritual as subject matter for their imagery; in one case the Ancient Greeks (Heraclitus, Pythagoras and Plato) and in the other Sufism and its symbols. I am planning to seek funding for further doctoral students and to set up a Research Centre for the Spiritual in Art and Science.

The Value of the Research

Artists and scientists often respond warily to the term 'spiritual' (as Roger Lipsey's quote above implies), yet they are often the very people whose intense probings and questionings into the fabric of human experience and the cosmos make them likely to enter the territory traditionally marked out as 'spiritual'. I believe that an evaluation of how they engage with the spiritual in relation to their practice has not yet been carried out in any depth, and is needed for several reasons. First of all, as mentioned above, these groups have considerable influence on modern culture. Secondly, such an evaluation is needed in juxtaposition to the better-understood influence of those traditionally concerned with the spiritual: the theologians and philosophers. Thirdly, such an evaluation might enable us to make a better response to visual artists who draw on the spiritual, to better gauge the claim of a scientist such as Tipler that 'theology is now a branch of physics', or to put in perspective the anti-religious stance of reductionist scientists such as Richard Dawkins or Francis Crick.

However, the main value of the research would be to start an informed debate as to what a 'spiritual literacy' might generally mean in a predominantly lay culture. If successful in engaging a broader interest in the concept, the research would lead in the long term to a new pedagogy, one that is informed but relatively free of cultural and confessional bias. More specifically it might form a basis for the teaching of spiritual literacies appropriate to artists and scientists; a making explicit of what is now implicit and haphazard.

It is intended that the research be as useful to the sceptic as to the initiate, to the reductionist as to the holist and mystically inclined.

The Research Territory

The proposed research is clearly highly interdisciplinary, and to be of value the results of it will need to delivered in such a way as to be relevant to artists and scientists, as well as those more directly involved in the spiritual. Although some historical basis will be essential the main thrust of the research will focus on the 20th C. To narrow the field further I shall explore mainly the visual arts of Modernism and Postmodernism. In terms of science the most important area is that which is termed the 'new physics' (mainly quantum theory, relativity, and the concepts around the 'anthropic principle'). Both arts and science will be in a Western context but the spirituality will have no boundaries in time or place: the spiritual influences on Western 20th C art and science are broad.

In the arts I will be looking mainly at 20th C fine artists including key figures such as Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, Brancusi, Rothko, Newman, and Joseph Beuys, and a host of other. In addition key groupings or movements forming part of the arts territory will include the Bauhaus, the American Abstract Expressionists, and the electronic artists of today. There are also a range of other organisations in which the spiritual and the artistic are explicitly linked such as the Steiner schools and art colleges, the Temenos Academy, and 'fringe' groups such as the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky schools and the School for Economic Science. Some of these have roots in a neoplatonist tradition, while others are an occult or purely 20th century phenomena. In the sciences the writings of the 'quantum fathers' such as Schroedinger, Bohr, and Heisenberg will be important, through the early 'physics as mysticism' writers in the seventies, to contemporary writers such as Davies, Tipler and Polkinghorne. Organisations such as the Institute of Noetic Sciences and the UK-based Scientific and Medical network will also be examined.

Another important source for the spiritual in contemporary science lies in the emerging field of Studies in Consciousness. The journals, books and conferences in this area receive contributions from a wide range of scientists representing the whole spectrum of spiritual interests. This is well-documented, for example, in papers presented at the 'Tucson II' conference 'Towards a Science of Consciousness' in April 1996.

The research will involve the examination of texts (including exhibition catalogues) relating to the territories outlined above, the examination of relevant organisations through their literature and by interview, and the attendance at relevant art exhibitions. Any previous surveys (such as Roger Lipsey's) of the spiritual in art or science will need to be found and closely analysed.

The establishment and refinement of a spiritual taxonomy appropriate to the task is an essential and early component of the research, as it will guide examination of texts and the preparation for interviews. In my research so far I have established a simple working taxonomy of just three divisions: the 'religious', the 'occult', and the 'transcendent'. I have used the term 'religious' to denote a conventional spirituality associated with mainstream religious thought and practice. The term 'occult' is used for an interest and engagement with non-material spiritual worlds as posited by individuals like Rudolf Steiner, but also found universally in all cultures and periods of history. The term 'transcendent' is used to denote such concepts as nirvana, mystical union or enlightenment. These are clearly crude and overlapping terms but they have already proved useful: the spiritual influences on Gaudi are (in these terms) the conventionally religious; on the Bauhaus are clearly occult; those on the American Abstract Expressionists more transcendent; and between two contemporary performance artists, the American Fakir Musafar and the Australian Stelarc, we find the former engaged in the occult and the latter in the transcendent. In physics we find Capra and Zukav broadly preoccupied with the transcendent, while Tipler, Davies and Polkinghorne engaged with the religious (theological). These are early and tentative findings, but I believe that without any such taxonomy it is hard to order the material under investigation. The work of Roger Lipsey, though thorough, lacked any kind of useful distinction between the spiritualities of the different artists he looked at.

The establishment of what broadly a spiritual literacy might be is also an early goal. The term 'literacy' has been carefully chosen because it implies interest, breadth and usefulness. One becomes literate in a given area out of interest; it is implied that the interest is not partisan, chauvinist, or (in this case) confessional; and the result is a range of 'competences' in the area. The delineation of 'spiritual literacy' is interlinked with the taxonomy: one cannot be literate in an area if ignorant of important phyla in the structure of the subject. For example, in terms of spiritual practice it may be that the distinction between devotion and gnosis (Indian bhakti and jnani) becomes an important part of the taxonomy, and hence a spiritual literacy requires an understanding of both.

The Research Method

The research will start from individuals in art and science, and work backwards to the spiritual movements and influences in the 20th century. The first step will be to identify key figures from art and science whose life and work has a clear spiritual current. This will be done by cross-referencing names from surveys and texts already mentioned, and through key-word searches in various on-line bibliographies. From biographies, autobiographies, notebooks, letters, memoirs, exhibition catalogues, pamphlets etc., will then be derived a picture of the spiritual influences on these individuals, and whether these are from texts (ancient, contemporary, Oriental, Occidental), organisations (such as the Theosophical Society, the Church, cults, lecture series), individuals (enthusiastic friends, spiritual teachers or guides of various kinds), or personal revelation (rare, but important, as in Blake, or Steiner). A knowledge of the spiritual practices (if any) of these individuals will be derived from the same sources. In the case where texts have been an influence it will be important to know the translation or translations that were read, where the original was not in the reader's own language.

The material so gathered will become the raw data for analysis. Before this can be carried out the taxonomy of the spiritual will be developed by cross-referencing those used by scholars of comparative religion and mysticism, including James, Underhill, Zaehner, and Smith. A more precise notion of 'literacy' will be obtained by examination of literacy in other contexts, such as science literacy, computer literacy, visual literacy, and media literacy. The primary analysis will then comprise:
• a location of each individual's influences within the spiritual movements of the particular part of the 20th century in which they were actively seeking exposure to such material

• an overview, for each individual, of the broader historical spiritual influences on them, such as paganism, neoplatonism or Christianity

• an assessment of how systematically they pursued the spiritual

• a location of their primary spiritual impulses and interests within the taxonomy (here developed) of the spiritual

• an assessment of their general spiritual literacy in terms of the taxonomy, and also in terms of broad/narrow, Oriental/Occidental, deep/shallow, sceptical/credulous

• an assessment of how the spiritual was integrated into the individual's art or science.

A similar analysis will be carried out on organisations, though this will involve a smaller number. In the case of organisations their mission statements, publications, and testimonies of members and those who encounter the organisation in various capacities will be used as raw data. Where these organisations have a spiritual mission, it will be important to check their 'official' version of events with other testimonies, for example the Steiner organisation publishes a pamphlet about the involvement of the artist Joseph Beuys, but his own diaries and non-Steiner sources may reveal a contradictory picture. By the same token, some organisations, for example involved in parapsychology, may have a clearly sceptical or even anti-spiritual mission, and this has to be assessed and taken into account.

From the primary analysis of individuals and organisations it will then be possible to answer the questions listed below under 'Outcomes of the Research'.


Roger Lipsey's An Art of Our Own is a key source with citations for most of his source material, including his original inspiration, an exhibition and catalogue by Maurice Tuchman, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890 - 1985 (Los Angeles, 1986). The British Library is a valuable repository of material: I have identified at least half a dozen texts which need further detailed examination. Other London libraries such as the Victoria and Albert and the Royal College of Art will be useful. The Internet will also be generally useful, and especially so for the electronic arts.

There does not seem to be any single exhaustive survey of the spiritual in science to date that might compare with Lipsey's work in the arts (which suggests that my proposed research is timely). However, Ken Wilber's Quantum Questions is a useful starting point for examining some of the writings of the quantum scientists, and there is no shortage of contemporary material. The spiritual writings of scientists in the last five years alone warrants a thorough survey (as many of these recent texts have not yet arrived in the British Library or Science Reference Library they will have to be purchased, but this is sustainable). The Internet will again be useful in connection with individuals and organisations concerned with the spiritual in science. The following texts are indicative:

The Spiritual in Art

Tuchman, Maurice The Spiritual in Art

Regier, Kathleen, The Spiritual Image

Lipsey, Roger, An Art of Our Own

Kandinsky Concerning the Spiritual in Art

Gurdjieff, G.I. Views from the Real World

Steiner, Rudolf The Arts and Their Mission

Besant and Leadbeater, Thought Forms

Coomaraswamy, Ananda, various works

Plato, The Republic

The Spiritual in Science

de Chardin, Teilhard, various works

Wilber, Ken, Quantum Questions

Capra, Fritjof, The Tao of Physics

Zukav, Gary, The Dancing Wu-Li Masters

Davies, Paul, The Mind of God

Tipler, Frank J. The Physics of Immortality

Polkinghorne, Reason and Reality


Journal of Consciousness Studies

Crick, Francis, The Astonishing Hypothesis

Penrose, Roger, various works

Claxton, Guy, Noises from the Darkroom

Spiritual Taxonomies

Smith, Huston The Religions of Man

Armstrong, Karen, A History of God

James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience

Zaehner, R.C. various works

Mount, Joyce IT and Computer Literacy

Zimmer, Anne, Visual Literacy ...

Silverblatt, Art, Media Literacy

OUP, Benchmarks for Science Literacy

Essays and exhibition catalogue

Essays (two common authors with above)

A thorough overview of the spiritual in art up to 1986

Seminal work, influenced by Theosophy

Contains whole chapter on the arts

Summary of the Steiner position on the arts

Source book for Kandinsky and others

Useful for the religious role of art in history

Useful for a picture of the subordinate role of art in religion

Theology and science from a Jesuit priest

Source book for the writings of the quantum fathers

The parallels between physics and Eastern mysticism


A physicist's attempt to relate physics to theology

A physicist's attempt to relegate theology to physics

Quantum theory and religion from a scientist/priest

papers from the most sceptical to the most credible

a reductionist approach to consciousness

a scientist/Platonist on consciousness

a sceptical analysis of consciousness studies

An overview of comparative religion

A contemporary account of religion

A seminal work on mysticism and religious experience

The works of an influential Oxford academic

} These texts will be useful for deriving a more precise

} understanding of literacy in a wider context. The

} International Institute for Adult Literacy may also be a

} useful source.

Outcomes of the Research

The research outcomes should be able to answer the following questions:

• what is a useful taxonomy of the spiritual for art and science?

• how can we characterise and contrast spiritual literacies in art and science?

• is science more receptive to the spiritual than the arts at this juncture?

• what are the antagonisms between the artistic and the spiritual?

• what are the antagonisms between the scientific and the spiritual?

• how can the concept of spiritual literacies be used to critique those visual arts that draw upon the spiritual?

• how can the concept of spiritual literacies be used to assess the seemingly pro-religious works of scientists like Tipler and Davies?

• how can the concept of spiritual literacies be used to assess the seemingly anti-religious works of scientists like Dawkins and Crick?

• what are the 'competences' that derive from a broad-based non-confessional spiritual literacy, and how do they differ in art and science?

• how can the spiritual, the artistic, and the scientific mutually illuminate each other?

Dissemination of the Outcomes

The main route for dissemination of the outcomes of this proposed research would be a book, the working title of which would be Spiritual Literacy in Art and Science. However, it may prove more useful to embody the work in two books, one aimed at the science reader and one aimed at the arts reader, but this would become clear later in the research (and would also depend on the advice of publishers). I would also publish essays and articles in science and art journals and present findings at national and international art and science conferences, throughout the period of research. Conferences will be particularly important, not just for dissemination, but also to test out and refine working hypothesis.

Timetable for the Research

Year 1, first quarter: History of the spiritual in art and science (Plato, Longinus, Plotinus, the neoplatonists, Ficino's Academy, the rise of science, attitudes in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the spiritual movements at the end of the 19th C, early 20th C movements, development of relativity and quantum theory). Art and science in Islam and the Orient. Attendance at LGU Social Science Research Methods MA units

Year 1, second quarter: Taxonomy of the spiritual and refinement of 'spiritual literacy'; middle and late 20th C spiritual movements, conventional religion and its attitudes to art and science. (Note that there is a possibility that the first six months of the research project may be spent at Oxford if successful in applying for a Visiting Fellowship at either Magdalen or All Souls. This would be useful in taking the 'intellectual temperature' at Oxford regarding spiritual literacy, examining the origins and impact of the thinking of Richard Dawkins, Roger Penrose, Richard Swinburne et al.)

Year 1, third quarter: Spiritual in Art: reading at the BL and V+A, RCA library etc., and Internet sites.

Year 1, fourth quarter: Spiritual in Science: reading at the BL and SRL and Internet sites.

Year 2, first quarter: Investigations of organisations with explicit interests in both the spiritual and the artistic: The Temenos Academy, Steiner schools and art colleges, Gurdjieff-Ouspensky schools, the School for Economic Science, and any others discovered through reading and contacts.

Year 2, second quarter: Investigations of organisations with explicit interests in both the spiritual and the scientific, including the Institute for Noetic Sciences (a visit will be made to the US to coincide with 'Tucson III' Science of Consciousness conference in April 1998), the Scientific and Medical Network, and others discovered up to this point.

Year 2, last six months: Write up research results in book form (one or possibly two books).

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