Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — when I was still earning a crust as an art critic, I wrote a nasty review about a painter who had genuinely made me angry. This artist had some currency in the region, and a cadre of fans. I was not one of them.
Some years later, I discovered that the review I wrote had caused the artist to stop painting altogether for five years. When I was asked if I felt bad about that, I always said, no, I felt I had performed a public service. There was a smugness in my flippancy which I now regret.
Because, now in my senescence, I have become somewhat gentler, and regret the tone of that review, although I cannot gainsay the content. (When I met the artist many years later, when she came to a lecture I was giving — after she had survived not only my review, her hiatus from work and a fight with cancer — she was surprisingly forgiving and said she did not hold the review against me. I don’t know why not.)
She has recovered from her cancer and from my review and recently mounted a new show. She still has her cadre. I wish her well. But I do want to explain my anger. It wasn’t simply the quality of her work, or its purported subject.
I didn’t get angry over her technique, which was rather sloppy — I’m sure her fans call it “spontaneous,” although I took her to task for it. And I didn’t get angry over her popularity. Certainly lots of popular artists are awful, sentimental, shallow — but there are also quite popular artists who are among the best. It’s hard to knock Van Gogh or Monet for being popular, although the general run of popular, in the demotic sense, tends to be in the Thomas Kinkade and LeRoy Neiman or P. Buckley Moss camps.
The sins of this painter I refer to — aside from painting poorly — was that she presented her work as “spiritual,” and surrounded it with all the cliche buzzwords that accompany such pretensions. The show was called “The Lotus as Metaphor,” and it purported to lead us on a spiritual journey.
There is a whole class of artist who gush spiritual, a quality less evidenced in the work, but more in the words they pack around their work. They claim a kind of spirituality and it is usually of the soft-focus kind that blurs all inconvenient edges. Often they pick up the conventional symbols and signs of a religious tradition and use them like bumper stickers. This is mistaking the Völkergedanken for the source. Not so much spirituality as it is cultural tourism.
The particular show that got my dander up was a series of paintings of “sacred lotus.” The first problem was, she had not painted lotus but waterlilies. Not the same plant, not the same cultural meaning.
It isn’t that I was being pedantic about botanical nomenclature, but that I have noticed over the years that those who wax ecstatic about the spiritual often have such an indifferent relationship with the real.
The lotus (genus Nelumbo) has a different growth pattern, leaf shape and flower — to say nothing of cultural meaning — than the more common water lily (Nymphaea). The painter’s plants were not clearly drawn, but they grew more like Nymphaea, have the heart-shaped leaves of Nymphaea and the flowers of Nymphaea.
This may seem like caviling, but I firmly believe that before you start jumping on the otherworldly bandwagon, you should learn something about this world. This retreat into “spirituality” evidences a certain medieval contempt for the world that is not earned. In fact, as any dedicated artist knows, looking closely at something, as when you draw it with total concentration, will lead you to the edge of mystical experience. (See: https://richardnilsen.com/2012/06/21/apple-of-my-eye/ ) Without the commitment to this world, you cannot break on through to the other side.
Rather than starting with the here and now and taking the path to eternity, the artist seemed content with the road map. She approached spirituality from the exterior, with not a hint of introspection. She started — and ended — with the public symbol — borrowed though it be from an alien public — instead of finding a fresh, direct and personal symbol that might express personal experience. Borrowed profundity isn’t profound. It is hearsay.
That kind of facile pontificating on “harmony with nature” and “celebrating the joyousness of life” is what I call “Mah-jong mysticism,” the kind that seems to satisfy bored middle-class housewives with too much time on their hands. Surely one should be suspicious of any warm and fuzzy mysticism that tells us only what we want to hear. And make no mistake, this sort of thing is usually quite self-congratulatory.
In fact, after seeing these paintings, I’m not convinced the artist has ever had a mystical experience more profound than the buzz from white wine at a gallery opening. The artist wore the word “spiritual” the way some coffeehouse poets used to wear berets.
The paintings were like third- or fourth-generation color Xerox copies of Monet waterlilies, with all the subtlety of color and drawing sucked out. Indeed, my initial response was generated by the effrontery of copying Monet so blatantly and yet so ineptly.
It isn’t that waterlilies aren’t a perfectly good subject, but for many of these paintings, the painter adopted the same angle of view, the same distance from her subject and the same loose, scumbly brushwork that is so familiar from Monet. The debt was too obvious.
It was as if she hadn’t looked at waterlilies at all, but looked at Monets instead. This is secondhand experience, like reading the Cliff Notes instead of the book. If she had looked at waterlilies intently and followed them down into the depths of her mind and heart, she might have painted something astonishing. That’s what Monet did. But imitating the look of Monet is no better than standing at the visitor center of Monument Valley and photographing the Mitten Buttes, thinking you have equaled Ansel Adams.
Her art mimicked the words and images that have conventional currency among those who bask in what is held to be spirituality. But those words and images have less to do with genuine spirituality than they have to do with conventionality. They are like gamepieces in a board game with all the rules known and understood, at least by the initiates. They are Tarot cards, ouija boards, seance knocks, and are at root just as fraudulent.
All this might well provoke a bad review in the local newspaper, but it might not, in any other critic, provoke anger. My reaction was not merely to the work on the gallery walls, but to an entire class of thought, a class that seems to me to be cheating. I felt cheated. Here the world is all around you, a vast forest of burning bush speaking “I am that I am,” and yet the artist does not see it, but rather gives us the names of metaphors other people have used to describe the ineffable. I have always called this “imitation art,” not just imitation of already existing art, but imitation of the origin and purpose of the genuine article. It is a variety of “play-pretend,” and avoids the real work of art to give us instead a pale simulacrum.
The deep roots of art is a profound love for the things of this world. Not ideas about things, but the things themselves. We live so much by habit and fail to notice what is about us. Not merely raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, not just birdsong and clouds, but the smell of hot tar on the road, the hurt of a stubbed toe, the layer of dust on the enamel gloss of a car hood. And not solely the physical manifestations of the world, but the inner workings as well, the emotions and sensations, the perceptions and the occasional borborygmus. That is, the entire world filtered through your sensibility. It is only when you are not aware of the world and the things of the world that you find existence so drab and monotonous that you need to invent a bogus “spirit” world to revitalize your life, to make it — and you — feel special.
Those who see “auras,” read horoscopes and feel the cold presence of “emanations,” seem precisely those who are incapable of finding the transcendent in fleas or sphagnum moss. Those who wear yellow robes in downtown Cleveland and chant “Om” are not actually connecting with the source, but with an imitation of it. The Edgar Cayce-ites, the crystal gazers, the astral-projectionists and clearers of engrams, seem not aware of or interested in the fact that the ordinary world given us is astonishing enough on its own. Nothing they have come up with matches the weirdness of an elephant or coconut or the shimmering skin of a squid.
I suspect any use of such buzz words as “energies,” “toxins” or “healing.” They are bogey-words, intended to invest their users with a sacerdotal shine. You can have Atlantis; I’ll take the Bronx. I can predict what you will find in Atlantis — such things are defined by the conventions of the occult, and seldom vary much — but I could never predict what I might find on any house on any street in the Bronx, or in any city. The real world is too varied and multifarious and constantly challenges our expectations.
So, I say, look at those apples and pears in the Cezanne painting, look at the roofs and olive trees in the Van Gogh, or hear the birdcalls transmogrified in Messiaen’s music, or regard the madeleine in Proust. Engage with the world, become engorged with it, swallow it whole, let it illuminate your inner life and become the passageway to transcendence. All of it, good and bad, joyful and hurtful, fulfilling and frustrating, pointed and aimless.
It is inexhaustible and inextinguishable.