The 21st century has brought about rapid progress and a mammoth rise in physical comforts. Yet we are faced with deeper discontent on a spiritual level than ever before. This restlessness has reflected itself in the art world too. Historically, art has never been devoid of spiritual content; creatives studied the relationship between art and the spirit for centuries. In the last hundred years or so however, technological advancements temporarily eclipsed that study as the focus shifted to the material world. With the material advances falling short of human expectations in understanding the reality of self, ‘arts began once again to be proclaimed as important sources of spiritual insight necessary for the welfare of society’ (Efland 1990,p.51).
This begs us to question – when and how does spirituality manifest in art? Is spirituality in art and art education purely a religious concern? Is there a spiritual impetus that fosters creativity? The 20th-century monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton (whose parents were both artists, and who was himself a notable poet, calligrapher, and photographer) wrote in a letter to Boris Pasternak in October 1958: “I do not insist on this division between spirituality and art, for I think that even things that are not patently spiritual, if they come from the heart of a spiritual person are spiritual. This is the thing: art comes from the heart and, likewise, speaks to the heart; but this asks something of the witness, too, a kind of emotional and spiritual sensitivity with which to receive the generous gift of the artist.
Larry Culliford also puts it aptly when he surmises that “The foremost reason that artists create, and the rest of us value their art, is because art forms a priceless living bridge between the everyday psychology of our minds and the universal spirit of humanity. Art, in all forms, be it poetry, literature, music or sculpture, raises us to a sublime level of consciousness where we experience a spiritual revolution and our gaze extends from the external and turns inwards. The evocative nature of something beautiful – where it appears both familiar and mysterious – gives free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul. Much like the nature of spirituality itself.
Art that goes above aesthetic experience – which is transformative, where the viewer is transported to an ethereal experience which connects them through the art and the artist to a cosmic whole – is what great art is about. The work of artistic giants from the past reflect spiritual principles and values like beauty, creativity, honesty, generosity, discernment, patience, and perseverance. Manifested in paintings, poetry, architecture, music and literature , their work powerfully harmonizes the left and right halves of the brain which projects a spiritual experience.
When so much dialogue abounds on art and spirituality, our interest is naturally piqued towards the question – where is this kind of evocative art found? To restrict such examples to only a few forms of art, is limiting. A broader and more conclusive direction lies in perhaps examining the cultures that cultivated and celebrated such art so that societies may flourish, and we will examine in following articles how this has been addressed across different cultures in history.
From The Forbidden City in Imperial China, to the Code of Hammurabi, 1754 B.C. in Mesopotamia, to Claude Monet’s Impressionism movement and Raphael’s The School of Athens, 1511 – these artistic endeavours speak a multi-dimensional language beyond their own culture. This type of art not only serves as a cornerstone for the preservation of history, but pushes the dimensions of ordinary thought and demands a deeper contemplation of one’s role in life. These collective icons are further evidence of the principle that everyone is connected to everyone else—from the past, living now, or still to come—through the spiritual dimension of experience. “We are already one,” as Thomas Merton once wrote, “But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity … What we have to be is what we are.” Art serves this very purpose.