Applying Arts Reasoning to Explain Sustainability

“The chaos of the contemporary world makes it extremely difficult for people to survive and live in peace. We all need an escape from the prevailing violence and the pain in the world. To solve the purpose, many people are ascribing to spirituality for one reason or the other. Divine enlightenment runs deep into our conscience and goes beyond our mind and ego to help attain some peace. A spiritual mind experiences bliss amid the darkness”. (Pramila Srivastava)

Spirituality …is the essential potentiality for addressing the ultimate questions that are intrinsic to the experience of being human. (Roehlkepartain et al., 2006) 

1 Transcendentalism

In the late 1820s, a philosophical movement emerged in the United States that was rooted in the recently flourishing European movements of Romanticism and Skepticism, and joined by the emerging Christian Unitarian movement, Transcendentalism appeared, carrying with it new perspectives on justice, spirituality, and the environment. Transcendentalism focused on defining individualism within a deeper understanding of the universe (Fig 1).  This had profound social, political, and economic impacts; eventually developing into the civil rights movement and modern environmentalism. The founding fathers of this environmental transcendental philosophy, among whom are Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, had a great impact on others including the life and work of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Fig 1 Main ideas of environmental transcendentalism

.Because he possessed these leadership qualities, Emerson became known as the central figure of a literary and philosophical group, now known as the American Transcendentalists. These writers shared a key belief that each individual could transcend, or move beyond, the physical world of the senses into deeper spiritual experience through free will and intuition. In this New England school of Christian unitarian thought, God was not remote and unknowable; believers came to understand God and themselves by looking into their own selfhood and by feeling their own connection to nature.  The Transcendentalists believed that we can understand truth through intuition. That is, we don’t only arrive at truth by conducting a scientific experiment. They believed that there’s a whole realm of experience that is beyond logical or rational deduction.  We may not have any proof that God exists, for example, but we may feel that He, or She, or They, or We, does (/do). Today’s  secular transcendentalists see the only way to access that realm of experience and knowledge is to trust in our intuition; our inner voice; our gut feeling.  

Transcendental and transcend come from the Latin word transcendere, to climb over or go beyond. Transcendental describes anything that has to do with the spiritual, non-physical world. You could describe the time spent walking through a woodland as both a physical and a transcendental experience.  However, when something is transcendental, it’s beyond ordinary, everyday experience. It might be religious, spiritual in a secular sense, or otherworldly, but if it’s transcendental, it transcends or goes beyond the regular physical realm. The adjective transcendental is used to describe a particular kind of meditation, a specific school of philosophy, and even a type of number in mathematics.  Compared with Emerson’s original group, transcendentalism now leads people to adopt a oneness in Nature without the mediation of a deity. 

The first transcendentalists assumed a universe divided into two essential parts, the soul (the individual) and nature (Earth’s ecosystems).  Henry Thoreau defined nature as: “all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body.”  Soul, in religion and philosophy, is the immaterial aspect or essence of a human being, which confers individuality and humanity.  It is often considered to be synonymous with the mind or the self.  Seeking practical experience, Thoreau used nature as a tool for learning, making wilderness his role model and reference point.  His essay entitled ‘Walden’ promotes a philosophy of simplicity, derived from Emerson’s philosophy of “self-reliance”, that could inspire people to live in better connection with nature.  If followed today it could help to save our planetary ecosystem. It is imperative for people to form an individual bond with nature in order to have respect and love for their environment. Many feel we must put Thoreau’s ideals into action in order to understand his message better.  His experience at Walden Pond fostered his love for nature and reaffirmed the importance of preserving the wilderness to live in harmony with nature. His later essays reiterate and reinforce Walden, drawing inspiration from experiencing the simple life himself.

The universe itself and everything it is, from the smallest grain of sand to the wide expanse of space and each and every human in between, can be considered nature. As humans, we tend to separate nature in our minds, creating some distinction between the outside world and our inner worlds. Human nature has always been inherently disconnected with nature in this sense: we form communities for protection, shelter from the elements, and to share our emotions and experiences. There is a fear embedded deep into the human consciousness; a fear of nature and an inherent need to establish a boundary between the self and nature. Thoreau, inspired by Emerson, attemped to deconstruct this stigma in an effort to influence people to be “self-reliant,” to embrace their connection to nature, and to create harmony between the outside and inner worlds. Throughout the collected essays in Walden, Thoreau invites us to transcend into a unity with nature and find a sense of meaning, direction and purpose in life through immediate contact with the ecosystem of which we are a seamless part by embracing cultural ecology as the main thread of selfhood. 

We experience transcendentalism today in many ways and could benefit as a society by collectively learning more about it and practicing it’s ideas.  We should spend more time in nature espoused by Thoreau and Emerson, in ‘Nature’ and ‘Walden Pond’, improving the structure of the education system as presented by Emerson in the ‘American Scholar’, and implementing some of Thoreau’s views from ‘Civil Disobedience’ and ‘Self Reliance’.

2 Artistic processing of transcendence

In his 1841 essay ‘Thoughts on Art’ Emerson struck a great chord with the Hudson River painters who were influenced by ideas about the divine essence of nature and its expression in the vast sweeping American landscape.  The Hudson River painters strongly believed that art was an agent of moral and spiritual transformation and agreed that painting should become a vehicle through which the mind could extend its understanding of the Universe by applying arts reasoning to explain sustainability (ARRTES).   Paintings of the Hudson River School reflect three dominant themes of cultural ecology in America in the 19th century: ‘discovery’, ‘exploration’, and ‘settlement’.  They also depict the American landscape as a pastoral setting, where human beings and nature coexist peacefully on a small ecological scale. Hudson River landscape paintings are characterized by their realistic, detailed, and sometimes idealized portrayal of nature.  They often juxtaposed peaceful agriculture and the remaining wilderness which was fast disappearing from the Hudson Valley just as it was coming to be appreciated for its qualities of ruggedness and sublimity.   In general, Hudson River artists believed that nature in the form of the American landscape was a reflection of God, though they varied in the depth of their religious conviction. Technically they were inspired by European masters of landscape painting such as Claude Lorrain, John Constable, and J. M. W. Turner.

The various forms of theosophical speculation that have emerged from the New England transcendentalists have certain common characteristics. The first is an emphasis on mystical experience expressed in theosophy. Theosophical writers hold that there is a deeper spiritual reality and that direct contact with that hidden reality can be established through intuition, meditation, revelation, or some other state transcending normal human consciousness. In art theosophy was a stimulus for pure abstraction. Indeed,  abstract art was underwritten by an occult spiritualist movement actually called ‘Theosophy’. Many early European abstractionists, including Vassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich, and František Kupka, cited Theosophy as a direct source for their ideas and works.  Mondrian was a member of the Dutch Theosophical Society and lived briefly in the quarters of the French Theosophical Society in Paris. He said he ‘‘got everything from the Secret Doctrine’‘ of Theosophy, which was an attempt by its founder Helena Petrovna Blavatsky to do nothing less than read, digest and synthesize all religions. Much of Mondrian’s symbolism, including the ubiquitous vertical and horizontal lines and much of his utopianism was shaped by Theosophical doctrine. In his 1910-11 painting ”Evolution,” (Fig 2).  The The painting represents three fundamental stages in the spiritual evolution of a human being.  The figure seems to be a woman but is in actual fact devoid of any female characteristics and should more probably be seen as a symbol of the human being, i.e. both male and female. he defines the ascending stages in a Theosophical journey through which he later hoped to guide the public in his abstract art.

Fig 2 Ascending stages in theosophy

All art is an abstraction from reality. The difference between art movements is simply how much abstraction is taking place.  The Mexican painter. Diego Rivera, said in 1931, on the occasion of an exhibition of Kandinsky’s abstract work in San Francisco (Fig 3): 

Fig 3 ‘Standing’, Kandinsky, 1939

“I know of nothing more real than the painting of Kandinsky – nor anything more true and nothing more beautiful. A painting by Kandinsky gives no image of earthly life – it is life itself. If one painter deserves the name ‘creator’, it is he. He organises matter as matter was organised, otherwise the Universe would not exist. He opened a window to look inside the All. Someday, Kandinsky will be the best known and best loved of men.” 

To become one with nature, the British painter Graham Sutherland urges us to be aware of the details of our surroundings.  He described this as developing our ‘outsidedness’.  Artists have the mindset to bring the outside into their mind’s consciousness, where it is processed  to make an image that transcends the original landscape element that first captured their attention. Sutherland’s poetic vis­ion has been likened to that of the 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (Fig 4).

Fig 4 Transcendentalism: in words

For Sutherland this creativity was the outcome of his childhood experiences in the countryside, where he cultivated the habit of looking at things very closely. In this respect his visual response to nature went way beyond the superficial and penetrated deeply into a fertile, prepared imagination.  He described this inside reaction as a poetic response; an ecstatic experience; the sudden hair-tingling recognition of an unadulterated truth pre-existing within a landscape element, which no other person had ‘seen’ before.  For example, a narrow lane leading down to the beach, with overarching wind-pruned vegetation was an invitation for him to tunnel into a transcendental, botanical microcosm (Figs 5-9).  However, it is not necessary for the viewer to know Sutherand’s starting point because the work is simply a personnel offering to mull over a non- representational or object-free composition. To know its origins is a distraction and restricts the viewer’s mental options. In this context, Vered Aviv claims that abstract art frees our brain from the dominance of reality, enabling it to activate its inner states, create new emotional and cognitive associations, and open up brain-states that are otherwise harder to access.  

Abstract art is a very recent invention of the human brain. Its success in attracting the brains of so many of us suggests that it has an important cognitive/emotional role. Supported by recent experimental studies, Avid suggests that abstract art frees our brain from the dominance of reality.  This process is apparently rewarding as it enables the exploration of yet undiscovered inner territories of the viewer’s brain.   Abstract art may therefore encourage our brain to respond in a less restrictive and stereotypical manner, exploring new associations, activating alternative paths for emotions, and forming new possibly creative, mental links. It also enables viewers to access early visual processes (dealing with simple features like dots, lines and simple objects) that are otherwise harder to access when a whole “gestalt” image is analyzed, as is the case with representational art.

Fig 5 Photograph of a Pembrokeshire lane to the seashore

Fig 6 ‘Study of landscape’: Graham Sutherland (1940)

In research on human relationships to the natural world, spirituality is key to understanding people’s emotions and the meaning of nature to them. It is maintained that spiritual thinking is a central element of environmental experience. Spirituality can be defined as “an individual’s inner experience and/or belief system that gives meaning to existence, and subsequently allows one to transcend beyond the present context,  In recent years, spirituality research has peaked in association with research on transcendent experiences in relation to wellbeing, health, and other aspects. It has, further, opened up a specific line of research on feelings of awe, which researchers have undertaken experimentally as well as phenomenologically

Recent interest in transcendent emotions has built on important historical contributions from psychological science. Spiritual identity is a sense of oneness with all things, and connects it to a mystical experience.  A mystical experience is a sort of spiritual, religious experience that is typically ineffable, true, transitory, passive, and brought about by a perceived higher power. Nature evokes these feelings because it seems to have a peculiar power of awakening such mystical moods. Mystical experiences provoked by nature are cited in works of art, including and especially Walt Whitman’s poetry, which conveys a sense of interconnectedness and oneness between the entire universe and the personal, private sphere.

Fig 7 Transcendental processing of what you see to what you imagine

Sutherland carried this transcendental manipulation of nature forms to Coventry Cathedral, where elements of Pembrokeshire’s ecological microcosms were incorporated into his design for the Great Altar Tapestry depicting Christ in Majesty.   Sutherland says of his portrayal of Christ: “I wanted the figure to be real, yet not real. I wanted it to be something slightly ambiguous: a human form, but with overtones of a nature form”  In Pembrokeshire it could be said that Sutherland wanted his landscapes to be very ambiguous: a nature form, but with overtones of a human form.  People entering a Sutherland mental landscape move into a unique notional space. Once inside, our every thought is initiated and reflected from surfaces and objects created from spiritual ideas turned into transcendental blueprints for craft and art. What makes such spaces sacred and ageless is that the material structures have been designed to help us make sense of questions about being human which still haunt people today. Walls and woodlands become a kind of ‘elemental ‘tape’ for us to replay answers from the past to questions such as:-

What is life all about?

What are we here for?

Where is it all leading?

What happens after death?

Fig 8 ‘Untitled’; Graham Sutherland, lithograph (1979).

When we think about these questions in church, temple mosque, art gallery, woodland or observe a stone in a stoneless landscape,  we are meditating. The outcome may simply be to reinforce answers we have already discovered. But sometimes ideas seem to bubble up from nowhere. These inner voices are the language of meditation. They are the mental processes of spiritual revelation. As far as we know, these are also the same mental processes, which, when focused on practical problems, power both artistic creativity and scientific invention. Religiosity and secular spiritualism come together before Graham Sutherland’s Great Coventry Tapestry

Fig 9  ‘Christ in Majesty’: Graham Sutherland, Coventry Cathedral

Poetry is based on the power of imagery and language. Poetry is suggestive, and it allowed transcendentalist writers to suggest the nature of the “truths” and insights that they tried to explicate in their essays, but which went beyond the rational mind.  In this connection, writing poetry is akin to the process of spiritual appraisal  we call meditation.  They both take a world view that is rooted in the imagination and passes beyond the limits of ordinary life. Meditations start from the postulate that the material cosmos in some way manifests a deeper spiritual reality, expressed through human self awareness. We can actually meditate anywhere that offers space for thinking off the mainstream of everyday life. Some people in busy offices are finding that ‘spiritual websites’ give them space for contemplation. It is not necessary to have physical prompts. 

Prayer is an activity where words can clear a mental space, no matter where we are. A physical space provided in a purpose-built sacred building is often more effective because it contains objects which have been specially designed, not only to focus the questions, but provide encoded messages which may give convincing answers.  Because most people today are ignorant of the biblical codes at the core of religious stories and objects of Christianity, it cannot be expected that very much will sink in without providing some kind of interpretation to get them started. In this sense an educator has to start from where people are. They are perhaps seeing an object for the first time, and not as part of the complex doctrine of which it may form only a tiny part. The part then becomes a point of reference from which more signposts may lead to an appreciation of the greater whole.

3  The abstract desert transcendentalists

In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Wassily Kandinsky asserts that pure abstraction obtains sublime transcendence. Spirituality in the twentyfirst century art tends to attach itself to the modern artist’s aspiration to achieve transcendent expression through the act of creation. 

The artist Agnes Pelton (1881–1961) was a visionary symbolist who depicted the spiritual she experienced in moments of meditative stillness. Art for her was a discipline through which she gave form to her vision of a higher consciousness within the universe. Using an abstract vocabulary of curvilinear, biomorphic forms and delicate, shimmering veils of light, she portrayed her awareness of a mental world that lay behind physical appearances—a world of benevolent, disembodied energies animating and protecting life.  For most of her career, Pelton chose to live away from the distractions of a major art center, first in Water Mill, Long Island, from 1921 to 1932, and subsequently in Cathedral City, a small community near Palm Springs, California.  She painted conventional desert landscapes to make a living, but it was her abstract studies of earth and light, biomorphic compositions of delicate veils, shimmering stars, and atmospheric horizon lines, that distinguished her work (Fig 10).  A believer in numerology, astrology, and faith healing, Pelton’s abstract compositions propelled her into an esoteric world epitomized by the Transcendental Painting Group (1938-1942), a short-lived group that promoted abstract, non-objective art.  Agnes Pelton strove to portray a spiritual realm beyond material appearances. Her artistic breakthrough came in the mid-1920s in a series of abstract paintings depicting incorporeal subject matter such as air, light, water, and sound. In the decades that followed, as she began to immerse herself in the study of esoteric and occult philosophies, her imagery evolved. She paired the emotive power of ethereal abstract forms with delicate, shimmering veils of color and mystical symbols such as stars, mountains, and fire to represent the union with “Divine Reality” that she experienced in dreams and meditation. She once described her process of meticulously applying thin layers of pigment to create subtle, luminous hues as “painting with a moth’s wing and with music instead of paint.

Fig 10. Sea Change: Agnes Pelton, 1931

Georgia O’Keefe is also classed as a desert transcendentalist.  In 1929, seeking solitude and an escape from urbanisation she traveled to New Mexico and began an inspirational love affair with the visual scenery of the state. For 20 years she spent part of every year working in New Mexico, becoming increasingly interested in the forms of animal skulls and the southwest landscapes.

There, O’Keeffe found new subjects to paint in the sun-bleached animal bones and the rugged mountains that dominate the terrain. Two of her earliest and most celebrated Southwestern paintings—Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue (52.203) and Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses (Art Institute of Chicago) from 1931—exquisitely reproduce a skull’s weathered surfaces, jagged edges, and irregular openings. Rather than signifying death, O’Keeffe said that the bones symbolized the eternal beauty of the desert. Later, she painted fanciful canvases that combined skeletal objects and landscape imagery in the same composition (59.204.2). The results were provocative and unsettling, and the odd juxtapositions and discrepancies in size and scale led some to call these works surreal. Between 1943 and 1945, she also explored another variation on the bone theme in her large series of Pelvis pictures, which focused on the contrasts between convex and concave surfaces, and solid and open spaces (61.565.36).

Although the desert bones of New Mexico had initially sparked O’Keeffe’s imagination, it was painted the rocks, cliffs, and mountains in dramatic close-up, just as she had done with her flower subjects. One of her favorite settings was a site she nicknamed the “Black Place” the region’s majestic landscape, with its unusual geological formations, vivid colors, clarity of light, and exotic vegetation, that held her attention for more than four decades. Often she (59.204.1), which she interpreted both panoramically and in tight views emphasizing the ragged juncture of two hills.

O’Keeffe explained her idea behind Blue and Green Music (Fig 11) that “music could be translated into something for the eye.” Many painters have been attracted to the idea of ‘painting music’.  The critic Walter Pater wrote in 1877: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”  One interpretation of Pater’s observation is that music is the only art whose form and content are  the same. This makes music fundamentally different from traditional Western painting, in which the same content can take hundreds of forms. The reason painting and music differ, Pater went on to argue, is that painting is mimetic (i.e., it tries to approximate the appearance of the physical world), and music is not.  O’Keefe and Pelton were strongly influenced by the Symbolist creed which proclaimed that art should be atmospheric not realistic, symbolic rather than literal in meaning. This takes their presentations into the realm of theosophy

Fig 11. Blue and Green Music: Georgia O’Keefe, 1921

People often misunderstand abstract art because they are looking for something real and concrete with which they can identify. It is natural to try to name and make sense of what we experience and perceive in the world, so pure abstract art, with its unrecognizable subject matter and unpredictable shapes, colorurs, and lines can prove challenging.  The arts in traditional cultures transmit the central beliefs and values of those cultures, and those beliefs and values have a strong religious or spiritual dimension.  Abstract images, such as a works of art, are a powerful means of eliciting individualized emotional reactions and general impressions in the observer. In this respect, abstract art is an ideal vehicle for communicating spiritual realities for several reasons. It removes viewers from the world they think they know and allows them to focus their contemplation on symbols, the experience of a work, or its meditative character. Polly Castor saya of her abstract works, “ My ultimate motive is to aid the viewer into deeper contemplation and understanding of the subject depicted. I want to be clear that I am making a visual statement of a more metaphysical idea or concept, and not just noodling around in a pleasing way”.  A title guides the viewer along this pathway.(Fig 12)

Fig 12 Buddha Tree: Corixus, 2020

We experience transcendentalism today in many ways and could benefit as a society by collectively learning more about it and practicing it’s ideas such as spending more time in nature espoused by Thoreau and Emerson, in ‘Nature’ and ‘Walden Pond’, improving the structure of the education system as presented by Emerson in the ‘American Scholar’, and implementing some of Thoreau’s views from ‘Civil Disobedience and Self Reliance’.

4  Internet References

Wonderful things

Notions About Nature

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