Monday, 19 March 2012

I was involved recently in an interesting discussion on the use of the word ‘spiritual’ in relation to describing works of art. This is a word which has a special - or particular - meaning for me, as I suspect it does for everyone, positively or negatively. And there lies the nub of the question, really. How can we be sure that the meaning of any such word, with a ‘history’ and so many connotations and interpretations, is both appropriate and consistent in describing the practice or experience of art?

My own feeling is that there is, or can be, something that might be called ‘spiritual’ in art. However, it does not seem to me that the word can be used descriptively in such discourse - unless it is in itself the subject of investigation, or it’s contextual meaning has been made as clear as possible (which is a matter of some difficulty). Another problem with it’s use is that it implies an a priori proclivity towards whatever ‘spirituality’ might signify, and this would appear to be too strong a position to adopt when one is interested (as I am) in studying art with a view to discovering what art ‘is’. I have written elsewhere about the dangers - as I see them - of taking the opposite viewpoint, that is, that art can be studied and analyzed with scientific (or pseudo-scientific) methods. I hold the view that art is essentially indeterminate in both directions, and indeed is beyond the appropriation of any logocentric ideas or positions, because in fact it’s very existence - it’s raison d’etre - is to transcend such conditions. Indeed, one might say that art is the transcendence of those conditions by it’s own means. This does not mean that art is a negative movement, or a positive one in relation to what we might call ‘reality’: it somehow encompasses both, is immanent to them in their workings, but at the same time transcends the dual nature of immersion in that ‘reality’. Art is deliberately indeterminate, non-identical even with itself, cannot be appropriated.

I believe this can be shown by reason, through discourse, if the methodology adopted is that of the most advanced and rigorous philosophy - which, in my opinion at least, is in itself aware of it’s own indeterminateness, it’s own ’identity’ with non-identity, hence the ‘weakest’ of philosophies - and the possibilities that are opened up thereby.

The entire discussion occurred as a conversation on Facebook, and can be found under the finely crafted, thought-provoking original article on the website of it’s author and generous host, Ken Neil, here:

< http://kenneil.com/2012/03/04/spiritual-flirtation/ >


Copyright © 2012 Brian Grassom

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Previous Comments

Jim H

I agree with you almost entirely Brian but on the point of the most "advanced and rigorous philosophy" that is "aware of its own indeterminateness" I might have to differ:

"There is an atmosphere of bluff and fakery that pervades much (not all, of course) deconstructive writing. What becomes even more surprising is that the authors seem to think it is all right to engage in these practices, because they hold a theory to the effect that pretentions to objective truth and rationality in science, philosophy, and common sense can be deconstructed as logocentric subterfuges. To put it crudely, they think that since everything is phony anyway, the phoniness of deconstruction is somehow acceptable, indeed commendable, since it lies right on the surface ready for further deconstruction. Thus, the general weaknesses of the deconstructive enterprise become self-justifying. With such an approach I am indeed not sympathetic.” -John Searle

But perhaps we only differ over our tolerance of ambiguity and where I  gladly accept the ambiguity of art, with Derrida, indeed the entire Heideggerian lineage, I am much less comfortable.

"We have two traditions in France – we have one tradition of the enlightenment which is at the same time extremely clear, but it can be also very profound and you have the corruption, if I may say so, German corruption especially the Heideggerian corruption of jargon, very pedantic philosophy which looks like the ink produced by the octopus and this philosophy was extremely prosperous in the 60’s and 70’s through the structuralists many of those philosophers were pupils of Heidegger and were influenced by Heidegger. Their text was obscure and dark and you had to deconstruct it word after word to produce another obscure commentary which proved that you had entered the circle of the happy few. That’s not how I understand philosophy. I think philosophy should be open to everyone. Of course there are a few things you have to explain more accurately but it should include every aspect of life so nobody should be left out of the feast." -Pascal Bruckner

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 - 11:00 AM

John Baldacchino

If philosophy were to leave behind the ambiguous, it becomes partial. Logical positivists tried that approach and were left much poorer than what they began with; which explains why Wittgenstein abandoned such an attempt.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 - 12:07 PM


Jim, thanks for your comment. I've also commented on your recent article on the subject at <http://thoughtsonartandteaching.blogspot.co.uk/#axzz1pfSYNsh6>

John Searle is careful to question "much (not all, of course) deconstructive writing", and at a particular time when it was the latest 'movement' in Continental philosophy. Other people who went through that period often seem to have this attitude to Derrida, presumably because - like yourself - they felt an obligation to understand his work. This is quite natural, but it should not deter you from revisiting it. In our discussion with Ken, you cited Foucault as the one who dismisses Derrida: Foucault, who in the 1970's advocated the writing of Mao Ze Dong! I have not read Culler's book, which you quote in your article.

One might in the same words as Searle offer a criticism of any philosophical "enterprise", especially in my view a certain kind of positivism popular at many British universities.

But my understanding of Derrida is that he does not dismiss anything as "phony". His approach is entirely affirmative. He points out that (what has become known as) 'deconstruction' is unconsciously present in every text, including his own - and this explains the curious way he often speaks in a voice that tries to be self-consciously aware of the difficulties this poses. It is this technique in his writing that is taken by some to be "deliberate obfuscation" or perhaps even "bluff and fakery". For the same reason he is apt to play with words in a way that some take to be merely entertaining. But his writing does not, as a result and much less by design, lie "right on the surface" as Searle suggests.

I am not pretending that reading Derrida is not difficult for all but a "happy few". If you find him difficult (as I do), then try reading Emmanuel Levinas! I would welcome any light you could throw upon some of his more obscure passages. However, I personally have found the little I do understand extremely enlightening. Perhaps that is just me, but I am inclined to think that the work of at least those two writers makes use of the most subtle and nuanced reasoning. And there are more, such as Rancière, Lyotard, Blanchot, not to mention Adorno, and many many more with whom I am only slightly acquainted, from the "Heideggerian lineage" - which should perhaps more rightly be called a Husserlian or Phenomenological lineage. For me, Phenomenology is particularly suited to art, because it deals with the notion of consciousness in terms of consciousness itself, and not as an object that can be dissected by the science of the laboratory: Hence the acceptance of ambiguity - and the same principle I think can be seen and applied in art and indeed in life, as I know you agree.

For me, there is certainly something "anchoring" in crossing into Anglo-American empiricism  to 'cool off' after reading a lot of Continental philosophy. But I do think it folly indeed to take the view that anything of this nature, of such richness and depth, can be ignored entirely - which is true of all discourse.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 - 04:09 PM

Jim H

I would say very similar things to someone who struggled and gave up with the work of Eija Liisa Ahtilla, Andre Tarkovsky, Goddard or Matthew Barney.  But it surely depends on what they seek in art. Far be it from me to suggest that their experience of art will be diminished unless they struggle on or, worse still, learn to enjoy their struggle. Sure, I’d think they were missing-out but then again the world of art, let alone the world of art AND philosophy, is filled to bursting with amazing and challenging things. If they found that they are more interested in and fruitfully challenged by the likes of Gabriel Orozco, Roni Horn or Tomma Abts for that matter who am I to tell them that they need to grapple with all the things that I (or some “circle of the happy few”) find significant?

Folly it may be, but we each have only one life in which to discover and explore the things that stimulate our growth and I see no point in struggling in vain when there are so many other rich and rewarding fruits for the taking.

Funny you should mention Rancière, I just ordered his “The Ignorant Schoolmaster” (the title says it all really doesn’t it!) yesterday – partly out of curiosity and partly out of that sense of “obligation to understand” that you mention. Perhaps that’s a bad starting point, but at least I’m haven’t given up entirely.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 - 10:32 PM


Jim, yes of course, we can agree to differ - you are quite right. I've been reading "On the Shores of Politics" by Rancière. I was fascinated by him after learning of him through John (Baldacchino), with whom he did a seminar at Columbia a few years ago. Again, I can't say I understand it  completely, but what he says strikes a resonant chord as if of something known but forgotten - perhaps like a distant "harbour light", as you put it earlier, but welcoming - a very interesting and I suspect beautifully profound take on politics. I haven't finished it yet, but I'll get there. Thanks to you and John for your contributions to this, my new 'blog'.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 - 11:33 PM

John Baldacchino

Rancière's work is very apt here. Apart from the fact that one wonders what art schools would look like should they adopt a Jacotot approach (i.e. begin from a position of ignorance, rather than the position of a master-pupil apprenticeship camouflaged under the guise of a tired productivist aesthetic a la Bauhaus), Rancière's work on the arts is even more revealing where the whole issue of deconstruction is put to a side and instead he engages with art's ability to speak twice over (as he puts it in his «Aesthetics and its Discontents»), which, as we know, philosophy cannot do.

While I would support a position of ignorance as the first principle of pedagogy, I would also be keen to see a radical distinction made between art and philosophy; just as I have always insisted (to many an art educator's dismay and disdain) that there must always be a clear distinction between art and art education, because indeed art is not there to teach us anything.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 08:31 AM


John, thank you. I have not read "Aesthetics and its Discontents", but will. You make a distinction between art and philosophy, on the grounds that they are different things: the crucial difference being that philosophy cannot "speak twice over" (as Derrida has shown), and art can. Then you make a second distinction along the same lines between art and art education. This second distinction is, of course, a Platonic one. Since we have already decided that (Platonic) philosophy cannot "speak twice over", then it cannot tell us why there is a distinction, whilst art can. Therefore art must speak for itself. Have I got that right, or am I making a gross over-simplification?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 05:39 PM

Jim H

Actually education speaks twice over - teaching only once.

Friday, March 23, 2012 - 08:58 PM


I take that as a witticism on the difference, and dichotomy, between teaching as it pans out on the 'factory floor', and the ivory tower of educational theory? I would agree with you in the current state of affairs, but the two are intertwined and the constraints we find in teaching invariably originate in that tower. In art education, what John is saying is that the tower has got it wrong. Art does not teach anything, in the sense that it is instrumental: a fallacy common to the present educational paradigm. The construct of this paradigm has very complex roots, but suffice it to say that art - as John points out - has "nothing to teach", in the sense that education understands that word. Rather, art is an exploratory event that rebounds upon the participant in manifold ways that do not provide a cohesive fragment of knowledge, as that is understood in the world of education. In much the same way the difference between knowledge and 'mysticism' (as we have been discussing it on Ken's 'blogspot') plays out, and in that sense art is thought to be more akin to the mystical than to the epistemological.

Perhaps if we were to turn Schopenhauer inside-out, we might find (as Anita suggested) that knowledge and mysticism can work in tandem, or alternately, in the free floating medium of art.

Friday, March 23, 2012 - 11:13 PM

Jim H

Yes, that’s the difficulty - and in certain circumstances the beauty - of ambiguity isn’t it? What you attributed to my intention above is a far different than I was thinking. I was thinking (though you’d be a genius to guess from what I wrote) more of the etymological difference between leading-out (“educare”) and saying (“dicere”).

Another painter friend (another John in fact – Hi John!) posted a quote from Hockney on Facebook recently: "I used to point out at art school, you can teach the craft; it's the poetry you can't teach. But now they try to teach the poetry and not the craft."

(As an aside I’m far far far more comfortable with the words poetry and poetics than the  word “spiritual”.)

The Hockney quote provoked me enough to write: Whilst it may be true that you cannot "teach" the poetry, it would be a mistake, I think, to assume that it emerges naturally out of fine craft. Poetry can be nurtured, inspired, informed and encouraged just as surely as it can be neglected. We live in a different world to the era of Hockney's studenthood and it’s arguable that art, let alone its poetry, is far less well regarded now (or at least regarded significantly differently) than it was in Hockney's time. If art schools devote greater emphasis to the poetry of art then this is probably simply a reflection of a belief that we have a duty, more than ever, to promote this easily trampled upon but vital aspect of culture. [not at all dissimilar to what Ken was saying I think].

I think much of the problem derives from the way that we think of teaching as a form of imparting – usually of skills and knowledge: of quantifiable things. The idea that something as nuanced, complex and sometimes vexed as the poetry of art could be instilled in this way seems wholly unconvincing, preposterous even. And if we were to follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion then it would be pointless to attempt to teach the poetry of art, as Hockney’s quote suggests. However, if we were to think in terms of the word “educate” (from the Latin “lead out”) the whole issue evaporates. Many common prejudices about teaching seem to hinge on this subtle misunderstanding.

“Art is an exploratory event that rebounds upon the participant in manifold ways that do not provide a cohesive fragment of knowledge” I couldn't agree more Brian and have argued the same myself when struggling against the instrumentality of the RAE and REF.

But the ivory tower of education that you mention stands on the most spindly legs imaginable and, despite whatever criticism we may have of it (most of which are backed up by nothing but hopeless philosophy and zero empirical evidence), the only reason it is going to come tumbling down won’t be through any perspicacity and revolutionary insight on our part but as the consequence of forces of change in the entire foundations of HE that have been shifting rapidly and inexorably over the last 10 years towards electronic learning. What impact that great crashing fall of art education from it’s heady heights will have when it meets the hard ground of comparison with other much less resource heavy subjects should be a source of genuine concern to all art schoolmasters, ignorant or no.

Saturday, March 24, 2012 - 12:06 AM


Jim, I’m glad you have expanded on your original brief comment. Actually, after my response, and reflecting on what you had said, I did  realize (not by “genius” necessarily - more by reflection and intuition - but perhaps we all have more genius than we might imagine) that what you were referring to is the difference between what is implicit in educare, and ‘teaching’ as a means of imparting knowledge, and was about to rectify my mistake. So, as you say my last reply is a little off your point, and I agree with you there wholeheartedly. Moreover, your expansion upon that is ‘right-on’ as they say. I too would be more comfortable with ‘poetic’ rather than ‘spiritual’ when speaking about art (although I’m tempted to say in the light of all that has been discussed and making allowances for the ‘flirtatious’ nature of Ken’s revisiting the word, that they could be inter-changeable at some level: but I would still hesitate to use it. [Actually, this could open up a whole new discussion on ‘poetics’, with all the inferences that word has]), but I ‘m with you in ‘spirit’.

Your point about a trend in recent years to reverse the trend of “trampling upon” art is interesting, and it does often seem to happen that we overcompensate - with the inevitable result in art that it is perhaps difficult now to say what is ‘poetic’ and what is not, when emphasizing that aspect: whereas with craft it is more clear cut. This is indeed an issue when teaching in the present climate, and is probably at the root of the previous discussion we had with Ken on making qualitative judgements in assessment within art education - although it has never been a simple matter to make that kind of judgement about art. And I think this makes all our peregrinations around the subject very worthwhile, and hopefully productive in the course of time (which, of course, is the rationale behind your own writing on “Art and Teaching” at < http://thoughtsonartandteaching.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Art#axzz1q2ZP4Bwp). > {which I now see - in real time on that page - deals with just what we are discussing}. Can ‘poetry’ be taught? Or ought we simply try to provide the right circumstances for it to flourish - whatever they might be?

I probably should not have use the term “ivory tower” in my off-the-point comment, as it does not really describe what is more likely a dialectical relationship between art teaching and educational theory, but that’s another (quite involved) question, I think.

I do hope I have not ‘goofed’ again in answering your very sound points.

What you say about the ramifications of “electronic learning” I’m not quite getting ... maybe you could expand on that, if you have time ... ?

Saturday, March 24, 2012 - 01:58 PM

Jim H

That’s right, I was thinking of how education and teaching can be thought of as reflecting different conceptions of the process of art making: of inscribing, imposing, conveying, expressing, communicating etc. (ie: “saying” or “showing”) instead of exploring, finding, discovering etc. (ie:“leading out”). So whilst art may have nothing to teach, from it we learn.

As to what “speaking twice over” is supposed to mean I haven’t the faintest idea and nor does it help to look it up from the horse’s mouth so to speak (so to speak[!]):

“Critical art has to negotiate between the tension which pushes art towards ‘life’ as well as that which, conversely, sets aesthetic sensorality apart from the other forms of sensory experience. It has to borrow the connections that foster political intelligibility from the zones of indistinction between art and the other spheres. And from the solitude of the work it has to borrow the sense of a sensible heterogeneity which feeds political energies of refusal. It is this negotiation between the forms of art and those of non-art which makes it possible to form combinations of elements capable of speaking twice over; on the basis of their legibility and on the basis of their illegibility.”

Now I’m seriously beginning to worry that I’ve wasted good money on yet more gibberish. How the hell can something speak “on the basis of its illegibility”? How (and why indeed) would critical art need to “borrow a sense of sensible heterogeneity” from the “solitude of the work” ie: from itself? What on gods earth is “a connection that fosters political intelligibility” or a “zone of indistinction between art and the other spheres” or an example of “aesthetic sensorality set apart from other forms of sensory experience”?

I think you'd have to try damned hard to convince me that this isn’t obscure and dark and that you don’t have to deconstruct it word after word to produce another obscure commentary which proves that you have entered the circle of the happy few.

On the point of e-learning and its threat to art education I do indeed have time but I’d like to gather my thoughts on the subject and use it as the basis for a post on my own blog if you don’t mind.

Saturday, March 24, 2012 - 08:31 PM


In response to this question from Jim, and to follow this thread of the discussion, please see the next article: "Speaking: Once, twice, or not at all". If you wold like to comment on "Spiritual(ity)", please do so below.

Sunday, March 25, 2012 - 07:24 PM