Printer Friendly

A pictorial response to religious disunity.

Despite religion's ongoing battle with the modem art world, common ground between diverse religious traditions can be negotiated in abstract pictorial art's capacity to resolve religious conflict, at least on the epistemic level. This exploration argues that abstract art, referring specifically to painting, serves the interests of interreligious dialogue insofar as the epistemic level of its meaning provides an effective place to broaden discussion on the question of religious unity. It also explores how focusing on abstract painting's nonrepresentational content or "meaning made visible" can expand that common ground and help resolve the "why" of religious disunity.

According to Joshua Reynolds, an effective procedure to discover that great ideal of religious unity is by observing what all major religions have in common, which, Reynolds explained, results in "an abstract idea of their forms more perfect than any one original." (1) The strength of abstract pictorial art to discover that same ideal lies in the capacity of its symbolic nature to convey religious meaning more spontaneously and less prejudicially than formulaic religious doctrines. While theology and philosophy seek to understand the nature of God and spiritual realities through faith and reason, abstract pictorial art involves the sense of sight, raising the mind to convey ideas about God and spirituality through symbol and feeling without the distinctions and separations of philosophical language or religious doctrine. Referring to abstract art as "an expression of ultimate concern," (2) Paul Tillich claimed: "You cannot interpret a picture by stating its meaning in discursive sentences and then dispensing with the visual form. Every work of art ... has something to say directly to its audience that cannot be expressed by scientific formulas or the language of everyday experience." (3) Tillich believed that through symbols religious language communicates religious experience, and abstract painting is highly symbolic.

Richard Viladesau went further to claim that abstract paintings are "instances of 'aesthetic theology': a reflection on and communication of theological insight in a way irreducible to abstract conceptual thought." (4) Perhaps this is why many philosophical theorists on theological matters do not define God as "Creator" or "Sustainer" or "Lord of Lords" but, rather, as omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent--or, more sophisticatedly, as Thomas Aquinas's Ipsum esse subsistens or the "Not Said," "Unspoken," and "Unspeakable" subjects of Hegel's Absolute. Abstract pictorial art, in its purest and most radical forms, is able to capture these realities more readily than theological formulations by providing a pictorial content to which almost every religious tradition can relate.

A pictorial approach to interreligious dialogue underscores the possibility for abstract forms to express fundamental religious truths. Given that religious truth is built on abstract thought systems, rather than forcing concrete simulations on theoretical models of religious unity a more effective approach to meet the same goal is through religious meaning embedded in abstract pictorial art. In pictorial abstraction, religion's primary truth-statements assume a nonfigurative perceptivity that is more universally comprehensible than what is portrayed in concrete pictorial imagery. Robert Neville has explained how the abstract is able to interpret local religious beliefs in a wider context, and he stated that abstractions "characterize sophisticated thought and the mere local popular religion." (5)

Unlike a specific religion or an explicitly religious art, abstract painting is neither concerned with narrative nor connected to specific stories or categorical religious doctrine. Gregory Currie made this point in his essay, "Visual Conceptual Art." He claimed that such art is useful for focusing away from the particularity of things, given that particularity is unlikely to help interreligious dialogue. (6) In other words, abstract pictorial art's value for religion lies in the fact that the form of faith, despite religion's concrete expressions, is entirely abstract. The idea of God and divine mysteries and almost all ideas identified by religion are abstract insofar as human perception and comprehension of them operate mentally at the level of meaning. Like the form of God or divine grace or any spiritual reality, the form of nonfigurative painting is also abstract to the degree that it assumes highly intellectual and theoretical conceptualizations. Those concepts are, therefore, incapable of expression in figurative media yet entirely expressible in visual media through abstract art's power to assume similar epistemic valances as to how the objects of faith and religion's ideas are perceived. Therefore, despite remaining images in abstract convention, abstract artworks enable intellectual movement toward religious unity by focusing on meaning instead of subject matter. This opens up to the greater possibility of mutual understanding. It broadens common ground and enables the sharing of basic ideas among diverse religions.

Moreover, since philosophical and theological terms are limited in their semantic meanings, and given that visual nonrepresentational imagery appeals also to the mind's eye, there is a greater chance of establishing unity through abstract art. This is true because the process of engagement with abstract art is not just visual but also mental. Aristotle professed that "in each and every case that which unifies is mind." (7) Abstract art affords this mental unifying activity through its nonrepresentational imagery. Rudolf Amheim made this point, explaining how art in general stimulates mental and emotional activity. (8)

Similarly, Gordon Childe observed that "reasoning, and all that we call thinking, must involve mental operations with what psychologists call images." (9) Childe was talking about images in the mind, mental images. Abstract painting allows for these kinds of images that tend to stimulate religious ideas more readily than any other pictorial genre. Those powerful nonfigurative paintings of such masters as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Emma Kunz, Barnett Newman, Kasimir Malevic, Agnes Martin, and Mark Rothko--just to name a few--are all anchored in the nature of the mind from whence derives their usefulness for interreligious dialogue.

By removing figurative content or material subject matter, the abstract painter annuls all learned perceptivity of religious meaning that the viewer would bring to the artwork. The general mental action associated with this kind of perception is separation, division, and disconnection. When awareness is no longer learned as Immanuel Kant explained, it entails connectivity, unity, integration, or the mental process of combining, which are all at the core of cognitive activity, abstract painting, and interreligious dialogue. (10) This level of connectivity in abstract art exists by virtue of its symbolic representation and arbitrary configurations, the very way it connects people of different beliefs and faiths. Abstract painting becomes, therefore, a channel in the dialectic of unifying at the most intuitive level of human awareness. In this exists its utility for any enterprise that strives for a combining principle or foundation in dialogue, as does the interfaith movement.

Moreover, abstract pictorial art readily conduces to theological themes while permitting the convergence of fundamental religious beliefs, because it does not illustrate persons, events, stories, or objects in the natural world but, rather, primary forms. By returning to the most rudimentary of illustrative forms, abstract painting cuts through separation, overcomes that which divides, and obscures the boundaries of distinction. Therefore, it enables dialogue by avoiding that impossible impasse in which claims on behalf of one religion are countered by equally insistent claims on behalf of another. It avoids the methodological problematic of how different religions assert distinctive truths while each urges itself as possessor of the entire truth. Abstract art thus broadens common ground or the neutral space needed for dialogue.

Linking abstract art with religion, Dutch artist Piet Mondrian stated that "all religions have the same fundamental content; they differ only in form. The form is the external manifestation of this content, and thus an indispensable vehicle for the expression of the primal principle." (11) Abstract art makes that form similar in all of its pictorial manifestations. Moreover, abstract art asks no viewer to disbar any particular belief. Modem artist Meredith Jack argues that "an 'abstract or nonrepresentational' image allows, even demands, that the viewer finds meaning from the possible multiple interpretations that can happen." (12) In this way, abstract art is truly interfaith.

Furthermore, given that each religion's authoritative texts are interpreted within its own faith community, abstract painting avoids the content limitations of those texts. It draws back beyond knowing to the mystery of difference, to the ineffable essence of otherness, away from figurative expression or representational imagery, escaping word constructs that overrule so many conceptions of God, to a radical simplicity beyond all human imagining. It leaves God simply as great. When adherents of a particular religion can step outside the learned perceptions upheld within their own traditions, dialogue can flourish. This "stepping outside" is possible through abstract art's reframing religious subject matter into Mondrian's "form" or in "meaning made visible."

Put simply, abstract painting can be experienced as a locus for one of modernity's most robust and original outworkings--interreligious dialogue. This is true because the abstract artist, more than any other, works in emulation of the divine, and, therefore, in a certain sense abstract art speaks of the universal and united spiritual world in which all religions must participate. It solves, or at least addresses seriously, the problem of the one and the many in religion by seeking to reconcile religious difference through meaning in visual, abstract form. So, when the individual adherent to any particular religion responds like the artist of abstract painting to the call for unity by abstracting universal forms implicit in all things, then that person elevates religious division beyond its surface plurality, even beyond its singular tension, thereby shaping it into a model of universal order and harmony.

Christopher Evan Longhurst

Docent, Vatican Museums

Rome, Italy

(1) Joshua Reynolds, Fifteen Discourses Delivered in the Royal Academy (J. M. Dent & Co., 1906), Discourse 3, 44

(2) Paul Tillich, "Existentialist Aspects of Modem Art," in Carl Michalson, ed., Christianity and the Existentialists, chap. 7 (New York: Scribner, 1956), pp. 128-146.

(3) Paul Tillich, What Is Religion? (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1969), pp. 176-177.

(4) Richard Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty, and Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. x.

(5) Robert C. Neville, ed., Religious Truth: A Volume in the Comparative Religious Ideas Project (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), p. 195.

(6) Gregory Currie, "Visual Conceptual Art," in Peter Goldie and Elisabeth Schellekens, eds., Philosophy and Conceptual Art (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 2007), p. 33.

(7) De Anima, 430b.

(8) Rudolf Amheim, Toward a Psychology of Art: Collected Essays (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1966), pp. 29, 31, 37, 53, and 69.

(9) Gordon Childe, Social Evolution (New York: Schuman, 1951), p. 25.

(10) See Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Section 2, 24.

(11) See Jonathan Feinstein, The Nature of Creative Development (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), pp. 131-132. Feinstein cites Robert P. Welsh and J. M. Joosten, Two Mondrian Sketchbooks, 1912-1914, tr. Robert P. Welsh (Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 1969).

(12) "Meredith Jack, Politics, Religion, and Abstract Art, November 18, 2012; available at http://
COPYRIGHT 2014 Journal of Ecumenical Studies
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Longhurst, Christopher Evan
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2014
Previous Article:Blood of God in sufism: the theory of Yadollah Yazdanpanah.
Next Article:Marianne Jehle-Wildberger, Adolf Keller (1872-1963): Ecumenist, World Citizen, Philanthropist.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters