Concerning Down-to-Earth Spirituality in Art Education

Professor Mel Alexenberg, Head of the School of the Arts, Emuna College, Jerusalem, Israel

NAEA News, National Art Education Association Caucus on the Spiritual in Art Education, February 2009.

The artist Wassily Kandinsky explored the spiritual nature of the emerging modern art movements at the beginning of the 20th century in his classic book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art.  He saw modern art as movement away from the representation of the material world to a more spiritually elevated world of abstraction.  He symbolized this spiritual ascent by a moving triangle with its apex leading it forwards and upwards

Complimenting modernism’s movement of art to a higher spiritual realm of pure color and form, 21st century postmodernism is the beginning of movement of art down into everyday life and out across a networked planet.  This spiritual movement downward and outward can be symbolized by a second triangle moving into the future through the wisdom of the past with the apex pointing downwards. These two triangles intertwined symbolize the dynamic integration of both up and down movements, like the biblical image of angels ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder linking heaven and earth. 

Rather than a quest for purity of form in some heavenly realm, our contemporary challenge is to reveal spirituality in the rough complexities of earth-bound living.   Striving for our own spiritual ascent is insufficient.  Our challenge is to strive to draw spirituality down into every aspect of our daily lives.  Art education flowing from a down-to-earth spirituality invites learners to transform the material world into a spiritual one by their act of creative perception.   It invites young artists to reveal the holy sparks hidden in their mundane world though their art. 

In his acclaimed novel, City of God, E. L. Doctorow provides an elegant literary formulation of the spiritual in contemporary life: “It has to appear in the manner of our times.  Not from on high, but a revelation that hides itself in our culture, it will be ground-level, on the street, it’ll be coming down the avenue in the traffic, hard to tell apart from anything else.”