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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24.3 (2002) 18-34

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Art as Spiritual Practice

Panel discussion with Alison Knowles, Eleanor Heartney, Meredith Monk, Linda Montano, and Erik Ehn; moderated by Bonnie Marranca

This panel discussion was part of a series of public talks on the contemporary arts, entitled "Performance Ideas," which Meredith Monk and I curated in Fall/Spring 2001-2002. It was held on November 5, 2001, at the SoHo gallery, media, and performance space, Location One. Members of the panel included the performer, composer, and filmmaker Monk; visual artist and founding Fluxus member, Alison Knowles; performance artist Linda Montano; Eleanor Heartney, art critic and contributing editor of Art in America; Erik Ehn, playwright and director. The discussion, which I moderated, was co-produced by Meredith Monk/The House Foundation for the Arts and Location One and can be viewed online at

As it turned out, there was considerable interest in our subject—close to three hundred people attended the event—so soon after September 11, when the mood in New York City was still somber, especially downtown, and people were anxious to come together and talk. Many had heard or seen the screaming jets fly over the rooftops of SoHo. For this audience there was already an awareness of the cultural controversies in recent decades over religious imagery in visual arts, theatre, and film and the ongoing conflict between liberal values and religious conservatism in American culture. Notwithstanding, repeated conversations with artists and exposure to new work have increasingly made apparent to me the significant role of the spiritual in their private experience and artistic process and in the imagery and forms of the works themselves. Art history has had a much more sustained, rich discourse around these issues than the field of performance, so it seems worthwhile to consider the spiritual question in a larger frame across media rather than in isolated events.

A cursory overview of avant-garde and modernist movements, beginning in the late-nineteenth century, reveals the extent to which much of the most advanced performing, literary, and visual arts drew on religious iconography, biblical themes, lives of saints, the occult, and deep spiritual feelings, joining Western, Asian, and Middle Eastern religious traditions. Alongside the impact, in the last half-century, of Buddhism and Judaism, and, more recently, Catholicism on American performance and visual arts there has been growing attention to the spiritual styles of artworks. Still, it is an often neglected, or tentative, field of contemporary criticism even as art, science, and politics have encouraged a more complex inquiry into the role of religion in current thought. New Age [End Page 18] felicities that congregate around spirituality have led many serious-minded people to distance themselves from any public declarations. Likewise, the subject of religion, with its connotations of organized institutions, dogma, and conservative politics, is enough to unsettle believers themselves, without the added trauma of the politics surrounding the World Trade Center attack.

But if religion is viewed only in those terms, then we lose access to artistic traditions that open themselves up to the sacred and profane and complex forms of philosophical knowledge in the accumulated wisdom of civilizations. Hopefully, new critical dialogues can evolve from the manifestations of religious symbols and literary references and artists' own reflections on their spiritual lives that now cut across several art forms, religious persuasions, and generations. In future issues of PAJ we plan to feature a series of essays, dialogues, and texts, on the subject of art, spirituality, and religion, in which artists and critics can explore spiritual themes and artworks shaped by religious imagery, liturgical forms, and theological concepts. "Art as Spiritual Practice" is the first installment in the series.

—Bonnie Marranca


MARRANCA: The notion of the spiritual, of religion, of spiritual discipline or practice is very difficult to grapple with. One of the things we might consider is, what do we mean by the spiritual? How do we recognize it? What kinds of things do we consider...


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