At Times Like These

Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy
Mark C. Taylor (227pp, 19.00, Columbia University Press)

'Basically I sell blue sky and coloured air' explains the American artist James Turrell talking about his series of meditative Skyspaces. 'Those who were responsible for the current financial crisis were selling blue sky too. But at least I deliver'. With the fifth anniversary of the onset of the financial crisis now behind us, it seems like a good time to take stock of where things stand and a book about contemporary art might just be the perfect place to start.

Mark C. Taylor, who cites Turrell's throwaway remark in his fascinating new book, Refiguring the Spiritual
, begins his illuminating and provocative discussion by claiming that contemporary art has been led astray by money: 'When the overall economy moves from industrial and consumer capitalism to finance capitalism, art undergoes parallel changes. There are three stages in this process: the commodification of art, the corporatization of art, and the financialization of art'.

Making art to exploit these ever-expanding financial markets is the accusation Taylor lays at the foot of several big name studio/factory doors from Warhol onwards. The ostentatious combination of flash and the macabre in Damien Hirst's hundred million dollar diamond-studded skull is a sitting target for Taylor's polemic, but when he describes Jeff Koons as 'the poster boy for this frenzied commodification of art' he is really pointing a finger at many of the celebrity-status artists that dominate the current scene.

Against this backdrop of vacuous production for an art market that mirrors the art of finance, Taylor singles out four contemporary artists whose impulse is to refuse this easy route of commercialization. The point of Taylor's book is to show that in their refusal to conform to such demands, the work of Joseph Beuys, Matthew Barney, James Turrell and Andy Goldsworthy could be seen as a resource to guide reflection and shape action, as their art matters as a means for possible political, social, cultural or environmental change. Taylor argues that what these four share is an idea of art-making as a transformative practice that draws inspiration directly and indirectly from spirituality.

I was reminded of the inspiring set of interviews that Suzi Gablik conducted with artists, writers, philosophers and critics in the early nineties for her book Conversations Before the End of Time
. Many of the questions to do with the redundancy of meaning and purpose of visual art, with or without spiritual/aesthetic content, that were raised in those revealing exchanges seem only to have magnified in the intervening years. In what he sees as becoming a long, drawn-out ethical crisis, Taylor warns that the web of life is threatened more now than ever before, the challenge is 'not merely to avoid financial disaster and natural catastrophe' but to deal with 'a crisis of vision' where 'to see differently is to be different'. 

Taylor argues that the role of art and artists amid this cultural and environmental uncertainty is to develop an attitude of both connection and reverence towards the physical world. He sees vision as a social practice, and throughout the book he reiterates how new kinds of art-making need to encourage us all to be more actively engaged in the world we inhabit. Devoting a chapter to each of the four artists, Taylor then showcases examples of their work as exceptional counterpoints to how art has been dramatically neutralised by finance.

Consequently Beuys is presented according to 'his biding commitment to the transformative and regenerative power of art' with Taylor stressing 'throughout his career Beuys was preoccupied with rebirth, renewal and regeneration'. Most of the discussion takes place with reference to the anthroposophy, alchemy and shamanism that inform his multimedia presentations and live performances: how their intense effect derives from his enigmatic blending of that which is known with the unknown, that which is understood with the unfathomable; in other words, both rational and holistic ideas that seem to coalesce on a spiritual plane. For instance, in How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare
(1968) Beuys's head is covered with honey and gold leaf as he carries the dead hare from one work to another.  Taylor quotes the artist in explaining how the therapeutic honey and valuable gold in this piece 'indicate a transformation of the head, and therefore naturally and logically the brain and our understanding of thought consciousness'. Beuys's appropriation of 'alchemy's basic tenets' for Taylor is actually spiritual, for as he notes, throughout all his work 'he maintains that creativity is not only the distinguishing mark of the artist but is also the point of union between the divine and the human'.

Beuys is crucial to Taylor's argument for as both an artist and a public figure he vociferously rejected the materialism of his age to promote the need for a form of creativity mediated by absolute consciousness that could be embodied in the social, political and economic practices informing everyday life. Taylor cites Beuys's claim that these practices and the institutions and systems that regulate them can be works of art in themselves, that 'only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build

Taylor makes the case that there are profound similarities between Beuys and Matthew Barney in their representation of renewal and rebirth: that both are involved in 'a religio-mythical quest to overcome social, political and psychological division and conflict, and to recover the unity once enjoyed but now lost'. Although he produces an insightful commentary on Barney's five-part series of Cremaster
films (1994-2003), as well as related sculptures, drawings, photographs and installations, it was a struggle to see the same conviction operating in the work and the juxtaposition seemed forced.

The grandly decentred narrative of Barney's work includes many American cultural icons from a Busby Berkeley musical, a rodeo and an American football match, all the way to the Chrysler Building and Mormon theology, with layered emblematic references both to biological processes, Freemasonry and the Utah Salt Flats, although the Loughton Ram (that also appears on the front cover of this book) is, apparently, indigenous to the Isle of Man. Within this operatic accumulation of imagery a tension between form and formlessness occurs that Taylor thinks intersects with Beuys.  The role of the subconscious in the formation of subjectivity clearly lies at the heart of both Beuys's and Barney's art. After Taylor's analysis, I started to see how Barney's partly earnest, partly playful conviction with which he frames his surreal futilities might in itself be identified as revealing.

James Turrell is perhaps the most abstract, non-narrative of the four artists. Taylor recalls the 'luminescent blue glow' he experienced in a Skyspace,
one of Turrell's tranquil enclosures where you are lulled into dwelling upon the rectangular patch of sky above, its shifting patterns and intensities of light. In how it conspires to bring the sky down towards you, Taylor marvels at the deceptively simple manner the artist 'dematerializes' the medium of light 'to create works of art as effervescent as the act of apprehension itself'. He sees Turrell like an ancient mystic, an artist 'obsessed' with vision, for 'mystics stage rituals to create visions they believe will transform consciousness' and Taylor believes that Turrell stages 'a transformative experience by turning vision back on itself in order to see seeing'.

For over thirty years Turrell has been working on his massive Roden Crater
project at the edge of Arizona's Painted Desert, a place of spiritual transformation if ever there was one.  Taylor is fortunate enough to make the pilgrimage to see one of the most ambitious artworks of our time.  Here he observes and records with great detail how the artist has driven tunnels through the volcanic rock to harness light from the sun, moon and stars.  Poignantly he states 'Roden Crater cannot be understood from a distance - you must literally enter it.  And when you enter it, it enters you'.

Andy Goldsworthy, as Taylor perceptively points out, shares Turrell's fascination for light, for much of his work reveals the shifting play of light in different places at different times.  However, where Turrell (like many associated with land art) wants to seek out wide-open spaces in a remote territory, Taylor knows that Goldsworthy is more concerned with place than space. He appropriately quotes the artist on his connection to the Scottish landscape: 'I work with the North', Goldsworthy states, 'for me, north is an integral part of the land. I can touch it in the cold shadow of a mountain, the green side of a tree, the mossy face of a rock. Its energy is made visible in snow and ice'.

Goldsworthy collaborates with nature to converse with previous generations who have worked the land, what the artist calls 'the potent energies within the earth', and Taylor identifies the intimate qualities in Goldsworthy's signature works when the artist 'exposes faults in fractured pebbles, a irregular trench edged with clay, and a line drawn in slate on a Cumbrian Farm'.  This tracing of contours on a rock, the line of a river or growth of a tree-branch 'clears the opening in which the event of creation occur'.  Taylor sees these subtle, ephemeral alignments in media that ranges from snow, sand, rocks and mud to pebbles, leaves, twigs and feathers as both transposing and confirming the poet Wallace Stevens's notion of art where 'God and the imagination are one'.  He frequently quotes stanzas from Stevens's poems, including 'An Ordinary Evening in New Haven', 'Anecdote to the Jar' and 'Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself', to sustain his argument. The lines 'We must be cured of it by a cure of the ground / Or a cure of ourselves, that is equal to a cure' from the poem 'The Rock' has a resonance that runs throughout Taylor's thoughtful interpretation of Goldsworthy's work.

Of the four artists explored in the book, Taylor's ideas are especially cogent in relation to Goldsworthy: the potential of his artwork to draw 'us toward timely rhythms that we ignore at our peril'. He manages to show how the work of Beuys, Barney and Turrell also manages to tap into the teeming, profuse nature of phenomena immediately around us in our everyday world. As artists investigating constant processes of materialization, Taylor reveals how each of the four draw upon various aspects of ancient spiritual traditions.

This book could easily have fallen into being a reactionary tract about the superficiality of the artworld. It could have provided Taylor with the opportunity to mourn the loss of the spiritual sublime in the production of contemporary art. With a strong moral energy he does encourage the idea that the natural world should be promoted as awe-inspiring, but more importantly, this is a daring and intelligent joining of the dots: four related but unconnected artists who demonstrate that the nature of their creative output need not exploit economic or social practices. Against this view, in the light of the current financial crisis and mood of austerity, the art market does seem especially excessive, elitist and corrupt.

         Peter Gillies  2012