Visual Spirituality

Art, Mediums, and Cognitive Dissociation

by Susan B. Barnes (Author)
©2022 Textbook XVI, 216 Pages


The importance of spirituality in shaping contemporary visual culture has mostly been disregarded. Mentioning art and spirit in the same sentence was considered embarrassing. In contrast, most of the significant twentieth-century art movements developed in conjunction with spiritual inspiration. This book explores the topic through the lenses of media ecology, art history, and psychology. Media ecology is a theory that media shapes how messages are delivered. The non-commercial nature of spiritual concepts would prevent messages from being offered through commercial media. As a result, many respected artists whose works are familiar have escaped understanding because people haven't yet pierced the spiritual history of modern art. Images once considered devoid of meaning are now being re-examined in terms of their spiritual underpinnings. Kandinsky thought that he could correct nineteenth-century materialism by replacing it with twentieth-century spirituality. However, it was not until the twenty-first century that modern art's spiritual value started to be publicly recognized through scholarship and gallery exhibits. Abstraction provides the opportunity to explore design as a psychological self-revelation of the artist. Automatic drawing, once a tool for spirit messages, became a psychological method with the introduction of Surrealism. Psychology introduced the notion of creative dissociation to replace the idea of mediumship as a basis for art created in altered states. Art, as a personal and reflexive expression, can be used to steady our culture from one that denies spirituality to one that embraces it. We can all use artistic techniques to become more balanced people. Spiritual and psychological artistic techniques created the world of art we experience today. Understanding these influences can help us to better know the world in which we live.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Advance Praise
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Revealing the Spiritual in Visual Culture
  • Chapter 2. Spiritual Crisis and Communication Theory
  • Chapter 3. Spirituality and Modern Art
  • Chapter 4. Abstract Spiritual Artists
  • Chapter 5. Spirituality and Non-abstract Art
  • Chapter 6. Spiritualism and Art
  • Chapter 7. Outsider Art
  • Chapter 8. Art, Psychology, and Spirituality
  • Chapter 9. Changing Perspectives, Visual Culture in the Twenty-First Century
  • Chapter 10. Creating Art: A Spiritual Path
  • Chapter 11. Conclusion
  • Spirit Artists
  • Index

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Many people have worked on the production of the book. Gratitude goes to Ashita Shah and the staff at Peter Lang who helped to make this project a reality. Special thanks goes to Editor Erika Hendrix and Jacquelene Drinkall plus the anonymous reviewers who provided insightful information. Their comments made this book what it is today. First and formost, thanks goes to Massimo Introvigne for introducing me to the topic.

Sincere thanks to Steve Speer for his constant flow of stimulating materials that added to the scholarship of the book. Stanley Krippner provided his articles on dissociation, and I am grateful for his kindness. Most of all I want to thank my many friends who have been patient with me during the writing of this text and Philip Wyatt for his art.

Cover image: Scrying art by Philip Wyatt

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Culture shapes our understanding of the world. When culture misrepresents a concept, or worse, ignores it, it is the role of history to correct these misunderstandings. The importance of Spirituality in shaping art in contemporary culture has mostly been disregarded. Spirituality has always been a part of human culture from cave paintings to abstract art. The term is being used broadly to cover both religious views and personal experience. However, these influences have not always been culturally understood. For example, “the idea that abstraction, an art of pure form freed from all literary and extrapictorial content, might have its origins in fin-de-siécle religious revivalism and esoteric spiritual theory has long been a source of discomfort to certain students of modernity” (Greene, 2017, p. 47). Mentioning art and spirit in the same sentence was considered embarrassing. In contrast, most of the significant twentieth-century art movements developed in conjunction with spiritual sources—Christian, Kabbalistic, alchemical, Spiritualism, and Theosophy, to name a few.

In contrast to the spiritual, cultural focus was on the material universe. “It has been argued that when the urgings of the moral faculty (Spirituality) were ignored, all activity effectively entered the domain of materialism” (Colbert, 2011, p. 228). The spiritual is a word utilized by Wassily Kandinsky to describe ←xi | xii→art in his influential book Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Great art has an internal spiritual quality. Thus, the spark of spirituality in art requires more attention. Generally viewed, the spiritual can be considered looking beyond the ordinary to seek wisdom. It is also the idea of looking deeply within and turning the invisible into the visible work of art.

In the twenty-first century, scholars are beginning to insert the impact of spiritual philosophy into contemporary society through art exhibits and books. For instance, Charles Colbert states: Spiritualism “sanctioned art as a means of communing with the supernatural and instilled a sense of calling elsewhere than within the usual economic/religious strictures of community” (pp. 215–216). Visual Spirituality: Art, Mediums, and Cognitive Dissociation focuses on visual culture and its relationship to the artistic dissemination of spiritual concepts. It explores the topic through the lenses of media ecology, art history, and psychology. Media ecology is a theory in which media shapes how messages are delivered. Moreover, traditional communication models do not explain how to sense spiritual or emotional messages. In addition to media, the historic events or World War I and II also had an impact on social values.

World War I marked a cultural turning point in attitudes about spirituality and its relationship to modern art. Roger Lipsey (1988) argues: “Many of the universally respected artists whose works are altogether familiar and whom we feel we understand have escaped understanding because we haven’t yet penetrated the spiritual history of modern art” (p. 2). Thus, cultural attitudes influenced the rejection of the spiritual in visual culture.

Prior to the twenty-first century, museum curators, art critics, and religious scholars began to discuss the influence of spiritual ideas embedded in modern art. For example, The Spiritual in Art Abstract Painting 1890–1985 and shows on the work of Hilma af Klint, Georgiana Houghton, and Emma Kunz were developed. Images once considered devoid of meaning are now being examined in terms of their spiritual and philosophical underpinnings. Mircea Eliade (1991) reminds us that “symbolic thinking is not the exclusive privilege of the child, of the poet or the unbalanced mind: it is consubstantial with human existence, it comes before language and discursive reason” (p. 12). For example, Hilma af Klint’s work was informed by modes of Spiritualism, scientific theory, and evolution. Her work’s discovery is changing art history because she developed abstract art many years before historically cited abstract artists. Catherine Cooke (1987) states: “Of all the branches of abstraction in modern art, the spiritual has been amongst the most enduring, but perhaps the least clearly defined” (p. 5). It certainly has been the least culturally understood. ←xii | xiii→Spretnak (2014) contends: “One cannot fully grasp the complexity and depth of modern and contemporary art if the spiritual dimension is ignored, denied, downplayed, or dismissed” (p. 2). Thus, establishing the role of spirituality in contemporary visual culture is essential for our world today.

Abstraction provides the opportunity to explore design as a spiritual and psychological self-revelation of the artist. Viewing abstract art enables the viewer to understand that “his or her vision may also penetrate further into the psychic matrix of the piece to divine the residuum of spiritual essence left by the artist” (Colbert, 2011, p. 19). It enables us to transcend personal psychology to examine the transpersonal world of meaning and spiritual energies. The transpersonal world of meanings is exemplified in the artwork of C. G. Jung in his Red Book. Visual Spirituality: Art, Mediums, and Cognitive Dissociation may raise more questions than it answers. However, by examining modern art’s visual culture and its denial of the spiritual, the book also challenges our ideas about communication and technology. At the same time, it places visual culture at the forefront of social needs.

The book was written to focus on paintings and drawings, and performance art is beyond the scope of the text. It contains eleven chapters, which cover cultural concepts, artists, art movements, psychology, and art techniques. The first chapter defines terms and describes how our world is a secular one. It explores the concepts of Spirituality, materialism, visual culture, and technology. Furthermore, Chapter 1 describes the role of art history in denying the spiritual in our understanding of artistic movements.

Chapter 2 discusses the bias in media toward materialism and the dehumanization of art. Communication theory supported a formalist view of art. The ideas of Spiritualism, thought-forms, and the spiritual crisis are explored. In the next chapter, Spirituality and modern art movements are examined. Artists were influenced by Spiritualism, Theosophy, and Catholicism in the process of creating different art movements. Moreover, mysticism and occultism strongly influenced several modern artists.

Chapter 4 focuses on the spiritual beliefs of specific artists. These beliefs range from Theosophy, and Spiritualism to alchemy and the occult. It explores the mystical influences of artists. Automatic drawing is also a theme of this chapter as it concentrates on abstract art.

Next, Chapter 5 describes the spiritual influences of landscape artists in both the United States and Canada. They believed that nature was an expression of God and created national styles of artistic expression. The role of female artists belonging to the Hudson River School is also a central theme.←xiii | xiv→

Spiritualism and Art is a chapter that explores mediumistic art and the history of art in the tradition of Spiritualism. Mediumship and art are combined to create spirit art, such as precipitated paintings, trance art, and spirit portraits. The chapter argues that Spiritualism has its own religious art tradition, although the art has not generally been acknowledged outside the religion.

A number of artists believing in Spiritualism were put into the category of outsider artists. Chapter 7 describes how outsider art placed mediums and the emotionally distressed into the same category. These artists did not conform to traditional art organizations or methods.

A turning point in the book is Chapter 8, which explores psychology and mediumship. The formation of psychological thought, especially dissociation, was triggered by Spiritualist mediums. Psychologists realized that by studying mediums, they could learn about how the brain works. Artists and mediums tend to enter a state of dissociation when they work.

Chapter 9 contends that we are at a cultural turning point where the spiritual is becoming a part of our culture through the writings of art historians and religious scholars with the support of the public viewing of art exhibits. The spiritual intentions of artists are finally being revealed.

In Chapter 10, art is discussed on a more applied level. It is based on the idea that we are all artists and have the ability to better understand visual culture. Art can be used to balance our culture from one that denies spirituality to one that embraces it. As a result, we all can use artistic techniques to become more balanced people. Finally, Chapter 11 is the conclusion and summarizes ideas presented in the entire text. This chapter emphasizes why bringing the spiritual back into art and society is relevant today.

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· 1 ·

Revealing the Spiritual in Visual Culture

The depth or expressivity in a secular spiritual work of art is an expression of religion in the broad sense of the word, as an ultimate concern.Stoker, 2012, p. 5.

Understanding art is shaped by culture, and society does not always comprehend ideas that do not fit within the social norms. For example, as modern artists became inspired by spiritual concepts and experiences, the broader culture focused on material and technological ideals. Thus, the spiritual insights that inspired the art did not always become a part of its history because materialist concepts biased the culture.

Philosophical, social, historical, and technological factors have influenced our concepts of modern art. Art is about human relationships with our physical and spiritual lives. Spiritual philosophies include traditional religions and non-traditional beliefs. We have been living in a secular culture where people tend not to believe in supernatural phenomena. Objective reality, scientific thought, and technology overshadow spiritual and emotional ideals. As Lisa Blackman (2019) contends, there was a submerged historical archive in the twentieth century that disavowed affective experience. Today, these archives haunt us into an acknowledgment of the spiritual and emotional influence on modern art and visual culture.←1 | 2→


XVI, 216
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (May)
Spirit Art Spirituality Spiritualism Dissociation Cultural Studies Psychology Media Mediums Media Ecology Visual Spirituality Art, Mediums, Cognitive Dissociation Susan B. Barnes
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XVI, 216 pp.

Biographical notes

Susan B. Barnes (Author)

Susan B. Barnes received an BFA from Pratt Institute, an MFA in Theater, and a PhD in Media Ecology from NYU. She taught communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology, wrote nine books, and won an NSF grant along with MEA book awards.


Title: Visual Spirituality
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