Grace in Art: An email conversation with J.L.


This is a long post. Part One features the first part of the conversation; Part Two concerns a short continuation of that original conversation. Part Three contains an outline by J.L. of how she is framing, in more detail, her search for a theory of art in which Grace is a foundational principle.

Part One:

J.L. (an MA Fine Art student with a background in Art History and Philosophy) and I had worked together successfully on a process of self-and peer assessment. As a result of that we applied an approach called ‘Grounded theory’ to making sense of the process artists go through as they create their art. But something for J.L. seemed to be missing.

On 11. 11. 2019 she sent me an email message.


I think that one thing overlooked in our discussions about ‘grounded theory’ in relation to the process of making art is this: My addition (or perhaps it might be a different theory entirely) would be that the selection process as an artist proceeds in the making of their work is not always done on aesthetic merit. It may be done on the grounds of a spiritual resonance.

What I mean is that some items may be chosen because there is an internal pull towards them that is not describable; it could be emotional or spiritual ‘agreement’ and alignment – rather than an aesthetic one. Here I am talking about the wider context of artists rather than in relation to any specific people we know (although perhaps it might be applied to them).

Since I will not see you I will try and write what I meant to say about my theory and how it has been emerging from the ‘Critical perspectives’ module of the course. In the group we were discussing many things about ‘Feminism’, ‘Marxism’, ‘Racism’, ‘Post-colonialism’ etc. but what stood out for me was how all of these theories come from a place of judgement, from what seems like a single viewpoint pointing out problems with the world. I got fed up and cross with the attitude. I thought what [alternatives] might there be? … Well, an answer for me would be ‘Grace’ and so I stood and argued for ‘grace’. I was quickly told that it was not an ‘ism’ and therefore did not stand as a theory. In my disquiet I retorted with it being ‘Grace-ism’. I have spent the last week or so trying to figure out what grace-ism would be. It would be non-judgemental; it would give credit to the artist for having a reason for creating something. Essentially it would enable me to  have a lens through which I’d love to view the work. But I must admit I get a bit stuck here.

Any thoughts? J.

After an initial response earlier in the same week, I was able to reply in more detail on 17. 11. 2019.

Hello J.

Your email was a great pleasure to read and had a very positive effect on me. I think your proposition about a spiritual ‘pull’ and the attainment of states of grace is excellent and extremely well-made. I will reply now to the detail of what you proposed during the ‘Critical perspectives’ sessions of the course.

You wrote: ‘Since I will not see you I will try and write what I meant to say about my theory emerging from the ‘Critical perspectives’ module of the course. In the group we were discussing many things about Feminism, Marxism, Racism, post-colonialism etc’.

In fact, J., as you may have noticed, Michel Foucault emphasised how ‘theory’ had become a commodity and was being produced to serve the interests of the academy, the academics and the intellectual community. And, for quite some time in philosophy, people like the brilliant Martha Nussbaum had underlined the fact that there is no neutral point of view. (Plato thought he could walk to the rim of the universe and see it for what it was – but this is hardly feasible!) People adopt positions that serve their interests and, underneath it all, they do, as you say, make judgments. You continue by saying: ‘What stood out to me was how all of these theories come from a place of judgement’, from what seems like a single viewpoint pointing out problems with the world.’

I think you are correct; the theorists have either ethical or aesthetic values or they believe in rationality – and their theories (in principle) are designs to promote the realisation of those values. They are not specifically focused on art – or at least only indirectly so.

So, as a result, you ‘got fed up and cross with the attitude.’

You then took and expressed a view that is unusual but there have been many mystics and gnostics who have certainly tried to transcend the interest-laden perspectives. In essence you are challenging the straitjacket(s) of conventional mainstream theorising. Your alternative is to expose all (or most of it) as dogma and doctrine and you want to oppose it by suggesting that something deeper can be attained: You wrote: ‘What if it was an idea – what would it be then?’ Well, you said, it would be ‘Grace‘ – and so you stood and argued for grace. However, as you noted:

I was quickly told that it was not and ‘ism’ and therefore did not stand as a theory. In my disquiet I retorted with it being ‘grace-ism’.’

It is a shame that little time was spent exploring your proposition.

I think you are drawing from a rather marginalised point of view – although it has a relatively long tradition in psychology and is understood as the dwelling in the realm of the transpersonal. Theorists like Abraham Maslow took this very seriously – as did Carl Jung. So, I do not think you are being nuts at all. In fact, your view co-incides with some of the most thoughtful responses to art. Herbert Marcuse said that art is terribly important because it frees us from the constraints of the reality principle. It allows us to experience all sorts of alternatives including states of grace. It can allow us access to higher forms of consciousness. My first suggestion is that you could have look at Jung’s thoughts about art – and although you might not agree wholeheartedly with his theory of the archetypes etc. you might find some resonances with your thoughts. I spent two years in Surrey University in the Human Potential Research Project and there you would have had a very warm reception for your ideas. We had a strong emphasis on the transpersonal. Roberto Assagioli is another wonderful theorist who would ‘see’ things as you do.

I look forward to discussing all this with you.

with best wishes, Robert

Part Two:

On 20. 11. 2019 I sent J. a further note on aspects of spirituality in art.

Hello J. – in response to your ideas about spirituality and its role in art I noticed a very good response to a recent and serious exhibition entitled ‘Life Death Rebirth’ held at the Royal Academy earlier this year. It featured the work of Bill Viola and Michelangelo.

Here is an excerpt that was published online on 25 January 2019. It features an interview between the curator, Andrea Tarsia – and Daisy Bernard:

Daisy Bernard asks: ‘What do you feel are the main similarities, and differences, between the two artists?

The curator replies:

‘Both artists are interested in an exploration of the human condition. Particularly giving shape to states of being and the rather abstract domain of human spirituality, through depictions of the human figure. Their work develops out of deeply felt personal beliefs that sharpens for both artists later in life, acquiring mystical dimensions, as well as by a wide-ranging set of references. In places, the work of both artists also develops out of emotionally charged events in their own lives. Their contexts were of course completely different, not least in terms of the kinds of spaces and functions their work was created for, although both believe in art as a vehicle for contemplation. Michelangelo was of course rooted in Christian traditions and worked with largely religious iconography. However his thinking was also influenced by the humanist elements of Neoplatonic thought, and he was always interested in drawing out the very human elements of religion, the points of interplay between the human and the divine as symbolic of the human condition. Viola’s context is largely secular and he has never intended to create religious works, yet he explores metaphysical questions in a spiritual key. He is a product of his times in his ability to travel widely and draw on writings by Rumi, Chuang Tzu or St John of the Cross among many others.’

So, in fact, your perspective is given explicit reference here. Which raises the question: Why is it not profiled on our ‘Critical perspectives‘ sessions?

On 21. 11. 2019 J. replied:

Oh – I haven’t had a chance to see any of Bill Viola’s work and I had actually rather forgotten about him. That sounds a fascinating show.

And that exerpt is a good example of how to write about the ideas I want to deal with.

Thanks, J.

Part Three:

On 23. 11. 2019 after a family trip to Oxford J. sent me an email:

I have visited Oxford with my children – and now I have a moment of time: I will share with you some of my thoughts just now. What I understand is that a theory needs to be able to ask a series of questions and suggest (with reasons or even intuitions) some answers. The answers can be ‘put up’ for scrutiny. They may be revised or they may raise further questions. But before that I need to provide some initial definitions.

Grace – Is what is not deserved
Mercy – is not getting what is deserved

I think that in relation to the concept or principle of Grace at least some examples of the types of questions it may ask are:

Does Grace-ism ask what is good in the work?
What is encouraging in the work?
How does this work practice the use of tolerance and tolerances?
Does this work bring the viewer Peace?
Does this work convey a form of Love?
Is grace-ism finding the hope, love, tolerance, kindness, encouragement in a work?
How can this work encourage me in my personal journey?
How can this work provide insight into my personal struggles?

What are your thoughts on this?

(Well, my first thought is to relate what J. is considering to Heidegger’s exploration of Being. Last night I was returning to re-consider Heidegger’s theory of art and I will have to mention this in my response to J. – especially in relation to his discussion concerning that which art discloses and that which it also conceals.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s