Man Bartlett

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On the Conflation of Religion and Spirituality

The artist with a shaman. Peru, 2009

I am not a religious person. While I am interested in religious tradition, theory, and history (as much as many other subjects), I stop well short of professing any time/money/resources to any organized religion. I don’t judge, but I deeply question their methods and effectiveness. Do I believe in something? Yes, unequivocally. Do I avoid using the word “spiritual” in public. Certainly. Why? When I do people often make one of two mistaken assumptions. One is that I’m religious. Two is that if I’m not religious (or an atheist*) then I must belong to some hokey spiritual cult who blindly subscribes to New Age audiobooks on how to get enlightened sooner. These are both faulty views, and from my experience, the only ones that people in New York seem to understand. This is problematic.

Is there room in the contemporary art world for someone to be taken seriously who is “spiritual” but not religious or hokey? Whose work is part of the conversation and can adequately address it? I hope so. Throughout contemporary art history there are a few examples. Most prominently Bueys. But more on him in future posts.

My hunch is that there are more closeted “spiritual” folks then closeted homosexuals in the art world. In terms of my art career it’s a lot riskier to come out of the shaman closet than it is to come out of the good old-fashioned closet.

A concern I have regarding expressing thoughts/opinions publicly about spirituality is that it will over-influence the reception of my work. I am very careful about how and when my beliefs make their way into my practice and how I speak about them. To that end I think it’s important that there are healthy divisions between personal life and artistic practice. However consider this a public proclamation that I often smuggle spiritual principles into my work. Most closely these might resemble Buddhist teachings or other occult philosophies (e.g. those of Mana, St. Germain et. al). However my work also cannot be pigeonholed as being about any one thing. This is by design. It is also “about” a host of other “things,” none of which take more weight than the other.

I remember a few years ago reading in Seven Days in the Art World about the religion of Art. About the percentage of the art world that are self-proclaimed atheists. About the people in the art world that claim Art as their religion. To be clear, art is a massive part of my life, obviously. It is not, however, a rigid dogma. It is a choice. It is a choice just like my relationship to a deeper understanding of the world around me. Sometimes this choice feels more like something that I “have to” or “MUST” do, but it is still a choice. Albeit a lifelong one.

Lastly, part of what drives me is the seduction. So I may never mention the above again. ;)


P.S. Happy New Year! Thanks for making 2010 so awesome! …To many more…

P.P.S. Speaking of Beuys and New Years, can you help me with a project I’m developing to take place in Berlin. See the box way up there to the right, or the link here.

*A brief incendiary opinion on atheism: It is a dogmatic belief and a religion unto itself.

Update: My comment on atheism above led to a lively discussion on Twitter (and via email) that ultimately obscured the original intention of the post. While I stand by what I wrote it is not my aim to be divisive or overly simplistic. Were I to amend the asterisk it would read something like “Belief in non-belief is still belief.” What is most important to me is the development of more dynamic relationships to the “things” we value (specifically in the art world). I am not saying this from any supposed moral hightop, but I also won’t be a victim (silent or otherwise) to misrepresentations or misunderstandings from anyone. And this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t or don’t have opinions. We’ve got nothing to fear in that department! And for record, the hippie in me loves you all no matter what. :)