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Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual
by lynn gamwell
princeton university press, 344 pages, $49.95

In 1959, the British writer and science popularizer C. P. Snow published his Rede Lecture at Cambridge University as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, touching off a heated debate about the relationship between the humanities and science in the modern era. Snow made a show of deploring the danger of growing specialization of knowledge among scientists, but he soon revealed himself as an enthusiastic proponent of what some critics have called “scientism.” In short, his argument quickly devolved into an attack on literary advocates of the “traditional culture,” thinkers he decried as “natural Luddites.” Scientists, he averred, were different: “They have the future in their bones.” Only by embracing the scientific worldview, Snow opined, will we be able to solve such terrible social problems as overpopulation, nuclear weaponry, and the gap between rich and poor nations.

Though Snow’s book is rarely read these days, “the two cultures” remains in currency, a mental reminder of what really is a perennial intellectual tension, not a problem confined to the modern era. The rivalry between reason and imagination—and the disciplines that spring from them—is at least as ancient as Plato and, it seems fair to say, will be with us always. I raise Snow’s book in the context of this review because Lynn Gamwell’s Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual attempts to show how the visuals arts have, in fact, drawn deeply from the achievements of science in the modern era—and because, in the end, she too clings to something like Snow’s scientistic creed.

This handsome art book, though it is oversized and full of color plates, is not meant for the coffee table. Rather, it is a detailed survey of the way modern science and secularized notions of spirituality have influenced Western art over the past two centuries, and in particular how these forces helped bring about the rise of Modernist abstraction. Given the scope of her project, it would be pleasant to report that Gamwell has the narrative brio and accessibility of an art critic like Robert Hughes, but her literary skills do not lie in that direction. Names, dates, scientific schools of thought, and artistic styles tend to pile up in heaps, especially in the early chapters of the book. But the breadth of Gamwell’s scholarship will likely earn the determined reader’s respect, and in later sections the narrative picks up steam.

Gamwell’s thesis is that revolutions in science—specifically in the physiology of perception, relativistic physics, and Freudian psychology—combined with the pantheistic strains of German Idealism, gave visual artists in the West a radically new paradigm for art. Thanks to the works of such scientists as Hermann von Helmholz and James Clerk Maxwell, nineteenth-century artists became far more self-conscious about the way the human eye responds to the world. As a result, painters like Seurat—and later, the Cubists—began to create works that depended on the way the human mind constructs perceptions of color, line, and form. Einstein’s theories of relativity, as Gamwell rightly notes, became public knowledge only after the first wave of abstraction (contrary to both popular and art historical misconceptions), but they did have a major impact on later artists, including Paul Klee and Joan Miro. Freud’s emphasis on the unconscious fed directly into the Surrealist movement. All three of these shifts in modern science induced artists to break with Renaissance ideas of “objective” perspective and adopt an opaque, flattened, subjective picture plane.

Of course, much of this territory has been well covered by other art historians. If there is anything original about Exploring the Invisible it is perhaps the emphasis on the spiritual aspirations of modern art. It is difficult not to put scare quotes around the word spiritual, which is notoriously vague, if not meaningless, in contemporary usage. But in one sense Gamwell is right to use it, because it is precisely the term that so many modern thinkers have used to describe a form of enlightenment deliberately severed from the transcendent and metaphysical roots of Western thought. From mesmerism and animal magnetism to theosophy and beyond, Gamwell chronicles with great seriousness attempts by modern artists to explore immanentist spiritualities.

The author has chosen to move beyond the impartiality of the historian striving for objectivity; she makes no bones about being partisan on these matters. To her way of thinking, what many may see as discarded fads are part of a larger story of human progress, joining up with the same forward movement of scientific understanding led by Darwin, Freud, and Einstein. Throughout the book, her diction shades into what might be called neo-Transcendentalism; her most reverent utterances tend to include words like cosmic, universal, unity, and “the Absolute.” For Gamwell, pantheism is a living faith.

Along with C. P. Snow, she has no time for heretics, for those who resist the pull of scientific and spiritual progress. Though she seldom delivers outright criticism of the major artists and movements that don’t fit into her argument—pre- and post-Cubist Picasso, Matisse, Fauvism, Expressionism, and nearly every form of representational art, to name just a few—she does take a number of swipes at minor targets. The Symbolists, for example, are taken to task for their decadence and melancholia. “Whistler and his Aesthetic colleagues,” she adds a few pages later, “turned their backs on the imperceptible and hence on abstract art. Clinging to an old-fashioned view of nature, Whistler continued to describe its outward appearance.” Worst of all, these artists were guilty of “nostalgia.”

When it comes to aesthetics, Gamwell is a spirited, if belated, defender of the orthodox High Modernist line. So when she finally arrives, in the last chapter of the book, at our own postmodern moment, she finds herself in something of a pickle. Given postmodernism’s scorn for the nineteenth- and twentieth-century secular “master narratives” (including science itself), she has to find a way to be both critical about the present and optimistic about the march of progress. Gamwell responds by dividing postmodern art into schools of bad “cynicism” and good “mysticism.” In praising the mystical strain in postmodernism, with its emphasis on the elusiveness of truth and presence, she likens it to the apophatic theology of the Pseudo-Dionysius. Just as Dionysius followed the “negative way,” approaching God by sifting through what He is not, so some postmodern artists explore mystery by way of indirection. The book ends with a photograph from the Hubble space telescope of the Cone Nebula, presumably as a reminder that there is still mystery out there to be explored.

As tendentious and occasionally muddled as Gamwell’s study may be, it would be a serious mistake to dismiss it out of hand. The questions it raises for those of us who hold to biblical faith are profound and directly relevant to the present. Yet the track record of believers vis-a-vis modern art has been less than stellar. The alienation between institutional religion and the art world has been mutually reinforcing for over a century. Many religious critics of modernity have dismissed the rise of abstraction as evidence of an antihumanist rebellion against classic Western ideas about order, proportion, and form. It’s a position that has some coherence, but it tends toward a reification of art into a trans-historical and, in my opinion, fairly lame classicism. The truth is more complex—and more interesting—than that, as a few incisive thinkers have demonstrated. Among literary critics, Hugh Kenner and Denis Donoghue have explored the intersections between Modernism, science, and religion. Theologians such as Paul Tillich and Hans Urs von Balthasar have also made contributions to this area, as did the great neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain.

But to focus on one example, take the argument made by another neo-Thomist, Étienne Gilson, in his 1955 Mellon Lectures, published as Painting and Reality. There he contended that nonrepresentational art, beginning with Manet and Cezanne, had restored art to its true dignity. Gilson held that Western art after the Middle Ages had fallen into the trap of empiricism, thinking that art should only be an imitation of what we can see with our eyes. But modern art, Gilson said, had recovered the idea that art is not so much about imitating the world as it is about creating new artifacts through which to interpret the world. In his typically bold way, Gilson wrote that through the arts human beings were continuing God’s work of creation.

Then there is the fact that some of the greatest Modernists, including the painter Georges Rouault, the poet T. S. Eliot, and the composer Igor Stravinsky, found in the language of abstraction, fragmentation, and primitivism ways to reconnect ancient religious truths with the conditions of the modern era. It is difficult to imagine Rouault’s stunning images of the suffering Christ without his early Fauvist paintings, Eliot’s Four Quartets without The Waste Land, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms without Le Sacre du Printemps.

That the aesthetic language of Modernism in turn became exhausted is not a count against it. Such is the nature of aesthetic change. Postmodernism has its own opportunities and dead ends. Among those who follow what Gamwell calls the mystical path, there are many whose sense of mystery opens directly onto the transcendent. She singles out Anselm Kiefer as a mystic. Yet this German painter’s work, saturated as it is with biblical allusions, can hardly be called pantheistic. His huge canvases, laden with heavy materials and heavy themes, including the continuing reverberations of the Holocaust, is too obsessed with the reality of evil to accept blithe talk about “cosmic unity.”

As the publisher of a journal of literature and the arts, I have had the chance to observe another group of postmodern visual artists whom I would add to Gamwell’s cynics and mystics: those who have returned to narrative and the human figure, albeit in ways that retain Gilson’s understanding of art as the creation of new beings rather than as mere imitations. For many visual artists trained in the art schools of the 1960s and 1970s, schools that were dominated by Abstract Expressionists, there came a point when they experienced a simultaneous crisis of belief and aesthetic form. Many of these artists underwent true conversion experiences, finding not only that they had to go beyond pantheism to faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also discovering that figure and narrative enabled them to rediscover beauty and meaning. It is worth noting, in the light of Gamwell’s concerns, that in recent years there has been a strong surge of interest in narrative not only among those in the humanities, but also in the social and physical sciences.

Gamwell’s take on the story of modern art may be biased in the manner of C. P. Snow, and she would likely have little sympathy for these recent converts to traditional faith and representationalism, but the history she reconstructs is one that religious thinkers interested in the state of our two cultures urgently need to address.

Gregory Wolfe is the editor of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion and the author, most recently, of Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery (Square Halo).