An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art

(Shambhala Publications, 1988)

Remaining in print under the subtitle, thanks to Dover Books

Like Hammarskjöld: A Life and Gurdjieff Reconsidered, this was one of the fundamental books in whatever life I have had as a writer. All three represented points of arrival and new departure. Each reflected what I had cared for centrally in the past and what I hoped. An Art of Our Own has blazed its own long path, quite apart from me; it is still read and valued, particularly by artists.

The impetus for An Art of Our Own was from Coomaraswamy. His magisterial account of the spiritual in what he called traditional art—especially in Western medieval art and the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim arts of India—was accompanied from time to time by disdain for the art of his own time. He scarcely mentioned it. The only contemporary artists who roughly passed muster were in the circle of Alfred Stieglitz in the 1920s, and these were people he had known personally and appreciated. That didn’t seem right or altogether sensible to me. Coomaraswamy was unquestionably my master and teacher for the scholarship of art history and of religious ideas rooted in the world’s sacred texts and commentary—but there was a gap in his vision. I entered there.

I read intensively the writings of twentieth-century artists and found their works in museums worldwide. Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Brancusi, Picasso, Matisse, Klee—Paul Klee! What can one say of his depth, his striving? And more still: the Bauhaus as such, as an advancing idea; Henry Moore; Isamu Noguchi, with whom I had the privilege of speaking; the post-war American school, including the great and tragic figure of Mark Rothko. And then what I called Minor Masters, less well known, less stitched into history, but grand in their ways—I’m thinking at the moment of Julius Bissier. His small works ring like temple bells. All of this and more represented for me a courageous, sustained, authentically spiritual search for truth at every level where truth can be found, from far above to this suffering, still beautiful world.

I learned how to think about and directly perceive the spiritual in the art of our time—“an art of our own,” as Brancusi said—from the artists themselves. Their works and words taught me, and in turn I ordered as much and as richly as I could in a book.

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