What if contemporary art provides a new way to think about thinking?
What if “difficult art” triggers the human imagination in good ways?
What if art has a lot in common with spiritual contemplation?
Two identical clocks hang side by side on a wall, lightly touching each other. A pile of hard candy in colorful wrappers sits in the corner of a room. A string of white lights hangs from the ceiling and gathers in a glowing pile on the floor.
The work of conceptual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, now in the permanent collections of premier institutions such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is elegant, but it can also be a little confusing. How is this art?
Gonzalez-Torres (b.1957-d.1996), like other conceptual artists before and after him, made artwork that elicits cognitive responses – responses that transport us beyond what our eyes are perceiving.
Take, for example, Gonzalez-Torres’ work with two identical clocks, “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) 1987-1990. While the clocks are initially set to the same time, eventually their mechanical imperfections cause them to drift apart. The cognitive processes spurred by this work are set in motion by the ideas it presents, rather than our perceptual responses to its color, form and composition.
Conceptual art offers a way of thinking about thinking and is a fruitful area of inquiry for decoding how we respond to art.
Dr. Taylor Worley, Ph.D., visiting associate professor of art history at Wheaton College in Illinois, sees a connection between the way conceptual art presents the viewer with incomplete, sometimes confusing situations and the way contemplative religious traditions cultivate an appreciation for the unknown. With support from Templeton Religion Trust, he’s undertaking a study to explore those links more deeply.
“Conceptual artists utilize the experience of visual dissonance as a means of prompting new interpretations, new possibilities, new opportunities for what the [art] work might mean,” Dr. Worley notes.
Similarly, he contends, the tradition of Christian Mysticism holds that contemplation is a good in itself. Contemplation is the enjoyment of thought, a dwelling on imagination. Contemplation, like conceptual art, is a way of allowing the material conditions of the world to become a vehicle for a transcendent experience.
Aesthetic cognitivism is a field of research that seeks to quantify the effects of our encounters with art. Research in the field has focused largely on the connections between the perceptual elements of viewing artwork and the affective responses of the viewer. According to Dr. Worley, something is missing in this approach.
Conceptual art arose as a movement in the 1960s, emphasizing the idea within an artwork above its appearance. Since then, the sensual qualities of art have not been abandoned. Instead, conceptual strategies have found their way into nearly all contemporary art. Art is now perceptual and conceptual, so measuring only its perceptual effects is insufficient.
Extending the focus of aesthetic cognitivism to include conceptual art is not about acknowledging a quirky niche movement. It’s about better understanding the way all contemporary art employs conceptual strategies.
“There’s a kind of artistry to our own forms of thought. And when a conceptual artwork invites us to consider something from a different perspective or in a new way, we can actually contribute to and build upon that artist’s idea with our own imagination,” Dr. Worley maintains.
For Dr. Worley, conceptual art is particularly aligned with the religious concept of apophatic contemplation—finding peace in the experience of unknowing. Christian mystics don’t attempt to fill every gap. Instead, they experience the divine when encountering mysteries. Conceptual art uses visual dissonance and upends expectations to create a sense of unknowing, a sense of not “getting it.” This, he believes, is an ideal entry point for apophatic contemplation, which finds comfort in the humility that comes from gaps in understanding.
His project is a work of translation in many ways, as the discourse around conceptual art can be difficult and opaque. The starting point is to create rhetorical space for dialogue and further research around conceptual art and contemplation. Once that space is created, the links between conceptual art and contemplation can be tested and measured.
“Conceptual art values the human imagination more than any other form,” says Dr. Worley, “because it’s inviting us to participate in the meaning of the work.” And perhaps by opening ourselves to that experience, we might also gain new insights and accessible entry to the mystery and power of spiritual contemplation and transcendence.