In Review

Generating the Transcendent

By Ken Johnson

My relationship between art and religion is partly autobiographical. My father being a Congregational minister, I grew up going to church and Sunday school regularly, hearing grace said at family meals, and listening to Bible stories at bedtime. My father was a liberal-minded sort of clergy-man, however, so it was neither much of a crisis nor much of a liberation when I got to be about 11 or 12 and came to the conclusion—in part because of certain prayers that went unanswered—that God was too abstract, remote, and improbable a concept to matter much in my life. I lost whatever little faith I may have had and life went on without much difference.

What I did not lose was a fascination with all things magical and mysterious. This interest was gratified first by reading the Brothers Grimm and then by science fiction. In high school I discovered the writing of Carl Jung, a psychologist whose theories about the collective unconscious and whose psychoanalysis of stories and myths fired my imagination. Jung and his system remained a central point of intellectual orientation for me well into my adult life. Then when I was around 40 I started reading philosophy, beginning with the American pragmatist William James. I instantly became a pragmatist, and if I must wear a label today other than just “art critic,” it would be “Jungian pragmatist.”

Reading modern philosophy from Spinoza, Hume, and Kant to James, Wittgenstein, and Richard Rorty had a big effect on my theretofore hazy thinking about things metaphysical. I found in the modern philosophical tradition a determined campaign to separate out metaphysical superstitions from empirically credible explanations about how the world hangs together and how our minds make sense of the world.

Philosophy nudged me from agnosticism to atheism. It did not convince me that believing in God was stupid—only that there can be no nonmetaphysical or nonpsychological warrant for the usual objects of religious belief, such as, for example, the immortality of the soul.

Having said all that, things that come under the heading “spiritual” still interest me a lot. What follows is an attempt to sort out what I think, for now, about art, religion, and psychology.


Religious art expresses belief in something supernatural, in some more or less intelligent beings or energies that affect the natural world while not belonging to it and not subject to its laws. People relate to supernatural beings through practices like chanting, singing, praying, baptizing, story-telling, making pictures and sculptures, and so on. Many of these activities are what a secularist would call art, and in a religious culture, the main purpose of art is to teach people about, open them up to, and bring them closer to their god or gods. But in a pluralistic, largely non-theocratic culture like ours—i.e., that of industrialized Western Europe and North America—the religious purpose of art is viewed as just one possible function and not necessarily a very important one.

In the absence of a widely-agreed-upon religious purpose for art (or, for that matter, consensus about any other purpose) in the industrialized and secularized twentieth century, it came to pass that what seemed to matter most was the purely esthetic or formal dimensions of art—properties apparently common to all artworks no matter what their ostensible purposes would be. The formalist view of art still prevails. It is possible that some people regard the paintings of Fra Angelico that were recently exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York mainly as expressions of religious belief and as visions of a real spiritual world, and certainly any intelligent viewer must recognize that religious belief accounts in some measure for the esthetic, narrative, and poetic power of his painting. I suspect that the majority of people who visited that exhibition, however, were more concerned with appreciating the material and visual qualities of the paintings—their sensuous appeal, style, and technique—than they were in finding in them religious inspiration or revelation. The Christian dimension is just not as fully alive to most New York museum-goers as it was, I imagine, to people in Fra Angelico’s day. That Fra Angelico’s paintings once had and might still have a powerful religious urgency for some people is something that modern art history and museums don’t know quite how to deal with, and they opt instead for a scholarly, nonreligious approach.


“What art can do, I think, is create divinity, which, when done well, means making available a psychological energy of great value and utility to individuals and to whole societies.”

Painting of robed figures, one untying the ropes around the other

Would Fra Angelico’s ideal viewer be both a connoisseur and a Christian? The Apostle Saint James the Greater Freeing the Magician Hermogenes, c. 1426-1429. Tempera and gold on panel. 26,8 x 23,8 cm. Kimbell Art Museum. Photo: Lluís Ribes Mateu (CC BY-NC 2.0)


It may be worth asking, would Fra Angelico’s ideal viewer be both a connoisseur of painting and a Christian believer? There is something to be said for the argument that the esthetic and the religious are separable only at the cost of the artwork’s fullest possible impact on the viewer. But I think there is a third way between those of the formalist and the believer—the way of imaginative empathy. You don’t have to be a fifteenth-century Christian to appreciate Fra Angelico’s art, but if you are able to imaginatively occupy the mind of a fifteenth-century Christian, there is little to lose and much to gain.

The gods who are most alive to large sectors of the American population today are more likely to be found in popular culture. So critics are right to see Andy Warhol’s iconic portraits of figures like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe as comparable to the depiction of supernatural beings, saints, sinners, and seekers in traditional Christian painting. The difference—notwithstanding frequent, presumably apocryphal Elvis sightings—is that few people believe that the gods of popular culture are liter-ally supernatural beings.

And while contemporary art is rife with vaguely religious impulses, rarely if ever do you find art that is highly valued within sophisticated art-world circles that is explicitly and non-ironically dedicated to the service and advancement of a traditional religious doctrine. I doubt if many people in the art world would regard that as much of a loss. One of the beliefs that bind the often conflicted art world is that art should not submit to any orthodoxy—religious, political, or otherwise.

So, does art in today’s secularized world still have a spiritual mission? I think it does, but I do not think that purpose should be to obligate us to a particular supernatural divinity, whatever that might be. And it should certainly not be to advance any established religious doctrine. What art can do, I think, is create divinity, which, when done well, means making available a psychological energy of great value and utility to individuals and to whole societies.

In an essay written in 1916, Carl Jung identified a psychological organ that he called the transcendental function. “The psychological ‘transcendent function’ arises from the union of conscious and unconscious contents,” is how he puts it in a nutshell. Jung explains what he means by conscious and unconscious contents in terms of energy. Conscious contents—the thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and fantasies that people are aware of existing in their minds—have high energy or at least enough energy to enable them to emerge from the muck of the unconscious into the light of day. Conscious contents are organized, clear, and, from the individual’s point of view, rational. As Jung pictures it, though, there is a resistance to things becoming conscious: it takes work to bring psychological contents into consciousness, just as it takes work to dig up raw ore and transform it into precious metal.

Not that the unconscious contents don’t have energy—the unconscious is full of wild urges, murderous rages, irrational exuberance, crazy ideas, and so on. But those energies are disorganized. Consciousness is like a fort in the wilderness whose walls keep out the savages and the dangerous animals. It is the clean well-lit living space above the dark, dank basement where the zombies and cannibalistic serial killers lurk.

Consciousness is what we are comfortable with. And since the desire to be comfortable is powerful, we avoid or filter out experiences that make us uncomfortable; we push them down into unconscious-ness and, more or less successfully, forget about them. Imagine a switching station in the mind that is constantly separating the comforting from the disturbing. This works okay for most people but it can lead to an unbalanced psyche. Energies of one type are continually employed in our daily routines, while energies that the mind has preferred not to deal with accumulate in the unconscious. For some people, the energy in the unconscious, increased by a kind of psychic fermentation, may start to become great enough to break through the threshold of consciousness. Nightmares start coming in through the rear windows while the ego is frantically nailing shut the front door.

One of the psyche’s ways of managing the situation and preventing it from coming to a crisis is dreaming. In dreams the energies that have been diverted into unconscious oblivion are let out to play in a semiconsciousness safety zone where, clothed in all sorts of disguises, they are permitted to act out things they would like to do in real, waking life but have not been allowed to.

Another way of getting delinquent energies of the mind to do useful work—work in the service of greater consciousness—is that of art. Here is where the transcendent function comes in. Unlike the switching station that separates the useful from the disturbing and strengthens the mind-splitting separation of consciousness and unconsciousness, the transcendent function brings conscious and unconscious energies together to combustive and illuminating effect.

How does this process work? According to Jung, part of what must happen is that the judgmental and critical functions of consciousness that ordinarily keep down and out problem-causing, unconscious energies, must be temporarily suspended. The judgmental switch master takes a break and unconscious energies are al-lowed to creep out into the studio. They come in the form of vague feelings, urges, and intuitions—glimmerings and glimpses of forgotten memories, unrealized wishes and dreams.

The artist must make a space and create a means for these weak but tantalizing energies to be materialized. Some kind of conscious know-how is needed—a technique, a process. But receptive attitude is important, too—something like what Keats called “negative capability.” You have to be welcoming and generous to your vague feelings and intuitions even if they disgust, embarrass, or frighten you—they are shy, not accustomed to the light, and they will run away if they are mistreated. They would much rather cause mischief in the dark.

But with the right approach, you can cultivate and nurture these feelings and intuitions like plants or animals. When this process is working, you will experience feelings of uncanniness or déjà vu as you find yourself reunited with long lost parts of yourself—many of which you were separated from when you were very young. When the transcendent function is working—doing its job of bringing together conscious and unconscious energies—you will feel surges of energy and exhilaration. This is a tricky moment because here the danger of ego inflation is great. You may start to think you are a genius, and your misguided, egotistical grandiosity can crush those fragile feelings and intuitions associated with the least esteemed parts of your self—those through which you are inferior—without which your art will die, becoming at best a lifeless imitation of art.

Splatter painting

Observing a Pollock, one flips between the raw material and the illusion of extensive space. Detail of Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950 Oil and enamel on unprimed canvas, 8′ 10″ x 17′ 5 5/8″ MoMa, NYC. Photo: Wally Gobetz (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


It seems to me that this way of thinking can help explain the cultural importance accorded the famous drip paintings of Jackson Pollock. There is an aspect of the drip paintings that seems raw and primitive—they suggest a visual primal screaming and infantile pissing and smearing of feces. Pollock was bringing into visibility a lot of repressed feelings and urges.

At the same time, this is an art informed by a mandarin sophistication. Pollock and his friends may have behaved like alcoholic Neanderthals in ordinary life, but their ideas and discussions about art were informed by highly cultivated tastes, wide-ranging knowledge of art history, and complex thinking about the relationship be-tween art and society. Pollock made his art in conscious dialogue with American Indian art, Mexican mural art, the antic Cubism of Picasso, the sweet Surrealism of Miró, and the nascent Abstract Expressionism of his peers Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Lee Krasner, his wife. He compared painting, which he did on the floor, to dancing in a trance like an Indian shaman. The process combined flows of highly conscious and of instinctive and unconscious energies.

Also, the paintings themselves embody the trandscendent function and precipitate its action in the viewer. Studying them, you flip back and forth between the raw, physical material and the illusion of indeterminately extensive space—between, that is, the terrestrial and the cosmic or the body and the spirit. These poles are activated in the viewer who, for the moment at least, undergoes transcendental illumination.


What social purpose does art serve? My short answer goes, “Art serves the same purpose for society that dreaming does for the individual.” The idea is that a society is like an individual person in that it has consciousness and it has unconsciousness. A society has ideas, feelings, and fantasies that it cultivates in the service of its public collective identity and its public projects. But it also has ideas, feelings, and fantasies that it suppresses.

Artists are trained to bring to the surface and work with materials that most people only dream about. And since artists are also formed by the society they grow up in, they internalize the prejudices of that society. The materials that the individual kicks down the basement stairs or out into the woods will be much like the materials that society as a whole tries to expunge from its collective experience. And those are the materials that the artist—whether prompted by training or by innate inclinations—welcomes back into the house and works with and makes visible to himself and others. This is why much of the most exciting contemporary art is eccentric, childish, pornographic, scatological, per-verse, visionary, borderline criminal, and otherwise willfully screwy. It is not that artists themselves are necessarily improperly socialized, neurotic, or crazy; it is that they are trained to look for inspiration in the shadowy corners of their culture; they are eccentric with respect to mainstream society, but professionally so. It’s their job.

For art to function for society as dreams do for persons, two things are necessary: one, limits on freedom of expression must not be too great and, two, there must be an audience that pays attention to what artists do. The beneficial effects of dreams are limited if you don’t remember them and if you pay no attention to them. And even if you do pay attention to them, the effects are still limited if you remain unable to make any sense of them.

Same for art in relationship to society. Art needs an audience; it needs at least some people to take it seriously; and it needs to be understood. Which is where the critic comes in. Critics are commonly thought of as judges of quality. They tell everyone else whether particular art works are any good or not. That is an important purpose for criticism—the correction of taste, as T. S. Eliot put it—but the idea of the critic that has always appealed to me is the critic as an interpreter of dreams.

A transcendentalist criticism would be driven in part by highly educated, sophisticated, and exquisitely discriminating taste and judgment—by energies of higher consciousness. But it also entails a surrender to energies and tensions in the artwork that would disturb, confound, or embarrass higher, official consciousness. That is how art makes us whole—by reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable: order and chaos, male and female, sex and intellect, common sense and nonsense, and so on. Art stretches our souls.

Here is part of a recent review I wrote about an exhibition by the contemporary painter John Wesley, an artist in whom the transcendent function works as well as it does for any artist I can think of working today. In this review I try to take into account the most highly conscious and sophisticated aspects of Wesley’s art and I also try to convey a sense of its more mysterious, dreamlike aspects:

Because his paintings resembled cartoons, John Wesley was herded onto the Pop Art band wagon in the 1960s. But works from that decade in this wonderful exhibition have less to do with consumerism, commercial imagery and industrial manufacturing than with personal memory, desire and fantasy. Mr. Wesley was a Surrealist secret agent traveling under Pop Art cover.

Besides a formal dimension acute enough to win the admiration of the young artist and critic Donald Judd—who reserved a permanent space for Mr. Wesley’s works at his compound in Marfa, Texas—what is notable here is the convergence of erotic and zoological imagery. A white female nude languorously reclines above three laughing pink frogs; five shapely legs protrude from the bill of Donald Duck in the hilarious “Gluttony”; a man with the head of a camel apparently plunges his hand and forearm into the rear end of a feminine camel who seems pleasantly surprised; and a rare three-dimensional, box-shaped piece is decorated by images of voluptuous female nudes, gamboling bears and frolicking squirrels.

Some of Mr. Wesley’s early shield-shaped compositions are included, and his often puzzling interest in historical subjects is represented by portraits of King Faisal and Rudyard Kipling. All of which enhance the mind-expanding feeling of a creative imagination plumbing the deeper and stranger waters of collective American consciousness.

One of the things I like about Jung’s idea is that he seems to see the transcendent function as wired into human consciousness like any other useful tool of survival (like language and opposable thumbs) developed through Darwinian trial and error. There is not anything supernatural about it. The reason it is called transcendent is because the union of opposed psychic energies that it manages leads, metaphorically speaking, to a rising above the state of consciousness that is ordinarily split between the high and the low. But maybe a better way to describe it is to say that it heals the split in consciousness, leading to a state of mind that can live with paradox, ambiguity, and tensions between opposites, a state of mind that does not require the puritanical, black-and-white laws of dogma.

The transcendent function’s evolutionary purpose would be to make available to consciousness, and therefore to human agency, powerful energies to which we usually lack access because of psychic splitting and repression. Not only that, but the combustion that happens when unconscious and conscious contents meet produces an entirely new energy.

An influx of energy from the unconscious into consciousness can feel miracuous, like an experience of being invaded by a supernatural or divine power. That is how William James understands the conversion experiences that he documents in Varieties of Religious Experience: as irruptions of unconscious contents into an ego conscious that has let down its guard over the borders between consciousness and unconsciousness.

A person who has such an experience may take it as incontrovertible proof of a mind-independent god directly influencing and saving his life. But rather than leading us to a god outside ourselves or creating a window to let a mind-independent god in, it seems to me that the transcendent function creates energies in the psyche that seem and feel supernatural. Speaking as a pragmatist, I think that that is our best option: not to try to align our-selves with a god that pre-exists our own consciousness, but to generate a divinity that would not exist without the effort of human creative energy.

If nothing else makes this a desirable view of art and religion, it at least has the merit of positing gods who are as fallible as we are. Every day, the newspapers drive home the lesson that nothing is more dangerous than people who believe their gods are infallible.

Ken Johnson writes about art for The New York Times.

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