Can Mystical Landscapes Be Other-Wise?

Last week, I attended the exhibition Mystical Landscapes at the Art Gallery of Ontario, followed by a talk by Charles Taylor exploring the spiritual dimensions of Romantic painting in relation to some of the work he has done on poetry and music. Curated by theologians and art historians, the exhibit explores the ways in which landscape painting, primarily in the 19th and early 20th centuries, signals not so much a shift away from spiritual themes in painting as a shifting of spiritual themes in painting. Those familiar with the work of Charles Taylor will already see a natural affinity. The exhibition challenges what Taylor calls the “subtraction narrative” of secularization, one that sees religion as something of an ornament or vestige of earlier times that gets outmoded and left behind in contemporary society.

Proponents of the subtraction narrative are easy to see in loud voices like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, who conceive of “religion” as a backward and dangerous way of lying to ourselves and others. Instead, they argue, we should catch up to the discoveries of science and put immature epistemological beliefs behind us. History on this view is a frustratingly slow but nonetheless discernibly linear process that moves from primitive spiritual explanations of the world around us to more “reasonable” and empirical explanations. The binary lines, which become battle lines, are clear: those who cling to religion cowardly hold on to a security blanket and impose it on others, while those who charge forward in scientific truth move through history without the weight of illusions.

Less polemically, however, the “subtraction narrative” of secularization is found among plenty of social scientists, anthropologists, etc., who see modernizing societies as leaving religion behind simply through social trends. Church attendance is down in Western societies, and those who are “spiritual but not religious” are more prevalent, evincing some kind of vestige, at best, of older institutions and habits, so the story goes. Fundamentalist sects seem more and more out of touch with the world around them, and all the while they continue to use new media and technologies that are transforming our relationships to ourselves, our neighbors, and our world, not to mention our traditions.

In terms of the arts, this subtraction narrative can be read back onto art history by noting the ways in which artistic themes and roles have changed in Western society. A common story suggests in high Christendom, the arts were primarily didactic, teaching laypeople, who were mostly illiterate, about the faith through images. In the shift to modernity, the arts began to separate themselves from their explicitly Christian functions and experiment with self-expression, articulating new ideas that might even fall outside the purview of “religion” altogether. The twentieth century witnessed the extreme and eventual collapse of art as expression, with Surrealism and Dadaism leading the charge. Religion, whatever we make of it, might show up in these artistic forms, but hardly in the same way and with the same necessity as it would have shown up in thickly medieval societies. This narrative is adopted both by religion’s cultured despisers, who hail the liberation of art from religion as a maturation of humanity, and by religion’s cultured defenders, who see the trend as a decline into decadence.

Wherever it appears, Taylor rejects the subtraction narrative altogether, not by saying nothing has changed but by tracking the complex series of changes that lead to our complicated reality today. In his book A Secular Age, Taylor tells what he calls a “zigzag” story about Western, Latin Christendom in North Atlantic societies, as distinct from the linear story of the subtraction narrative. In Taylor’s story, we see how Christianity in particular splits and fragments, mutates and transforms, suggesting there is more Christianity at the root of our allegedly “secular” mindsets than we might immediately see. Taylor can therefore say that the time and place we live in today is not the result of sheering off the excess of religion, but is rather a chimerical achievement built out of the fits and starts of a plurality of movements, goals, people, politics, etc.

As an artistic exhibit, Mystical Landscapes follows a similar path. The rise of landscape painting did not signal the rejection of religion per se, the exhibition shows, but rather a transformation in the religious dimension of art. Attendees are taken through a journey of paintings that try to show a variety of ways in which this transformation occurs. We see, for example, Van Gogh’s Olive Trees (left) in the same space as Gaugin’s Christ in the Garden of Olives (right), putting on display how the Protestant and Catholic disagreement over images manifests in this new phase for painting.

The exhibit also pulls us through the mystical journey itself. Communicating the ineffable is, by definition, impossible—and yet we see painters trying to do exactly that. We encounter the blurred lines, literally, between rational and irrational articulations of faith. We even go through the “Dark Night of the Soul” by exploring mostly WWI paintings, like Frederick Valery’s Gas Chamber at Seaford, juxtaposing the swirling visions of Romanticism with the technical horrors of a countryside in conflict.


In its attempt to challenge the subtraction story by tracing how spirituality gets moved around, rather than disappears, in modern art, the exhibit succeeds. It really does provide a kind of artistic compliment to Taylor’s theoretical work, and also to Taylor’s contributions to the spiritual transformations involved in Romantic poetry and music in particular. The Western tradition of painting, with the rise of landscape painting, is hardly a simple erasure of religious ornamentation or even hegemony, but entails a variety of spiritual experiments, gestures, mutations, etc.

Linking Taylor and the Mystical Landscapes exhibit is mutually illuminating, as Taylor noted in his talk at the AGO. The paintings help fill in a picture in Taylor’s account of secularity, which in A Secular Age largely dealt with poetry and music, and Taylor’s work provides some conceptual handles for looking at the existential feelings behind the exhibit’s paintings. Precisely by being so representative of Taylor’s view, however, the exhibit falls victim to some of the same significant problems present in Taylor’s approach to secularization. A look at those problems would help to improve exhibitions like Mystical Landscapes, exhibitions that deserve to be experimented with more widely.

Among Taylor’s critics, Saba Mahmood stands out as one of his closest readers, especially evident in her essay “Can Secularism Be Other-Wise?” Mahmood first takes issue with Taylor’s framing of his narrative as dealing with the legacy of “Latin Christendom,” which she grants might seem necessary for a study that takes the last 500 years as its timeline. This demarcation, however, both ignores the complicated heterogeneity of Latin Christendom itself (even while Taylor tries to address this very point) and, more importantly, omits the ways in which what/who is outside Latin Christendom both structure and transform Latin Christendom through its interaction with its others. “Omission of this story,” says Mahmood, “is akin to the omission of the history of slavery and colonialism from accounts of post-Enlightenment modernity—an omission that enables both a progressivist notion of history and normative claims about who is qualified to be ‘modern’ or ‘civilized’” (286). I’ll return to how this relates to Mystical Landscapes in a moment.

Mahmood’s remarks might come as a surprise to readers of A Secular Age, since Taylor regularly indicts a “progressivist notion of history” and takes “civilization” as a disciplinary project, occasionally but intentionally invoking Michel Foucault and Ivan Illich. What Mahmood shows, however, is that Taylor unconsciously takes on board the very tendencies he critiques in name by failing to recognize the integral importance of colonialism especially for the construction and maintenance of Latin Christendom itself. Indeed, even to speak of “religion” is to speak of a concept and self-understanding won only by taking the other as an instrument of self-knowledge. As Mahmood explains, “Not only did the discovery of and subsequent knowledge produced on other religious traditions serve as the mirror against which European Christianity fashioned itself, but the very concept of ‘religion’—its conceptual contours, its classificatory system and attendant calculus of inferior and superior civilizations—was crafted within the crucible of this encounter” (286).

Taylor’s account neglects a variety of integrally important points of analysis viz. the relationship between Latin Christendom and its others. Missionary efforts, for example, are essential to Western history, and Mahmood notes that Taylor’s telling of that history reflects a common scholarly failure to account for the cross-transformations between modern colonial powers and those they encountered on their imperial adventures, often specifically mediated through the Western notion of religion. Yet Mahmood is clear that her objections are not intended to modify Taylor’s narrative in order to make it arbitrarily more inclusive, adding neglected narratives into Taylor’s larger narrative. Rather, Mahmood aims “to question if indeed Taylor misidentifies the very object of which he speaks” (289), that is, the geospatial and geopolitical environment summarized variously as “Latin Christendom,” “North Atlantic” society, etc.

And here we encounter the troubling crux of Mahmood’s argument: by failing to critically account for the expansionist practices that necessarily come along with the West’s claims to universality and exceptionality, Taylor not only renders the Western narrative “more palatable to a postimperial audience” but even continues to “write from within its concepts and ambitions—one might say even to further its aims and strengthen its presuppositions” (290). Mahmood is quick to note that Taylor’s own political vision is not simply a recapitulation of modern colonialism, and that there are certainly critical moments within A Secular Age, but Taylor’s delimitation of his object of inquiry to Western, North Atlantic, Latin Christendom without any attempt to consider the necessity of colonialism for the construction of that object serves to commit the same solipsistic error that made that colonialism possible.

In other words, Taylor accepts the discursive frame that both produces and is produced by colonialism–Western, North Atlantic, Latin Christendom–and its creation of “religion,” in such a way that ironically short-circuits Taylor’s ultimate desire to articulate a space in which members of a plural and “cross-pressured” society might meet and talk with one another. “How would one imagine embarking on a dialogue when the other is not even acknowledged in political, existential, or epistemological terms?” Mahmood wonders (299). Without any attention to what anthropologists and philosophers of religion call “political secularism,” that is, the way in which secularism is itself a constructive political project and not merely a migration of epistemological categories or beliefs, Taylor is unable to identify the very problem he wants to solve—how to account for our secular age, and thereby offer an articulated ground where inhabitants of that age might find new ways of living together and attending to their spiritual yearnings.

How does Mahmood’s critique bear on the AGO’s Mystical Landscapes? Geographically and chronologically, the exhibit takes the same, albeit condensed, frame as Taylor, with Europe, Scandanavia, and North America as its geographical limits and 1880-1930 as its chronological limits. Again, we might find this frame understandable in its limitation, given the expansive category of the exhibit’s subject matter. But the exhibit suffers from similar unconsciously internalized pretensions to Western exceptionalism. Not only is there not a single painting from a non-Western artist in the whole of the exhibit, but even the mystical journey is filtered through Western history. Conveniently, the exhibit maps roughly onto what historian Eric Hobsbawm identifies as the “Age of Empire,” from 1875 to 1914. Both narratives, Hobsbawm’s and the exhibits, see 1914 as a profound transformative moment, a crushing of nineteenth-century optimism that ends the relatively comfortable relations between the West’s great powers and starts the accelerated process of integrating the world into the West’s ensuing age of massacre. The dark night of the soul coincides with the dark night of the First World War, where the impressionist celebration of life grapples with unprecedented technical death machines. The comparison works, and it says a lot about both history and mysticism, noting the genuinely exceptional mark left on the globe by WWI. It begs the question, however: what might the Dark Night of the Soul be like elsewhere?

Mystical Landscapes inquires into how Western artists begin to experiment with their own perceptions of their world, their traditions, and themselves, but it never looks at the ways in which those perceptions are constructed by a legacy of exclusion and subjugation. The impressionist image of “the savage” makes its way into the exhibit without nuance beyond some gestures toward spiritual experimentation (arguably an instrumentalization of the “other” outside and therefore constitutive of European identities). Commentaries on categories like “religion” and “the spiritual” are as fuzzy as the swirling strokes on the canvasses they accompany, partly on purpose, expressing the confusion involved in a Western world gearing up for, and living through, an apocalypse.

What might it look like to juxtapose these paintings, all from Christian and post-Christian artists, alongside artwork made outside of its geographical context? What happens to whatever we mean by “the spiritual” in other traditions, or even in other regions participating in the same tradition (Latin American impressionism, for example)? Delimiting the scope of the exhibit in the way Mystical Landscapes does threatens to recapitulate Taylor’s error by taking the European narrative as exceptional, even universal, to the exclusion of its others.

To be sure, this is not to discount the creativity involved in curating Mystical Landscapes, which goes a long way in rightly critiquing a certain “subtraction narrative” in art and cultural history, and the exhibit presents a unique gloss on Western experience. The connections are apt and provocative, illuminating and helpful, just like much of Taylor’s articulation of what happens internal to Latin Christendom. Going through the exhibit myself, I was struck especially by the explorations of color, darkness, light, and the cataclysm of the First World War as they mapped onto the mystical journey. The exhibition has affective power, and I suspect it helps its audience come to terms with parts of themselves and their histories. It did for me, as a practicing Roman Catholic (just as, for what it’s worth, Taylor’s work has helped me in my own life of faith, despite and because of its limitations).

Still, the connections with Taylor illuminate not only the very thoughtful moments of the exhibit but also its internalized problems. Dealing with those problems in the context of an art exhibit is more difficult, it seems to me, than in a historical narrative like Taylor’s. The trouble of colonialism in the arts and curation is well documented, and, to continue thinking with Mahmood, the exhibition’s problems would not be solved by the simple inclusion of other paintings or artists for the sake of liberal values of inclusion. There may, however, be ways of including challenging spiritual landscapes that speak both with and against those presented in North Atlantic societies. What might we learn about the spiritual journey, for example, by seeing the landscapes of Diego Rivera set next to the landscapes of Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida? Would the spiritual experience transcend political oppression? Would it reflect it? Are there mystical landscapes in non-Western traditions?

Perhaps the greatest strength of Mystical Landscapes is to have opened up a conversational space for thoughtful curators and theologians involved in aesthetics. “The religious” need not be the suspicious category it so often is for a society that is the achievement of political secularism. These criticisms, though sharp, are not intended to disparage the exhibit in its entirety, nor to cast it off as one more arbitrary example of thoughtless curatorial colonialism. On the contrary, because the exhibit is worth exploring, it deserves to be criticized, commented on, and explored, just as the exhibit attempts to do the same to those who travel through it. Attention to “the spiritual” in art might help pluralist societies encounter one another and reckon with their own histories in an affective way. But the exhibit’s colonial blindspots might undermine that very project, as Mahmood notes with respect to Taylor’s: “It seems that by delineating an account of Christian secularism that remains blind to the normative assumptions and power of Western Christianity, Taylor’s invitation to interreligious dialogue sidesteps the greatest challenge of our time” (299). Beautiful, haunting, moving as it is, Mystical Landscapes does the same. It begs what seems to me to be an open question, worth exploring in future curations–can mystical landscapes be other-wise?

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