Coloring the Spiritual Landscape

By Courtney Bender

A response to Refiguring the Spiritual, a public conversation with artist Laurie Anderson on February 10, 2011.

As Laurie Anderson told us that evening, somewhere in the warren of buildings and computers and machines at NASA in Houston sits a man whose job it is to put color to the heavens. When the digital information comes back from satellites it is translated into “photographs.” As there is no color in space, it is someone’s job to choose which colors the heavens will be in the pictures and photos that are circulated all over the world. Laurie Anderson told us that once she discovered there was such a man, it was not easy to track him down. It seems that NASA had not given proper value to this peculiar and powerful task. And, she seemed to suggest, the man who had the job was perhaps not up to it. When she asked him why he chose the colors he did, he responded that he thought people would like it.

How exquisite and shocking this image is—the hodgepodge of the bureaucratic and the sublime! What a good way, I thought, to convey the American spiritual, as it is felt today, and the “spiritual landscape,” which we traverse and create. Sitting there, thinking precisely that, I was surprised to find that Anderson did not seem to agree.

Anderson opened her talk minutes before with something of an apology. “The problem of talking about art and spirituality is that I’m not sure I know what art is,” she said. A smart opening, indeed, to a conversation on the visual arts entitled “Refiguring the Spiritual.” It turned our attention to the question of art (where she could talk about nature and science) and away from the prickly and impossible question of spirituality. This, even though the evening and the series—and the questions Anderson gamely answered later on—were devoted to exploring the “implications and influence of the changing spiritual landscape for the visual art.”

It was nonetheless in the frame of her question about what art might be that the story of the unnamed man at NASA (and his virtually unheralded task) took its shape. While Anderson pointed to the shared projects of scientists and artists, this bureaucratic man did not hold a place in that field of exploration. She was bothered that he seemed not to think at all about why people like the heavens to be blue and pink, not green and orange. Her being bothered is understandable. To an artist (or really, she suggested, almost anyone), what could be more thought-provoking than the task of deciding, and the responsibility of deciding, which color the heavens would be? Especially if one knew that those colors would become, for all practical purposes, the shared human vision of those objects, given the authenticity of science (NASA) and not art (the Uffizi)? What kind of man is this?

Anderson’s own perplexity was wrapped into my own question: is this man’s work part of the “changing spiritual landscape”? And the answer, I think, is yes. This particular job, and the bureaucratic technological possibility of its splendor, is unquestionably an instance of our spiritual landscape. Here is a man in a system, doing his job, not thinking too much—that is, not thinking about what the skies could look like, but only what people already view them to be. He uses a “Tiepolo palette” that suggests, as Laurie Anderson put it, that space is somewhere we could go, or will go. In not thinking too much, he produces and figures the spiritual—and a range of aspirations that link a whole history of yearnings for being elsewhere, for moving on, for heaven and the heavens. But he does not do so in church, nor does he do so as an artist, or philosopher, or even a scientist. He is just a man, without a name, doing his job. It is his job—and that of countless others—to create American spirituality and the feeling that it is all around us, that we can see it everywhere yet can’t pin it down, that it might take us somewhere better than now, and that it is somehow outside us. It has to be produced somewhere, or many somewheres. Those somewheres include the technological and scientific spaces that rightly refuse a positive connection with religion, spirituality’s unsteady partner.

There are other spaces, too. I thought back to the previous weekend, when I had I stood with my children watching Anderson’s “O Superman” in the contemporary galleries of the Museum of Modern Art. The video is on continuous loop, positioned in front of a wall flooded with General Idea’s AIDS Wallpaper, all garish red and blue and green. The pieces had no meaning for my children, and they wandered off when I was unwilling to begin the work of telling them the stories that might make the resonances between the two images inhabitable to them, in the way they were for me. To trace, in other words, the tenuous and powerful nets of resonant meaning in which the American spiritual of the 1980s was suspended and reinforced, and to which those pieces called me to remember.

Once the projector was turned off in Miller Theater, Anderson was asked all the questions concerning spirituality and art one would expect to hear today. What about silence in your work? Invisibility? Angels? Melville? Technology? Say, what about your (religious preacher) grandmother? The questions seemed out of place at first. After all she had not been talking about spirituality. But Laurie Anderson had all the right answers: meditation is a calming practice, and full of insight; religion has no humor, most of the time; Melville’s ghost only sort of haunted me; angels are metaphors, and we are the angels; e-mail is a virus. They were the right answers because Anderson has been figuring the questions for a long time. Yet, as I sat there, I wondered: why are they pink and blue?

Courtney Bender is Associate Professor of Religion at Columbia University and author of The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (2010). She is also co-editor of After Pluralism: Reimagining Religious Engagement (2010), published by Columbia University Press in partnership with IRCPL.

Category: Discussion