If you’ve been to my website before, you might notice a few changes to the look and language of the site…well, Avant-Garde’s art advisory has refined our mission, and I wanted to take this opportunity to explain in greater detail what inspired this new direction, and what it means. (Note the appraisal arm of my business remains the same!)
In 2019, I was suffering some stress in regards to my business. Some people recommended therapy or medication, and while those solutions can have their merits, I wanted something more sustainable: I sought a spiritual-wellness practice that would help bring some balance and harmony to my life. I listened to the wisdom of several spiritual leaders and thought leaders from various backgrounds and affiliations: from Buddhist monks to Christian pastors, spiritual gurus to enlightened doctors and academics. Some consistent (and perhaps self-evident) themes were that 1) we are all one. The racial, cultural, or political differences between us are an illusion; and 2) nearly everyone lauded the benefits of meditation, because it focuses our awareness in the present. We only exist in the present moment, the here and now.
It was not long after that I had an epiphany: wait a minute…art is my spiritual practice!
Experiencing art is an intuitive practice in mindfulness—it is about presence, compassion, and awakening to that greater “oneness.” When I spend a few hours at a museum or gallery-hopping in Chelsea, I enter a contemplative state akin to meditation: I am present with the art, and I am in a heightened state of awareness. I feel abundant peace and calm at the end of my art outing, and that’s because art is a physical manifestation of a higher consciousness, or awareness. Artists are like shamans: they tap into that higher awareness and put it into form, to share it with us. That is why the best art has something a little unknowable about it…a veil of otherworldliness to it.
Several spiritual leaders and scholars have lauded art as an expression of our higher spiritual selves, such as proponents of the Baha’i faith, Joseph Campbell, Josef Pieper, and Eckhart Tolle, to name just a few. And of course, countless artists have conceptualized their own creations as serving the spiritual, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko, Anish Kapoor and Marina Abramovic, to name a few. It is important to clarify, however, that I am not advocating for a category of “spiritual art”—that is, spiritual or divine forces do not need to be the subject of a work of art for it to be spiritually resonant (and honestly, much of what you see online that is described as “spiritual art” tends to be way too literal and just…blech). You can have a transcendental experience with an Expressionist painting, Greek sculpture, street photograph, Chinese scroll, video installation—truly, any and all good* art is ripe for a spiritual experience (*the question of what is constitutes “good art” is an age-old question and unfortunately, too complicated to get into at present…).
With so many other great thinkers before me commenting on the spirituality of art, you may be wondering, So Emily, what makes your great epiphany so special? You’re obviously not the first person to think of art in spiritual terms.
Well, there’s two reasons I think Avant-Garde’s revamped mission is timely and novel.
First, I believe that many in the art world have lost touch with the true meaning and power of art, because the industry has been corrupted by avarice and materialism. The .01 percent has put their megawatt spending power into the trendiest artists, but this has actually had detrimental implications for the rest of the art market. Prices for blue-chip artists have skyrocketed out of control; in light of the multimillion-dollar records broken every auction season, “merely affluent” buyers “assume the $50,000 work they can afford is not worth buying,” the New York Times reported last year. Without these buyers, smaller galleries have been closing, or losing their best artists to what art critic Jerry Saltz calls the “Mega Death Star” galleries that cater to the super-rich. It is increasingly clear that only the .01 percent of buyers, galleries, and artists are benefitting from this apparently “flourishing” art market.
All this is to say that I feel the corruptive forces of money have created a top-heavy art market that does not honor the true, transcendental purpose of art: to bring us closer to our higher selves. Avant-Garde seeks to counter the art world’s materialism by encouraging our collectors to first and foremost connect to art on a deeper, intuitive level, and support artists and galleries that resonate with them, regardless of their art-world status. And rather than conceiving of art-buying as “collecting” art—a rather possessive and egotistic notion—we encourage buyers to think of themselves as art caretakers or hosts, welcoming the art into their space like an honored guest that will share its beauty and wisdom.
We encourage buyers to think of themselves as art caretakers or hosts, welcoming the art into their space like an honored guest that will share its beauty and wisdom.
The second reason I believe Avant-Garde’s mission is unique is that, quite simply, I do not know any arts professional that has ever addressed how to have a spiritual connection to a work of art. Put another way: any talk of spirituality in art tends to be an armchair intellectual exercise. In graduate school, for instance, I read artist Wassily Kandinsky’s 1910 treatise On the Spiritual in Art; we discussed it in the classroom, and wrote response papers addressing its philosophical points. But my professor never encouraged us to stand before a Kandinsky and really try to internalize his message, and write about that feeling. I do not mean to discredit the academic community, or dismiss the intellectual value of art, which is important. But no amount of reading about the spirituality of art will ever approximate the direct experience of it. Or, to quote artist Marina Abramovic: “Nobody’s life is changed by somebody else’s experiences. I want more from the public. I want them to be involved and to go through changes as I do.”
The truth is that you do not need a PhD in art history to “get” a work of art. Anyone can have a spiritual experience of a work of art if they apply the principles of mindfulness: presence, awareness, and compassion. Avant-Garde works with our clients to cultivate mindful contemplation of art; we encourage collectors to begin from an intuitive experience of art, to which we add our art historical and market expertise. In service of this mission, I will also be offering contemplative art tours each month, and speaking engagements that can bring a mindful art experience to your community, conference, or even office lunch hours.
The goal of life is rapture. Art is the way we experience it.
The most beautiful thing is that the benefits of a mindful art interaction go far beyond the walls of your lived spaces: you’ll find yourself bringing that mindfulness into the rest of your life—heightening your awareness as you walk down the street, noticing beautiful details of the world you hadn’t noticed before. If you find yourself inspired by our message, please contact Avant-Garde to see how we can work together. Whether you’re a complete novice to art or spirituality, we’d love to cultivate your interest in both.
Peace, Love, and Art,
Emily Casden, Director
 “Toward a Pure Energy,” Germano Celant in conversation with Marina Abramovic, in Germano Celant, Marina Abramovic, Public Body: Installations and Objects, 1965–2001, Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2001, p. 17.