Jeffrey Kosky: Disenchanting Secular Disenchantment

Professor of Religion Jeffrey Kosky from Washington and Lee University discussed the work of artist Y.Z. Kami and his reflections on disenchantment at a recent Humanities Center lecture.  

PROVO, Utah (May 12, 2017)—What is a disenchanted critic to do when confronted with artwork that compels the viewer to meditate instead of critique? At a recent Humanities Center lecture, Jeffrey Kosky, professor of religion at Washington and Lee University, discussed his own disenchantment with a disenchanted worldview, offering instead the work of Y.Z. Kami as a corrective to the overly critical academic.

“It’s hard to have a heart today,” Kosky began. He explained that the heart today must be hard and steely, resembling, perhaps, the famous hanging hearts of artist Jeff Koons. Hearts like those of Koons “won’t get crushed,” he continued, “the perfect thing for a challenging world where we are told success demands focus and shrewd calculations.”

Kosky said that anxiety in the world today is perhaps avoided in order to make the heart easier to deal with. This inability to deal with matters of the heart is precisely why critics of contemporary artist Y.Z. Kami feel so uncomfortable, Kosky explained.

The Kami portrait to which Kosky referred throughout his lecture portrays a man sitting peacefully in a meditative state. “While perhaps not anxious, he is not gleefully absorbed in fun,” Kosky said. “While he might appear impenetrable, he is anything but hard and steely. Warmth radiates from the picture. Unlike the hollow hearts Koons makes, this picture feels possessed with vibrant interiority, but one which remains inaccessible.”

Kosky added that the non-definitive face in Kami’s portrait is also what brings the critic to a dead stop. While modern life might dictate that the individual be more resolved or focused, the complete serenity of the figure in Kami’s piece requires the viewer to feel without any way of accessing a context for critique.

Robert Store, who is currently the Dean of the Yale School of Art, is just one of many art critics perplexed by Kami’s work, admitting abashedly that the portrait forced him to confront the yearnings and desires of the heart that he prefers to avoid.

Using Store as an example of our discomfort with enchantment, Kosky said, “Store is clearly embarrassed to speak about states of grace, longings for serenity and transcendent peace. In letting himself be moved by images of peace and serenity, including prayerful longing for such graceful states, he fears he is letting himself be deceived.”

Kosky’s goal is to understand academic embarrassment with these matters of the heart, as well as spirituality and mysticism. Kosky explained that in the case of Store, this resistance is explained by what Store would call an unspecified secularism, but what Kosky believes is disenchantment, not secularity.

“It is our disenchantment, I would say, not our secularity that has left us with hearts made by Jeff Koons,” Kosky said. Quoting sociologist Max Veber, Kosky explained that disenchantment is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization. In essence, disenchantment requires us to live in a world “in which mystery has been banished.”

“Critical faculty is ever on the alert. This steely heart keeps on the lookout for hidden meanings buried and embedded in the text as the result of repressive and oppressive forces,” Kosky explained. “[The critic] never asks what love brought a work to be, only what power did so, and he suspects appreciative or admiring responses to be naïve and complicit.”

“What attracts me to Kami’s picture is that it discloses a new world, one that appears in a different mood of disenchantment,” Kosky said. “That mood is a form of serenity, a meditative, prayerful way to be.”

While disenchantment would argue that art is not for meditative contemplation or consumption, or that meaning can only be made through criticism, Kami’s artwork offers a matter-of-fact quality that says, “the fact of merely being is the content of the work,” Kosky said.

“That content, which is not a thing, it’s really nothing at all, is felt by us in the enigmatic serenity that surfaces in the face. More particularly, the look that arises from nothing and looks to nowhere,” Kosky added.

Kosky explained that in the history of portraiture, portraits are meant to exalt the individual through actions and expressions. The critic of portraiture finds meaning in the subject’s part in an unfolding historical narrative. Kami’s portraits, however, take a different turn, communicating no narrative at all.

Kosky believes that Kami’s portrait, “Untitled,” is about disenchanted moderns. “We resist the sleep, or meditative states, suspicious of all,” Kosky said. “A prayerful way to be is exposure to vulnerability. Rather than rage against the dark or deny that it’s dark at all, the power of prayer abandons itself, lets itself be gathered up and gather darkness peacefully.”

He concluded, “Kami has shown us through his portraits that the prayerful way to be is what we see in this meditative state. The hope he offers is the serenity that radiates from the glimmering light in the heart of darkness.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

 Sylvia covers events for the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’ studies.