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Art as an expression of ‚religio’. The relationship between modern art and religion in the phenomenology of Michel Henry

  • Theologische Fakultät Fulda


For Michel Henry religion is not supposed to be symbolized by art, but art is thought as an expression of religion. He develops his philosophy of art with reference to Kandinsky and to Kandinsky’s theoretical writings in his book “Voir l’invisible. Sur Kandinsky” (1988), relating Kandinsky’s theory of art to his own phenomenology of life. Henry’s philosophy is based on the distinction between two forms of phenomenology: a phenomenology of the world and a phenomenology of life. In his phenomenology of life, Henry develops an understanding of life as self-affectivity. It culminates in idea that the life of an individual can only be properly thought if we consider the individual’s life as being related to absolute life (interior to the individual), which Henry identifies with God (‘religio’). But individuals forget their being related to absolute life. The means for overcoming this forgetfulness (=sin) are for Henry Christian ethics (expressed by the seven works of mercy). But art can have the same function as Christian ethics. In an interview (“Art et phénoménologie de la vie“, 1996) he calls art “a form of religious life” and describes it as another sphere besides ethics enabling a reactivation of our relationship to absolute life. However, being a form of religious life doesn’t mean that art symbolizes any religious contents. Kandinskys conception of art (assumed by Henry) is strictly non-representational. The nature of painting is to be the (abstract) expression of interiority, not to represent any world-objects of whatever kind. And Henry, identifying Kandinsky´s interiority with his understanding of life as related to absolute life, conceives the making or the experience of art as a (possible) experience of ‘religio’.
This is a pre-print of an article published in German in cultura & psyché. The final authenticated version
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Art as an expression of ‚religio’. The relationship between modern art
and religion in the phenomenology of Michel Henry
Jörg Disse (Theologische Fakultät Fulda)
This paper is about the relationship of art and religion as conceived by the
French phenomenologist Michel Henry (1922-2002).
Henry has developed
a philosophy of art with reference to Kandinsky mainly in his book Voir
l’invisible. Sur Kandinsky” published in 1988.
The relationship between art
and religion is outlined in this book but I will try to work it out more clearly
by referring to his understanding of phenomenology as presented in
“Phénoménologie de la vie” (2003)
and by referring to his understanding
of religion in his late philosophy of religion, precisely in his work ”I am the
truth. Toward a Philosophy of Christianity published in 1996,
and in a later
article/interview “Art et phénoménologie de la vie” of the same year,
which he makes some important statements about the link between art and
religion. For Henry, art does not symbolize religion, but it is an expression
of religion, the philosophical link between art and religion being his
understanding of life as the central category of his philosophy. Art
expresses religion if it expresses the essence of life.
I will proceed in four steps. I start with a short sketch of Henrys
understanding of phenomenology. Then I develop his philosophy of art in
its relationship to the theoretical writings of Kandinsky. After that we have
Delivered at the The Nordic Society for Philosophy of Religion (NSPR) Conference: “Symbolizing
Transcendence: the limits of language” 28–29 October 2021, Tartu (Estland).
Michel Henry : Voir l’invisible. Sur Kandinsky, 1988 (engl. : Seeing the invisible. On Kandinsky 2009). (=
Michel Henry : « Phénoménologie de la vie », in : Phénoménologie de la vie. Tome 1 : De la
phénoménologie, 2003, 59-76. (=PhV)
Michel Henry : « C’est moi la vérité. Pour une philosophie du christianisme », 1996 (engl. : I Am the
Truth. Toward a Philosophy of Christianity, 2003). (=CMV)
Michel Henry : « Art et phénoménologie de la vie », in : Phénoménologie de la vie. Tome III : De l’art et
du politique, 2004, 283-308. (= APhV)
a look at Henrys understanding of religion. Finally, I explain how he
conceives the relationship between art and religion.
1. Henry’s understanding of phenomenology
Henry assumes two fundamentally different ways of appearance of
phenomena. He speaks of two different kinds of phenomenality and
accordingly of two kinds of phenomenology. There is a phenomenology of
the world and a phenomenology of life.
We encounter the world by being intentionally directed to objects in the
sense of Husserl. Being intentionally directed means for Henry being
directed to something we experience as different from us, as being outside
of us. Even in the case of a thought act or when we consider ourselves
through an intentional act, we are in a certain way related to something
outside ourselves. The way of appearance, the phenomenality of that which
belongs to the world is in other words the being-before of something:
“Understood as intentional, consciousness is nothing other than the movement by
which it throws itself outwards, its 'substance' is exhausted in this coming-out that
produces phenomenality. To reveal in such a coming-out, in a distancing, is to make-see.
The possibility of vision resides in this distancing of what is placed before the seeing and
thus seen by it. This is the phenomenological definition of the object: that which, placed
before, is made visible in this way.”
Live is apprehended in another way. Of course, it can also appear as a world
phenomenon, as an object of biological enquiry for example. But this is not
what a phenomenology of life is concerned with. There is a strong contrast
between the phenomenology of life and the phenomenology of the world:
Whereas the latter reveals in the 'outside of itself', being only the 'outside of itself' as
such, so that everything it reveals is external, other, different, the first decisive feature
of the revelation of life is that it (...) never reveals anything but itself. Life reveals itself.
Self-revelation, when it comes to life, therefore means two things: on the one hand, it
is life that accomplishes the work of revelation (...). On the other hand, what it reveals
Translated with (free version): „Comprise comme intentionnelle, la
conscience n’est rien d’autre que le mouvement par lequel elle se jette au-dehors, sa ‘substance’
s’épuise dans cette venue au-dehors qui produit la phénoménalité. Révéler dans une telle venue au-
dehors, dans une mise à distance, c’est faire-voir. La possibilité de la vision réside dans cette mise à
distance de ce qui est posé devant le voir et ainsi vu par lui. Telle est la définition phénoménologique de
l’objet : ce qui, posé devant, est rendu visible de cette façon. (PhV 61)
is itself. Thus the opposition between what appears and the pure appearance (...)
disappears in the case of life.
The decisive characteristic is that life appears without there being a subject-
object distinction. It is only ones own life that reveals itself in such a way.
Now this self-revelation is thought as an emotional self-relationship (PhV
70). Life relates to itself, reveals itself in the sense that it feels, senses,
affects itself. Henry calls this "auto-affection". He examines the various
aspects of self-afflicting life: suffering, joy, pain, etc. are different modalities
of life, different ways in which life experiences itself. There are positively
experienced modalities such as impressions of pleasure and happiness and
negatively experienced modalities such as impressions of pain and sorrow
(PhV 71). All modalities, however, are based on an underlying,
transcendental affectivity, a continuously given sense of self that is
preserved through all the ever-changing modalities of self-activity.
The phenomenon of life understood in this way is the object of Henry’s
phenomenology of life. It is the main object of his philosophy.
2. Art as an expression of life
On the basis of this distinction between world and life Henry develops a
philosophy of art. In Voir l’invisible”, he extensively refers to the
theoretical writings on abstract art of Kandinsky himself.
For Henry,
Kandinsky’s theory of art is not restricted to abstract painting but gives us
an adequate understanding of art, of esthetical experience as such.
Kandinsky distinguishes between internal and external phenomena (P 13).
First the external phenomenon: “The street can be viewed through the
windowpane, its sounds diminished, its movements phantom-like, and
Translated with (free version): „Alors que ce dernier dévoile dans le ‘hors
de soi’, n’étant que le ‘hors de soi’ comme tel, en sorte que tout ce qu’il dévoile est extérieur, autre,
différent, le premier trait décisif de la révélation de la vie est que celle-ci (…) ne révèle jamais qu’elle-
même. La vie se révèle. Autorévélation, quand il s’agit de la vie, veut donc dire deux choses : d’une part,
c’est la vie qui accomplit l’œuvre de la révélation (…). D’autre part, ce qu’elle révèle, c’est elle-même.
Ainsi l’opposition entre ce qui apparaît et l’appaître pur (…) disparaît dans le cas de la vie.“ (PhV 65)
Michel Henry : Incarnation. Une philosophie de la chair, 2000 (engl. : Incarnation. A Philosophy of
Flesh, 2015), 89, 97.
He mainly refers to Kandinsky: Über das Geistige in der Kunst, 1911/12 (42017) (=GK) (engl.: Wassily
Kandinsky, M. T. Sadler (Translator). Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1977), and Kandinsky : Punkt und
Linie zu Fläche. Beitrag zur Analyse der malerischen Elemente, 1926 (132016) (=PLF) (engl.: Wassily
Kandinsky. Point and Line to Plane, 1980).
itself appearing through the transparent but solid and hard pane as a
detached being pulsating in the beyond.”
The internal phenomenon on
the contrary is described in the following way: “Or the door is opened: one
steps out of seclusion, immerses oneself in this being, becomes active in it
and experiences the pulsation with all one's senses.”
Internal appearance
is, says Kandinsky, concerned with the "inner pulsation" (PLF 14) of that
which is viewed. The object must evoke a vibration in the heart (GK 50).
In other words, the viewer relates affectively to the object. This bringing
into play of an internal phenomenon related to affectivity is for Henry, for
his phenomenology of life, the point of connection to Kandinsky.
At first, painting seems to be an activity that relates entirely to the external
phenomenon. It is apparently directed toward the visible (VI 20). But this is
the traditional understanding of painting inherited from the Greeks. Art as
mimesis, as defined by Plato (VI 20). Kandinsky understands art from the
internal phenomenon. The artist has the task "to express his inner world"
(GK 58). Only the picture is well painted “which lives inwardly" (GK 136).
The work of art should, as Henry puts it, express the invisible. (VI 34).
And according to Henry, abstract art is the expression of the invisible in its
purest form. Nothing representational is depicted, no natural phenomena
and no human events. It is the direct expression of invisible life. Kandinsky
understands the abstract not as a simplification of a concrete object, but as
something completely separated from the reality of the world (VI 26 f., VI
33). The abstraction of Cubism f. ex. still stands for an interpretation of a
world object: a mountain, a sitting woman, a violin depicted in geometric
form (VI 29f.), whereas in Kandinsky's abstract art the painting is
understood as a pure expression of interiority, of life, as Henry says (VI 45).
What Henry calls life becomes the unique principle of construction of the
work of art (VI 48).
Life is self-given through emotions or feelings. It is, as we have seen,
characterized by self-affectivity. The work of art, according to Henry,
Translated with (free version): „Die Straße kann durch die Fensterscheibe
betrachtet werden, wobei ihre Laute vermindert, ihre Bewegungen phantomartig sind und sie selbst
durch die durchsichtige, aber feste und harte Scheibe als ein abgetrenntes, im ‚Jenseits‘ pulsierendes
Wesen erscheint.“ (PLF 13)
Translated with (free version): „Oder es wird die Tür geöffnet: man tritt
aus der Abgeschlossenheit heraus, vertieft sich in dieses Wesen, wird darin aktiv und erlebt die
Pulsierung mit allen seinen Sinnen.“ (PLF 13)
expresses aspects of this self-afflicting life (VI 38). In other words, the aim
of art is to convey emotions (VI 37). Kandinsky writes about himself that he
painted only Moscow all his life, Moscow standing for his experience of the
sunset over Moscow at a certain hour, just before the sun turns red. This
sunset triggered an ecstatic joy in him, which became the key experience
for his entire artistic work. To reproduce this experience became the
highest happiness for him as an artist (Retrospective, 1913).
Komposition 8, Juli 1923 (Original: Guggenheim, New York)
Kandinsky calls the means of art with which the self-afflicting life, the
vibrations of the soul can be materially represented, forms. Not only the
linear means of representation, point, line and surface, but also colors are
called forms (VI 43). Abstract painting uses these forms without any
representation of world objects. An infinite field of possible combinations
arises in this way. The work of art becomes a product of free imagination
(cf. VI 185).
Kandinsky unfolds a theory of the elements that shows the way in which
the individual elements, point, line, surface, color, are, for themselves and
in combination with one another, expressions of certain vibrations,
emotions, feelings (VI 64). Every painted form has, as Henry says, an
affective tonality (VI 64). Kandinsky talks about forms having a particular
sound (PLF 36f., 89).
For the better understanding, just an example of Kandinsky's analysis. The
line is an expression of movement. The straight line as a vertical line stands
for warm movement, the horizontal line for cold movement (PLF 59). The
right angle is an expression of the cold and controlled, the acute angle for
the sharp and highly active, the obtuse angle for the awkward, weak and
positive (PLF 75). The left side of the ground surface of a painting evokes
the idea of greater looseness, a sense of lightness, liberation, and ultimately
freedom (PLF 135); movement to the left in a painting is movement to the
distance; movement to the right in a painting is movement home (PLF 137
f.), and so on. In addition, there are the colors. Kandinsky observes affinities
between graphic forms and colors. There is a parallel between horizontal
and black, vertical and white, diagonal and red f. ex. (PFL 67).
The colors in themselves also have a sound. Each color reaches the soul in
a certain way (GK 65). Central is the inclination of the color to light or to
dark, or to cold or warm. These are the four main sounds of color (GK 92, VI
133). Let us take the inclination to cold or warm. It is, according to
Kandinsky, "an inclination generally towards yellow or blue" (GK 91). Yellow
radiates, blue has a concentric effect (GK 92). Both colors imply movement,
activity. Green as a color between yellow and blue, on the other hand,
stands for the absence of movement:
"Just as a picture painted in yellow always radiates a spiritual warmth, or a blue one
appears too cooling (i.e. active effect...), green only has a boring effect (passive effect).
Passivity is the most characteristic quality of absolute green, this quality being perfumed
by a kind of fatness, self-satisfaction." (GK 98)
The work of art is the composition of the whole of the picture. The elements
are arranged in such a way that from the sounds of the elements emerges
the sound of the composition (VI 166). The artist does not compose the
picture according to any world objects he wants to represent, but according
to the sound, the pathos that the pictorial elements express. He composes
it according to the principle of inner necessity (VI 95), the necessity
according to which the different elements are subordinated to the sound
or pathos of the overall picture (VI 169).
For Kandinsky, the forms are not arbitrary in relation to the life they are
supposed to express (VI 63). The theory of elements is not about personal
associations, but about general laws of the connection of forms with soul
vibrations: "The methods of art analysis have until now still been very
arbitrary and not infrequently far too personal in nature. The coming time
urges a more exact and objective way, in which a collective work in art
science will be possible."
Kandinsky's theory of the Elements is meant to
initiate a science of art.
The main thesis of Henry's book on Kandinsky is that abstract painting
defines the essence of painting in general (VI 104). With the elimination of
any representation of world-objects, "the pure essence of painting", he
says, is revealed (VI 73). Painting is an expression of human affectivity or,
as he says, of absolute subjectivity (VI 74). Expression does not mean that
painting makes subjectivity or life an object of representations. Painting is
neither mimesis of the world nor mimesis of life (VI 206). In Kandinsky's art,
life is the content of painting precisely not because it becomes object or
objectified, but because it is expressed in or through the colors and forms,
Translated with (free version): „Wie das in Gelb gemalte Bild immer eine
geistige Wärme ausströmt, oder ein blaues zu abkühlend erscheint (also aktive Wirkung…), so wirkt das
Grün nur langweilend (passive Wirkung). Die Passivität ist die charaktervollste Eigenschaft des absoluten
Grün, wobei diese Eigenschaft von einer Art Fettheit, Selbstzufriedenheit parfümiert wird.“ (GK 98)
Translated with (free version): „Die Methoden der Kunstanalyse sind bis
jetzt immer noch sehr willkürlich gewesen und nicht selten viel zu persönlicher Natur. Die kommende
Zeit drängt auf einen genaueren und objektiveren Weg, auf dem eine kollektive Arbeit in der
Kunstwissenschaft möglich sein wird.“ (PFL 81)
because the pathos that underlies the colors and forms as their invisible
side is revealed through them (VI 210).
There is no aesthetic experience (VI 76), where there is no expression of life
or subjectivity. With this, aesthetic experience is completely detached from
the cultural context in which the work of art occurs, if we conceive culture
as the totality of meanings conveyed through language (VI 128). Aesthetic
experience takes place solely in the realm of sensations (sensibilité, ibid.).
Painting is only concerned with the pathos that color, point, line or plane
evoke in the viewer (VI 132). Abstract art in Kandinsky's sense bypasses
language. Michel Henry: “Painting does not use language.” (VI 127)
3. Life and religion
Henry’s understanding of life takes a religious dimension particularly in his
later writings. Here I refer to “I Am the Truth. Toward a Philosophy of
Christianity” from 1996.
The analysis is based on two aspects of life. First, self-affectivity is
characterized by ipseity, which means that it is always a singular self that
lives, that is self-affected (CMV 75). Life, in Henry's words, is always the life
of a specific living being "that affects itself, that experiences itself and
enjoys itself..." (CMV 76) The second aspect is the passivity of life. A living
being does not himself bring forth his life (cf. CMV 136). By relating to itself
through self-affection an individual is therefore at the same time relating to
something else, to the life that takes place in him without his own doing. I
deliberately choose this formulation, which is reminiscent of Kierkegaard's
definition of the self at the beginning of "Sickness unto death".
One can follow Henry well up to this point. Life is characterized by ipseity
and passivity. However, I find it difficult to call his further presentation in
the mentioned work phenomenology. I would rather speak of a New
Testament inspired metaphysical explication of the phenomenological
finding of ipseity and passivity.
Let’s have a look. Henry further assumes that it is one and the same life that
is at work in every living being (CMV 128). He calls it absolute life. When I
relate to myself as a living being, I relate at the same time to the absolute
life within me. It is called absolute because it has produced itself in contrast
to the living individual. Henry equates it with God. And the relationship of
the living to absolute life is called religio’, religion (APhV 296).
Absolute life too is characterized by ipseity. Henry calls the first living being,
or the first individuality son or word. Absolute life generates this first living
being: The Father generates the Son (CMV 76). Henry calls this son the
'archi-fils', the Arch-Son. Henry of course invokes the beginning of the
prologue of John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word
was with God, and the Word was God". Through the Son, God has a Self.
But as absolute life generates the first living being, generates the Arch-Son,
absolute life generates also the individual human beings as sons. Individual
human beings are also sons of God (CMV 120ff.).
Now the following question arises: Why do so few people know or
remember that they are sons? Henry says, human beings have forgotten
their attachment, their religio to absolute life. At this point he introduces
the distinction between self (moi) and ego (je). The self (moi, accusative) is
that which experiences itself as founded in absolute life. But at the same
time human beings experience themselves as being in possession of
themselves, of their power, of their abilities. A human being is also an ego,
an I, more precisely an "I can" (je peux) (CMV 172). Now a human being,
this is the first reason for forgetting, can ignore that he owes his ego to the
absolute life within him. There is the possibility of a transcendental illusion
of the ego “whereby this ego takes itself as the ground of its being” (CMV
The second reason for forgetting one's own sonship is that life is constantly
hidden in human beings (CMV 179). The more it is hidden the more a human
being turns to the world, cares about himself, is worried about achieving
this or that in the world. Heidegger's care is echoed here (Ver 185). Why
does life conceal itself? Because it does not grasp itself when it is
intentionally directed to itself. It can neither think nor remember itself as
life (CMV 186). Because life forgets itself, human beings forget their bond,
their religio to absolute life, to God.
Henry calls this radical forgetting sin. It cannot be overcome by self-
reflection (CMV 193), but only by a rebirth (CMV 206). Rebirth means the
self-transformation of life to its essence, to the "essence de la vie", a notion
we will come back to. According to Henry it is ethical action in the sense of
Christian ethics as expressed by the “seven works of corporal mercy” (CMV
210) that performs this rebirth (CMV 209f.), action that, according to Mt
7,21, carries out the will of God: "Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord, Lord’
will enter into the kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of my
heavenly father.” In works of mercy, says Henry, it is not the ego anymore
who acts, it is the self as driven by absolute life, more precisely it is the Arch-
Son who acts in us (CMV 169). This is doing the will of the Father, this is the
self-transformation of life to its essence. Henry refers also to Gal 2,20.
4. Art and religion
Now what does this mean for the relationship between art and religion? In
an interview entitled "Art and the Phenomenology of Life” from 1996,
Henry becomes very clear, attributing to art a function similar to ethics. He
repeats that ethics, in the sense of Christian ethics lead back to religio, to
an attachment to absolute life (quote Henry): "Ethics is about (...) bringing
us to the point where, instead of living a life lost in concern for the world,
we inwardly experience this radical bond anew." (APhV 297). And then he
establishes the parallel with art (quote Henry): "There is another sphere
which makes this possible from its principle, art. Art is ethical by nature."
(APhV 297) Art, too, can lead back to "religio," to the experience of absolute
life. Yes, art itself is, says Henry, "a form of religious life" (APhV 297),
aesthetic experience is fundamentally sacred in nature (ibid.), aesthetics is
a form of religion (quote Henry) "in the sense of the constitutive basic
connection of every transcendentally living with absolute life", all
formulations in this interview (APhV 297).
Let us return to the essay on Kandinsky. There Henry asks: In what way is
life present in art other than in ordinary life? His answer is: Life is present
in art according to its own essence (VI 209). The notion of essence of life
(essence de la vie) is prominent in Henry’s writings. In “I am the truth” it
precisely refers to self-affection as being grounded in absolute life, as owing
itself to absolute life and as taking place in passivity. The rebirth performed
by Christian ethics is called a self-transformation of life (quote Henry)
“leading it back to its true essence” (APhV 209). The same function is
attributed to art in Henry’s study on Kandinsky (quote Henry): "Art is the
completion of the essence of life." (VI 212) Now, where life is present in its
own essence, according to “Voir linvisible” takes place an intensification of
the self (un accroissement de soi, VI 209), an intensification of pathos (VI
210). In the interview we find the same statement about Christian ethics.
Christian ethics amount to a "radical intensification of life" (APhV 297). The
experience of radical attachment therefore is, whether it is due to ethics or
art, equivalent to an intensification of life. In ordinary life, there is no such
intensification, in ordinary life, life’s essence is not fully realized.
A work of art that is designed according to the rules of art, the principles
established by Kandinsky, expresses life according to its essence, or rather
it is the inner necessity, the necessity of life itself that is being expressed.
Henry also calls it a mystical necessity (VI 213). Beyond the traditional
understanding of culture as the totality of meanings conveyed through
language, he defines culture as the process by which life realizes itself
according to its eternal essence (VI 214). In the great works of art, sensitivity
reaches its maximum of intensity and power (VI 214). The essence of life,
the highest intensity and power of life, however, is only given where religio
is present, where the self-afflicting individual is vividly grounded in absolute
life. Henry insists on the sacred nature of art in its beginnings, on the fact
that in its beginnings the supernatural was its exclusive concern (VI 217). It
was its only concern, because it is life itself that is sacred (sacré). It is sacred,
according to “Voir l’invisible"because we live it in us as that which we have
neither set nor willed" (VI 217).
A short conclusion: religion is not symbolized by art for Henry, but comes
to expression in art as an intrinsic constituent of life if the work of art, one
could say with Henry´s distinction of ego and self, is not the result of the
ego but of the self of the artist. In my view, Henry addresses an aspect of
the relationship between religion and art that is fundamental, that
precedes any question of symbolizing religion in art, even though I would
not take it to mean that art should not symbolize religion at all, that art
should be reduced to the understanding of art of Kandinsky.
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