26 August 2012

The Arts as Religion Fades …

Posted by at 8:29 PM
Chola bronze — Dance of Shiva
A  friend recently suggested in a conversation that if it weren't for religion we wouldn't have the arts. After giving it some thought, I don't believe that's true at all.  I think religion's appetite for the arts did have some role in facilitating their progress in those societies in which Christianity took hold, but ultimately I believe art would still be in our lives with or without religion. Let's not forget that the relationship between religion and the arts is rather symbiotic, a two-way street. That is to say, without art, Christianity (here I will pick on Xstianity b/c my friend is Xstian) would be a lot harder to sell to the masses. Mere mystery is not enough without the accompanying visual and aural aides and symbols with which to navigate it. For the bulk of the Church's history (universal literacy is a fairly recent development) the people were forced to meditate on a story sung to them in a language which they probably didn't understand, through picture-book stained glass, painted, and sculpted images, depictions of key gospel passages, that were all around them in church while the well-rehearsed choir filled every nook and cranny in the place with a grandiose import that the congregants could get nowhere else. It's easy to forget that the overwhelming majority of people (certainly the lay people) had no way to ponder the mystery except through the sights and sounds of the liturgy. It was the only game in town. 

Yes, I think we can say that art springs from that intangible domain that we call the spiritual, the numinous, and I think we can say that the first songs were probably prayers, and I think we can even say that religion in this perennial,  metaphysical sense has always been reflected in art and will continue to be. 
The mystical beasts on the walls of the caves of Altamira are informed less by zoological or morphological concerns of their hunters than they are by the perceived interrelation they fancied they had with these phantastic creatures. Gods have always been great springboards for riffing. 
The thousands of altars strewn across the Mediterranean basin, all devoted to the pantheon of Greek deities attest to this human proclivity. Poseidon standing nine meters tall in bronze, trident in hand, poised to strike. Athena in armor.
When Constantine decreed the primacy of Christianity for the empire, the Church ran with this, blossomed, and eventually became a regal entity which gloried in highly adorned and elaborate artistic professions of faith, and would pay handsomely at times for them. They filled the temples with rows and rows of rococo excess. So artists followed the money to the great cathedrals and they painted there. The great ones fluorished.  You want John the Baptizer in furs? Sure! Saint Joseph with his lillied staff? Certainly!   The church was a godsend to art. Bach set his experience with his scriptures to a music so sublime that it will likely survive the ages of man.   (I could be wrong. :)   The high standard that Christianity inspired in the arts is undeniable. El Greco's reverence to this tradition is expressed wonderfully in the radiant elasticity of his religious figures.   And it's as if Rembrandt mixed light itself with his colors to achieve the transcendence in his. The influence of  the artist's devotion to the subject matter is undeniable in the great art of recent centuries. 
But people have become progressively less religious. This is also undeniable, and since the days of the Enlightenment, instead of doctrinal exhortations to submission to authority, it has been scientific discovery and technological advancement which more and more have become the determinants of our sense of social history and of the idioms appropriate to expressing that history. In an increasingly secular society, where we no longer have need of the god hypothesis (as La Place once called it), a hypothesis on which we once relied so heavily, the art produced reflects this rate of change.   
Once we dispensed with the sacred, what was once profane seems to have thrived. It was a gradual process. Almost innocuous at first. Leonardo's most iconic piece is not religious at all (and yet it 'passed'). Vermeer's mastery was religion-less as well. By the time that the impressionists opened the turn of the 20th century up to the open light, religion had all but fallen completely out of view in the visual arts, a field which it had once all but monopolized. It would never regain this primacy again. Art has abandoned the Church, never to return. What's more, the reactionary irreverence and boldness that are part and parcel of the artistic personality deepened, sometimes into explorations of form and composition, sometimes into a deliberate scorn. This has happened at an exponential rate, and now we find ourselves in an age where "Piss Christ" can be defended as genuine artistic expression. I see no end in the recent future for shock as a valued aesthetic component in art.  The postmorderns asked: Beauty? What's that? 
After such a severance, a progressively secular society will inevitably come up with its own existential concerns to depict and exploit. Some memes will be more useful than others and will multiply. And rightly so. It doesn't mean that people should just abandon hope and optimism and the mythical-artistic imagination. Just because people decide there's no god doesn't mean that they won't keep asking all those unanswerable questions that people as an altruistic social simian species seem to be wired to ask. 'Atheism' (a term I don't like much) can itself engender moral discipline and altruism and surely art as well.  Human exultation, anguish and jubilation, love and hatred, these don't end with the death of god, they will forever continue to demand shaped expression wherever human beings live together. That's just the way it is. What is different now is that this position inevitably imposes on the artist or the thinker a solitude more austere than previously realized. An added sense of futility. The storm which we sail under turns out to be windier than we previously thought; life is nasty, brutish, short, and only once, so people paint according to this new-found sense of desolation.  A high and advanced art is not precluded by this lessening bond between Church and an ambivalent congregation's lack of devotion, though. But the very function and definition of art have been completely redefined in the paradigm shift that has ensued since the church lost sole control of the arts.  Surely, despite the death of God in our history, there will be artists who will be energized by their own personal existential concerns into creating works to rival the dimensions, the transcendental strengths of those inspired by the Christian kerygma in the age which preceded this one.  At any rate, it would be impertinent to rule out the possibility of art in the coming secular age (an ironically neo-pagan one, but that's for another rant). Or to deny a fascination. 

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