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January 06, 2003



At various times in my postings for this 'blog, I’ve emphasized the importance of religion for art. In a world and a century that defines the “secular” as being in opposition to “organized religion” and in which the secular seems firmly in the driver’s seat, this may seem to be an odd idea. We have plenty of art, and yet we live in a secular age. Picasso may have been a Spanish Catholic, but he didn’t paint altarpieces. Matisse may have decorated a chapel, but he was not a devout Christian; rather, a devout artist. When the art-consuming public sees a painting by Gary Hume entitled “Messiah” of a small boy with a zone of reflective metal left around his head, their first impression (accurate or not) will probably be that Mr. Hume is making an art-historical, not a religious reference; if religion is involved at all, it is probably ironically. In fact, for many educated people, I would hazard the notion that their knowledge of religion derives more from their knowledge of art than vice versa. So why do I keep going on about religion as the critical infrastructure of art?

Well, first, I have to explain that when I use the term religion I don’t mean organized religion (or at least not only organized religion). By religion I mean any source of power recognized by a society that is "hidden," or "not-to-be-discussed-openly," or that is known "only to initiated." Perhaps magic would be a better term. The anecdote about the tribesmen who didn’t want people taking photographs of them comes to mind: the one where they thought the camera would steal their souls. When I first heard this story as a child I thought the tribesman were just humorously unsophisticated about cameras. As the years went by, however, I began to think that these pictorial bumpkins were on to something. Why did we bother to take or make pictures? Maybe we weren’t trying to steal souls, exactly, but then again maybe we were. We certainly enjoyed the power that resulted from making pictures—at the most innocent level we liked using photographs to defeat time and distance, to see things beyond the immediate range of our eyes. At a rather less innocent level, we understood that via these pictures we had created replicas of things, replicas that were now under our control.

The sense of power connected with the creation and manipulation of replicas would seem to lie behind the prohibitions on idolatry and of graven images in Judaism—as well as the periodic episodes of iconoclasm that have popped up over the centuries. Any reduction of the godhead to an image suggests the potential for its manipulation by artist-magicians, and the ancient Hebrews made far too sweeping claims for their Deity to permit any artist-magicians to muck about with Him. (It's interesting that the written word doesn't seem to carry this potency in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition: the prohibition on pictures of God isn't matched by a prohibition on stories in which God appears.)

In ancient Sumaria, where monumental sculpture originated, carving such an image involved an enormous amount of work with easily-blunted copper or bronze tools. I can’t imagine, somehow, that it was undertaken for “aesthetic” reasons—just as I doubt the Sumerians went to the labor of building temples in the form of artificial sacred mountains (ziggurats) purely for the gratification of either their architects’ or their rulers’ egos. No, my guess is that they thought they were literally augmenting their power by the creation of such human and landscape “images.”

Sumerian Statue; Wooley, Reconstruction of the Ziggurat of Nabonidus, 1939

This is not purely a phenomena of primitive civilizations, either. I was struck anew the other day when glancing at the portrait of Johannes Kleberger by Durer.

A. Durer, Johannes Kleberger, 1526

The psychological force of the depicted man still leaps out of the picture at you. It suddenly occurred to me that the often-repeated idea that such intensity was merely the result of astute technique by the artist, or some kind of unconscious self-projection by Durer, is bullshit (or completely beside the point.) What I was looking at was a trophy on the wall, a stuffed animal head brought back by a mighty hunter. Why had the “trophy” cooperated with this process? Because he was still, as a result, alive. Hundreds of years after his death, he lives on (in a manner of speaking) and still daunts by the power of his flashing glance. The presence of all sorts of subterranean currents—black magic, astrology, alchemy, you name it—has been well documented in Renaissance art. I can’t entirely blame the artists of the era for speculating that their miraculous new powers of replication might be associated with “the dark side.” (Note the zodiacal sign and the cabalistic device in the inscription after the XXXX in Durer's portrait.)

DurerA1526KlebergerDetail.jpg A. Durer, Johannes Kleberger, 1526 (detail)

Even in the last century, the connection between art and religion has occasionally been unmistakable. The fact that all the founding fathers of abstraction—Kandinsky, Mondrian, Kupka, Malevich—were Theosophists is hardly a coincidence. The role of Jungian thought in the rise of the Abstract Expressionism is not a secret. The reference to the “Great Mother” in the work of various feminist artists is explicit.

F. Kupka, The Black Idol, 1903; J. Pollock, She-Wolf, 1943

But surely with Post-Modernism we’ve left all this obscuratinism behind, right? I don’t think so. I grant you that the secret sources of power in contemporary society are considered to be different—at least somewhat—than they were in Durer’s day. But, allowing for these differences, the game of art works the same way. To give one example, today society prostrates itself before celebrity. The circular nature of modern celebrity—people famous for being famous—suggests that a mysterious and not entirely out-in-the-open process is at work here, one that lifts up some and leaves their equally qualified peers behind. Is it so odd, therefore, that a contemporary account of art would stress how successful artists have become at the “black art” of celebrity? This from Matthew Collings in his book, “This is Modern Art,” published in 2000:

When I was at art school in the 1970s, Modern art seemed detached from everything else and nobody talked about it except artists and art students….Now that’s all changed. Tracey Emin’s colour-graded blue eyes look out from ads for Blue Sapphire Gin at all the airports. Gary Hume models Hugo Boss. Ads for Go Airlines imitate Damien Hirst’s spot paintings…And new Modern art is well known to a wide audience as soon as its made. Art fits in with everything else now, all the other expressions of our time, and it’s not out on a limb. Love tents, paintings of supermodels, Minimal sculptures, maps of the London tube system with all the names of the stations changed—they all fit in with contemporary pop culture. (Well, one painting of a supermodel—Hume’s painting of Kate Moss—but a general feeling that Modern art and supermodels might be naturally aligned.) [Emphasis added]
Practitioner of a Black Art?

I think today’s visual art is still trafficking in juju all right. We’ve got our priests and temple prostitutes lined up. Now let’s get down to the galleries and see how the carving of our idols is getting on.



posted by Friedrich at January 6, 2003


FvnB --

Good for you for getting into these topics. They're hard to talk about, particularly in public, yet they're what's often on people's minds, or so I'm guessing...

A few scattershot and half-baked responses? I often find myself playing with a thought sequence that runs along these lines: perhaps we do have a religion, however de facto, and it's some combination of celebrity, success, fame and health -- eat right, and you'll be redeemed! Work hard, and you'll live eternally in a condo on the South Carolina coast, taking morning walks with your spouse and playing golf in the afternoon! And if you're really lucky, maybe you'll be celebrated and put on the cover of a magazine! All of them (eat right, work hard, save some money) perfectly good advice, but also fantasies of redemption of some kind.

So maybe the whole apparatus that supports these fantasies and promises -- the magazines, the photographs, the restaurants, the movies and tv, etc -- maybe all that is today's equivalent on the (say) Renaissance Catholic church. I mean, the Catholicism of that time wasn't like the church of today, a voluntary, optional thing, a category apart. It was part and parcel of a whole belief system that was basically the water you swam in with all the other fishes. Just as the commercial/business/showbiz world is what we take for granted. Our invisible support structure.

Which leads me to wonder if maybe the closest contempo analogues to Renaissance artists aren't advertising directors, copy editors, tv show producers, fashion photographers, car designers. They're decorating, enhancing, promoting, and making alluring our contempo belief system. They're making it shimmer, creating and making beautiful the promises that get us out of bed and draw us through the day. Which is, if you think of it, pretty much what Renaissance artists were doing for the Medicis and the Catholic Church.

So maybe "art" (in the self-conscious, elevated contempo sense) isn't really needed at all, given that so much art is already being created in impressive quantities (ads, fashion photographs, TV specials, etc). If "art" of the self-conscious sort is to exist, what can it possibly have to add? Just some self-consciousness? But how desirable is that? Talk about a niche product -- most people don't enjoy excessive self-consciousness.

Or might the self-conscious art world best be thought of as some kind of R&D department for the rest of the culture? In a few movies, Robert Altman added a little something, it seemed to me -- he treated celebrity as a kind of religion, and was telling stories about people for whom it was a religion. He sort of backed off a little and kind of took part a little. And the performers and characters started to shimmer. Those closeups of actresses in some of his movies are the closest things to gorgeous images of religious transformation I know of in any contempo art.

All speculations and musings, admittedly. But the kind of thing I spend a lot of time wondering about. What are your thoughts on the question: what might the self-conscious art world have to contribute?

Coincidentally, I just got through watching an "Inside the Actor's Studio" episode with Juliette Binoche, and it reminded me of a few reasons why so many arty Americans envy the Europeans, annoying though they can be. One is sex, or rather eroticism. It's not just that we never quite seem to get the hang of it, while they take it for granted. There's something more basic. Binoche comes right out and says that what she does as an actress is about vulnerability, magic, beauty, and creation, and that for her part of that is being nude while she performs. "I like doing nudity," she actually says. No fretting about her image, or her career, or being suspicious or resentful, which you'd find with most American actresses -- Binoche says that for her, getting nude is the equivalent of a movie's silent passages, where a lot of dark and mysterious and unspoken (maybe unspeakable) things can go on. It's powerful, and often where the real interest lies.

Which gets back to what you're saying about art and religion, doesn't it? Europeans, pretentious and annoying though they can be, do seem to make room for the sacred, and seem (to some extent, anyway) to look to art for it, and seem willing to set aside a little space for the experience. (Ie., if you can keep a straight face as Juliette is saying all this babbly and pretentious stuff, you can then find yourself being a little spellbound and transported by the way her skin colors and her eyes melt and shine as she says it... Hey, it works: a small religious/erotic experience.)

Which leads me to something I'm often struck by in American art history -- the never-resolved clash between "art" and commercialism. Commercial art is so big and overwhelming, and commercial values so often trump everything else ... People often feel overwhelmed, and even a little raped by it. Yet there are great sides to all that. Fabulous, dynamic commercial art, for one thing, and a bustling economy for another. But it also seems to leave at least some people feeling (pardon the term) spiritually parched and wanting something different or more.

And it also seems to leave the self-conscious art world feeling forever beleaguered, to which the self-conscious art world has responded in a variety of ways, some of them touching, many of them obnoxious. (Acting feisty, quarreling with commercialism, making idiotically pretentious claims for art, etc.)

On the one hand, a rampagingingly vigorous world of commercial art, on the other a whimperingly self-pitying "art" world forever feeling like it has to fight for its very existence, and forever putting on antagonistic and snotty airs. There seldom seems to be any relief from this boring drama.

Now that I think of it, one of the reasons I'm so keen on some 19th century currently-maligned American art is that some of it represents some of the few times in American art history when the commercial world and the classy stuff managed to work hand in hand -- when some high-end artists actually found useful work and could support themselves doing it, and when the public seemed interested and willing to pay a few bucks extra for the sake of something more beautiful than they'd get otherwise.

I'm thoroughly bummed, exhausted and just plain tired of the never-ending dispute between the great mass of people and an "art" world that's hostlie and superior (though I do understand, to some extent, why they are that way). What a bore, watching that drama on endless loop.

Watching Juliette babble to James Lipton, I thought: that's what arty people envy about European culture, the way it makes room for beauty (and absurdity and pretention, sure, but hey), and the open way it embraces (however annoyingly) values such as my favorite, religio-eroticism.

But now I'm babbling. Maybe it's time for me to get invited to appear on "Inside the Actor's Studio."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 6, 2003 1:33 PM

Thanks for giving this posting such a thoughtful comment. However, allow me to pedantically clarify my main point: the real purpose of art is to provide a forum for the stuff that's hidden or submerged in the culture's religion. In Athens some aspects of religious worship were out in the open for anyone to see; but the cult figure of Athena was hidden in the "sacred cave" of the windowless Parthenon. The Dionysian mysteries were officially off-limits to all except the initiated, but the public could hear "hints" and "echoes" of these magic ceremonies at the theater. Nineteenth century landscape painting secretly speaks about pantheistic nature worship while publicly holding up Christianity for the crowd to see. During the Renaissance, artists used the tools provided by humanism and the revival of Classical figure art to intimate the hidden beliefs of the era, beliefs that the Christian church, in its official posture, didn't acknowledge: beliefs about the body, sexuality, individualism, savage ambition, competition, etc.

I would question what you seem to be saying regarding commercial art and fine art all serving the same master in today's world. Commercial art's ability to explore the semi-covert aspects of current "religious" beliefs is restricted by its corporate chaperonage. Commercial art functions, to my way of thinking, more like the Church service of the Renaissance (it uses poetry, music, vestments, architecture, furnishings, to convey the explicit, out-in-the-open beliefs of the time. Whereas the visual arts, being officially "dumb," can signal all sorts of things for the in-crowd to notice.

My central formulation here is that art is a window into the psychic underbelly of an era's religiosity. It shows us what the era worships that it is not quite comfortable acknowledging that it worships. I believe that art history makes "sense" viewed as a branch of religious history--a particularly heterodox, messy, weird, dirty branch, granted--whereas when art is viewed as if it were some self-referential, self-contained process with no real human subject matter, it starts to look awfully trivial and dilettantish.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 6, 2003 2:59 PM

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