In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Religious Needs -- What To Do About 'Em? | Main | Froggytime »

May 10, 2004

How Modern Painting Became A Secular Religion


In your post, Religious Needs -- What To Do About 'Em?, you talk about the tendency over the past 150 years or so for people to treat non-religious aspects of life in a highly religious spirit. I thought I’d try the experiment of looking at one such ‘secular’ religion through the lens of religious sociology.

My methodology in this regard is entirely ripped off from religious sociologist Rodney Stark. (I became aware of Mr. Stark from one of your previous links and bought one of his books; thanks for the tip.)

In “The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy” Rodney Stark and his co-author Roger Finke use numerical data from U.S. religious history to debunk many commonly held notions about religion in American life. A few of their many interesting conclusions about the ‘market penetration’ of religious organizations in America include:

1. That the decline of so-called ‘mainline’ Protestant denominations (such as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians et al) is not the result of such organizations ‘losing touch’ with the culture during the Sixties, but has been ongoing since at least 1800.

2. The rise of aggressive fundamentalist and evangelical religious sects is likewise not a recent phenomenon, but has also been observable continuously over the past 200 years. The growth of such supernaturally-oriented denominations has also been the biggest motor inflating the role of religion in American life.

3. That the increase in the number of Roman Catholics (now the largest U.S. religious group) was not a natural consequence of immigration from Catholic countries, but the result of the American Catholic church matching the aggressive, supernaturally-oriented Protestant sects ‘revival for revival’ and demand for demand.

Stark and Finke don’t just peddle isolated facts, of course; they also offer explanations. They begin to make sense of all this with an idea borrowed from H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1929 analysis of the evolution of religion, The Social Sources of Denominationalism. Niebuhr’s locates the origin of new religious organizations (and the fading vitality of older religious organizations) in social class and in the dichotomy between what he termed ‘sects’and ‘churches.’ According to Neibuhr:

In Protestant history the sect has ever been the child of an outcast minority, taking its rise in the religious revolts of the poor.

That is to say, the least-successful members of society (in worldly terms) need a religious organization that stands apart from the normative social order. This ‘standing apart’ allows the group and its members to redefine conventional notions of success and failure (e.g., success may not be a matter of wealth, but of, say, being ‘born again.’) ‘Standing apart’ also increases the solidarity of the members in their struggles with the larger society. In Niebuhr’s terminology, the poor need a ‘sect,’ a religious organization that is in considerable tension with the surrounding social order. And he means tension quite literally, as illustrated by the conflict-laden early years of sects such as the Quakers, the Mormons, the Puritans.

Virtually all innovative religious organizations begin life as a ‘sect.’ However, according to Niebuhr the very success of sects often undermines their sectarian character. The personal discipline and social cohesion associated with sects results in the membership getting wealthier and better educated and thus more ‘successful’ in society. As the members become more personally successful in worldly terms, most sects see a gradual reduction in the tension between the ‘sect’ and the rest of society. (Socially ambitious, well-educated clergymen often deliberately engineer this reduction of tension). The group joins the country-club, so to speak, and becomes a ‘church.’ Its doctrines become more accommodating to the existing power structure, and hence stop being useful to the poor. The cycle starts up anew when some fire-breathing visionary cooks up a new ‘sectarian’ approach and leads a mass exodus from the now sedate ‘church’.

That’s all very nice, you say, but what does sectarian religion (say, Jehovah’s Witnesses) have to do with Modern Art? Aren’t the two phenomena about as different as similar as oil and water?

Not at all, I reply. But bear with a little history before I explain that remark.

The earliest paintings commonly considered to be Modern Art (a term with no terribly rigorous definition) were by Gustave Courbet and the bad boy Eduard Manet, both whom were active during the 2nd Empire period (1852-71) in France. During this period, Napoleon III was on the throne of the Second Empire. Not being a great conqueror like his uncle, Napoleon III was dependent for political support on “the Rurals,” the great landowners in what was still an overwhelmingly agricultural nation. At the same time, the political ambitions of another group, the entrepreneurial urban bourgeoisie, were growing as a result of the beginnings of industrialization, high finance and the French railway network. This group found its political voice in republicanism, which its members interpreted as the spirit of the original French Revolution shorn of its socialistic excesses.

And what of religion? The Roman Catholic Church had seen its pre-Revolutionary status as the established church of France largely restored under Napoleon III. In fact, the Emperor’s policy was deliberately designed to encourage the Church as a calming factor in social life. Unsurprisingly, the church hierarchy supported his reign. (The hierarchy of the French church was closely tied to the Rurals as well.)

Looking through the eyes of Niebuhr's theory, what do we see when we look at the French Catholic Church during this era? First, it was an established church, which made it as un-'sect'-like as possible. The Catholic Church of France’s degree of tension vis a vis the Second Empire was virtually nil. According to Niebuhr’s model, the French Catholic church should have had very little to offer the poor, either rural or urban. What do we find in the historical record? According to Peter Gay in “Schnitzler’s Century”, neither the French peasantry nor the urban working classes of that era could be considered ardent supporters of the Church:

About the only contemporaries really well informed about the social and religious life of the countryside were divines…men close to villagers as they superintended their morals and tried to recruit, or retain, them for Christ. Their reports are necessarily fragmentary, but nearly all of them held surprises for those who believed the nineteenth-century peasantry secure in its faith…. the bulk of the working classes were alienated from the churches across Europe and remained so. The proofs for this are overwhelming…

Evidently, very little changed over the next fifty years or so. In Harry W. Paul’s study, “The Second Ralliement: The Rapproachement Between Church and State in France in the Twentieth Century”, he makes the same point:

The bi-weekly Le Briard carried in September and October, 1903, the first systematic census of religious practice, in Seine-et-Marne, so far discovered for France…The percentage of the population at Sunday mass was less than one percent. About thirty-eight percent of the parishes had no resident priest. In Le Briard, three themes emerged: the mediocrity of the priests; the pressure exerted by possedants [the well-to-do]; and the alliance of church and possedants, with a concomitant alienation of the people, who were also virulently anti-clerical. The Church, Le Briard concluded, was only an immense façade, behind which there was nothing.

This may, of course, overstate the case somewhat, as religiosity in France apparently varied significantly from place to place and Le Briard—a republican, anticlerical newspaper—undoubtedly chose a locale where the situation was at its most grim. Still, one is hard-pressed to avoid the conclusion that France (and Europe generally) developed full-blown socialist movements because their established churches, Catholic or Protestant, were incapable of responding creatively to the needs of the working classes. One suspects that in France, anyway, the established Catholic church was so closely tied to the status quo that it had in fact managed to discredit even the notion of a religious solution to social problems. (It is particularly ironic that the non-established Catholic Church in the United States, in considerable tension with the society around it, proved spectacularly capable of responding to the needs of the American working class.)

However, revolutions in art, unlike revolutions in religion, are not generally the work of the masses, but rather of the elites. What was going on in the higher ranges of society that led to Modern painting? Again, bear with a bit more history.

The political ambitions of the urban bourgeois were shockingly realized in 1870 when Bismarck maneuvered Napoleon III into stupidly declaring war on Prussia and its much bigger, better-organized military machine. The Second Empire collapsed with Napoleon III’s surrender on the battlefield after only a few weeks of war. After a difficult ten-year transitional period, the republican cause triumphed and the urban bourgeoisie became the dominant social class in the Third Republic (which lasted until World War II). The long-delayed, rather halting public acceptance of the Impressionists, whose art celebrated the life-style of the urban bourgeoisie, was due to this protracted fight between the republicans and the Rurals, which continued throughout the 1870s and was only resolved in the 1880s when the republicans were finally firmly in the saddle. As a result of their long battle with the Rurals, the urban bourgeoisie, despite being mostly Catholic, had become strongly anti-clerical. Partly this was tactical—the friend of my enemy is my enemy—but partly this was because Republicanism supported a far more religiously pluralistic vision of society than did the French Catholic Church. Indeed, many of the most ardent republicans were in fact Protestants, Jews or Freemasons, fact that the French blood-and-soil Right harped on for the next sixty years.

However, despite their dominance of Third Republic politics after 1880, the republicans chose to continue the struggle against the Right and especially its poster-child, the Church. Over that decade they unleashed a series of laws reforming education and not-coincidentally ejecting the Church from its long held monopoly in the area.

Interestingly, even this limited exclusion of the Church from the public domain seems to touched off a bout of nostalgia for religion among the cultural elite. As Peter Gay puts it:

From the 1880s, a notable number of French novelists and poets, by their very vocation only too willing to share their religious pilgrimage with the public, converted, or intensified their commitment, to Catholicism. Paul Bourget, at first known for his perceptive essays on modern psychology…turned devout as he came to reject the positivism of his early career, and celebrated his newfound piety in 1889 with his best-known novel, Le Disciple. Paul Claudel, converted as a young man, made the religious agitation of his youth followed by serene certainty the leading theme of his dramas. Leon Bloy, novelist and journalist, was another youthful convert who poured his life’s experience into his fiction. And Joris-Karl Huysmans, probably still the most widely read of this group, stared out worshiping Nature, moved on to aestheticism, diabolism, and spiritualism, before he too fled to the embrace of the Catholic Church. The poet Charles Peguy belongs in this catalog. Like so many others, he came to Catholicism from atheism. The religious history of these French writers was not an isolated phenomenon.

Interestingly, this new attraction doesn’t appear to have been the result of any ‘creative’ activity of the French Catholic Church. It promulgated no new doctrine and launched few, if any, new initiatives. It seems to have occurred solely because the church suddenly found itself in a degree of tension with the society surrounding it. It is hard to avoid thinking that these intellectuals were attracted to this increase in tension, pure and simple. Why would that be?

In their book, Stark and Finke supplement Niebuhr’s hypothesis with one taken from rational choice economics, thus explaining the subtitle of the book, “Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy” [emphasis added]. They do so to explain the observably greater success of more demanding, more supernatural, less ‘reasonable’ sects in recruiting and keeping members as opposed to the less demanding, more ‘reasonable’ mainstream churches. Stark’s and Finke’s explanation essentially hinges on the notion that more demanding religions actually offer greater rewards to their members.

According to Stark and Finke, organized religion is a collectively produced commodity. Its immediate, short-term rewards (aesthetic, psychological, even financial) are clearly greater when a member participates in a community of believers than when he or she sits alone in his or her room. Because the long-term metaphysical rewards of a religion (while potentially tremendous) are difficult to verify directly, the group plays another significant role. As with other difficult-to-verify rewards in life, the members of a religious organization rely on their group to validate both the existence and value of the long-term rewards.

However, this social aspect of religion is also problematic. Religion, like any collective activity, suffers from the free rider syndrome. In the religious context, ‘free riders’ refers to members of the congregation who show up only on holidays, never volunteer for any duties, use the facilities for weddings and funerals, and generally take far more than they give. The direct impact of their ‘exploitative’ behavior is less damaging, however, than the negative effect that their low level of commitment has on the esprit of the group. What are religions to do about free riders? In the words of Stark and Finke:

Costly demands offer a solution to the dilemma [of the free rider.] That is, the level of stigma and sacrifice demanded by religious groups will be positively associated with levels of member participation.

In other words, sectarian religions which operate at higher levels of tension with the general culture deliver more religious satisfaction to their members by making their participants sacrifice more and endure more stigma, all of which, by discouraging free-riding, raises the intensity of the group’s commitment and group’s esprit de corps.

It seems clear from the response of literary intellectuals in this ‘Catholic Revival’ that they hungered for a sectarian experience, rallying as they did to the still-established, anything-but-sectarian French Catholic Church simply because it had come under modest attack. But I suspect that many artists, like many other people in the world, craved a much higher-tension sectarian religious experience. Where could they have found it in the fairly arid world of 19th century French religion? They seemed to have looked for the satisfaction of their religious hunger in the art world and deliberately used ‘difficult’ creative strategies to raise the costs involved in consuming their art.

Look at the four Post-Impressionist masters—Gauguin, Cezanne, Seurat and Van Gogh—from whom virtually all subsequent Modern painting descended. All of them were well aware of the high degree of ‘sectarian’ tension that the Impressionists had aroused in the Parisian art world during the 1870s and 1880s. Several of them had experienced it directly as a result of participating in Impressionist group shows. It would have been hard for the Post-Impressionists to miss the fact that the novel painting techniques of their mentors (more intense color, broken paint, ‘off-kilter’ compositional strategies, etc.) amounted to demands on customers to make greater sacrifices and endure greater stigma in order to enjoy their art. While these greater demands no doubt prevented the casually interested from buying Impressionist canvases, they obviously increased the intensity of commitment among those who chose to become their customers. There is a reason, after all, why this small group of painters is hugely famous while the many thousands of their contemporaries in the Parisian art world have been long forgotten.

Then, during the 1880s, just as the tension between the Impressionists and society was diminishing, each of the Post-Impressionists chose to go beyond their mentors by introducing either formal or subject-matter strategies (or both) that re-established that tension.

G. Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-6

Seurat used his divisionism to make the innovative color strategies of the Impressionists far more unavoidable in his work; he also painted pictures in which social ‘invisibles’ such as the unemployed and prostitutes appeared in his pictures of urban bourgeois leisure.

P. Gauguin, After The Sermon, 1888; P. Gauguin, Yellow Christ, 1889

Gauguin introduced explicitly ‘unrealistic’ color into his work as well exotic yet unmistakeably religious subject matter.

V. Van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1889; V. Van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889

Van Gogh painted himself, his environment and nature in an expressionistic vision whose only precedents in art were religious (e.g., El Greco, Grunewald, etc.)

P. Cezanne, The Blue Vase, 1883-7; P. Cezanne, House and Farm at Jas de Bouffan, 1889

Most radically of all, Cezanne took many of the traits that were part of the Impressionists process-dominated approach to painting (broken brushwork, sometimes-ambiguous space, unusual compositions) and ‘pumped up the volume’ on all of these, resulting in paintings that made both his subjective experience of a subject and his development of a structural framework for presenting that experience highly explicit.

In all cases, the effect of these innovations was painting that suggested a heightened rather than a workaday perception of the world. To me at any rate, they strongly suggest an altered state of consciousness with distinctly religious overtones.

Certainly religion played a significant role in both the life and art of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne (I don’t know enough about Seurat’s personal life to hazard a guess.) Van Gogh was the son of a clergyman and had been a lay preacher in Belgium in an impoverished mining district before finding his vocation in art. Gauguin had received a seminary education, in part directly from the Bishop of Orleans, who had taught him to pursue active interior interrogations of angels, and to elicit a state of visionary release from the earthly world. Despite becoming a lapsed Catholic as an adult, Gauguin was still sufficiently exercised about his faith in Oceania to write a essay in his notebooks with the topic, “The Catholic Church and Modern Times.” Cezanne, of course, abandoned his youthful republican anti-clericalism and became deeply involved with the Catholic Revival through the intervention of his sister after he returned permanently to his boyhood home in the south of France. He often spoke of landscape painting as an attempt to interact with the Divinity when opining to his younger acolytes.

So my thesis is, in essence, that the ‘aridity’ of religion proper in late 19th century France prevented artists from meeting their religious needs directly in a highly demanding, sectarian religious context. As a result of witnessing the travails of the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists stumbled into the realization that the art world could serve as a substitute destination for those religious needs and feelings. Their work and ‘marketing’ strategies included the ‘ecstatic vision’ embodied in the work itself and in ‘difficult’ demands their art made on their ‘sectarian’ customers. I believe this religious model was internalized in subsequent schools of Modern painting and explains many of the elements that separate Modern art from its artistic predecessors.

I hope this illustrates some of the mechanisms involved in the religious-ification of secular institutions over the past 150 years.



posted by Friedrich at May 10, 2004


Um, er, Friederich, I uh, well it's like I kinda sorta think the scaffolding of your final points is pretty fragile.

Maybe it's because I'm a nearly-recovered sociologist that I get twitchy when I read hypotheses that go zipping back and forth between macro cultural/zeigeist/whatever phenomena and deeper areas of personal psychology or behavior.

Yes, it's POSSIBLE that the Church-that-would-really-rather-be-established-were-it-not-for-those-pesky-republicans combined with state-sponsored anticlericalism in some way might have pushed Cezanne, et al, into creating "difficult" art.

But there might be other, simpler explanations for their art.

If you do indeed decide to write a book on art (and I'd love to buy a copy) I think you need to try to find out what (if anything) the artists had to say about what they were trying to do. It would advance your case if there was a quote to the effect of "Yes, my art expresses my love of God and the wonder of the world He has allowed us to inhabit".

Autobiography often hides more than it reveals. But the Freudian-school alternative that manifest explanations are to be ignored doesn't hold water either, so think I. One ought to speculate on an artist's motivations and psychological state based on as much evidence as is practical to get.

In summary, your argument needs to be linked to more facts/information.

Interesting post, as usual. Keep them coming.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 10, 2004 8:45 PM

It takes courage to posit a theory setting forth the main factors that made modern art a religion, given the social complexities.
A major problem is that the priests who have both created and now maintain (guard) the cult of modern art are intellectuals. The actual makers, the artists, were/are not. They are thinkers, but not systemic thinkers.
Take Cezanne. A veritable industry has grown up explaining his purposes. It's almost impossible to see him through the theorizing. I personally don't buy into the notion that he purposely invented the precurser to cubism; that he was trying to combine multi-faceted views of an object in one image. The fact of the matter is that he was an extreme example of an artist with hardly any manual dexterity. This is not a putdown. With extraordinary tenacity he managed to build up an image made up of many near misses; an image that often had weight, even grandeur. But he didn't get there with a plan. He just desperately wanted to, as faithfully as possible, despite his innate clumsiness, get down the truth (the thereness) of what he saw in front of him. The only statement directly attributed to him was: "I want to make an art as solid as the art of the museums."
Cezanne had a vocation. That, in itself, is inherently religious. But turning him, Van Gogh, Gaugin, et al into sacred objects, was the work of intellectuals: a natural priest caste, that, lacking a religion, must create one where it will.

Posted by: ricpic on May 10, 2004 8:54 PM

Impressive, fun posting, thanks. I'm less optimistic than Donald is about finding much of use in what the artists said -- sigh, most artists I've known have been unbelievably clueless, or at least inarticulate, about their motivations and aims. But, also like Donald said, keep it coming.

Hey, I've got a brandnew theory about that whole "flatness of the picture plane" thing in light of our gabfests here about art, religion and modernism. Wanna hear it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 11, 2004 1:22 AM

great post freddy, though stark & finke's ideas seem a lot less relevant to europe than they do the united states, all sorts of social constraints seem to be preventing the proliferation of sects that the united states is known for. rather, 'new religious movements' are more prominent, probably because there aren't many sects all over the place.

Posted by: razib on May 11, 2004 2:46 AM

The intellectuals flew soaringly aloft on airy clouds of thought that turned art to a heavenly religion;
The artists fought below with obdurate materials and oft times felt themselves consign-ed to perdition.

Posted by: ricpic on May 11, 2004 7:57 AM

I never have much substance to add to these posts except to say I enjoy them.

But if artists were embracing more "difficult" art to create the us-against-them spirit that traditional religions had run short on, don't you think that the rise of "science" was involved, too, in gathering non-artists followers of their art? I.e., people stopped being motivated to believe "traditional" religious answers and moved their esprit de corps instincts into a more secular vacuum?

Posted by: annette on May 14, 2004 6:47 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?