Thursday, August 02, 2007

Culture and the Soul

In Arion, Camille Paglia makes an argument that she has made dozens of times before:

"I would argue that the route to a renaissance of the American fine arts lies through religion. Let me make my premises clear: I am a professed atheist and a pro-choice libertarian Democrat. But based on my college experiences in the 1960s, when interest in Hinduism and Buddhism was intense, I have been calling for nearly two decades for massive educational reform that would put the study of comparative religion at the center of the university curriculum. Though I shared the exasperation of my generation with the moralism and prudery of organized religion, I view each world religion, including Judeo-Christianity and Islam, as a complex symbol system, a metaphysical lens through which we can see the vastness and sublimity of the universe."

It's worth sharing though because it's an issue that has been on my mind quite a bit lately. The decline of culture has been an ongoing concern here. I've wondered: is culture in decline because it has been severed from religious concerns? One of my ongoing hobbies is a History of Western Culture that I've been writing at night. I plan to have it completed when I'm 65. At any rate, when Western Culture is looked at à la longue vue, it's hard not to notice that it used to be an expression of religious searching (and not necessarily 'Judeo-Christian' either; I'm starting at about 5,000 BCE). The soul, and death; good and evil; the nature of God- all of these things were actively discussed in art and literature. This seemingly lasted until about the nineteenth century when the case was closed- God is dead. But when you walk through great cathedrals of Europe, it's hard not to wonder if the ongoing diminution of culture isn't happening because current art is just a vestigial survival of long-gone spiritual concerns. It's hard to think of any great artists who are concerned with the soul today, which is odd because that's where art and beauty resonate.

So, here are a few reasons that I, an old atheist, have been thinking about this:

1. When we get past the knee-jerk associations of religion with the Crusades or the Inquisition or dogma, it's hard not to recognize that, if human beings created religion, it's one of the most complex and beautiful works of art that they ever created.

2. Many of my heroes- Kierkegaard, Blake, Aldous Huxley, Madame de Staël, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Anger- were spiritual searchers. They weren't really dogmatic believers or non-believers; but they were all, in some sense, trying to see the face of God, as the Sufis put it. I've always been interested in spiritual searches that could be categorized as gnosticism or mysticism. It's worth noting how few of them were spiritual in the Judeo-Christian mode. But, it's also worth noting how few of my heroes were convinced that God is dead. And, as Paglia has also pointed out again and again, the sixties culture wasn't remotely secular, in spite of what the conservatives would have us believe. Throughout history, spirituality has been radical more often than it has been authoritarian.

3. There seems to be a gap now in the west- religious art is mosty kitsch, and gallery art rarely deals with the soul or the hereafter. It's hard not to feel that an exhibit of someone's dirty bedroom (which I've seen three different artists do now!) is a diminishment. But exposing yourself to a steady diet of banality seems somehow mind-contracting as well. It's not good for you, is it?

So, should Western artists re-open the case file on the soul? Should they go back to looking for the face of God?


Holly said...

Are you counting the Japanese guy who built a glass apartment in the public square?

I have also marveled at the vast realm of spiritually-inspired excellence. Every realm of the arts has it, even clothing design (vestments, anyone??). There is no getting around the fact that, if you believe something bigger and more magnificent than you is guiding you, and that you are working to be worthy of THAT, you're going to push yourself a little harder than if you believe you're working to impress, say, your parents, which (shite parents aside) is basically the gold standard for earthly measures. While we worship our parents in a way, we also believe ourselves to be better than them. Believing in Something Bigger is very, very motivating, no matter how it's defined or executed.

The secularism has certainly opened up a LOT of space for science, technological, and social developments, but it's a very poor substitute for the motivations of religion. Technology's role in society, in particular, tends to make us feel small, often helpless or powerless, and frequently it seems as though new technology is pursued for it's own sake, or for the sake of staying ahead of The Other Guy. The very early days of Christianity certainly had that aspect to it, but I think a lot of that was hidden from the rank & file, so it wasn't felt as clearly as it is now. Now, we read an article about, say, a technological development specifically for cleaning up after the detonation of a dirty bomb, we are forced to consider the horrifying possibility that we're actually researching solutions to problems we haven't actually got yet. That's a fairly frightening flavor of omnipotence, and I don't really expect that the best efforts of human expression are likely to arise from naked fear. Fear is too primal to lead to good architecture, for instance.

Rufus said...

You should post some of this stuff- your comments are better than my posts!

I haven't seen the glass apartment, but it sounds great.

I think there's a possibility of making art about death or love, which are probably bigger than most of us. But, I don't even see that very often. Lately, I've been seeing a lot of art that focuses on the self. But without anything larger to anchor it to, there's no basis for the self either- it slips in all directions. Even that would be an interesting subject though. It's hard for me to imagine sublime or beautiful art with a political theme either. And 'transgression' isn't interesting when there's nothing left to transgress.

Technology is certainly a fascinating topic as well. It can be wonderous, but it's also hard to tell what it's driven by anymore. Also, I've noticed that people treat all technologies as equally inevitable, with little thought as to whether or not they add to the quality of life.

Holly said...

My mistake, Chinese performance artists, two of them, living in a glass house in Beijing. I believe they're trying to make a comment/study of life for couples, although they may not actually be a couple. Something about privacy, lack of, both inside and outside a relationship.

Many people are afraid of tackling death and love. Especially together. Personally, I'd love to do a coffee table book about hospice patients and their care givers. People who are confronted by mortality at some length tend to be very philosophical, and the equipment of long term medical care is both repellent and a little fetishy, in the talismanic way... This is the tube that feeds me, that is the needle that keeps the pain away... It's certainly very intimate, anyway.

I do post things; just not always here. Usually here, and sometimes here. In the second case, things with a picture of an iris are me. In the first case, really incriminating/personal stuff is set to friends-only, but that's usually things like upcoming travel plans.

... but really, I'm better in a conversational context (ie, replying to someone else's post) because while I might have lots of thoughts on things, I don't always have the wherewithal to get the ducks in a row to talk about it.

Holly said...

Forgot to say, there are fascinating uses of technology applied to art, but it's often difficult to see if there's a comment about something there, or if it's just a variation on the idea of making pictures of snowflakes. For instance, I saw a postcard from an exhibition at a museum in Los Angeles that apparently used some kind of ferro-magnetic fluid, and it was controlled by the ambient noise in the room, it formed fan-freaking-tastic wave forms. So, one person looking alone, quietly would see a TOTALLY different "sculpture" than a group of school kids talking loudly and running around.

... but it wasn't clear at all that the artist was thinking about what that meant. It really seemed like he was just doing show and tell. Other artists have worked with it, and have maybe thought about it, but I suspect it's not catching on with the popular art world because it lacks that spirituality. It reeks of technological shallowness, as it is now. (I think. What the hell do I know??)

Rufus said...

I think it does have to resonate somehow- I thought the video was the coolest thing I've seen in a while. But, after I saw it, I didn't think much about it, other than that I'd like to show it to Claire.