Chapter Five: Can art be a religion?
Review of Chapter 5 in What Good are the Arts? by John Carey. Transpositions is hosting reviews of each chapter of this book from 28 March – 3 April 2011.
In the fifth chapter of his book, Carey evaluates the relationship of art to religion, particularly whether art can be considered a religion or play a religious role. Ultimately, Carey argues against this notion. In order to make his case, he gives a brief history lesson on aesthetic theory. Considering art as a religion itself is an issue traceable to the mid-eighteenth century. Before this, he says, “art was, at best, religion’s handmade.” (135) But rather than art serving religious purposes such as aiding worship or teaching, art began to be understood as the highest human activity, surpassing conventional religion and becoming a religion in itself. Here, Casey criticizes thinkers such as William Blake, John Ruskin, Wassily Kandinsky, and Clive Bell, who all quite clearly elevate the role of art above its former place.
But how could art be considered a religion? Carey considers several different perspectives. First, he says, “Turning art into a religion often carries with it the assumption that there is a higher morality of art, distinct from conventional morality.” (136) This does not mean that art engenders morality in its viewers, but that art becomes moral in itself. According to John Ruskin, taste is not only an index of morality, but is, in itself, the only morality. Aesthetic taste, in this case, becomes a measure of religious truth. Carey disagrees, pointing out that we cannot connect taste and morality since this would mean that evils such as murder would imply merely a lack of taste, or that a person with bad taste is immoral even if they have done nothing else wrong. Second, artists were elevated above the rest of society and credited with divine power, genius, and prophetic gifts. The artist, then, is compared to a religious figure. But this, Carey, says, devalues ordinary people, especially those who are inartistic or lack appropriate taste. He notes here that Hitler held a very high view of art as religion but, in his same worldview, people were expendable. And finally, Carey quotes George Steiner who argues for the immortality of art. “Culture is religious, he explains, because the artist or writer aims at immortality.”Carey perceives this idea as “childish and self-deceiving.” (149) Furthermore, he relates Steiner’s view with that of Hitler’s: if endurance or “immortality” of art is stressed, it compromises a proper view of the ordinary person by replacing it with a glorified artist or artistic object.
Art, then, is a poor religion according to Carey, and it bears no resemblance to actual religion, especially Christianity, to which is it often paired. “As a religion,” he gathers, “art is simply an idolatrous fake.” (151) Carey, however, seeks to save art from its entanglement with religion by offering a rather different perspective on its role. Rather than preserving a theory that considers art a religion and devalues ordinary people in favor of the enlightened individual artist, Carey believes art should be more communally driven and actively understood as a process of making that engages the common person. At this juncture he interacts with the writing of Ellen Dissanyake, who asserts a broader view on the function of art. Particularly, he is interested in how “active participation in art alters people.” (158) As an example, he cites a study of arts programs in prisons and the effect that making art had on prison inmates. It was not just looking at art that had an effect, but actively participating in it that altered the attitudes and actions of the inmates.
Art should, he argues, be a communal affair, not relegated to the upper echelons of society. As it has been typically understood, “The religion of art makes people worse, because it encourages contempt for those considered unartistic. We now know that it can foster hideous and earth-shattering evil. It is time we gave active art a chance to make us better.” (167) While Carey argued in the last chapter that art could not make us better, here he provides an alternative view of art that opens up that very possibility. Individualized, high art set on a pedestal cannot make us better; but an art focused on the community’s active participation and engagement with physical materials can engender us to become better people.
He makes no conclusions, however, about whether the process of making art can be considered a religious activity. While the modern notion of art as a religion is clearly flawed, do you think art can still be considered religious, particularly in light of what Carey says about the effect of actively engaging with materials? As Christians, can we draw any religious conclusions from Carey’s argument for a communally driven “active art”?