Friday, July 30, 2010

Ending the divorce: reconciling religion and art (Sunday Reflections for August 1, 2010)

Lascaux cave painting
Religion and art seem to have existed side-by-side right from their pre-historic beginnings. Perhaps the most famous example is the Lascaux cave paintings in France, estimated to be 17,000 years old. Scholars agree that the paintings (of animals, humans, and abstract designs) are not mere decoration but probably relate to rituals conducted in the caves. Similar works can be found throughout the world.

Much of what we know about ancient religion is based on the art works left behind. Prior to written languages, or where few religious texts have survived, historians often have only ritual artifacts and temple decoration to reconstruct what religion was for our ancestors. Moving forward we continue to find artists’ talents used through the centuries by the world’s religions, sometimes almost exclusively.

The history of Christianity is no exception. Religious artwork from the church’s earliest beginnings can be found in Roman catacombs, including pictures of Jesus and the disciples and of rituals like baptism and the Eucharist. For over a thousand years, paintings, icons, statues, tapestries, and stained glass were all used in worship and in the education of a predominantly illiterate population.

All these in conjunction with architecture created spaces, not unlike the Lascaux caves, which facilitated Christian religious experience. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the medieval cathedral existed to give people an experience of God and heaven in the here and now—as the liturgy says, “A foretaste of the feast to come.” Passing through their doors, one stepped into another world.

Beauvais Cathedral
All this changed dramatically with the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and the upheaval of the Reformation. At this time, of course, artistic talent exploded and initially the church was a great beneficiary—think Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. It wasn’t long, however, before artists’ relationship with the church began to sour.

The most extreme case was the iconoclasm of the Calvinist Reformation. In Switzerland, Britain and elsewhere, worship purists ransacked churches breaking stained glass windows and statuary. (Lutherans generally avoided such fanaticism). The bigger problem, however, was that artists were experiencing church patronage as a straightjacket. After focusing for centuries almost entirely on religious subjects, artists’ new abilities to render things much more realistically (as with the development of perspective) suddenly made them aware of a world teeming with fascinating subjects for their work.

This was part of the Renaissance and Enlightenment earthquake in how people viewed the world and experienced life. For most medieval people life was indeed a “veil of tears.” People endured life as a series of travails, usually mercifully short. Most people’s focus was on the promised after-life which would surely be better than this one.

From the 15th century on, however, merchants, artists, scientists, philosophers and others began finding this life to be much more rewarding and interesting. Artists’ fascination with the real world put them out-of-step with the church, which wanted people to pay more attention to the next world. And the church’s concern was well-placed, for the modern era was characterized by a relentless shift of people’s attention away from theology and piety to the matters of everyday living.

Brueghel "Peasant Dance"
Instead of simply being the stage for human foibles and suffering, the world became a place of fascination and even beauty and artists led the way in opening people’s eyes to this new reality. Or rather, they re-opened people’s eyes to an old truth and reality. For one of the things we are learning from the study of ancient and pre-historic religion, as well as that of indigenous peoples, is that for them the world in which they lived was not “the enemy.”

Most religions, in fact, have understood the world to be a source of great blessing; a gift from the gods. Such an attitude actually can be found easily in the Bible, especially in the creation story of Genesis 1. In the chaos of the crumbling Roman Empire and the church’s lust for power, Christianity gradually suppressed people’s valuation of the world and of their own daily lives, with countless unfortunate consequences.

I was made aware again of art’s ability to help me see the world around me during my recent stay in Santa Fe NM and as I strolled through its many galleries. I’ve written previously about those galleries being spiritual spaces. Due to the nearly perfect weather on this visit, I was especially able to experience how art can make us aware of the world that is so easy to take for granted and ignore. Landscapes and reproductions of natural phenomena do this but so do abstract art works.

Often off-putting in a city gallery or museum, the natural inspiration for many abstract art pieces become more obvious in the brilliant and spare high-desert environment of northern New Mexico. More importantly, their shapes, colors, and “feel” lead you to re-examine and appreciate things you’ve taken for granted. On several occasions I was stopped by a natural image—a cloud, plant, rock formation—realizing I had “seen” it previously in a piece of art. I also realized that experiencing the art’s shapes or whirl of colors had prepared my mind’s eye to see this aspect of the world, which in the past I would likely have missed or ignored.

Georgia O'Keefe in New Mexico
Centuries of other-worldliness have left the church and art far apart. Not coincidentally it has also left the church largely irrelevant to the lives of most people. Popular culture has become the place where people turn to help make sense of their lives and of the world: art, books, plays, music, movies, and TV.

In recent times, the church has struggled to recreate its role as the place people come to find meaning for their lives here-and-now. It’s been hard letting go of all that by-and-by stuff and it’s been hard finding a real connecting point with people. By recently experiencing art and artists more directly, I have been struck by how much they communicate in what is still thought of as religious or spiritual language and symbols. Their concern is with values, beauty, order, meaning, transcendence, and with what diminishes or hurts those things. In a conversation this week with an artist who was hanging her work in my local Starbucks, she told me “I try to convey in my work peace and harmony.” Buddha or Jesus could have said the same.

The divorce between religion and art, in Western culture at least, has gone on far too long and is unnatural. It’s time for a reconciliation and for a recognition of the common purpose they share. Art sometimes struggles to connect with a popular audience who often lack a context in which to understand and appreciate its work. The church struggles to reconnect with people’s everyday world and lives. Art and religion could both benefit from renewing their ancient alliance. It seems like a match made—not in heaven—but right here on earth.

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