Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Divorce of Art and Religion / Chewing the Cud

One of the many reasons I decided to study art was how difficult the questions were. Few people agree on anything when it comes to art. It might be the only area more contentious than ethics. Among these questions, there are two, closely related issues that often provoke... discussion. One is the relationship between morality and art, and the other is how does art effect culture.

Some people will vehemently (perhaps this is you) defend that art has nothing to do with morality. I'm reminded of the quote from Oscar Wilde's preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." Now, I think this is a dangerous position to hold, but I understand what this person is protecting. Generally, when you defend that art has no connection to morality, you've encountered one of two things, maybe both. Either you were told that a book that had moved you was a pagan piece of garbage because it contained some mature elements, or you were subjected to some hideous painting, movie, or song that was acclaimed because it taught good morals. For example...

While this whole discussion could become messy, to give a simple answer, I would argue that art has at least some connection with morality. Whenever we start using words like ought or should, we're often treading on ethical ground. Any discussion of banned books is a great example of how art and morality do interact. Children shouldn't be reading Catcher in the Rye. It's wrong to censor or ban art. Art has tremendous social impact, but those who argue against its social and moral effects do so because most attempts to explain these effects ends up diminishing what art is all about. At this point, I should tell you what art is all about, but I don't know that I can. While most people would agree that art teaches some form of truth, they would be hard-pressed to explain why art's truth is different from say, a sermon, and why that difference is important.

In "The Relevance of the Beautiful," Hans-Georg Gadamer discusses the origins of art as worship. When we look back at the Greeks, we often look at their statues and their architecture as works of art, but this misses
their original function as objects made for worship. The same could be said for the various works of the Renaissance. With the rise of aesthetics in the early 18th century, the study of art moved from its obvious social function in worship (or veneration, like the portraits of kings) and focused on man's reaction to art (Aesthetics is technically the study of sensation).

While I can give little in the way of a definitive answer, I think this contentious relationship between art and morality (or art and culture) arose from this movement from worship to sensation. At one time, art had both a social function and a sphere of operations that was greater than man himself. As someone who still worships a real, personal God, I see no reason why we couldn't retrieve this view. But what do you think? Is it possible or right to view art as a social object, an object meant to aid worship?


I'm indebted to Gadamer's The Relevance of the Beautiful for much of this discussion. I also found two essays in The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics to be helpful, Noel Carroll's "Art and the Moral Realm" and Paul Guyer's "The Origins of Modern Aesthetics."

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