Profaning iconography is dead
Here’s the conclusion to Camille Paglia’s exploration of “what is wrong with the arts today.” It’s taken from a journal called Arion:
Supporters of the arts who gleefully cheer when a religious symbol is maltreated act as if that response authenticates their avant-garde credentials. But here’s the bad news: the avant-garde is dead. It was killed over forty years ago by Pop Art and by one of my heroes, Andy Warhol, a decadent Catholic. The era of vigorous oppositional art inaugurated two hundred years ago by Romanticism is long gone. The controversies over Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Chris Ofili were just fading sparks of an old cause. It is presumptuous and even delusional to imagine that goading a squawk out of the Catholic League permits anyone to borrow the glory of the great avant-garde rebels of the past, whose transgressions were personally costly. It’s time to move on.For the fine arts to revive, they must recover their spiritual center. Profaning the iconography of other people’s faiths is boring and adolescent. The New Age movement, to which I belong, was a distillation of the 1960s’ multicultural attraction to world religions, but it has failed thus far to produce important work in the visual arts.1 The search for spiritual meaning has been registering in popular culture instead through science fiction, as in George Lucas’ six-film Star Wars saga, with its evocative master myth of the “Force.” But technology for its own sake is never enough. It will always require supplementation through cultivation in the arts.To fully appreciate world art, one must learn how to respond to religious expression in all its forms. Art began as religion in prehistory. It does not require belief to be moved by a sacred shrine, icon, or scripture. Hence art lovers, even when as citizens they stoutly defend democratic institutions against religious intrusion, should always speak with respect of religion. Conservatives, on the other hand, need to expand their parched and narrow view of culture. Every vibrant civilization welcomes and nurtures the arts.Progressives must start recognizing the spiritual poverty of contemporary secular humanism and reexamine the way that liberalism too often now automatically defines human aspiration and human happiness in reductively economic terms. If conservatives are serious about educational standards, they must support the teaching of art history in primary school—which means conservatives have to get over their phobia about the nude, which has been a symbol of Western art and Western individualism and freedom since the Greeks invented democracy. Without compromise, we are heading for a soulless future. But when set against the vast historical panorama, religion and art—whether in marriage or divorce—can reinvigorate American culture.
Aside from the silly bit about Star Wars, her point is one I agree with wholeheartedly. The entire essay is good reading, running down how art and religion have interacted in the west since the Reformation. I find that since I’ve taken religion more seriously, my response and my understading of the arts has deepened. These are deeply human issues to work through.