[Reflections] On Art and Religious Experience

Louis Candide Boulanger, “King Lear and His Madman During the Storm” (1836)

Alasdair MacIntyre opens After Virtue with what he calls a “disquieting suggestion.” He invites us to imagine a civilizational cataclysm that leads to the destruction of science as we know it. Scientists are executed, laboratories are destroyed, scientific texts are burned. From this wreckage, later generations try to revive what they understand to be science. But they no longer have the method or framework that gave scientific research its coherence. “Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid.” People use words like “neutrino” and “catalyst” differently and quarrel over the differences, while others see these rival usages as arbitrary and say the whole thing is subjective anyway.

This fantastical scenario, says MacIntyre, is the actual predicament of modern ethics. We inherited our ethical discourse from the Greeks—MacIntyre makes Aristotle the central figure in this part of the story—but we’ve since lost the teleological framework that gave this discourse its sense. Modern moral philosophy, stripped of that framework, is little more than incoherent babbling.

I think there’s a similar story to be told about the philosophy of art, especially in analytic aesthetics. I find a lot of what I read to be interesting, thoughtful, engaging, even insightful. But I also can’t help but think there’s a gaping hole at the heart of a lot of contemporary writing in aesthetics. Too much of it lacks anything one might describe as religious feeling.

This sneaking suspicion—and the MacIntyre analogy—first occurred to me several years ago when I taught a course on aesthetics at Hunter College. One of my goals in constructing the syllabus was to provide a global perspective, so I looked at a number of texts from Asian and African traditions. Taking in this broader perspective, I was struck by the fact that, pretty much universally, the thing we call “art” has its origins in religious or spiritual practices. Indian rasa aesthetics makes the aesthetic savouring of emotion a part of spiritual cultivation. Aesthetic theories in Buddhist cultures, from Sri Lanka to Japan, outline aesthetic techniques that are meant to disenchant us with the world of sights and sounds and spur us toward our liberation. The masks of West African, Melanesian, and Pacific Northwest cultures all have their origins in ritual and ceremony. You find a connection to religious practice at the foundations of European art as well. Greek tragedy, for instance, originates in a festival for the god Dionysus.

I was teaching this course in New York City, at a time when I was making regular visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I challenge you to find a room of pre-modern art in the Met where spiritual practice isn’t the focus. Sure, there’s plenty of pre-modern art that shows off the wealth and might of great kings but those kings tend to buttress their claims to authority by appealing to a divine mandate.

This isn’t to say that art is in some sense essentially religious or that any art that isn’t religious (e.g. most modern art) is somehow missing the point. It’s rather that we miss a crucial dimension of aesthetic experience if we don’t think about its spiritual power. Saying you love art but have no interest in religion is like saying you love EDM but have no interest in dancing.

It’s this spiritual dimension that I feel is missing from so much contemporary philosophical work in aesthetics. Consider the literature on the intersection of aesthetics and ethics. Typical questions include whether and in what way artworks are or should be morally edifying, what if any kind of knowledge such artworks can convey, and whether an ethical defect in a work is also and thereby an aesthetic defect. The core question here is whether and in what way art can make us “better” people. A little too often, being a better person in this context seems mostly to be a matter of behaving decently and not joining the Nazi Party. But even a more sophisticated ethical reading—I’m thinking of someone like Martha Nussbaum here—risks missing something important.

Consider how far an “ethical” reading of King Lear might get us. If you end up with a set of cozy life lessons about familial love and ageing gracefully, you aren’t paying attention to the play. But even a subtler approach misses something so long as its focus is principally ethical and hence concerned with the ways the individual characters deal with one another. What it misses is that these interpersonal relations unfold in a world where our relation to the gods is likened to that of “flies unto wanton boys,” where a man is seen as a “poor, bare, forked animal,” where the deftest master of iambic pentameter in English literature gives over a line of verse to a single repeated word: “Never, never, never, never, never.” This play isn’t giving you some tips on how to handle your aged parents better. It’s trying to radically adjust your understanding of your place in the universe. The messed up family stuff is a consequence of the characters in the play failing to make that adjustment, or making it too late.

King Lear is set in pre-Christian Britain and it isn’t a religious play in any obvious sense. But it evokes a world that is so much bigger and more inscrutable than the human squabbling that takes place within it. King Lear may be a particularly easy case for making this point, but every artwork in some way evokes a world that is more than the sum of its human parts (music and painting evoke worlds just as much as fiction). And in connecting with that world we connect with a kind of significance that escapes strictly moral accounting.

In a modern, secular setting, we’ve lost a common vocabulary for talking about this stuff. That makes it harder to do, but you find attempts in thinkers as different as Iris Murdoch and Martin Heidegger. And in thinkers who don’t even try, I can’t help but feel that something very important is missing.

There’s a puzzle about aesthetic emotions concerning the relation between our responses to fiction and our responses to real events. I feel fear of a kind when I watch a crime thriller but it’s a different kind of fear from when I myself am a potential victim of a violent crime. And so there’s talk of fictional fear, fictional sorrow, fictional joy, and so on. Art also evokes emotions of reverence and awe, and in these cases there’s nothing fictional about it. I don’t feel “fictional awe” when watching King Lear. I feel awe in its purest form. That these emotions—I want to call them something like “spiritual emotions”—are such natural responses to art hints at art’s origins in religious practice. When we neglect them, our aesthetic responses are impoverished and shallow.

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