30 Aug

Camille Paglia: Only Religion Can Save the Arts

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 08/30/07

Since the publication of the book that made her a celebrity intellectual, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990), Camille Paglia has been focusing attention on connections within the fabric of Western culture that are often ignored or denied. This has earned her a bundle of suspicion from across the political and ideological spectrum. So, for example, when she writes that "the route to a renaissance of the American fine arts lies through religion," she will no doubt frighten leaders in the arts while flummoxing many American religious leaders, who can't imagine why we ought to bother reviving the fine arts.

Paglia's assertion launched an article entitled "Religion and the Arts in America" in the Spring/Summer 2007 issue of the journal Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics (published at Boston University). The bulk of the article is a whirlwind survey of the history of the contentious if sometimes fertile relationship between religion (mostly Christianity) and the arts in America since the Puritans, with sections on literature, the visual arts, and music. Noting that the art world and the Church world virtually ignored each other for most of the twentieth century, she then discusses the "culture wars" episodes of conflict in the 1980s and 90s (the Mapplethorpe controversy, etc.), most of which were about morality, not art or religion. Looking ahead, Paglia writes (in the final three paragraphs):

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. 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.

Posted by Ken Myers on 8/31/07"