Art, religion and subversion

My last post, about infrahumanisation, included the remark that religious leaders ‘can draw on well-established moral traditions to resist the political and economic agendas of governing classes’. A similar point is made by Giles Fraser in his recent Guardian column, where he links religion with art:

“The power of art,” says Marcuse, “lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality.” My fascination with religion is its ability to do precisely the same. That it is able to suggest there is more to reality than the flat-footed empiricism of those who believe that if you can’t count it, touch it or weigh it, it doesn’t exist. In an age where religion has made itself look so foolish, art carries the torch for the sort of transcendence that art and faith once shared.

It is easy to see the faults of other societies, from the past or other parts of the world. We can laugh at, or be horrified by, the militarism of Sparta or Attila or the feudal hierarchies of medieval Europe, and two of the three ideologies of social engineering which dominated the twentieth century: fascism and communism. Yet the third still dominates us, so most of us do not have the tools to stand outside it and see how ideological it is. We tend to think of it as ‘normal’ or ‘common sense’.

It is too easy to call it ‘capitalism’. Capitalism, whether defined narrowly or broadly, is a particular type of economic system. Fraser’s critique is more wide-ranging. We cannot measure the whole of reality; we can only measure some bits of it. All economic theories are based on measurements, so they leave out the greater part of what human life is about. It is their excessive faith in measurement which leads governments to exaggerate the potential of economics. Increasingly, they think that by gathering statistics they will know what to do. One side-effect is that all the decisions should be made by those with access to the statistics; so we end up with the people at the top making more and more of the decisions and everybody else being micromanaged, forbidden to make their own judgements. Compared with German fascism and Russian communism, western capitalism has been more successful and gives more freedom to many people; but it is still a type of social engineering and since 2008 it has become increasingly oppressive. (For some, of course, it already was.)

Precisely because it is human nature to take for granted our own culture, most of us find it difficult to see what is wrong with it. All the more reason for valuing people who can see things differently.

Such people, if they are to influence society, need two things. Firstly they need to be permitted to voice their concerns – not arrested or tortured, as happens in some places. Secondly they need to be respected. Individual social critics can be rubbished as nutters and may not have the means to disseminate their ideas. To be effective they need a publicly recognised social role, or to be part of a publicly recognised movement. Amos and John the Baptist had a publicly recognised role as prophets.

Art and religion both offer social critics a role. Religious traditions have at their core the attempt to explain reality: who made us and for what purpose. They therefore have a theoretical basis from which to judge the good and bad aspects of any one culture. Today, however, this role for religious traditions is often suppressed in the interests of dogmatic appeals to some kind of divine revelation. Such appeals, whether Barthian, Roman Catholic or fundamentalist, can and often do offer social critiques; but precisely because they are based on dogmatic appeals to divine revelation they can only convince those who have bought into them. Their influence is therefore strictly limited.

Art does not, as such, develop traditions of social critique. Instead it encourages creativity by individuals, and some individuals use it to draw attention to features of society which need to be questioned. I do not have any expertise in aesthetics, but it seems to me quite common. At its most basic, every time someone paints a landscape and deliberately leaves out the electricity pylons, they are making a statement about what looks good and perhaps – even unconsciously – about the way they think things should be. Are there less ugly ways to provide electricity, and how much extra is it worth paying? Who pays for whose inconvenience? Is the human preference for pylon-free fields just an accident of evolution which will decline in a few thousand years, or does it point to some truth about reality? Many artists, of course, go much further than this and deliberately create works which draw attention to some questionable aspect of society.

It is not just artists who can raise the questions, but they have their distinctive methods and often can raise them better than anyone else. I do not, however, think art can ever replace religion in this respect. Artistic social critiques are produced by individuals; traditions of art are not themselves founded on theories about the way things ought to be. Religious traditions, in their normal state, are: it’s just that religion isn’t in a normal state these days. I keep hoping it will get better soon.

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