Thursday, 16 June 2011

Art of the Day

Krishna and Radha in a Pavilion
National Museum, New Delhi
If you use iGoogle, you can install a gadget called 'Art of the Day'. Every few minutes throughout the day, a different work of art appears in a box on your homepage.

It strikes me how many of these paintings have religious themes. In this most secularised of cultures, how can people relate to such art if they don't know the stories and the meanings behind them - if they can't see beyond the layers of pigment and colour to detect the shimmer of grace within?

There are many influential secularists who argue against teaching theology and religious studies in schools and universities. These subjects are not included in the new English Baccalaureate (read the discussion in the House of Lords here), and they certainly don't feature in the curriculum of AC Grayling's new university (see the discussion in The New Humanist). In an interview with the London Standard, Grayling acknowledges the atheist slant of those involved with his New College of the Humanities, but by way of justification he suggests that 'a higher education institution exists to teach how to think, not what to think. So the fact that there are a bunch of atheists involved in this doesn't mean anything.' Grayling, who likens faith in God to a belief in fairies, goes on to claim that 'people who do not unthinkingly adopt the religion of their culture, which 99 per cent of people do, are under a special duty to think harder about ethical questions'.

Filippo Lippi
Tobias and the Angel (1475-1480)
Would you trust somebody to educate you in the Humanities, if they showed such arrogance towards their religious counterparts, and such indifference with regard to what people of faith have contributed to the Humanities (philosophers and scientists as well as artists, musicians and writers)? Potential applicants beware - you might emerge from such a university with your head crammed with facts and your pockets emptied of cash, but along the way you will be shorn of wisdom.

A certain kind of consumerism is parasitic upon a certain kind of atheism. Read Thomas Aquinas or Jacques Lacan, and you'll see why the refusal to acknowledge our desire for God sets up in us an addictive and insatiable desire to possess and consume everything around us - from commodities to people - because nothing satisfies that God-shaped absence within. Our deepest and most restless desire is the compass needle which points to the true north of human existence, the homecoming we anticipate at the end of time, the eternal joy of a divine union beyond all the transient and fragile joys of mortal life. To ignore this yearning, to refuse to allow our lives to be drawn towards that mystery of desire, is to enslave ourselves to the fury of frustrated desires which consume everything - even ourselves. True happiness and a capacity to fully enjoy the world's goodness depends upon that wisdom which comes from understanding the nature of desire.
Madonna di Loreto (1604-1606)

In Grayling's reactionary and conservative academic adventure, we see the perfect marriage of atheism and capitalist consumerism, a marriage whose offspring are ideally suited to a political ideology which requires avaricious and consumptive citizens who know 'the cost of everything and the value of nothing'. Marx was right about most things, but he was wrong about religion. Marxists such as Slavov Zizek, Alain Badiou and Terry Eagleton recognize that only a revived Christianity might have the resources to challenge the global tyranny of neo-liberal capitalism, but don't expect any of them to be on Grayling's curriculum either. (You can read Eagleton's damning indictment of Grayling and his 'money-grubbing dons' here).

George Steiner, literary critic and agnostic Jew, writes that great art is ‘touched by the fear and ice of God’, whether that arises from a sense of the presence of God or, in our own time, from the ‘overwhelming weight’ of the absence of God. Steiner writes,  
where God’s presence is no longer a tenable supposition and where His absence is no longer a felt, indeed overwhelming weight, certain dimensions of thought and creativity are no longer attainable. ... It is only when the question of the existence or non-existence of God will have lost all actuality, it is only when, as logical positivism teaches, it will have been recognized and felt to be strictly nonsensical, that we shall inhabit a scientific-secular world. Educated opinion has, to a greater or lesser degree, entered upon this new freedom. For it, emptiness is precisely and only that.
Peter Fuller, the atheist art critic who acknowledged a debt to Steiner, similarly insists that art is only possible before an open horizon of transcendent possibility. He writes of the ‘palpable and yet mysterious presence of art itself’ and of the crisis created for art and cultural life by the experience described in Matthew Arnold’s poem of ‘the long-withdrawing roar' of 'the Sea of Faith' and the exposure of 'the naked shingles of the world’.  

So, enjoy the pictures on this page, all of which have recently appeared on 'Art of the Day', but if you want to know what they mean, don't for heaven's sake go to Grayling's university.

(To read more on this theme, please see my paper 'Cathedral and the Visual Arts', and Chapter 8 of my book, The New Atheists).

Filippo Lippi
Annunciation (c.1443-1450)


  1. Certainly there is an arrogance in the approach of Grayling & Co. to questions of faith and religion. But it is also born of ignorance, which one might almost think willed, if it were not that these men (and they are nearly all men) are most ignorant of their own limitations. So if charitable one might suppose them ignorant of their own ignorance. (But since so many have so often drawn attention to their ignorance, we may have to admit that they are obstinately, incorrigibly ignorant.) But that aside, one might hesitate to make any kind of simple link between atheism and capitalism, if only because there are both different kinds of atheism and forms of religion that are capitalist and consumerist. There are surely non-theistic philosophies and ways of life that are ascetic, nurturing dispossession and concern for the other, for the mystery that is the gift of life.

  2. @ngplYes, thank you for qualifying my comment re the relationship between atheism and consumerism. It's why I said 'a certain type of atheism', but of course certain forms of religion are highly complicit in promoting certain forms of capitalism as well. So Marx wasn't entirely wrong about religion - just not subtle enough in his analysis.

    (And thank you for a thoughtful comment which really does contribute to a debate).

    Best wishes,

  3. Hi Tina, the picture is of Krishna and Radha from the National Museum, New Delhi by that prolific artist 'unknown'.

    Most of these types of Google 'Gadgets' use art that is in the public domain and out of copyright, this may help to explain the 'choice' of images. Or else the gadgets are made by companies that want to sell you a reproduction of a 'randomly' chosen image e.g.

    Marx did fail to see the rise of marketing and the ability to create an artificial 'need' to sell things and ideas that aren't necessary and may be harmful - whether it be the latest gizmo, the politics of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, a beautiful painting, a religious moral, or an expensive education.

    I hope to get over to the UK in August, if you're around I'll try to swing by the river.

    Cheers, John

  4. @John LoughlinThank you very much for this John. I did wonder about the choice of images, but realize they must be random selections from Wikipedia.

    Having just re-read Marx's On the Jewish Question, I think one phenomenon he anticipated brilliantly was the proliferation of American Christian groups.

    Do come and feed the ducks in August.

    All the best,

  5. I have been asked a question that your archive might help me answer. I raise it now as I notice your comment refers to Marx's On the Jewish Question.
    I have typed the name into the blog archive but, of course, it does not give me access to the detailed content of the material you have uploaded.

    The Question:
    "Why do Roman Catholic intellectuals admire G.K. Chesterton?"
    I have always undertood him to have been anti-Semitic but I am not informed on this and do not want to give the wrong answer to the enquirer.

    If this is contentious and unsuitable for your new blog please ignore the query. I might just have time to do a Google search before I need the answer.
    Thank you.

  6. @GabrielleI'm afraid I don't know enough about the work of G.K. Chesterton to answer this, but I'm happy to post it here in the hopes that another reader might be able to respond.

    It's a real challenge to grapple with the pervasive anti-Judaism that infects the Christian theological tradition. If you Google the words 'G.K. Chesterton's anti-Semitism', you'll find a number of articles and blogs which discuss this question.

    Of course, the question is also much discussed with reference to Marx's 'On the Jewish Question', although it has to be borne in mind that Marx's grandfathers were both rabbis, so his relationship with Judaism was complex.

    A good study of Christian anti-Judaism is Approaches to Auschwitz, co-authored by Richard Rubenstein and John Roth.

  7. "If you Google the words 'G.K. Chesterton's anti-Semitism', you'll find a number of articles and blogs which discuss this question."

    Thank you. I learn today that the results I get may well be different from those you saw as we are subject to the "filter bubble" by the search engine which customizes search results according to the previous research leanings of the enquirer.
    Your findings may have a Catholic bias yielding a more positive view of Chesterton. Mine, based on anti-Judaism research, might confirm me in this view!

    Blogs are not subject to this so I would be interested should anyone wish to comment though, of course, the blog commenters have their own agenda.

    I think I have found something relevant which may be of interest to my enquirer and perhaps to you.

    "... he was also the intellectual leader of a practical intellectual movement anchored in Catholic social teaching and known as Distributism. This movement opposed both socialism and monopolistic capitalism in the name of individual liberty and social solidarity, and inspired many subsequent thinkers to try to find a “third way” and a “new economics” more in harmony with what would today be called human and natural ecology. He was one of the great Christian humanists, and a major influence on both his own and subsequent generations".

    Stratford Caldecott. G.K. Chesterton Fellow at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford.

    (The filter bubble felt I might also like this!)

    Beauty for Truth's Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education
    By: Stratford Caldecott



  8. Bravo for an excellent critique Tina! That idea of art being "only possible before an open horizon of transcendent possibility" is something really powerful, and I certainly don't feel any loss in being unable to pay £54,000 to listen to Dawkins and Graylings' smug prattling. I've put my own rant about the whole thing up here:

    I'm not quite so sure about the link between millitant secularism and consumerism though. You're certainly on to something about endless grasping after material goods being evidence of spiritual poverty, but Peter Singer's for example is firmly in the "new atheist" camp (and involved in the NCoH I think?) and, albeit from a theoreticaly framework I find hideous, he's done a lot of work esp. in "The Life You Can Save" about recognising our obligation to the poor and making sacrifices to reduce global poverty. It's really interesting to see the overlaps with Catholic Social Teaching.

    As for GK Chesterton, I'm not an expert, and I don't know how often he's evoked by "serious theologians", but he's enormously popular among semi-intellectual apologetics bloggers because he's so fantastic with a soundbite and has an amazing way of turning ideas on upside down to provide a new perspective. I've never read anything specifically anti-semitic from him, so I can't comment on that.


  9. A load of GK Cheserton stuff has turned up in my Google Reader, hope it's of interest!

    Mark Shea, catholic apologist extraordinaire!

    Also a review of the new critical biography, discusses his anti Semitism and the case for canonisation (!


Comments and contributions are welcome so long as they respect the rules of courtesy and respect, which is not to inhibit robust disagreement.