Friday, March 5, 2010

Modern art, Religion and self-esteem

I will start with an interesting quote from Juliette Aristides's book, "Classical Painting Atelier", where she expresses her belief that modern art is rooted in a view of man as meaningless in a vast universe while art of the Renaissance was rooted in the belief that man is significant and eternal:

"In previous eras, artistic production was colored by the subtext that human beings, as children of God, have divine origins and that our existence is not transitory but eternal. This belief provided not only hope for the future, but the deep assurance of the intrinsic value of a human life. Artists reflected this vision of reality in their artwork, which enabled them to glimpse beauty in the face of tragedy and to portray monumental views of human life.
This is why Sandro Botticelli could paint his ethereal goddesses, revealing a reality only hinted at in the world as the black plague ravaged Europe.

The postmodern skeptic, faced with an unflinchingly pragmatic and scientific worldview, has no hope of an eternal future. Humanity, crawling out of the primordial soup, living briefly, and, returning to the mud, wrestles with a cosmic insignificance that is reflected in the art of our time. Beautiful figure paintings look hopelessly naive and outmoded in many art circles precisely because they no longer represent the predominating beliefs of the artistic and intellectual elite - the end of man is not glory but dust. Thus the art of the modern epoch has been largely nonrepresentational, characterized by a marred, earthbound, fragmented view of the human being. Beauty, eternity, and truth seem to have faded into a bygone era."

I find this quote to be a very interesting, and a largely true analysis, identifying the nature of art as stemming from the artist's view of the nature of the universe and man's place in it - from the artist's metaphysics.
I applaud Juliette's identification of the role of philosophy in art and explaining it so eloquently, but I am also glad to offer this correction to the (understandable) mistakes.
It is precisely the opposite: logic - which allowed great art to exist, when the terms are well defined.

It is not religion that provided the positive influence - the idea that a mystic belief in eternal life was responsible for all the good, while the so called ruthless "logic" and "scientific method" of our age has made men "disillusioned" with human grandeur is incorrect. This is what I wish to explain in this post.

For starters, it is not the length of our lives, nor facing the fact of their end that makes men glorious or insignificant. It is religion that has made men search for significance in the impossible - in that which is NOT man's nature that is responsible for this idea that eternal life is a condition for significance. It is precisely religion that has made men attempt to calculate their worth by eyes outside their own body - by how much 'the universe" "cares" for them, by how physically big they are compared to something... something which is not them. It is religion that teaches men to feel small and to be humble - not beautiful and proud.

A view of humans as "the children of god" is a twisted compliment. First, religion teaches men to seek significance outside themselves, bowing down, being humble before a great being - then they allow them a glimpse of self-esteem by being the creation of this superior being. Stomp them down, then offer them significance by allowing them to serve you.

It is reason - as an idea - as an identified method of how man gains knowledge and power over reality that has boosted men's self esteem - that made them feel big, important, potent. That has taught them to judge their worth through their own eyes - not through the eyes of some eternal, superior, impossible being.

The idea of "logic" she is presenting is the idea of modern philosophy, specifically Emmanuel Kant's idea of logic. According to him logic amounts to the recognition that man's senses distort reality and that we are incapable of knowledge. This view, which is total skepticism, may be non-religious, but it is just as devoid of values, just as belittling to human existence as religion is (or even more), because it tells men, in effect, that they are powerless to know anything, except that they can know nothing.

It is proper logic, discovered by Aristotle, preserved and revived through history that is responsible for any beauty people saw in human existence.
A creature, crawling with fear before an unknowable universe cannot feel beautiful or regard other human beings as beautiful.
It is only a being equipped with the power to know that can feel confident, that can use this confidence to wander into mystical paths, trying to bring their power of cognition into those realms - still, it is not mysticism that is responsible for their sense of confidence, but the idea that they are capable of knowing - of understanding the universe, and as a result capable of survival, success, enjoyment, values.

Philosophically, it is indeed this view of man as little and insignificant that has brought forth modern art. Accepting the view that virtue consists of recognizing their cognitive impotency - they present their distorted paintings as if they were a source of pride. Psychologically, these paintings are the cry of men desperate for self esteem and a sense of importance and personal identity, which they seek by screaming at the world that no one can know anything, that they are special because they recognize it and manage to present "nothingness" better than anyone else.
Indeed, they do present human "nothingness" better than anyone else, though that is hardly a compliment.

Lastly, Aristides mentions that human life has "intrinsic value". This, is again a mistaken view stemming from religion. To whom would human life be "of value"? The only answer according to religion is "god" or "the universe". However, those entities are not conscious. "The universe" does not value. Only human beings do. And indeed, to each human being individually, life, when the conditions allow happiness, are worth living. The value, however, is not intrinsic.
Well, a religion mind thinks, "if human beings are not important to god or to the universe - how can they be important?". "If human life has no such intrinsic value- how can anyone view them as significant at all?"

The answer is made possible by self-esteem, which is supported by logic. What makes human life worth living - what makes them a value to any particular individual? It is priceless moments of enjoyment - it is a moment of feeling pride at one's own creation, moments of having a great laugh or admiring a friend or enjoying the admiration of a lover; it is times of resting at one's home or walking outside and thinking that the world is wonderful - it is everything good that is possible for us to experience.

This good is made possible by our power to know, and, as a result; to create, judge and appreciate that which is around us.
Philosophically - the main idea is whether we, as human beings, have the power to know or not. Psychologically, this translate to a feeling of self esteem or its lack. In art, this translates into beautiful figures or corrupt and ugly ones (or to the total decay or random shapes).


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