At some point, I may stop posting about religion and art at the New York Times, because the topic will have become too recurrent. Or maybe I won’t because the topic lends itself to too many questions re: religion, art, and aesthetics, and the place of religion in contemporary secular culture.
Last week in the art pages at the NYT there was a very interesting article about the mud-brick mosques in Mali, “earthen and transcendent” by Holland Cotter. In this Sunday’s Ars &Leisure section, Cotter and his editors went over the top with his piece on the churches and sites at the Ethiopian holy cities of Aksum and Lalibela — “Bedrock of Art and Faith,” “An Art Critic in Africa: Pilgrimage,” and of course the sunken churches in Lalibela).
The piece on Ethiopia in the Sunday papers is a long one combining autobiographical writing, historical contexts, analysis of art and architecture, travel writing, all in a confessional, non-dogmatic and post-skeptical mode. Cotter describes his youthful interest in the early 1960s in African art, a trip to Europe as a young man which winds up in Istanbul, his attraction to Byzantine art, and the historical links between Byzantine and Ethiopian Orthodox art. Art seeker and “heaven seekers” turn out to have interests in common: geographical itineraries, religio-historical capitals, immersive architecture, the religio-aesthetic “experience” of getting swept up into numinous interiors which one is unable to leave, and the way these encounters carry along with you after the event.
The New York Times art pages provide a wonderful place to see writers working out in a secular venue values basic to religion since so many of the objects and artifacts that come under their purview are both aesthetic and religious. Basic to all these encounters with religion in the art pages is sense-sensation, spectacle, and spiritual charge (not propositional faith contents, be these construed dogmatically or not). Maybe because I’m invested in all this in my own research, I can’t help but hear echoes of Kandinsky, Klee, “the spiritual in art,” and the early 20th century Jewish aesthetico-religious thought of Buber and Rosenzweig (who, I have argued, reduced the event of “revelation” to what Scholem called a “zero sum,” basic core of “primitive” sensation. About this I write in Shape of Revelation).
What do we learn about religion from the art critics? What does it feel like to be religious? What are the “qualia” that overlap into and out of religion and aesthetics? What I like about the art critics at the NYT is that they do not reduce the art to a purely social-political-historical grid or frame. They pay close attention to text (image as text), not just context (as often happens in academic discussions of religion, and religion and art). When the (religious) art is good (!), the art critics write about it non-dogmatically, and post-skeptically. There are no special revelations, and there’s no need to make recourse to them. Religion and religious experience is an integral part of human experience, or consciousness.
Maybe it’s time to retire the word “revelation” from contemporary Jewish philosophy?? Let’s leave it as a 20th century period piece.