Art and a Secular Soul?
“Art is a secular means of developing and maintaining a soul, while providing a basis for others to do the same. Being an artist does not mean being a good person or bad person, but it does involve wrestling with the moral experience of being a human being and the attendant feelings of shame, disgust, joy, pleasure, fear. Creativity is a serious business, in this view, and the artist is a kind of general at war with reality and with himself. I’ve come to believe this view is both antiquated and worth defending.” - Source
Whenever I see something like this I both appreciate the bold forthright nature of stating that “Art is” and simultaneously sigh. This particular declaration of what “art is” comes across as more wrong-headed than most, ruined by just one word.
Take out “secular” and the sentence could ring (at least partially) true for the Christian, the Pagan, the Sikh, and so on and so forth. It becomes part of a powerful statement about what is and certainly I agree that being an artist is not a measure of morality of a man or woman.
So irritating to have someone promote this. Looking back to some of the most ancient forms of art we know of, cave paintings at Lascaux, Chauvet, Altamira and we understand them most through a lens that firmly rejects the secular. They are not just studies of the natural world, it is likely they are imbued with deep religious meaning. A meaning we can’t fully ever understand but that we can relate to through our own experience of spirituality and the religious.
The distances and differences disappear across time and space when we consider the metaphysical and spiritual. It appears to be a unifying line of human experience. Some of the oldest mythologies and stories in the world are best explained only through retelling them. We don’t retell them in a dry academic sense, we retell them as an art form that requires us to at least pretend we believe in them. Looking up at the stars Man made his own art through connections in the night sky. Each culture has slight variations on the constellations but the thread of truth runs through. Humans looked up and created through profound belief.
Art does not need a religious or spiritual element for it to be profound, but we do a disservice to ourselves to pretend that it is some kind of uniquely secular way to develop and explore the soul. The divine is present in so many forms for the artist. The Mead of Poetry. Soma. Muses. Art that addresses the soul can never be truly secular - this is a paradox! Art that affects the soul reveals in fact that the very notion of the secular is an artificial creation, summoned only as a barrier.
That barrier permeates the world of art today. Much contemporary or modern art is instinctively disliked because it does not speak to the soul. In similar terms the modern attempt at secularity is in fact an imposition of the latest ideological religion. The reframing and construction of narrative around religious notions of equality and fairness abound. The soul of man however is very much removed from the equation, or at best minimized.
The conclusion of the quote above however rings true in spite of the secular mistake. The artist is a general at war, perhaps at their best when they are at war. Reality today is an artificial artifact that requires attack. The way to attack that is through appeals to the soul, to deny the materialist faith, and to reject the secular.