There has been a nice debate over at the Drink Soaked Trots on religion, started by Shuggy’s open letter to Christopher Hitchens. In some of the comments, most notably the one from George Szirtes, the relationship between religion and art was brought up. My very personal take is that where religion and art meet there is a triangular relationship between theology, aesthetics, and politics. And great art, for me, is subversive, not ironic.
This doesn’t mean that I do not appreciate the music of Richard Strauss or even Wagner, though I tend to agree with Thomas Beecham that Wagner “has his moments. But then again he also has his half hours”. Subversion is a way of making you question the world. In this broad sense of the term, engagement with art changes your way of thinking, often in subtle ways. As a political animal and an atheist, my attention is drawn to the political ethic of the theology expressed by religious art and my appreciation and enjoyment is often strongly related to this. So Bryan Ferry, there is no worthwhile Nazi art! And as for Damien Hirst’s revolting celebration of plutocracy …
Two musical examples spring to mind. There can be nothing as rooted in superstitious wishful thinking than the idea of the afterlife. Elgar is currently much in vogue as it is the 150th anniversary of his birth. I like much of his music but his oratorio on the journey of a soul after death, The Dream of Gerontius, leaves me cold. I can admire the beauty of the music; it is just that the theology expresses a deeply conservative Anglo-Catholicism based on submission to, and judgement by, an all powerful supernatural God, which I find abhorrent. At times it even seems unconsciously comical – all those souls moaning in purgatory. In contrast, I love Mahler’s second symphony, The Resurrection. Mahler takes us through pained, banal, and exquisite music to lead us, with ever approaching tension, to the last judgement. The trumpets sound, the dead rise and then … there is no judgement. There are no saved, no damned just an eternal universal love, affirmed by the joyous choral ending. The music is beautiful and so is the theology, it is against authority, intrinsically egalitarian, and it certainly is subversive.
In literature, Oscar Wilde is a prime example of this triangular relationship. The most neglected aspect of his work, to my mind, is his libertarian communism. He writes directly about this is his essay, The Soul of Man under Socialism, which advocates the liberation of humanity from property and the artist from the constraints of convention. However, I think that he was a miniaturist at heart and he reaches near perfection in his short stories. His children’s tales are touching and, with their moral clarity and emotional beauty, profoundly moving. The Selfish Giant is a perfect fable of Christian communism. (I one heard it read on Radio 4 as I drove back to Hull, they announced that it would be preceded by a documentary explaining its context. As the story is about a garden, they ran a programme on
These examples support part of what Shuggy was saying. I am an atheist, I find the concept of God faintly ludicrous, the non-existence of a deity is the one certain part of my moral outlook. Organised religion, either through established churches or through cults, can vary from a form of totalitarianism to a theatre of the absurd. Yet religious belief can inspire supreme acts of virtue and courage and sublime art. I would argue that it can only do that when it directly addresses our own experiences of love and loss, and, more importantly, our sense of compassion and social justice. When religion speaks for the poor and powerless, in whatever form it takes, it can be a force for good. When it questions orthodoxy and engages with complexity it can be a vehicle for great art. When it is the authorised code of the powerful or the simplistic and literal agency of a cult of violence, it can be evil.