25 July 2011

Art, religion and the challenge of a Secular Age

Sidney Sussex College this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The theme of this year’s summer school at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, is “The Challenge of a Secular Age.” This the 12th annual summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and the programme includes speakers from Britain, Greece, Romania and Switzerland, including theologians from universities and centres for study in Bucharest, Cambridge, Durham, Moscow, Thessaloniki and Winchester.

After breakfast, the conference was introduced by Professor David Frost and Dr Christoph Schneider. Professor Frost spoke about a “new and aggressive attack on religious beliefs,” and said religious faith is under aggressive attack. Both he sees this as both a threat and an opportunity, and hoped that during the week we would hear less about the wrongness of the unbeliever and more about what we need to learn and what we need to put right.

Dr Schneider, who is acting director of studies at the IOCS, said the title for this year’s summer school had been inspired by Charles Taylor’s book, A secular age (2007). He asked what it means to say we live in a secular age?

This morning’s lecturers were Dr Andreas Andreopoulos, of the University of Winchester, who spoke on “Art: from Ritual to Voyeurism,” and Dr Mihail Neamţu, of the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and for the Memory of the Romanian Exile, who spoke on: “Communism: a Secularized Eschatology?”

Dr Andreas Andreopoulos speaking at the summer school this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Dr Andreopoulos began by looking at several theories of art and what it does in our culture. He outlined several ways of understanding art, including art as entertainment, and art as a form of communication, even when it is not necessarily words and is non-discursive.

There are rules of how we define space. But when does something become a work of art, and when does what we admire remain mere delineation. Are the vestments of the priest at the Liturgy art or identification? Is an icon a piece of art or a part of worship?

Art fills in the gap in the way we define ourselves, provides a framework, a background and a narrative for our metaphysical and cultural identities. In non-discursive narratives, art contributes greatly to the way we exist. We touch on what is nothing less than the way of existence.

Turning to ritual and origins of art, he talked about the beginning of culture and the presence of art in the caves where we find scenes of hunting. Although we do not know why they were there, they were not merely practical notes on where to find or how to kill buffalo, but appear to provide an “as-if” reality; they talk not just in symbols, but in imagination.

One of the ways we are different from the animal world is we can know there is something else, two different kinds of reality. Much of scripture in the ancient and classical religions was formed within a dramatic context and the re-enactment of events, such as the birth and death of the Sun. It provided an “as-if” alternative.

Some rituals were not for anyone and everyone, such as the many rituals in Egyptian, Greek and Hebrew religion that included initiation. The transition from ancient mysteries involved rituals or “sacraments,” and these “as-if” dramatic presentations engaged with what is not quite what our senses are telling us, pointing towards immortal reality and not just mortal reality.

Looking at the transition of ritual to the secular, he looked at the movement from mysteries to tragedy in classical Greek culture. Without wanting to sound like a character from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, he said almost all words associated with the theatre in English are Greek in origin, including drama, comedy, chorus, tragedy and theatre.

Tragedy (τραγῳδία) is a fully-developed, articulated dramatic production that means something at many levels. It is entertainment, communication, but also provides a description of our metaphysical identity. For example, modern psychology is founded on observing one myth and tragedy, Oedipus.

Aristotle provided a classical definition of tragedy

Aristotle provided a definition of tragedy: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions ... Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality – namely, Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Melody.” – Poetics, VI, 1449b, 2-3.

How does an imitation compare with its archetype? Art does not draw us away from the archetype, but to a process where we can approximate as much as we can with what is beyond the senses.

How does this apply these to liturgy? And what is the dramatic element in liturgy?

In liturgy, certainly there is interaction, and a sense of participation. We can compare the dramatic elements of tragedy and dramatic elements of liturgy. By the end something has changed, not just for the performers and the choir, but for everyone present. We have not just been watching a play from a distance, but we have been participating.

Plato, describing his ideal state, argued it did not really have a place for art – although he made an exception for military art, such as beating of drum, he did not see the necessity of art or that it has anything useful to offer.

The Christian inheritance from Greek and Jewish art makes it virtually impossible to separate liturgical art from other art. In Christian art, the “as-if” element is not just a quest of the imagination, but is a statement of reality. There is a distance between what we can see and what is represented in a ritual way, but this is not the distance of imagination. The distance between history and eschatology, what separates this from that, is what gives substance to “as-if.” We live in historical time, but we have a foretaste of end of time, here-and-now but not-just-yet.

Instead of remembering or looking at the past, we are looking towards the future; instead of imitating action, instead of memory, our re-enactment of past becomes a mystagon (μυσταγωγών) that takes us from here to there, so that we are in reality and not just in imagination.

Looking at the iconoclastic debates, we said the arguments against icons were Platonist rather than Biblical, articulating concerns that are not in the Old Testament. The arguments debated by the Fathers of the Church and in the Councils of the Church were about different ways of understanding reality – how we send the soul, the person, the Church, from the here to the there.

He referred to the works of Saint John of Damascus, who defended icons but was also a key figure in the also on emergence of modern music and codifying it. He wrote extensively, defending the honour and use of icons; but he is also seen as the turning point between ancient and modern ecclesiastical music, having formalised and renewed sacred music and its writing system. Aristotle too thinks of music as a constituent part of tragedy.

In its early stages, Christianity shows little interest in who the artist was, as opposed to the art. Art is not for the glory of the artist but for the glory of God and for the people, but at the time there was never a separation of the artist and his art from the ritual of the people.

The Renaissance sees the emergence of the artist as an individual, and from the 16th century interest grows in the artist as the creator, so that the artist emerges as the individual genius. But we know virtually no names of early writers of icons or writers of melodies.

Rene Magritte’s painting, This is not a pipe

Dr Andreopoulos said there are several ways of looking at and defining postmodernism, and these include providing a critique of renaissance and post-renaissance art, and questioning the figure of the artist.

He took as an example Rene Magritte’s painting This is not a pipe. Magritte painted below the pipe: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Although this seems to be a contradiction, it is actually true – the painting is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe. It does not “satisfy emotionally” – when Magritte was asked about his image, he replied that of course it was not a pipe ... just try to fill it with tobacco.

Moving on to the folk artists of the 1960s, he quoted Andy Warhol, who said in 1968: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This has come about with today’s “reality” TV shows today. But is this art? He argued these could be seen as expressions of “pop art” in the ways in which they force us to look at ourselves who we are and how we interact with the world.

Art is not an end product, but an entry point, an open work, to touch what is beyond words, to touch the apophatic, the unspeakable and the unknown.

Dr Andreopoulos is the Senior Lecturer in Orthodox Christianity and the programme leader of the MTh in Orthodox Studies at the University of Winchester. He has published widely on sacred art, ecclesiology, Christian semiotics and liturgy. He is the author of four books: This is my Beloved Son: the Transfiguration of Christ (Orleans, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011); The Sign of the Cross: the Gesture, the Mystery, the History (Orleans: Paraclete, 2006); Art as Theology: from the Postmodern to the Medieval (London: Equinox, 2006); and Metamorphosis: the Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology and Iconography (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir Seminary Press, 2005).

Dr Mihail Neamțu spoke of the failures of Communism, which he described as “a secularised eschatology.” He spoke of the secular promises of communism as false promises.

He asked too whether modernity had succeeded in its quest, and if so at what price?

The era 1917-1945 had been marked by genocidal actions, rampant nationalism, and misdirected utopian dreams, and put forward an analysis of the contribution of Communist ideology to this. He went on to offer a deconstruction of communism as a heresy of the modern age.

Dr Neamțu is a Romanian historian of ideas, with a degree in Continental philosophy and a PhD in theology and religious studies from King’s College, University of London. He held post-doctoral fellowships at New Europe College (2005-2007) and at the Woodrow Wilson Center (2009).

He is the author of several books on the religious, political, and cultural encounter between Christianity and modernity. In addition to other scholarly studies in patristics, he has written a number of essays on the experience of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Working in threes

Dr Neamțu repeated a well-known joke from the Stalinist era in Russia:

Why does the KGB operate in groups of three?

One can read, one can write, and one can keep an eye on the intellectuals.

On a different topic:

A Greek man, sitting in the sun outside an island taverna, was asked by a visiting tourist: “Does Greek have a word similar to mañana

He thought for a moment, contemplated the meaning of “αύριο,” but then, instead, replied: “Yes, but it doesn’t convey the same sense of urgency.”
He is the scientific director of the Institute for the Investigation of the Communist Past and a member of the Christian Democratic Foundation in Bucharest.

Earlier in the morning, in the chapel of Sidney Sussex, the chaplain of IOCS, Father Alexander Teft, served the Divine Liturgy marking “the Dormition of the Righteous Anna, Mother of the Most Holy Theotokos.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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