Tuesday, 31 July 2012

View from America: What is secular art?

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Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

To coincide with the publication of his new book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin) we areposting a series of short films and blog posts by Jacques Berlinerblau, one of the most perceptive commentators on America’s religious and irreligious landscape.

In his fourth dispatch he tries to work out what exactly constitutes "secular art".
The Secular Centre, Episode 4: What is secular art?

One hears the phrase “secular art” bandied about, mostly by scholars and journalists (the latter often reacting to nasty scrums over artistic censorship). Yet after having spent a decade trying to figure out--with a small modicum of success--what the noun “secularism” signifies, I remain flummoxed as to what it connotes when it functions as an adjective.

Three broad possibilities come to mind, none of them particularly convincing. Let me start with my least favorite. We might understand secular art as work that is blasphemous or anti-religious. Ergo, cinema, literature, music and so forth that attacks or denigrates a particular religion, or religion in general, could be parsed under this rubric.

I hesitate about this definition because it inflects the word “secular” with an anti-metaphysical cast. Viewers of Secular Centre understand why I am uneasy with that usage (See episode three, “Secularism is not Atheism”).

A second possibility is one I like considerably better. Here we understand secular art to consist of work that is oblivious to, or disinterested in, religious themes. Thus, art of this nature would have no religious reference points, be they positive or negative.

Initially, this approach works well for me. The difficulties set in when we consider that consumers may find such faith-based references in the “secular art” in question regardless of what the artist intended.

Sometimes, the opposite occurs. The artist produces a work that she or he feels is deeply “religious” or “spiritual” but the audience fails to grasp that—often in the worst possible way (see my discussion of Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” above).

Last, I wonder if we can build on the previous understanding and think of “secular art” as that which celebrates, criticizes, problematises, mocks and extols the human. The God/s may or may not exist, but this work doesn’t get into any of that stuff. Rather, the piece created is humanistic to the core, bracketing out theological issues so as to hone in on mortal beings.

I hope you won’t think less of me if I concede that all of my categories sort of collapsed on me in the video we made above. Friends, I still don’t know what the term “secular art” signifies. But in trying to figure it all out, I sure did have a hell of a lot of fun.
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