‘Our museums of art have become our new churches’… Helena Roy considers whether art today is too secular

With the influence of Christianity declining in Britain, I was struck by Alain de Botton‘s statement in his recent book, ‘Religion for Athiests‘: ‘Our museums of art have become our new churches’. De Botton explores the power Christianity previously exercised over civilian life; many aspects of which he mourns as a loss to society. He is looking to replace what positives Christianity could bring to society with an atheist version. But what would this mean for art and museums.

Masterpieces which command global admiration today were often designed for worship in the past. Though some of these remain in their original intended setting, such as Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ at the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, many have been plundered from religious buildings, now only viewable in a sterilised gallery environment.

Titian's 'Assumption of the Virgin' in Venice (1516-1518)

Perhaps this sterility is the result of tension between secular and religious perceptions of art: Hegel defined art as ‘the sensuous presentation of ideas’; whereas De Botton argues Christianity  ‘never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to remind us about what matters… whereby our memories are forcibly jogged about what we have to love and to be grateful for, as well as what we should draw away from and be afraid of.’ Religious culture’s power to move might be shown by the author’s own experience – an ardent atheist, he admits to a crisis of faithlessness in his twenties, which he attributes to Bach’s cantatas and Bellini’s Madonnas.

Comparing the two, it would seem that Christian art understands that images are important primarily in generating compassion, enabling the boundaries between strangers to dissolve, and provoking a sense of fragility that leads us to understand new situations and morals. Modern museums – as fascinating as their avant garde enclosures are – can be too frigid, detailing the material facts and dry context of a piece, not its meaning or what we should learn from it. Catholic architecture, for example, made a point, ‘half touching, half alarming’ about how humans function: as a race we suffer from ‘a heightened sensitivity to what is around us… we will notice and be affected by everything our eyes light upon’, a vulnerability to which Protestantism, and our secular celebrity-heavy society prefers to remain indifferent or blind.

Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco in Venice

Maybe this is what scares people away from modern art: is it presented in an inaccessible manner, too technical and seemingly unrelated to the average bystander to merit a segment of everyone’s time? Modern museums tend to groups works of art according to the period they were born from; de Botton argues ‘a more fertile indexing system would group together artworks from across genres and eras according to the concerns of our souls.’ Perhaps in one room we would be taught about love, in another fear might feature, and another might show suffering as an impetus for pathos. A compulsory dose of culture by way of a visit to a museum would then be transformed into a structured encounter with some of the concepts which are easiest for us to forget, and the most essential and life-enhancing to remember.

The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice might be an example. Tall and striking with its ruddy terracotta facade, it is proudly indifferent to the dusty indexing science of academic methodology. The Frari instead presents an eclectic range of works – including a fresco by Paolo Veneziano (c. 1339),  Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child with Saints’ (1488) and a large altarpiece by Titian (1516-1518) – designed to rebalance our souls, priorities and understanding. Sculpture, painting, and architecture are artfully thrown together from across regions and centuries to coordinate the impact of art on our sentiments; prioritising a coherent effect on our souls over a rigid grouping of origins and stylistic inclinations. Separating paintings by genre or period risks reducing any real coherence at an emotional level in museums. The art might not need to change, but museums maybe do.

Giovanni Bellini's 'Madonna and Child with Saints' (1488)

Maybe all of this is because modern priorities have taught us as a society at large not to worry about leaving an impact on art for future generations. This ignores art’s ability to shape society, however. Though many would not like to admit it, art is infinitely indebted to religion: beliefs, a desire for status and aggregated money has fed demand for art during some of the most important aesthetic periods and can still teach us new ideas today. Auguste Compte believed capitalism aggravated people’s ‘competitive, individualistic impulses and distanced them from their communities, their traditions and their sympathies with nature… Capitalism would in the end always favour a skilled, obedient and unintrospective workforce over an inquisitive and emotionally balanced one.’ Art and culture is not part of the ends towards which our modern economic society tries to force everyone to hurtle.

But art can offer society a guiding moral force – less dogmatic than religion, merely challenging and probing. Religious pictures in the past presented images it would be easier to turn away from, but standing witness to them directs us towards those who deserve our sympathy. ‘Crucifixion’ by Andrea Mantegna (1459) demonstrates this. De Botton argues that the ‘unreliability of our native imaginative powers magnifies our need for art.’ In the past, religious works were commissioned to show specific scenes or emotions to communicate with a largely illiterate audience. Levels of literacy may be very different now, but the power of the visual is not. Art should seek to give us a moral lesson; and perhaps museums and commissioners should focus on this, marrying painters with thinkers. To specify which topics art should focus on is not to insist that it all appears identical.

This is not an argument for religion: there are many ways it has irrevocably damaged nations, societies and cultures; and its decline may be inevitable, as it increasingly struggles to reconcile itself with our scientific age. It is instead an argument for perspective; the kind of outlook religion once advocated and offered. Religion, in some ways, promotes a sense of humility in the individual, a sense of there being something bigger, greater than us; and perhaps that is a good thing.  Art can help spread that perspective; perhaps museums should work to facilitate this. There are few other institutions that can.

With thanks to Wikipedia for photos.

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