1999-2003 John W. Dixon, Jr.
R E L I G I O N _A N D _A R T
John W. Dixon, Jr. is Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
September, 1938. At the age of 19, almost entirely innocent of all knowledge of art, I walked into Exeter Cathedral and was instantly transported into a state of near ecstasy. I had no sense that such things existed, could exist. The experience happened again at York. Then at Chartres. For five days in the cold of January, I prowled the streets and churches and museums of Florence. Over and over the enchantment.
There is no return to the enchantments of innocent youth, the first revelatory experiences (although I am glad to say they are not completely dead) but what caused the enchantment, the ecstasy? These were things, made by human beings for purposes I did not understand. Why did they have such an effect on an impressionable boy?
1943-45. Military service in India. A different world, the deserts of Sind and Rajasthan, the jungle of Assam, the terrible barrenness of the hot season, the remorseless rain and flooding fecundity of the monsoon, the painful pressure of swarming poverty, the amiable dignity of the poor. This was a different culture, not mine, but a constant presence. Then the purity of the Great Mosque of Lahore, the temples of Ajanta and Ellora, carved into the earth, centered on the remote serenity of Buddha or the sensuality of Shiva. Another world but powerful. And beautiful.
March, 1946. The University of Chicago. The Committee on Social Thought, dedicated to the study of cultures without staying within the traditional disciplinary distinctions. Intense rationality, constant discourse, open, tolerant. Only one unforgivable offense: not to know what we stood for and not to be willing to defend it. But I didn't know. I grew up in a parsonage, accepted without question what I had been immersed in as the religious life. That easy acceptance was no longer permissible. How do I know what it was in this different world? I was already engaged with an intense program of study. Did I have to do this too?
I could still remember the enchantments of art but a description of enchantment is not enough now. I had to understand, to know, as well as feel. But knowledge and understanding that did not consider the feelings was false to those who made things that could do all three. Clearly, studying religion was made up of the same three, knowledge, understanding and feeling. For so many peoples who made and used works of art, the two things, art and religion were bound up with each other. But how?
To art historians, this is not a problem; religion has always been an integral part of the study of the history of art, usually without the feeling. To scholars in the study of religion, it is not much of a problem either: by and large, they ignore it. There have been a few in the study of religion who have seen art as an important part of religious expression and have produced a critical literature of use. More is needed. These papers chart the journey.
All made objects are relevant to the history of art. Some made objects (e.g., the hammer) are so exactly designed to fit a particular purpose that they arouse the greatest admiration for the intelligence that developed them and for their inherent beauty. Other made objects have more complex purposes and go deeper into them, closer to the fundamental human issues so they require fuller, more extended attention.
All made objects are made by the intelligent forming of a physical material. Whatever other factors are part of their making, the starting point for understanding is the manner of their making and the structure of the made thing.
Art works can be made for delight, for teaching, for personal expression, for persuasion, for proclamation, for display and prestige, for money. They are made in particular cultures at particular times. They have family resemblances to other works and are parts of a development over time. Art works may entail any of the necessary human involvements: class, political ideas, sex, gender, social structures. The study of these is the whole history of art. Each, studied non-reductively, is necessary.
No one involvement can explain any work of art of consequence. The lesser work may be dominated by one or another of them. Greater works are greater because the artist is capable of incorporating those involvements, those immediate purposes, into a wider structure of meanings.
The past is gone. Only artifacts remain. The purpose of the "history" of art (which is not distinct from criticism) is to make a (written) object that presents artifacts in a way that, despite the intrusions of our own style and interests, enables us to determine what other people stood for, to listen to the distant sound of their voices.
The purpose of criticism (which is not separate from history) is to make an object of our own that might help grasp how other people dealt with common human purposes and so understand the range of human possibility. Why else would we study history?
The human situation is always particular, so coping with that human situation is particular. The means for dealing with situations are universal. To grasp the fullness of possibilities is to come closer to understanding ourselves. Those copings that engage the most fundamental human purposes, in the vain and necessary search for final meaning, are, in various ways, religious. What makes religious art religious?