Sunday, 15 January 2012

...what, even, is Belief?

In his opening address to 'Now is the Time' seminar with Boris Groys at the University of Amsterdam, 2009, Terry Eagleton makes a distinction between ‘believing’ and ‘knowing’. He quotes Ludwig Wittengenstein, who proposed it makes no sense to say, ‘I know I am in pain’ because the words ‘I know’ add nothing to the statement, ‘I am in pain’. In this sense, ‘knowing’ implies a presupposition of agreed facts, rational thought and is closed to personal interpretation. Belief, on the other hand may be disputed, irrational and open to interpretation. Eagleton describes belief as precognitive:

Can I have belief in things I don’t know about? Yes. It’s commonly known as ideology. Much ideology consists in beliefs which are too close to the eyeball even to be objectified, beliefs which are part of the invisible colour of daily life itself.

He continues quoting Donald Rumsfeld, President George Bush’s Defence Secretary, who famously talked about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns but missed out, as Eagelton writes, ‘unknown knowns – things we know but don’t know we know, or things we believe but don’t know we believe’.

In other words, it may be possible for one to believe in something without realising one is believing it. We might even be unaware of the underlying ideology informing our belief. For example, I may believe in the Green Party, showing my allegiance through my vote on election day, but may never have read their manifesto. My belief would not be based on an informed decision – what Eagleton describes as ideology. More precisely, I may subscribe to a capitalistic worldview but not be able to articulate why or even having heard the term ‘capitalism’. My worldview has been informed without my realising it.

Later in the essay, Eagleton cites the example of Abraham who had faith in God but ‘given his cultural situation he probably could not have conceived that God did not exist’. .If Abraham lived in a culture where the existence of God was never challenged his faith, by Eagleton’s definition, would be an ideology, an example of belief as ‘unknown known’.

Belief can be irrational. From time to time I believe Scotland stands a chance of winning the Word Cup. My belief is not based on established facts. In contrast, belief can also be rational. Before sitting down this afternoon I believed the chair would hold my weight. This is a rational belief based on known facts (the chair is made of wood. It looks like other chairs that hold my weight. I am an average weight and size), but I did not know it to be true until I tested my belief by sitting down. In this sense, belief can often be the prequel to knowing. At times, it may not be possible to know without first believing. We might call this faith: a belief which is then tested.

Many who come to religious belief describe an initial period of doubt or rational investigation. The Judeo-Christian scripture invites the reader to ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Psalm 34:8). This is both an invitation to those who believe and to those who doubt. In the psalmist’s experience taste comes before sight: the senses inform reason, belief informs knowledge, and belief is tested to nurture faith.

Belief and doubt are not mutually exclusive? The one may not be the foil of the other; without doubt it is difficult to later believe. When someone claims, ‘I know I am the best looking person in the room’ we find it more difficult to accept than the less assertive claim, ‘I believe I am the best looking person in the room’ to which there is at least some room for doubt and rational debate. Some beliefs are considered life defining and even worthy of dying for – other beliefs seem more trivial such as believing the weather will change for the better. Belief can describe our feelings towards a pet kitten but may also motivate a suicide bomber to horrific destruction. Belief may be communal or individual, public or private, personal or shared. For example, I may believe in prayer in the privacy of my own home or collectively with a church congregation. The first is an expression of personal faith and the latter is a recognition of that same belief as shared by others.

Belief is both a matter of will and choice. Those who convert to religious belief often describe a process of deliberation where varied options are studied (or presented to them) as ideologies and arguments. For others, religious belief seems to be instilled from an early age, inherited or assumed as the continuation of parental belief or the social norm.

Kieran Dodds was the UK and Ireland Picture Editors’ Young Photographer of the Year in 2005 and 1st Prize Award Winner in World Press Photo (2006). His publications portfolio includes the New York Times, The Sunday Times Magazine and National Geographic. He is also a professing convert to evangelical Christianity. I recently interviewed Dodds about the point at which he started to believe:

'I had been wrestling with the veracity of the Bible and in particular the physical resurrection of Jesus and the origins of life. I had worked out that I had to decide one way or other... My scientific worldview had been seriously undermined by my investigations and the facts would not fit—Jesus had risen from the dead—but I was desperate to find a scientific explanation… In my honours year, while editing the student paper and writing my dissertation, I read a Billy Graham book, How to Be Born Again. It made sense of the moral dimension to my struggle; the facts and the feelings connected in a way I had never understood and I prayed that Christ would be my shepherd and lead me forward. This had profound impact on my direction and choices in life.'

For Dodds, belief in God appears to have developed through a series of choices in response to reading Billy Graham’s book. Dodds’ questions about life and doubts over the existence of God were met through the process of reading. He goes on to describe the complex relation between his religious belief and the decisions he makes about his photographic work:

'Obviously I have to shoot what’s there and not shoehorn my worldview onto something, and it’s not always as obvious. How do you shoot a phone-mast protest? With righteous anger? Can people discern a difference between my work and a non-Christian’s? I don’t know but I cannot detach the way I shoot from my worldview as much as the next man.'

For Dodds, it seems unnecessary to force an evangelical agenda on to the intentions of his work. His interest lies in representing the subject of his photographs with a professional objectivity although his choice of subject matter is clearly informed by his Christian worldview. Dodds is a religious man but he does not make explicitly religious art. He does, however, make choices about his subject matter that are informed by his interests as a Christian believer. In this way, we can say that religious belief informs the practice of art in a similar way to other decisions in life such as what one spends money on, how one raises children, and even which political party one votes for. Here is a distinction between explicitly religious art and non-religious art produced by sincerely religious people. In the first, religious symbols and signifiers such as crosses or crescent moons may identify the work as religious in nature. In the later, the viewer may have no idea the artist is religious yet the artist may hint at their religious belief by the subjects they choose to make art about.

Public perceptions of evangelical Christianity are influenced by stereotyped and often contradictory personas projected in the media such as the guitar-wielding, peace-loving, sandals over socks happy-clappy stereotype (think Ned Flanders, Cliff Richard, Harry Secombe). Their message of God’s love seems heavens apart from the message of God’s wrath presented by the hell and brimstone, placard-waving, bigoted-type Christian (think Ian Paisley, Fred Phelps, Abin Cooper). One might be forgiven for asking if they all really believe the same thing. Perceptions of religious belief are likewise informed by media coverage of events such as the Waco disaster, Oklahoma City bombing, Tokyo sarin gas attack of 1995 by the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect and, not least, the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September, 2001, and other horrific events carried out by religious fanatics. Here, religious belief is associated with the atrocities of fundamentalism and radicalism but even these terms have been tarnished through misuse. Remaining accurate to a literal definition, the fundamentalist is someone who upholds a strict literalisation of what they believe to be true (and universal) such as the existence of God, the authority of the scriptures or even the fact the earth rotates around the sun. While it sounds provocative to say, I would suggest we all uphold some kind of fundamental belief – although it may be as simple as the belief one human being can relate to another. Even the word radical has come a long way from its humble Latin beginnings (radix simply means ‘root’). Aside from questions of semantics, the perverse acts of religious fundamentalists such as the 9/11 and 7/7 bombers reposition our general perceptions and acceptance of those who profess sincere religious belief, as Eagleton asserts:

Fundamentalists are men and woman who have been driven into spiritual fanaticism by a shallow, two-dimensional, purely technological rationality which sweeps all the big questions scornfully to one side, thus leaving those questions to being monopolized by the bigots.

By association, those who profess sincere religious belief may also be tarnished with the same brush as those who describe themselves as fundamentalists. As accurate as they may be, perceptions such as those expressed by Eagleton make it harder for those who sincerely believe in God to openly admit it on a pubic platform, let alone in the wider corpus of the arts.

What is 'Sincere' Belief?

In my last blog entry I wrote about Professor James Elkins comments about sincere religious belief in contemporary art. I've been thinking more about this since. Elkins’ concern lies not just with those who practice art as religious believers but those who would describe themselves as devout or ‘sincere’ in their religious belief. We could propose a distinction between those who practice religious belief as a nominal or occasional event from those who regularly attend religious events such as weekly bible studies, prayer breakfasts, Sunday Mass, pilgrimage, or make life decisions based on their religious worldview. It is the later that particularly occupies Elkins’ argument. The artists he identifies as being sincerely religious are those who integrate or express a religious worldview through their creative practice without irony, scepticism or cynicism but with genuine affection towards the liturgies and underlying belief systems they subscribe to.

By example, we could examine Rembrandt van Rijns 'The Raising of the Cross' (c.1633) with 'You Know It Aint Easy' (2003) - a contemporary sculpture of a similar subject matter by contemporary British artist Sarah Lucas. In The Raising of the Cross Rembrandt paints himself at the foot of the cross, his own raising the cross as if to identify himself with those responsible for Christ’s suffering. The painting demonstrates the real-life belief expressed by Rembrandt himself and illustrates a sense of penitent conviction. Rembrandt was commissioned to paint the crucifixion many times throughout his career but never with such personal religious conviction. In contrast, Sarah Lucas’ You Know It Aint Easy, first exhibited as part of a curatorial collaboraton with fellow Young British Artists, Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst, in their 2003 show, In a Gadda Da Vida. Here, Lucas intentionally subverts the visual language of the crucifix as a religious icon by replacing the traditional sculptors materials of wood and stone with the ready –made material of Marlboro cigarettes. You Know It Aint Easy is a curious juxtaposition of religious iconography with commercial branding. Her careful manipulation of the materials echoes the devoutly religious craftsmen of old but this is not a religious icon intended to aid the penitent in their devotions of God. Instead, Lucas presents us with an icon for our times – a religious symbol that has lost its poignancy and relevance, an image of Christ that is subverted by the commercial products of modernism. One spark of light (or revelation?) and Christ is ignited on his cross, burnt up in a cloud of nicotine infused smoke. Whilst the subject matter may be religious and her convictions towards the function of art deeply sincere, I would argue You Know It Aint Easy is not a sincerely religious work of art.

The crux of Elkins’ argument falls on an understanding of what it means to be sincerely religious. Sincere religious belief, however, is not always clearly expressed in a work of art. An artist might be a sincere Christian believer but choose not to make art about his faith. Likewise, an artists does not have to be a sincere believer in order to render liturgical art. Carravagio is well known for his religious paintings yet also famed for his tumultouse relationship with the Roman Catholic church.

In his recent editorial for Frieze magazine, Dan Fox asked:

'When was the last time you saw an explicitly religious work of contemporary art? Odds are you can’t remember. If you can it’s because it stood out like the Pope in a brothel. Religious art, when it’s not kept safely confined within gilt frames in the medieval departments of major museums, is taboo.'

Fox poses a provocative question to which there may be several responses. At first, we must examine what is meant by ‘an explicitly religious work of contemporary art’. In 1999 Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo sculpture of a Christ-like figure quietly dominated the fourth plinth of London’s Trafalgar Square. The quiet presence of a Christ-like figure seemed to offer a prophetic antidote to the hustle and bustle of the city surrounding it. In a similar way, Antony Gormley’s figurative interventions seem to propose spiritual questions concerning the human being in the landscape which may be regarded as religious. What of the Chapman Brothers Hell, or Hirst, Lucas and Fairhurst’s recent exhibition In A Gadda Da Vida at Tate Britain. Perhaps their work is too sceptical to be considered religious. What of Peter Howson, David Mach or church altar painter, Charlie Mackesy? Perhaps their work is too sincere to be considered contemporary. Howson and Mackesy in particular express a sincere Christian belief. As such, their work may be criticised for lacking the objective rigor afforded to those who approach the same subject but without sincere religious belief.

The words ‘sincerely religious’ need more work. Being religious is like being in love – it speaks to our emotions and sentimentality as well as to our reason. As John D. Caputo, Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University, writes,

Religion is for lovers, for men and woman of passion, for real people… who believe in something, who hope like mad in something, who love something with a love that surpasses understanding

It is impossible for a lover to be ironic about his loved one without betraying what he holds dear and causing hurt. In the same way, a sincerely religious artist would not poke fun at his God or cause others to question their belief. When we look at religious art from the Judeo-Christian tradition it was intended for nurturing a love for God. Even if the artist intended us to fear God it was a righteous fear that would be coupled with a love for the divine.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Beyond Belief at the Holy Land Theme Park

A few days ago I watched Bill Maher's film 'Religulous' where he visits a Christian theme park in Orlando. Every afternoon at three o’clock, in the suburbs of Orlando, Jesus Christ is crucified and rises from the dead. Tickets are available for the spectacle and souvenirs mass produced for the gift shop.

Most visitors to the Holy Land Experience theme park appear deeply sincere in their religious devotion despite the openly commercial intent of the park management which advertises its tourist attraction with the slogan, ‘Experience Hope, Experience Joy, Experience Peace. $13.99’.

To those outside this religious demographic, the Holy Land Experience may appear an oddity (perhaps the unlikely love-child of a medieval mystery play and a Disneyland park ride) yet to the religious devout the Holy Land Experience is sincerely regarded as a form of genuine religious experience, even pilgrimage. Such religious theme parks may be demonstrative of a growing market in religious experiences that emulate the familiarity of commercial and capitalistic values of the wider entertainment industries such as Bible World Texas, Bible Park and Heritage USA. They reflect a wider economic boom for Christian-themed products such as the landscape paintings of Thomas Kincade, What Would Jesus Do T-shirts, wrist bands and leisurewear, and even the recently dubbed ‘religious and family audience’ associated with Hollywood blockbusters such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and the Chronicles of Narnia.

Bill Maher interviews Jesus from the Holy Land Experience, asking ‘Why do you think people come here, because Disneyland’s too smutty? I mean you guys are just in business, right? You’re in the Jesus business’.

The cynicism expressed by Maher towards the Holy Land Experience could be allegorical of a wider tension experienced and documented between those who profess sincere religious belief (and the systems and institutions they represent) with those who practice contemporary art (and the systems and institutions they represent).

1,142 miles north of the Holy Land Experience, James Elkins is eminent professor of art history at the Chicago Institute of Art. In the introduction to his book, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, Professor Elkins articulates the growing divide between religious organisations and the main corpus of contemporary art: ‘Contemporary art… is as far from organised religion as Western Art has ever been, and that may even be its most singular achievement—or its cardinal failure, depending on your point of view’. In his follow-up book; ‘Re-Enchantment’ Elkins continues to highlight what he sees as the exclusion of religion from arts discourse since modernism. Elkins points out a divide that has occurred between the institutions of art making and the institutions of religion. Speaking mostly of the Roman Catholic Church, Elkins traces the entrenchment back to the art of the European Renaissance suggesting:

something happened in the Renaissance. The meaning of art changed, and for the first time it became possible to make visual objects that glorified the artist and even provoked viewers to think more of the artist’s skills than the subject of the artwork.

Elkins’ concern lies not just with those who practice art as religious believers but those who would describe themselves as devout or ‘sincere’ in their religious belief. We could say there's a distinction between those who practice religious belief as a nominal or occasional event from those who regularly attend religious events such as weekly bible studies, prayer breakfasts, Sunday Mass, pilgrimage, or make life decisions based on their religious worldview. It is the later that particularly occupies Elkins’ argument. The artists he identifies as being sincerely religious are those who integrate or express a religious worldview through their creative practice without irony, scepticism or cynicism but with genuine affection towards the liturgies and underlying belief systems they subscribe to. that would be artists like me.

Im going to be thinking on these things over the next week. Perhaps there's room here for a Morphē event of some kind.

All the best.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The book is out!

Thanks to you all for your support over these last couple of months. I'm really happy to say the book is now out and available to buy from Amazon, Eden, IVP and the publishers own website here

Beyond Air Guitar is a rough guide for Christian students and recent graduates in the arts, design and the media. There are interviews with practising artists, a practical guide on surviving after art college as well as a biblical framework for the arts and a section on questions commonly asked by emerging artists with Christian faith.

You can also check out the book website

Please do spread the word to anyone you might think would benefit from it. We'll have some kind of launch party some time over the coming months but I just wanted to let you know about it now.