The philosopher Richard Norman, author of the book On Humanism, has kindly allowed me to post a very interesting passage on the topic of whether non-religious people can appreciate religious art (this is the topic that has attracted most comments on my blog so far - taking off from my post of Nov.16th 2006 'Can Atheists and Agnostics Really Appreciate Religious Art?'. Norman's discussion overlaps in interesting ways with the discussion so far). Quoted below is the extract from a forthcoming article by Richard Norman in the journal Ratio. Norman is responding to the ideas of the theist philosopher John Haldane:
"Haldane does however pose a genuine problem for the atheist when he turns to the specific case of religious art, and I want to consider this in more detail. He argues that any serious work of art is ‘a presentation of the reality and values in which the work seeks to participate’, and that in evaluating the work ‘we are judging the credibility of what it proclaims’ (pp.171-2). It would seem to follow that if a work presents religious beliefs and values, the atheist is bound to reject those beliefs and values and is therefore committed to judging the work less highly. And this appears to exclude the atheist from fully appreciating and valuing religious works of art. One of Haldane’s examples is Piero della Francesca’s painting The Resurrection in Borgo San Sepolcro. The atheist might try to take refuge in praise of the formal qualities of the work, but as Haldane rightly says, its form and content are inseparable. The arrangement of the figures, with the sleeping soldiers in their poses of disarray ‘contrasting with the simple sweeping contour of Christ’, who divides the background landscape between the deadness of winter and the new life of spring - all of this serves to point up the content of the painting, and the painting seems to be inescapably religious (pp.168-9. I agree with Haldane that, like all Piero della Francesca’s work, it is one of the supreme achievements of art. But, as an atheist, can I consistently say this?
Haldane’s argument could be set out formally as follows.
(1) ‘A serious favourable appreciation of the aesthetic value of a work of art carries an implication of the acceptance of its content as constituting a consideration in favour of what is presented.’ (p.172)
(2) Atheists are precluded from accepting the content of a work of religious art as constituting a consideration in favour of what is presented.
(3) Therefore atheists are, to that extent, precluded from favourably appreciating the aesthetic value of religious art.
I accept premise (1). It is contentious, and I am not going to open up the matters for contention, but I agree that at least the finest works of art convey truths about our world and our experience, that they provide support for the truths which they convey, and that their doing so is an important part of their value. My quarrel is not with this, but with premise (2). The assumption here is that the truth presented by a religious work of art must itself be a religious truth. That is what I want to question. Of course Piero’s painting is a depiction of the resurrection, but it does not give us any reason for believing the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. How could it do so? (It’s not as though it were photographic evidence or anything of that sort.) The truths which it conveys are human truths, truths which help us in the understanding of our human condition. Like any great work of art, it conveys such truths by drawing on our own experience and helping us to see a significance in that experience. It says something about the ability of human beings to rise above suffering. And that is specifically a truth about human beings, because the features of the work which convey it are the recognisable human characteristics of the figure rising from the tomb. Typically of Piero, there is a deeply enigmatic quality in the figure, but also a profound stillness, a nobility and a serenity which speaks of suffering overcome through contemplation and understanding. The qualities apparent in the risen Jesus are similar to those of the figures in the right-hand side of Piero’s The Flagellation, another meditation on suffering and the human response to suffering.
The truths conveyed by The Resurrection are also to be found in the figures of the sleeping soldiers at the base of the tomb. Again the truths are conveyed in the significance of the poses and expressions of the human figures. They say something about the propensity of human beings to miss the miracles that are going on in the world around us - in this case, to be oblivious to the transformation and renewal of human life, and to the corresponding transformation and renewal of the natural world, as represented by the change from the bare trees on the left of the picture to the new growth on the right. In these ways, then, the content of the picture provides ‘considerations in favour of what is presented’, and these considerations are as accessible for the atheist as for the theist. The general point is that the truths conveyed by great religious works of art are human truths. And that is because religious iconography is powerful and compelling when it draws on shared human experience and works to enhance our understanding of that experience."