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November 27, 2006



Thank you for pointing this out to me Nigel. One point that is worth mentioning is the number of religious artists who have wrestled with the question of whether their art would lead people into salvation or into further error; both Chaucer and Tolstoy spring to mind in this case. I doubt that any form of art is likely to be devoid of alternative meanings or ambiguities and that does certain present atheists with a means of appreciating religious art for purely naturalistic reasons (and which may lead to a fuller and more rounded appreciation than a believer would have).

Nonetheless, it seems to me that a difficulty remains with what ambiguities will seem to arise from some works; I mentioned the legions of the medieval Madonna before, but I might also cite George Herbert's poetry, which always struck me as being especially hostile to anyone who didn't share his religious views, even while one can appreciate his technical accomplishments. Easy to admire, impossible to like.

Diane Widler Wenzel

Picasso had a deep and meaningful appreciation of religious African masks and sculpture. He did not share their culture or didn't need an understanding of their religion to feel their religious sincerity. He paid them the ultimate heart felt compliment. He incorporated African Masks in his own work impacting the history of European art.

Dan  Mitchell

There is at least one point of confusion in this piece on the question of whether one must share the spiritual viewpoint of the artist in order to "appreciate" the artist's work.

At various points I see reference to "appreciate" ("... whether athiests can appreciate religious art"), and "fully appreciating." An implied "appreciating the same way" is also present.

The first usage (seen in the title of the post) seems nonsensical to me, and perhaps out of sync with the rest of the material here. Who is to say whether another can (in a binary sense) appreciate something or not? If you say I don't appeciate something, and I believe I do, who is right? This argumentative path is probably not worth travelling, and it is probably only implied by a bit of imprecision in the title of the post.

And what does "fully appreciate" actually mean? Is there some measurable standard of appreciation that is full and appreciation that is less than full? If I believe that I fully appreciate something (not that I'd be so foolish ;-), what happens if someone else claims to appreciate it more?

Finally, isn't this really about appreciating differently? My background is primarily in music. Do I appreciate, say, vocal music less that someone who is a trained singer? What about someone who is more familiar with the text of a song than I? Or, having a background in music theory and composition, can I claim to appreciate a song more that someone who merely sings it?

Ophelia Benson

I had another look at the Piero painting after reading Richard Norman's post. It's quite an enthraller - in somewhat the same way as 'Las Meninas', and maybe, it suddenly occurs to me, partly for the same reason - Jesus fixes us with his cold straight gaze in just the way Velasquez does in Las Meninas. We feel seen: pinned: examined: weighed in the balance and found - we know not what.

I've always loved the sleeping soldiers - for just the reasons that Norman cites. One does so identify. Of course that would be me, slouched and snoring away while miracles happen all around. We're all the soldiers, crumpled, shapeless, all anyhow, of the earth earthy, while Jesus is almost rectangular in his uprightness and straight-aheadness and his chilly stare.

I can appreciate it (I think) despite being an atheist in the same way I can appreciate the presence of the ghost in Hamlet despite not being a ghostist. They work almost like thought experiments, such works; we have to (and we do, at least we can) think our way into them. It has to do with imagination. The Romantics would probably have thoght it was downright heresy to think imagination has no power to help atheists appreciate religious art.

tim cawkwell

I can better think in terms of specific works rather than philosophically (or theologically even) about this:
- we can appreciate Greek tragedy from a distance of 2500 years, but we cannot appreciate it like the Greeks did.
-maybe we appreciate Oedipus Tyrannos better than they did (thanks to Freud), but I doubt if we can appreciate Iphigeneia in Aulis (all that child sacrifice) as well as them.
-I can make a case for Hamlet being a play about the loss of the certainties of medieval Christianity (and ghosts) and their replacement not by the certainties of atheism but by doubt as a determinant of the human condition. But that is not the chief reason for Hamlet's fame as a play, and perhaps atheists would be indifferent to this dimension.
- As a believer (theist if you like) I may appreciate the tragic world view of Luis Bunuel, that godless film-maker, but I cannot quite get the hang of his ridicule of the world.
- ergo, there is a dimension to Piero's Resurrection (and to Bach's St Matthew Passion) that is particularly resonant only for believers in the Crucifixion and Resurrection, while acknowledging that atheists could respond deeply to them in certain ways.

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