Perspectives on truth in art and religion
Agnostics may have pertinent questions to ask both sides in the religious debate
Detail of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel shows the “Creation of Adam”, a panel in the massive narrarative work by Michelangelo. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Is there more truth in art than religion? That was one of the topics for discussion on a recent edition of The Big Questions , a Sunday morning faith and ethics programme on BBC 1.
What ensued wasn’t so much a discussion as a point-scoring squabble over largely peripheral issues between religious and atheist members of the audience – there is no panel on The Big Questions – which appeared to be split evenly along these lines.
The result was predictable, and might even have been what was intended by the programme’s production team. But assuming that it wasn’t (this was the BBC, after all) the subject matter was never going to engender a rational debate among a group made up entirely of those who either believe that all truth ultimately resides in (their particular) religion, or that religion is a fairy tale and a dangerous one at that.
What was needed – and I’m becoming increasingly of the view that this should be the case whenever religion is discussed on television or radio – was a three-way split among the participants, to include an equal number of agnostics (a category I do not fall into myself, incidentally).
In other words, the inclusion of people capable, theoretically at least, of being convinced by either side, and therefore, for this fact alone, likely to bring some order to the proceedings. Agnostics might, of course, also have some pertinent questions to ask of the opposing sides in a religious debate. Such as, in the instance cited above, what precisely was meant by “truth”.
If we are only concerned with the visual arts, as the BBC programme was, is it not a little premature to be speaking of art and religion in dichotomous terms? Until relatively recent times, religion and painting were virtually inseparable, with aspects of the first almost always the subject matter of the second. (More recently still, and encompassing both the written and the visual arts, were not The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Christian allegories?) More to the point, does the atheistic art lover think less of the religion-inspired works of artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Da Vinci because, to his or her mind, they perpetuate a blatant untruth?
Of course not, such a person will argue, because regardless of what is being depicted, one cannot help but appreciate examples of artistic genius (more on which later). Besides, the atheist art lover will continue, the artists were depicting what to them, and virtually everyone else at the time, were aspects of a universal truth.
This indicates, where paintings are concerned, that truth is not the primary concern of the viewer. But even if it were, many people have a strange understanding of what constitutes truth. This problem arises from the modern habit of elevating (often down to the individual level) opinion, perspective, world view and experience to the status of a “truth”.
This is a dangerous habit. Rather than making “truths” answerable to solid proof, it leaves them hostage to changes in attitude and outlook. In essence, the greater the number of people there is claiming something to be true, the truer it becomes. According to an atheistic perspective, and possibly an agnostic one too, however, one chooses to label what Michelangelo et al were depicting in their religion-inspired works, they cannot be described as truths. If they can be, then God must surely be every bit as existent now as he was then. It’s not as if He might have died in the intervening period.
This is a deity we’re talking about, not some once-solid creature like the dodo, peculiar only to a past age. Is there more truth in art than in religion? It depends entirely on the perspective of the viewer. The artist paints according to his or her own beliefs, if the viewer finds “truth” in a painting it is only through sharing similar beliefs. The ability to appreciate artistic genius, regardless of the subject matter, is laudable, but only where painting is concerned. It would be foolish to adopt the same approach to the literary arts. Simply put, because an idea is beautifully presented in written form, does not make the idea itself beautiful.
Sadly, history is littered with the results of readers confusing the two. We do well to remember that because someone is a genius it doesn’t make them a genius at everything. Whatever else it is, art is the projection of one person’s world view.
Sometimes it quite deliberately isn’t even that. Whenever he was asked to explain a lyric, the young Bob Dylan would mumble something about preferring to leave it to his fans to interpret his songs in whatever way they chose. He wasn’t going to reveal that some of his most obscure references were nonsensical: words chosen only because they rhymed. And he certainly wasn’t going to risk alienating large sections of his fan-base by reducing to the singular and mundane their innumerable theories on what he had meant. For Dylan, truth had little to do with it. Perhaps he was right.