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The Broader Church March 2, 2010

Posted by markswill in Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.

Raising the suspicion that I have nothing better to do with my time, once again I find myself noting that what follows stems from something I heard on Radio4. Even worse, in this case it was merely a trail for a programme hosted by that master of garrulous drollery, Will Self, the premise of which was that art has become a new religion. An interesting observation I thought at the time, but then I found myself week trotting round Tate Modern and the V&A last week prompting further rumination which, for all I know may well mirror Mr Self’s albeit weightier and syntactically more convoluted thoughts from the bowels of Broadcasting House.

I am actually quite a fan of churches, but for their architecture and decoration (including paintings, natch) rather than the behaviour that goes on within them. Bludgeoned into moderate-to-high C-of-E supplication at an early age – being sent to a cathedral boarding school was the kicker here – I perhaps not unnaturally rebelled against worshiping an invisible, unsympathetic and arguably perverse deity just as soon as I left home. Reckoning that fear mixed with self-loathing is not a recipe for a worthwhile and satisfying life, I have nonetheless occasionally wondered if a set of rules handed down from an essentially good and kind superior being would at least remove the self-doubt that, equally occasionally, gnawed at my soul and obfuscated my decision making. But when that deity permits, even encourages bloody wars and institutionalised paedophilia (to cite just a couple of avoidable atrocities), then I’m afraid I don’t buy it.


But I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to believe in a greater good and since we long since have lost confidence in politicians or royalty to supply a moral compass by which we can steer our way through life’s confusion and treachery, many of us have invested in the relative certainties of art to at least provide a comfort blanket we can snuggle under.

Given the well-worn cliché about knowing what we like even if we know sod-all about art itself, I personally have made it my business in later life to glean a little education, even flirting with a history of art degree course at the OU, but that seemed like too much work at the expense of earning a living. Instead I’ve just visited as many exhibitions of as many different artists’ work as I can and read as much about the daubers and chisellers and their relevant schools as time permits. And whilst I am also similarly enthusiastic about other non-career related stuff, I have noticed that a passion for the tangible expression of creativity is, well, a much broader church and one occupied by many millions more than invest their leisure time under the bonnet of, say, an old car or in a cinema.


At Tate Mod last week there were the usual well-dressed, middle-aged couples peering through their bi-focals, clutches of Japanese tourists squeaking in hushed tones to one another and startlingly coiffed art students sketching away furiously in front of Van Doesburg’s impressive avant-garde works and even Arshile Gorky’s totally derivative and not-very-moving abstractions, the ‘wow factor’ shared by all of us in many instances and to different degrees. Now I know that similar responses can be observed amongst theatre or cinema audiences, and we also marvel at a well-turned phrase in the books we read or the radio programmes we listen to, but my contention regarding the religiosity of art stems from the very fact of these temples, variously grand, austere and even daunting, where we worship in quiet reverence the manifestations of those whose talents and skills we do not ourselves possess… or at least not in the same measure or combination. Thus inclined to view the world as they see it – I’m grossly oversimplifying here, but lah-di-dah – we leave these latterday shrines to creativity uplifted and even provoked into revaluing aspects of our lives. Or sometimes, as in the case of the Gorky show, wondering what all the fuss was about.

But even if it’s the latter, we share and debate our views with others of the same calling just as religious evangelicals claim to do with the words handed down from the bearded gent up in the clouds although they, of course, ultimately rely on the alleged certainties of a volume or two of polemic masquerading as historical fact to ward off any niggling doubts they may have about What Really Matters.


The worship of art has therefore become a creed we can indulge and believe in knowing that it is universal in every sense of the word, and also pervasive amongst myriad levels of society that are not mutually exclusive in the way that they might be with, say, music or motorcycles (actually, certainly with motorcycles). We can also – and this is perhaps the most telling parallel with old-fashioned smite-ye-down faith-followers – convince ourselves that we don’t need to know what’s good or bad about it in order to believe in it, and that’s because a Nicholas Serota or a Charles Saatchi tells us that’s cool.

Which is, of course, cool with a feckless disciple of faddism such as yrs. trly.

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1. colin higgins - March 3, 2010

Interesting chat on R4 yesterday. A reviewer of Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’ nailed it – a useful service in the fight against mumbo jumbo but after a few rounds of rationalist smugness you’d be ready for a chat with a homeopath.
Religious dogma vs the new enlightenment with Dawkins-Torquemada plucking out beliefs just to watch us scream. The trouble is everything is a belief – progress, the good in humanity, getting out of bed all show sufficient evidence that the contrary is at least as viable.

Big ideas like big gods nearly killed us all and political rationalism looks like the next stick to beat humanity with. Live and let live.

2. colin higgins - March 3, 2010

The battle for visual art was lost with Cromwell’s icon smashers, it’s been replaced by the word. Serota and Saatchi cornered the market in explanations, not art. Their opinions on quality have the same hit rate as anyone else’s but they vertically integrated art production with big cheques so everyone’s in thrall to the maaan.

Approach a gallery like everything else, with your mind and bowels open.

3. Cliff - March 4, 2010

Religion has a lot in common with the modern art world…(as opposed to the Jobbing artist of the past) The indecipherable given meaning by the “One who knows”…..That series of blobs now represents mans struggle to integrate……what utter tosh. Art like football is only interesting to those who give a toss…..Community arts project on the council estate wall of your choice, that should sort out the gun crime eh! Lets paint a picture with real shit….now that was honest!

Motorcycles are things of grace and beauty and because they actually DO something, cannot be considered as art by the chosen theocracy.

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