The image above is Caravaggio’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus, c.1600-01, commissioned for the Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo church, Rome. Fallen from his horse, sword strewn useless by his side, we see a prostrate Saul of Tarsus startled by a brilliant light through which, he later tells us, he heard Jesus ask ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’.
Saul, until that moment, had made it his business to seek and slay anyone in Jerusalem who had joined the small but growing band of followers that believed in Jesus after his death. Since Saul believed no Messiah would belittle himself to suffer the humiliating indignity of crucifixion, then Jesus was not the Messiah his followers proclaimed. His view, though, was turned upside down while on the road to Damascus by a blinding light that, as the story goes, enabled him to see. Saul became Apostle Paul and spread the word of Jesus. His writings form a large part of the New Testament.
I mention all this to raise the question: is Alain de Botton’s latest book ‘Religion for Atheists’ published in January this year, his conversion-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment? Has Alain de Botton similarly fallen from the so-called persecutory high horse of an atheist non-believer, to now see the light in religion?
The book’s title is quick with a reply. Rather than advance a negative relation between religion and atheists through the usual phrase ‘atheists against religion’, an opposition between the two is maintained albeit turned on its head to advance, instead, a positive relation that makes religion for atheists. This Alain de Botton calls ‘Atheism 2.0’, an upgrade defined by the positive, not the negative.
Any atheist watching the video of his Ted talk of July last year, would be hard pushed not to feel inspired by the potential of this ‘upgrade’. For although reason may be paramount to one’s understanding of the world, when it comes to one’s relations with others, reason tends often to go astray.
This is our particular modern day tragedy. Reason triumphs in science, in medicine, in engineering, in internet technology. Yet, when it comes to its very genesis through our relations with others — without which we would not be able to reason — it fails, dismally.
We see this every time a government performs atrocities on its own people. The road Damascus in Syria, today, is disfigured by the Syrian assault on it own people protesting since January 2011 where, according to witnesses, ‘soldiers who refused to open fire on civilians were summarily executed by the Syrian Army’. (1)Opeyemi Olowonyoyin, ‘al-Assad vs Syrians’, read more here Saul’s road to Damascus is still bathed in bloodshed, not fraternity, when the technology that built the road and developed the tools for bloodshed, are a marvel of reason.
For many, an answer to this tragedy is religion: a Godless society is a loveless, brutal existence. This, though, pits love against reason only to cut love off at its very roots: reason (where the reciprocal relationship of love between a parent and child is the movement of reason).
This is where Atheism 2.0 walks in. A brutal society is not due to reason, but to reason not exercised well enough. By harnessing the tools of religion that enrich its understanding, Atheism 2.0 hopes to enrich, instead, the social cohesion and fraternal fruitfulness we atheists entrust in reason.
In this way, the notion of Atheism 2.0 is inspiring. At least so I thought until I discovered the role art would play.
Art, in being one of the tools the Catholic Church has wielded so successfully, would play a similar role in Atheism 2.0. It is a role that shuttles art back to the Council of Trent in the early 17th century. It is a role that makes Atheism 2.0 inconsistent, I find, with atheism.
The Council of Trent (1545–1563) was the Catholic Church’s response to the threat posed by the Protestant Reformation. In Trent, the Catholic Church convened and formed the Counter Reformation that set the tone of the Church’s reinvigoration over the next three-hundred years. Integral, was a renewal of its culture in which art played an essential role. Through art, the story of Christ was to be told in a manner so convincing that one could not help but be drawn in. Along with it, the ideals of the Church would also be imparted. Commissioning guidelines drawn up by the council subsequently bankrolled what we now know as the Italian Baroque.
In Caravaggio’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus, we see the Council’s guidelines in full force. Strident tonal contrasts tell the story of Saul’s conversion from the dark of having persecuted believers to the light of becoming a believer, himself. With arms outstretched in embrace of ‘Christ’s light’, the extreme foreshortening of the figure has us tumble into this embrace as we similarly topple from our high horse of indifference outside the painting, into the open arms of belief within it.
While this type of ‘absorption’ in art is an attribute ascribed by the art historian Michael Fried to later works, he nevertheless writes that ‘subjects involving absorptive states and activities are present in abundance in earlier painting, and that in the work of some of the greatest seventeenth-century masters in particular — Caravaggio, Domenichino (in the Last Communion of St. Jerome), Poussin, Le Sueur, Georges de La Tour, Velázquez, Zurbarán, Vermeer, and, supremely, Rembrandt come at once to mind — those states and activities are rendered with an intensity and a persuasiveness never subsequently surpassed’. (2)Michael Fried, ‘The Primacy of Absorption’ in Absorption and Theatricality, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1980, p. 43
Some, however, feel there is a flaw in Caravaggio’s painting. The crush of foot space below the horse’s hooves, suggests faulty foreshortening. This, it seems to me, is but the effect of absorption. Having toppled into the painting, we find ourselves unconsciously scrambling for somewhere to stand other than on top of Saul. The resulting discomfort is, instead, indicative of the painting’s persuasive power, rather than a flaw. So persuasive, in fact, that once a beholder of the time had been drawn in, they would have been unable to draw back.
I say a beholder of the time since we, in our modern world, cannot help but see the painting differently. Back then, though, there was only one direction in an engagement with this art: absorption without release. For although a beholder in 1601 would have, after some time, eventually made their way to the door of Santa Maria del Popolo church and onward home, they in fact would nonetheless have never left the world view of the painting—a world view prescribed by the Church.
For us, now, in our modern life, this would be akin to walking past a church one hot Sydney Saturday afternoon to spy a beckoning depth of cool shade through its open doors. The welcoming sound of a choir rehearsing inside helps to entice one in. Then, after some time relieved inside from the harshness outside, upon turning to walk back out one finds one cannot leave, as the doors have disappeared. Instead, in art today, one is no longer locked in, but able to step away. The movement of engagement is reciprocal.
In being reciprocal, engagement involves two directions, not just the one that leads us in. For ‘We have got beyond venerating works of art as divine and worshipping them’ writes the philosopher Hegel. (3)GWF Hegel, Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on fine Art’, trans. T.M. Knox, Oxford University Press, Oxford, vol.1, 1975, p. 9 Not because we have decided it is not the done thing anymore, that it is not fashionable, but because the necessities of thought, of reason, have changed.
So changed, in fact, that in 1787 the philosopher Immanuel Kant compares this change to the Copernicus Revolution. (4)Imanuel Kant, ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, ed. Paul Guyer, Cambrodge University Press, New York, 1998, p. 110 Having once thought we, on Earth, were at the centre of the galaxy around which the sun rotates, we discover Earth is but one of a number of planets that rotates, instead, around the sun. The shift in how we now understand thought is that big.
Accordingly for the post-Kantian Hegel, as Robert Pippin tells us, ‘traditional, image-based art is no longer as important a vehicle of meaning for us now, given how we have come to understand ourselves, have come to understand understanding’. (5)Robert B. Pippin, ‘The Persistence of Subjectivity: On the Kantian Aftermath’, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2005, p. 280
Engagement in art, today, is through reason’s reciprocal movement between positions, not belief’s pre-ordained certainty. Its movement is from subject to object, with a return movement from object to subject. The movement is intersubjective; not a movement between a person and an object such as a chair we sit on, but between one person and another. This would have to be the oddest thing about art. For although art is an object, we treat it in the same way we treat a fellow person. This has nothing to do with any figurative rendition within the work of art or not. In fact this relation is, I would argue, more profound when the work of art is non-referential and does not stand in or speak for the artist in any way. Intersubjectivity, here, is not between a viewer and the artist via the work of art, but between a viewer and an object we seek meaning from, just as we seek meaning from the person we are in a conversation with, when we do not seek meaning from the chair we sit on.
To return art to the days of Trent is to return art to a singular position of belief, rather than engage with it through the opposing positions of reason that is part of modern society.
Nevertheless, Alain de Botton finds engaging with contemporary art difficult, as if he is barred at contemporary art’s very entrance, unable to get in. (6)Alain de Botton, transcribed from the video, ‘…that’s why a very common feeling when you are in a museum is, let’s admit it, ‘I don’t know what this is about’. If we are serious people we don’t admit to that, but that feeling of puzzlement is structural to contemporary art.’ This, though, is not the fault of contemporary art but, rather, a fault in how well we exercise our ‘engagement’.
From what I see, the degree of how well we engage with each other (as a society) is reflected in how well we engage with contemporary art. Improve one, we improve the other.
For which reason I predict, if Alain de Botton is able to upgrade atheism without subjugating art to a pre-Copernicus-understanding of thought, not only would relations between ourselves greatly improve, but no longer would Alain de Botton feel barred at the door of contemporary art.
In this way there is hope that one day Saul’s road to Damascus will be bathed in the warm sunlight of fraternity, rather than remain a graveyard of unreason.