Politics & Policy

The Trouble with Dull Art


Editor’s note: Christianity has been taking a beating for years now, with one tony atheist tome after another rolling off the presses — and still no end in sight.

And so far — with the exception of a Michael Novak here and a Dinesh D’Souza there — believers have largely turned the other cheek.

Now, finally, comes more payback — with THE LOSER LETTERS, a Screwtape for our screwed-up time.

In the latest round over God, Mary Eberstadt takes on pathetic nastorious wormbags on National Review Online . .

Hey there, all You major league atheist Guys!!! It’s me, A.F., reporting for duty again,

First up today, a little technical note. Apparently, some people who call themselves Your “friends” have been trying to e-mail me in here lately. I know because the Director just came by to tell me that all their mail went straight to the spam file. He said they were in violation of the following rules: (1) No letters that are WRITTEN ENTIRELY IN CAPS get through the filters here; (2) neither do any using the F-word (told You so!); and (3) neither do any with misspellings (that one was at my own request — I think those kind of mistakes make us atheists look Unscientific!).

Anyway, the Director said rules (2) and (3) alone knocked out just about everything that was incoming to me from those so-called friends. Sorry about that, Guys, but I thought You should know. I felt kind of bad for You after he told me. I sure hope Everybody gets a better class of correspondent! You all deserve it, that’s for sure! That’s part of why I’m writing so much, I hope You know.

Now back to today’s set of advice about our godless Movement and what’s best for it: This Letter is about another set of issues that blocked my own conversion to atheism for some time, though I’m almost embarrassed to admit it now. But since they’re issues that are keeping many another believer in the Loser’s corner and out of Our godless reach, I really need to explain to You how vulnerable they make Us atheists. These are what might loosely be called the problems of Dull achievement.

By “achievement” I don’t mean this time the soup kitchens and hospitals and schools and missions and all that sort of feel-good charitable crap that I talked about in the last Letter. I mean instead that higher record on which the believers perpetually pride themselves — in architecture, music, sculpture, painting, literature, philosophy, and the artistic life. I’m talking about their infuriating claim that religion is inseparable from — even responsible for — artistic achievement of the very first order.

Now before Anybody chucks a spaz and starts learning Spell Check to try and get around the e-mail filters in here, let me state the obvious right up front: No, this is not the kind of question that settles the biggest issue one way or another. Nothing about the architecture and art and poetry and music and all that fluffy stuff definitively establishes the existence of the Loser.

But that’s precisely what makes this aesthetic claim of the Dulls so bad for us, don’t You see? They think in the most annoying superior way imaginable that this suggestive evidence is powerful enough. They argue that the best of religiously inspired art is of such transcendent quality that it can only be explained as a window of some kind onto a reality higher, or more perfect, or more lasting than this one.

Further, the Dulls contend in the most annoying offhand way that this best of religious art is unmatched by aesthetic efforts of any other kind (let alone the belligerently secular stuff of, say, Communist “drama” or sculpture or architecture). In other words, they smugly let their religious art speak for itself – a posture that has brought many an unwitting aesthete dangerously close to a Dull point of view, and even pushed some over the edge into religious belief.

Okay, let’s admit that they have a thing or two in their corner — St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Notre Dame in Paris, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Hohe Domkirche St. Peter und Maria in Cologne, Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, the Duomo of Milan, St. Paul Cathedral’s in London, and so braggedy-brag on. And that’s just starters for Dull architecture, as You know. Then there are the like-minded raisings of all kinds of magnificent temples and mosques and stupas and such by other kinds of believers, also all over the world and also all throughout history. The obvious Fact that we atheists have yet to wrap Our heads around is that most of the world’s greatest buildings, and I mean “greatest” aesthetically not literally, have been dedicated in one way or another to the Loser, by whatever name he’s called in any given spot.

Don’t get me wrong Guys — I’m not saying Frank Gehry and Le Corbusier and downtown Pyongyang aren’t all that! But still.

This aesthetic ammunition of the Dulls only gets worse the more You look at it. Add to the architecture just some of the written record — the so-called scriptures (and even You admit there are some pretty good one-liners in there!), the City of God, the Divine Comedy, the Praise of Folly, the Summa Theologica, blahbidy-blah blah; or, say, an impressive if deluded pack of rabbis, scholars, priests, nuns, theologians, mystics, poets, soldiers, yadda, yadda, all testifying through the ages in the Loser’s name. Plus which, and there’s no point even arguing with this one, the believers can also claim all the best music for human voices ever written, and every painting and sculpture of any real worth whatsoever from the fall of Rome onward.

I’m trying to keep this short, Guys! These kinds of lists could fill a library (come to think, these kinds of lists are what libraries are made of!) Yet annoying though it is to have to acknowledge the extent of such achievement in the Loser’s name, we atheists do have to grant that the believers aren’t making that particular record up.

Now, this aesthetic legacy of religion isn’t anything that You all have paid much attention to, I realize. For reasons I’m not sure of (but maybe Someone will explain someday), the Facts of beauty and sublimity don’t seem to be issues to which atheists are sensitive, period.

I’m not even sure why I still feel them myself, so long after my own Turn to atheism. It’s true that when my ex-boyfriend, Lobo, got stoned, there was nothing he liked better than opening all his Dad’s coffee-table books on Renaissance art and eyeballing the paintings and sculptures. And it’s true that this was one of the few things Lobo did that I enjoyed doing with him when I wasn’t stoned myself. That was before his Dad kicked him out and we moved to Portland, You know. I’m not saying Lobo was all bad, by the way. Just mostly. That’s what happens when You pick up Your boyfriend in rehab I guess!

More about all that later. As I was saying, and regardless of how much we’d like to avoid it, the question for us atheists about this religious art is really very simple: Do the Dulls have a point about this aesthetic record, or do they not? Were these works, and others that are considered to be among humanity’s masterpieces, even thinkable apart from religion itself? In other words, is there a necessary (as opposed to accidental) connection between the exaltedness of the art, and that of the religion from which it claims inspiration and derivation?

Again with all due respect, it doesn’t help with this aesthetic problem to have Mr. Hitchens diss it by saying that “we [atheists] have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books.” Never mind the first problem here, i.e. how many of those names on his greatest-hits list were Dulls themselves. And never mind, or try to anyway, the question of what explicitly atheist music and art and literature actually look like — I mean, it’s not as if Futurism and Constructivism and Abstract Expressionism and Performance Art never existed!! BTW, we’d be much better off if they hadn’t. (New idea: after We get done burning David Berlinski’s book against You, can We burn some of that atheist art, too? It sure might help Us on the convert front!)

The critical point here is this: atheists mustn’t let Ourselves get trapped into this kind of aesthetic bean-counting as Mr. Hitchens does here, because there’s no possible world in which we win it. All the Dulls, even the least schooled among them, think that this record of art and music and literature devoted to religion across the centuries is some kind of big propaganda plus for them. And they’re not the only ones who make that connection, either. “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving” — these traitorous words are from that Ŭber-Humanist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Ouch! That one hurts!

In sum, the believers stubbornly insist that the most towering minds in History have willingly harnessed themselves to the cause of religion, and that the record of their achievements speaks for itself. I know it’s all completely Unscientific! But that doesn’t stop the Loser-lovers from scoring points with it.

For example, in his very annoying book analyzing post-Christian Europe, The Cube and the Cathedral, professional papist George Weigel — who like Michael Novak is one of the sharper of the Dulls — boils down the question of religious art vs. secular art to two symbols: Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris vs. that statement of modernism incarnate, La Grande Arche de la Defense.

Weigel pits these two architectural icons against one another in a contest as follows: “Which culture, I wondered, would better protect human rights? Which culture would more firmly secure the moral foundations of democracy? The culture that built this stunning, rational, angular, geometrically precise but essentially featureless cube? Or the culture that produced the vaulting and bosses, the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the nooks and crannies, the asymmetries and holy ‘unsameness’ of Notre Dame and the other great Gothic cathedrals of Europe?”

You see that this inquiry only appears to be some thumbsucker about one old building versus another. It is actually far worse for us atheists than most other academic-sounding debates. It dangerously connects that judgment about beauty to the question of exactly what ideas are embodied in things like the Great Arch. It asks which kind of civilization really puts Man and Woman at the center and takes best care of them. Again, I’m not taking sides on this, just pointing out for our own protection that the Dulls are definitely on to something in the factual record here.

Not that this makes their harping on it any less frustrating, of course! In connecting his dots between the history of Christianity and European achievement, Weigel actually has the nerve to list for four and a half pages the names of what he calls “larger-than-life personalities…all motivated in their life’s work by Christian conviction.” Adelbert, Konrad Adenauer, Albert the Great, Ambrose of Milan, Fra Angelico, Anskar, Thomas Aquinas, Athanasius, Augustine of Canterbury, Augustine of Hippo; those are just the A’s, and on the list goes through Huldrych Zwingli if any of You remember who he is (major league Swiss Reformation guy, if that helps).

Now you might dismiss Weigel with his witchy old list as just another flack of the mackerel-snatchers. He is after all the biographer of that total tool and mercifully (as it were) deceased major enemy of Ours, John Paul II. But the problem is, he’s obviously on to something. A little learning it’s said is a dangerous thing, and never is it as true as with our Christian adversaries. If only they could not read, or were wholly in ignorance of history — if only they had simply Evolved without eyes or ears! — then they wouldn’t be so susceptible to believing that there’s a connection between aesthetics and eternity in the first place. It doesn’t help that most people Dull or Bright agree that the greatest art in history has been created in the name of the Loser — or in the case of the Greeks and Romans, the losers plural I guess.

And against this Dull artistic excellence, what exactly do we Atheists bring to the table? The Brooklyn Museum of Art? Elton John? Your books? Freak dancing? Rammstein? And note that once again I’m not even going to the question of what kind of aesthetics were generated by the specific subgenre of Communist Atheism Proper, about which the less said (as You all seem to understand!) the better. Even Lobo, who was not exactly Mensa bait, couldn’t even walk by the Whitney Museum without elbowing me and clapping his hands to his face and moaning loudly, “My eyes — they burn! They buuuuurn!” while other people stopped to stare at him. I have to admit, I thought it was kind of funny at the time. Even though by then I’d more or less stopped going to church myself and caring one way or the other about art — or much of anything else. That’s how hard the art habit dies.

In sum, given the weight of the Empirical evidence, I think our most prudent course as atheists is to stay as far from the questions of aesthetics as possible. I say this even knowing that some potential Brights will be Turned themselves by it, lost to us forever in just this impulsively emotional way — undone, say, by Palestrina or Spanish Baroque; by that tension five hundred years later in the marble index finger of the virgin, playing with the infant’s toes in da Settignano’s Foulc Madonna; or maybe by one of Tiepolo’s fat schmaltzy cherubs or a chance reading of a Psalm; even by the strains of evensong, floating out of one of Nietzsche’s tombs late on a winter’s day. How annoyingly little it takes to lose a soul! (Sorreeeee again.)

As you can tell, despite my own personal Evolution, I’m still all too aware of the way that religious aesthetics can stab us Brights in the back. In my ignorance as a believer, I once would have argued that there was more beauty in any single room of the Accademia in Venice, Santa Croce in Florence, and any square yard of the Uffizi, than in the Whitney and MOMA and the Pompidou put together.

And like the believer I once was, I’d also have connected that judgment about beauty to another, more metaphysical one. I’d have told You that whatever was inspiring these disparate people from across time and languages and cultures to raise such unearthly, inhumanly gorgeous images and words and sounds — well, I’d have said the Odds were that this religious art was being inspired by Something rather than Nothing. That’s Dull psychology for you. That’s how the dupes think.

In sum, for us Atheists, competing against the believers on the field of aesthetics — like competing over good works or sexual liberation or logic — is another game we need to run like hell from. Personally I’m over it now, the same way people everywhere break other powerful habits: cold turkey, and no longer going near the stuff. In short, I just say nein!* And so, I advise, should We all.

I know You’re probably getting impatient by now, and I’m almost there as promised on filling You in about what parts of the new atheism did turn this Former Christian around! First, though, We Brights all need to put Our heads together about one more major problem that’s keeping Our numbers down out there. I’m talking about the many high-profile traitors who have left Us for the Loser recently — and what to do about those pathetic nastorious wormbags.

TTYL, stay tuned Guys!

XXO, A.F. Christian

*P.S. I just love German, don’t You? Talk about the language of atheism! I’m studying it on Rosetta Stone now, how cool is that? The Director gave me a set. He said I could practice all I like, as long as I slide the CDs back through the slot before lights out. Jawohl, mein Kommandant!

Editor’s note: Come back for more from A. F. Christian next Friday on National Review Online. Catch up on the LETTERS here.

Mary Eberstadt — Ms. Eberstadt has written for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including National Review, Policy Review, The Weekly Standard, Commentary, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, First Things, and the American Spectator.


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