Religion and the Arts in America CAMILLE PAGLIA
Shamelessly copied whole cloth from a lecture delivered on 6 February 2007 as the 2007 Cornerstone Arts Lecture at Colorado College. It was videotaped by C-SPAN and broadcast on its American Perspectives series on 3 March 2007.
A primary arena for the conservative-liberal wars has been the arts. While leading conservative voices defend the traditional Anglo-American literary canon, which has been under challenge and in flux for forty years, American conservatives on the whole, outside of the New Criterion magazine, have shown little interest in the arts, except to promulgate a didactic theory of art as moral improvement that was discarded with the Victorian era at the birth of modernism. Liberals, on the other hand, have been too content with the high visibility of the arts in metropolitan centers, which comprise only a fraction of America. Furthermore, liberals have been complacent about the viability of secular humanism as a sustaining creed for the young. And liberals have done little to reverse the scandalous decline in urban public education or to protest the crazed system of our grotesquely overpriced, cafeteriastyle higher education, which for thirty years was infested by sterile and now fading poststructuralism and postmodernism. The state of the humanities in the us can be measured by present achievement: would anyone seriously argue that the fine arts or even popular culture is enjoying a period of high originality and creativity? American genius currently resides in technology and design. The younger generation, with its mastery of video games and its facility for ever-evolving gadgetry like video cell phones and iPods, has massively shifted to the Web for information and entertainment.
I would argue that the route to a renaissance of the American fine arts lies through religion. Let me make my premises clear: I am a professed atheist and a pro-choice libertarian Democrat. But based on my college experiences in the 1960s, when interest in Hinduism and Buddhism was intense, I have been calling for nearly two decades for massive educational reform that would put the study of comparative religion at the center of the university curriculum. Though I shared the exasperation of my generation with the moralism and prudery of organized religion, I view each world religion, including Judeo-Christianity and Islam, as a complex symbol system, a metaphysical lens through which we can see the vastness and sublimity of the universe. Knowledge of the Bible, one of the West’s foundational texts, is dangerously waning among aspiring young artists and writers. When a society becomes all-consumed in the provincial minutiae of partisan politics (as has happened in the us over the past twenty years), all perspective is lost. Great art can be made out of love for religion as well as rebellion against it. But a totally secularized society with contempt for religion sinks into materialism and self-absorption and gradually goes slack, without leaving an artistic legacy.