The Challange of Liberal Democracy

Art as Theology: Chapter Eleven

      1. Toleration
      2. Modernity
      3. Beyond Modernity

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"Here is God's purpose-
for God, to me, it seems,
is a verb
not a noun,
proper or improper."
(R. Buckminster Fuller, published in No More Secondhand God, 1963)


From Apostolic times to the dawn of democracy, the preacher at the pulpit was the captain of the religious community. The preacher was expected to analyze and interpret the world into the ethos of the religious world. Even if the preacher was required to be politically circumspect, the preacher could not avoid interpreting politics, natural disasters, or any other matter of significance to the congregation. It was the preacher's job to clarify the religious and moral significance of important events. Not to do so was to abdicate responsibility.

Jeffersonian democracy drastically changes the equation. By insisting that religion act within boundaries for the religious sphere, and forcing the political sphere to stay within boundaries of secular governance, a line of separation was created between church and state. While perhaps necessary healthy, this separation is at best artificial. Priest and politicians have difficulty staying on their own side of the fence. The effort to enforce the separation of church and state is a commanding portion of the American civil religion.

Toleration is deeply important to the practice of democracy. While fleeting attempts have been made at amalgamated religions (and languages, ...), such unity is unlikely, (Fallding, 1974, pg.101). The urge to draw together is not strong enough to break down individual cultural barriers. We need rest from the pressure of modernity, but we will not get it. “We need Sabbath but we live in a society whose pluralism militates against a particular day, shared by all, in which being replaces doing, and affirming takes precedence over accumulating.” (Cox, 1977, pg.73).

Mainstream Christian denominations in the liberal democratic world have been ardent supporters of democracy and therefore strong supporters of toleration. When faced with important moral questions these denominations have had difficulty taking strong positions. While few Presbyterians or Methodists would advocate homosexuality, their leadership is uncomfortable with condemning the practice. The Episcopal Church has gradually allowed homosexuality to invade the upper levels of church authority. The sense of moral erosion is a by-product of liberal democracy itself. No church can take a strong moral position while simultaneously supporting liberal democracy. Unfortunately, the religious bodies when avoiding strong commitment, run the risk of becoming irrelevant. "Without a vow, no depth of commitment, trust, or relationship may develop" (Keen, 1970, pg.121).

Art fares well in the bargain. Because the art world makes no pretense of protecting morality or establishing spiritual principles, art can comment on any social situation with much less scrutiny. Because most art makes no religious claims, it can freely interact with the state or seek state support. Because art is not part of the state, it can also interact freely with religious bodies or ideas as well. Art gets the best of both worlds.

Duchamp delighted in shocking, not only the public, but the arts community itself. His widely recognized ability to shock was absorbed and lauded until Duchamp took on heroic proportions. Today, 'shock art' is so widely accepted in the arts community that it would appear that the only offense possible to the arts is censorship.



The mix of pluralistic culture and the enormous growth of sub cultures calls into question all strongly held beliefs. The modern individual must face the angst of continuing self-analysis. “The tide is moving modern man forward is bearing him away from values and meaning.” (from Harold Fallding's analysis of Northrup Frye. Fallding, 1974, pg.63; see also: pg.101). The modern situation either mitigates against or devalue the compelling stories of religion, until “it is clear that neither religious experience nor religious reflection can take place in the modern situation with the ease with that was possible in earlier periods of history.” (Berger, 1979, pg.55).

“The religious legitimizations of the world have lost their plausibility not only for a few intellectuals and other marginal individuals but for broad masses of entire societies. This opened up an acute crises not only for the nomization of the large social institutions but for that of individual biographies,” (Berger, 1979).

The modern individual, racked with self doubt, could, for a time, rely on the salvation of progress. Technological innovation ushered in a seemingly endless array of transformations allowing incredible changes to our way of life. Our possibilities blossomed before the winds of change. The technological progress of the modern world has had a dark underbelly from the start. For every gain there has been a loss. The rise of the middle class saw many descend into cruel and dehumanizing servitude. The industrial revolution brought more misery to already miserable lives. The invention of the telephone legitimized the further separation of extended families. Technology proved to be an irresistible force despite detractors. Luddites were an object of derision, while progress promised salvation.

The modern world radically altered social arrangements. As the size of our communities grew, we wanted fewer intimate contacts with our neighbors, (Cox, 1965). Our forms of entertainment, communication and even work allowed for increasing levels of abstraction, separating us as individuals from many formerly necessary interactions. The modern individual was and is forced to continually re-evaluate their self, their way of life and the society in which they live. The angst of doubt disallows strong moral or ethical positions. The intense pressure overwhelms in a way aptly described as shock. How many of us today are being left out simply because of fear or distrust of the computer? How many are disconnected because of it?

The subsequent shift away from strong moral positions, makes the artist's moral aloofness more compelling. Modern art is linked intimately with the notion of progress. Progress is seen in the tinkering with the idea, the aesthetics, of art, but not with its soul. The first reactions of the arts world were a stunning array of new 'isms'. 'Realism', 'Impressionism', 'Cubism', 'Futurism', each took us from a world of heroes and hopes to gritty reality, exotic reality or the speed of change. The viewer is no longer pulled into the work, but pushed away, to gaze upon the reality of life or the workings of light and atmosphere. Then gradually 'Dada', 'Surrealism' and 'Abstract Expressionism' divorced us from reality altogether.

Democratization at all social levels means that all 'isms' overlap and continue without any thought of contesting for a place in social consensus. Consensus, in the arts, is an illusion of the social milieu of large arts organizations. Many thriving arts communities are deprecated as folk art or craft works. 'Cowboy' or 'Western' artists, as well as graphics artists and illustrators continue several very old arts traditions alongside 'Modern' arts. The need for 'new' art blinds large arts organizations to much that is vibrant, relevant and alive.

Entertainment media (television, film, advertising), being much less encumbered by the 'art' label, explores a wide range of possibilities. Some are artistically satisfying, some are financially satisfying. In some ways, the lack of museums and performing arts centers, and a larger, less critical audience, frees those media from much of the constipation of purpose surrounding more classical arts media.


Beyond Modernity

Faith in the salvation of progress disappeared with the atomic bomb. It was now too abundantly clear that progress could destroy just as fast as it could create. The nuclear nightmare has haunted the last half of the twentieth century and calls into question all technological progress. The advance of technology cannot be stopped. Only faith in it. Technology continues to radically alter communication, our method and type of work, and where we live, work and play. The internet, in particular, by providing access to information anywhere and everywhere, radically democratizes the planet economically, politically and socially.

With so many changes coming at such a fast pace, no one, not the priest, not the politician and not the artist is able to stay ahead, to analyze and to understand. No one can hold back the tide of technological and social changes. A clear voice of reason or understanding will not be possible or at least believable until our human situation stabilizes and becomes more clear.

The pace of modernity, the pace of change, has simply overwhelmed all opposition. We are called to adapt to continual change and increasing diversity. “The old agenda of liberal theology was the contestation with modernity. That agenda has exhausted itself. The much more pressing the agenda today is the contestation with the fullness of human religious possibilities.” (Berger, 1979, pg.183).

The artist, as first witness of the world, cannot help but be pulled into the sense of the fear, the alienation, the hope, the self-confidence. Artists are trying to see and communicate our world for what it is. “At the moment, however, art is behind or barely abreast of the times, not ahead of them. The Demoiselles d'Avignon of technological art has yet to be produced: and it is extremely doubtful, in any case, if it will be a single object or picture. Meanwhile, the art we do have—'late modern' art—shows a fairly formidable debit balance, for all its apparent adventurousness. It has asked questions, but found few solutions. It has provided the major part of a philosophy of existence, and has so far failed to write the chapters down in order, so that they form a coherent whole. These defects are perhaps the measure for its humanity. But it must be admitted that, while planning to substitute creativity for religion, we have discovered that we scarcely know where or how this creativity operates; and, worshiping communication, we have often been struck dumb.” (Lucie-Smith, 1969, pp.273-274).


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