Setting the Sacred Free: Art and its Public in a Time of Religious Rigidity

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Peer-Reviewed Article

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The sacred is stipulatively defined here as the empowering Ground that allows individual things to be. In the classic Indian text, The Bagavahd Gita, we encounter four yogic paths for making contact with the sacred. Translated into philosophical terms, they can be designated the systematic-conceptual, the ethical, the inter-personal, and the symbolic-experiential ways of knowing the sacred. Art falls under the fourth type, and following Hans-Georg Gadamer, must indeed be taken as a way of knowing, not merely as subjective expression. In Western culture, due to the dominance of Christianity, the systematic-conceptual is the preferred path to the sacred. But when that pathway is blocked, another path may essentially take over its role, as when the intellectual barrenness of the Enlightenment and Deism in Europe was counterbalanced by Romanticism in the arts. In our own culture today, the influence of fundamentalist versions of Christianity, and to some degree of Islam and Judaism as well, renders the systematic-conceptual (and the ethical) ways rigid and unproductive as means to connect with the sacred. As a result, the symbolic-experiential has become an especially important avenue to the sacred. It would be easy to find examples of art in this role: Odilon Redon's "noirs" come to mind, for example. But the public for those works is a small percentage of the larger American culture. Hence this paper chooses as an example Van Gogh's Starry Night, a work that is in danger of being too familiar, in that it appears on everything from coffe mugs to notepads, threatening to render the work decorative and merely "pretty" in the mind of many of its viewers. But the paper shows how, in its actual public reception, Starry Night regains its power to mediate the sacred, thanks to its reciprocal relation to photographic images of the cosmos with which the American public is now familiar.