It is time to begin, not “conclude,” because these are essentially open-ended debates. The most basic question around which both art and religion revolve is what an object or entity may be said to be a witness to–precisely the core of the issue addressed by Plato, and which still determines and generates debates about idolatry, fetishism, and blasphemy today, 2500 years later. But witnessing does not exist as an abstraction, apart from specific, historically active producers, objects, users or audiences; witnessing is always a complex triangulation of semiotic perspectives.
So we must be very clear about what grounds and makes possible all current religious debates in the first place–their completely simultaneous aesthetic and philosophical presuppositions and beliefs, which were prefigured in the philosophical controversies such as that exemplified in Plato’s discussion about what constituted an ideal community or city-state.
I will end with a very brief coda–a look at a remarkable critique of Kant’s Critique of Judgment (Kritik der Urteilskraft)8 from a 1975 essay by Jacques Derrida entitled “Economimesis,” published shortly before his more well-known volume La Verite en peinture (The Truth in Painting).9 In that essay he noted that “[A] divine teleology secures the political economy of the fine arts.”10
I have in effect argued here that Derrida’s comment is only half the story and needs to be balanced with its complement: that at the same time it is “Artistry that secures the political economy of religion.” Derrida’s remark referred to Kant’s perspective on aesthetic practice in his Critique as arguing for a (very Platonic) co-ordination of artistry and religiosity. In observing that even though in dealing with a product of fine art, Kant says one, “must become conscious that it is art rather than nature, and yet the purposiveness in its form [what Aristotle would have considered its “entelechy”] must seem as free of all constraint of chosen rules as if it were a product of mere nature.”11
In other words, the artist (as a figure of genius) is imagined as producing in artistic practice a simulacrum or exemplar of “divine” agency; an analogue to the way in which a reified immaterial force (a “god”) is imagined to “design” and “produce” nature itself (the material world as if it were a “creation,” a work of art[ifice])a work of “intelligent design.” Kant’s perspective on aesthetics builds upon many centuries of elaborations on the proper ways in which artistry and religiosity might serve each other, a debate as old as Plato and Aristotle, not only antedating by centuries the historical invention of post-tribal monotheisms such as Christianity or Islam, but constituting the core problematic of each such tradition.
Art for Kant shouldn’t simply re-produce or re-present nature. Ideally (for Kant is concerned with what constitutes the “fine arts” rather than what I’ve been concerned with here, namely artistry or artifice as such), art must produce like nature (and by implication, like nature’s “god”)– precisely the question opened up by Kierkegaard. The world of artifice is not a “second world” alongside the world in which we live; it is precisely the world in which we really do live. The human world is a world of art: presentation rather than imitation or re-presentation. Derrida’s point was that (in Kant) the realm of the aesthetic was naturalized and given point and direction– was purposeful or entelechal–insofar as it could be analogized to a “divine teleology” or purposiveness. More generally, then, the modern invention of what is commonly taken as constituting art is “secured” (socially legitimized) by being imagined as an analogue to divine creativity. In such an ideological framework, the “artist” (that other modernist fabrication or invention) is a micro-dimensional projection of a divine persona (“genius” in its most common rhetorical rubric). The “artist,” the (romantic) idea of the artist-genius, was and is the device that pins together artistry and religiosity: the “hinge” linking aesthetics and religion. This resonates with the social and ethical position of artist or artistry in many cultural traditions; artistry creating and defining the sacred itself, and erasing the traces of its own artistry; sanctity’s dependence upon the erasure of its artistry or fabricatedness.
- Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. Walter Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987). The most commonly cited German text is the Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag edition (Frankfurt, 1974).↵
- J. Derrida, La verite en peinture (Paris: Flammarion, 1978) [The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington & Ian McLeod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987)].↵
- Economimesis,” Diacritics 11 (1981): 3-25, esp. 10. Initially published in Sylviane Agacinski et. al., eds., Mimesis des articulations (Paris: Aubier-Flammarion, 1975, 57-93. For expanded commentary, see D. N. Rodowick, “Impure Mimesis, Or the Ends of the Aesthetic,” in Peter Brunette & David Wills, eds., Deconstruction and the Visual Arts: Art, Media, Architecture (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994): 96-117. See also in the same volume D. Preziosi, “Modernity Again: the Museum as Trompe-L’oeil,” 141-150.↵
- Kant, op. cit., 173.↵