Using cultural and disciplinary difference as a driver

IFICAN Debate: Beyond the Eye of Reason


St.Georges House, Windsor Castle 8th June 2011

Transcrip of Reflection by Professor Ben Quash

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Ben Quash is Professor of Christianity and the Arts, Kings College London

Ben Quash
Thank you very much Sally and to LCACE and to all the other people who have supported this evening. I've had a really exciting evening. I expected it to be exciting, but it was much more exciting even than I expected. And thank you very much to the three provocateurs, whose papers I all three really liked and I was in the odd position of agreeing with all three of them, even though the genres were very different and the perspectives they represent were very different too.
So, despite feeling slightly disabled by Sally's introduction and its generosity and also all the intelligent things that have already been said, let me at least initiated a conversation and this is intended to only initiate a conversation and I don't want you only then to ask me questions, but I want to hear from the tables what you have been talking about and I want you to hear what each other have been talking about because I am quite confident that there will be all sorts of ideas in the room that ought to be shared and heard.
I took it as a very good thing that all three speakers in different ways were prepared to complicate the question and to suggest that talking about religious wounds was a difficult thing to do and particularly the proposal that art might heal them was a controversial statement. And that was the intention all along. I was particularly grateful to Tiffany in that she raised the point that religious identity is not a discrete thing and that people with religious commitments have many other commitments too which make them complex people and that they belong to several different sets of solidarities at once. And therefore the kind of way in which the question is posed requires that kind of complication of it. So that was very welcome. And the same is true of artists. There are artists that represent congeries of different sorts of commitment and their art will express those different solidarities too.
I want to raise a question and this is also principally in relation to what Tiffany said about the question of whether art has an entirely autonomous function in relation to society. I think your emphasis was on something like the autonomy of art and there's no doubt that a really very remarkable independence is accorded to the arts in our own liberal, secular culture. This represents a new historical moment. It's not something we can trace easily in any kind of earlier historical period or culture and its something that's also coming under question now and I'm pleased it is being questioned as I think one of the effects that has is to remove the arts from the task of accounting for what they are in relation to any kind of public standards of form or beauty. It's not to say they have to simply accept whatever other forms or canons of beauty that already exist, but the task of at least trying to do the work of relating to those questions of public standards seems to me an important thing for the arts, or artists rather, to have to do.
Because the risk is that if they don't, what you get is artists that simply make differences that cannot be accounted for as anything other than merely arbitrary differences. You can't ask how or why those differences are important, whether a difference made to a previous tradition of making is a difference of degree of whether it is simply another difference. And the risk is that you simply end up with an inability to talk about why any particular artistic intervention or contribution might be an important, or interesting or productive one.
And on that point, I think the language of generativity or productivity of art is important to preserve, even if, quite rightly one wants to distance oneself from the instrumentalisation of art. It seems to me that the risk of being excessively concerned with how art might be put to uses; and it is an important discipline of scrutiny that one needs to maintain, but the danger is then that one stops being productive or contribute to human communities or societies or the celebration of human life or the honesty of human life – a whole range of different aspects. Those important generativities of art. And in that light I want to suggest three ways in which we might think about art's contribution to not necessarily just healing religious wounds but contributing to the ligaments (to pick up a word that's been reported tonight); the ligaments between people in community.
The first of these three is what you might call the Nietzschean option. And Nietzsche is incredibly important I think for the way that a lot of modern art has conceived its task. Nietzsche's proposal, and this is obviously a compression if not a caricature, is that the arts resource us again for life. They're a stimulus to return to life. But one of the ways that this is achieved is by demonstrating to us, in the way that Greek tragedy does in his account, the Dionysian moment in art reminds us that there is a unity; a primal unity to life and it's always accompanied by a primal pain. And that therefore what the task of art is, is give us a way of coping with that fundamental fact. We're altogether part of a single Dionysian reality which is painful and art helps us to return and continue living. This is part of his critique of Schopenhauer, who says art is an escape from the world. Nietzsche's point is that in fact art is a stimulus to return to the world; to actually live life, celebrate life, but always acknowledging that we're united by the fact that we all inhabit this one world of pain.
Now, I think that's brilliant and fascinating and should be taken seriously be anyone who thinks about the role of art and I don't think that you have to run it through pain every time, I think that some of the things we've said tonight about play might have a similar, might have as it were an analogy to what Nietzsche's talking about in terms of pain. There's something about how the arts open us up to play that reminds us too that there's a unity to life that we might altogether be equipped by in order to return to life and live it more fully. That's one model.
Another one is what you might call the more Platonic version and Christianity owes a lot to this tradition and it says that fundamentally the world is not rubble. That all the particularities that surround us in the world don't represent random arbitrary rubble, but in fact they hang together in some significant way and part of the task of the arts is to help us to explore how the world hangs together. In other words it's about connectedness and about the fact that we can be at home in the world, so that one of the things that the arts do is discern that at a fundamental level things hang together; that the world is a place that we can inhabit and be at home in. It's not to disregard the pain, but that one of the things that arts do is amplify that connectedness or help us see it more fully. And I think if there were any of these three models that would be most attractive, at least in traditional terms to Christian belief, and it may also be true of other religious traditions, it's that idea that there is a connectedness to the world and that the arts help us see it.
And the third one is the one that is probably the most characteristic of the more politicised interventions in the arts today, which is the idea that Tiffany is rightly complicating. The idea that the arts are expressions and transmitters of identity. And that they can be tools for helping people talk to each other and understand each other in between different communities. That's not entirely different from what I've just called the Platonic model. It is about exploring connectedness, but the risk of that is precisely about the reification of particular communities and the idea that art always expresses the ideas and traditions of one particular community. And that's one of the things that's most brilliant about Difference Exchange and what it's been doing because it enacts in a particularly vivid way what I think is true of all religious traditions and all of the artistic traditions that associate with them, namely that they're the products of encounter at every point. They're never simply the expression of some hermetically sealed tradition. They're always responses to a complex and plural set of stimuli that come often from outside as well as from within and that religious traditions themselves are also internally, so to speak, multivocal. There are a lot of voices and subtraditions within any particular religious tradition and again art is often generated out of that set of encounters.
So the model that says we can use the arts to help talk to each other or understand each other needs to be challenged because it too neatly reinscribes the idea that... there is such a thing as Christian Art or such a thing as Jewish Art or Islamic Art or whatever and that each of those is a discrete language. Like language itself these are the products of mutual influence and encounter.
And I remember when I first talked to Tim and Gareth about the project I remember getting very excited about how you might adapt that announcement you used to get on the television that used to say we interrupt this transmission in order to bring you whatever announcement and actually call it we transmit this interruption. Because it seems to me that part of what artistic traditions are is the transmission of interruptions. And some of the best art that has certainly been the product of religious communities, but not only religious communities is the product of interruptions that are then transmitted in the form of art. And that's an incredibly important thing to learn from, because it's a re-education for those of us who live in very diverse societies. A re-education in how we are at our best when we're the products of encounter.
One last thought before I open it up to all of you. Apologies, there are probably two or three people in this room who have heard this, used this, particular idea before, but it's one of my favourite ones and I find it helpful. It's to use the moods of speech and to think about some of the ways in which religion and the arts have developed the particular problem that they have at the moment; this stand-off which you often encounter where artists say we don't want anything to do with organised religion, it always tries to tell you what you have to think or say and religion says the trouble with artists, is they're dangerous and disruptive.
The moods of speech include the indicative, which is a descriptive mode where you say what you the world is like. That the world is this, this is this, and this is that. That's a very fundamentally important way of speaking. We need it. The imperative mode is the mode in which we instruct each other in what we think we ought to do. We explore what we must or ought to do. I think its a very widespread prejudice that this is the only modes in which religion can speak. It's always risky to generalise about religions. In the same way its always risky to generalise about the arts. They're umbrella terms, they contain many different particular things underneath them, but I think it's very common to encounter the view that that's what religions do and that's why they're antithetical to freedom of expression and artistic forms, because that all they really want for you is for authoritative descriptions of how the world is or instructions about what you must do. And religions certainly, let me just speak for Christianity, haven't always helped themselves in this respect, because very often those are precisely the modes of speech at least in public that they adopt. They ought not adopt only these modes of speech and if you look at certainly the scriptural traditions of Christianity and in my view most of the religions that I've had some kind of experience of, their scriptural traditions are full of a great deal many other genres of speech, modes of speech, which permit a range of responses to the world and not all of them are indicative or imperative in character.
The three that I think modern artists most habitually like to adopt are the interrogative, so you ask questions. Your job is not as an artist to produce answers it is to stimulate questions and indeed questions that provoke more questions. And then secondly the subjunctive, which is the mood in which we wonder about things; about how things might be or could be other than they are. Or that lesser known mood the optative (those of you who are classicists will know what this is) anyone know what the optative is? The mood of desire. It's the mood in which you express what you most long for. So a statement like 'Oh, for the wings of a dove', that's a statement in the optative mood. Or 'Would that we were no longer by the rivers of Babylon'. Those are optative statements. And the mood of desire is again, something that I feel many artists feel is quite natural to them.
The interogative, the subjunctive and the optative. These conjurings, these abductions, these guestimates. Was that one of your words Ansuman that idea of guestimates, which a more kind of fancy word for that is abduction. A form of reasoning where you conjecture new contexts to make sense of your life. It's not just that you deduce things from known first principles, or accumulate evidence in the mode of induction. You abduct or abduce, which is to say that you encounter the world and then you conjure with your imagination. You conjure a context that will make the best sense of it that you can. That's something that I think that's very amenable to contemporary artists. But all of these are moods of speech that are intrinsic to the religious traditions and I think I suppose, I ought to end by saying that those dimensions of religious language that are underused in the public sphere should be brought more to the fore again and that in that context we might find more of a common cause emerging between artists and people of religion (and they're often of course the same) and that in using all of them we also discover more widely forms of speech that we can share socially. And that is generally a contribution to the healing of wounds. Not always specifically religious wounds, but wound that society suffers from, the wounds of not hearing one another or caricaturing one another. And that I found particularly helpful in your paper, that perhaps the challenge to artists if the challenge to religious people is to use the interrogative, the subjunctive and the optative more, the challenge to artists is also to stand for something a bit more. To make indicative and imperative interventions that bit more. And so I'll stop there and I hope we can all hear from each other a little bit more in the time that remains to us.

Supported by Arts Council England, London Centre for Arts and Creative Exchange and St.Georges House