Missives from Marx has a post up about how, upon actually reading the ancient holy religious texts, they turn out to be actually fairly childish and mundane. The point essentially is that most of the Rig Veda is about cows, but that “priestly and scholarly interpreters invested those texts with novel sense via creative hermeneutics.” [quote from someone called Bruce Lincoln). That is – the profound meanings aren’t ‘there’ at all – if they exist, they’re in the smart people who have found it necessary or convenient to invent profound meanings and attribute them to “oh mighty cow spirit please make me have many cows”. In which case, y’know, it would make much more sense to just have smart people inventing profound meanings and presenting them as such rather than mystifying their connection to some obscure and enigmatic fetish-object.
What this immediately made me think of though was art. I’m a bit of a philistine in general, but I am especially unimpressed with ‘modern art’. Stuff like this. Or this. Or this and this. And while I don’t really know anything about it, the following reasoning seems quite strong to me: these items can be interpreted in an endless number of ways. No single interpretation is identifiably the correct one (in the way that, for example, with most written sentences interpretations converge on a fairly limited range of meanings, that give us some confidence about what the speaker meant).
If that’s true, then whatever meaning is found in the work by a viewer is principally the viewer’s own creation: they create whatever meaning is involved by the effort expended in thinking ‘what the hell does this mean?’ The meaning they come up with may be profound, insightful, and important, or it may be banal, stupid, and trivial. But either way, it’s something they came up with. And it’s quite likely that, equipped with the same brain and the same background, they could have come up with a similar meaning independently of the work of art – if they had stopped and stood in front of a lamp-post ‘interpreting’ it, or just staring into space or watching a mouse eat rice.
But in this case, attributing that meaning, whether insightful or stupid, to the work of art or to the artist is a mystification in just the same way as attributing ‘God will punish evil because this is the true nature of justice’ to ‘when the prophet was made fun of, God sent bears to killer his mockers’. And in both cases, there’s no reason for the mysterious object to which these meanings are attributed to exist. It serves no purpose. If art is meant to stimulate the viewer to find their own meanings, there’s no point at all in such art existing.
Or rather, the possible ‘purpose’ that it serves to give people a mechanism by which to put extra authority onto what they come up with. And interestingly, there seem to be two contrasting versions of this rather silly process: tradition and fashion. Either it must be good because it’s the old thing, or it must be good because it’s the new thing. Art of course tends to involve both – the old masters, whose endless gratuitous breasts aren’t remotely the product of lecherous tendencies in such august figures, and the new up-and-coming geniuses and their bisected cows. Indeed, it’s arguable that religion is starting to show more signs of ‘fashion’, despite being by-and-large a bastion of ‘tradition’. In fact, if it’s true (as I think it is) that the last couple of centuries have seen a ‘historic triumph of youth over age’ in multiple spheres, we might express the modern age, in a weary tone, as the triumph of ‘fashion over tradition’.
In summary, a large part of me is distrustful of a lot of art, because it seems rather similar to the Bible.