Reflections on the Impact of "The Digital Revolution" on Art and Religion

By Chodos, Rafael | Cross Currents, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Reflections on the Impact of "The Digital Revolution" on Art and Religion


Chodos, Rafael, Cross Currents


The steady and rapid progress of digital technologies over the last thirty years has led to major changes in the cultural ecosystem in which we live. Particularly since the development of the Internet in the early 1990s, the digital world has become a larger and larger part of our lives. It has caused major disruptions in many industries, such as photography, publishing, the creation and distribution of books, artworks, music, and movies. It has facilitated the outsourcing of even highly skilled labor so that the significance of national boundaries has been diminished, and the future need for human labor has been called into question.

It is these disruptions, and others like them, which make us speak of the digital "revolution" for a revolution is a form of evolution and growth that begins with some kind of destruction. Digital technologies grew rapidly also during the first half of the twentieth century and were widely deployed in manufacturing. But we do not speak of that period of their development as any kind of revolution, for instead of displacing existing commercial structures, their role was to reinforce those structures and make them more efficient. It was not until the 1980s that digital technologies started to displace and destroy existing commercial structures and then the "digital revolution" started.

The impact of the digital revolution on commerce has been widely recognized and discussed. This is not surprising, given that the development of digital technologies in the twentieth century was driven principally by commercial interests and for commercial purposes. But it turns out that the digital revolution is having unexpected impacts also in the spheres of art and religion. Here, I want to reflect on just four of them.

Replacing the notion of authority with the notion of popularity

The recent popular uprisings in the Middle East have reminded us that political authority may be overthrown by coordinated popular action. But the creation of new authority structures is much harder than the overthrow of the old ones. And when the existing political power structures are not well coordinated with the underlying religious and social authority structures or when those structures themselves are unclear, revolution may lead only to chaos.

Throughout history up until quite recently, and in most parts of the world, religion has been linked to, and depended on and reinforced, the prevalent political and social authority structures. From the temple states of the ancient Middle East, through the House of David and all the nationalistic excesses that entailed, to the Roman Empire and its "spinoff," the Catholic Church, religion has always been affiliated with authority.

This is not to ignore the countervailing spiritual traditions that are as old as the temple states. We can read the Books of Genesis and Exodus as an account of the transformation of the Israelite religion from the personal, naturalistic mysticism of the patriarchs into the political religion that Moses founded--a religion whose objective was the founding of a new temple state, perhaps on the model of the Egypt from which there was so great an Exodus!--"spirituality" might be defined as "religion" minus (dogma + sacred text + institutional hierarchy), and there has always been a spiritual alternative to institutionalized religion. Spirituality has raised its voice to higher or lower decibel levels through the ages.

Art, too, has historically been a "sidekick" to the church, the state, and the aristocracy. Standards of competency and excellence have been established by the king, the church, and their hangers-on; and it was only briefly, in the early twentieth century, that some artists rejected their role as flatterers to the aristocracy and the church. Those artists (van Gogh, Kandinsky, Klee, Picasso) can be thought of as having ushered in the Modern Art Revolution. But even their rebellious ideas were quickly co-opted by the aristocrats who became their collectors and their patrons. …

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