Subjectivity, the Person, and Modern Art: Theological Reflections on Jacques Maritain and Charles Taylor

By Dyrness, William | Cross Currents, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Subjectivity, the Person, and Modern Art: Theological Reflections on Jacques Maritain and Charles Taylor


Dyrness, William, Cross Currents


One of the few relatively uncontested observations about modern art is its consistent celebration of subjectivity and personal expression. Both making and experiencing art, since Impressionism at least, has come to be an encounter of persons. To be sure, art still embodies the textures, colors, and sounds that give it a physical existence; but its formation and reception, what we call its aesthetics, necessarily involves personal experience. Modern artists quarrel about many things, but they share the conviction that art, when it is authentic and serious, expresses the freedom and depths of the human self. (1)

This personal character of art can take many forms. But they all are some variation on the necessity of artists "to find and define an image of himself (sic) which corresponds most comprehensively to the 'truth' that he feels within himself." (2) Nicholas Cook, who quotes this as a representative view of composer Arnold Schoenberg, goes on to argue that such convictions make the modern work of art (or of music) a "moral entity and not a perceptual one." To critically engage modern art--Cook thinks this is a 20th century expression of the 19th century art-religion--the listener or viewer has to accede to the moral claims art makes, even at the expense of enjoyment. One must be willing to personally receive--and now engage--the personal statements that constitute a work of art.

The allusion to art-religion is not incidental for it is a commonplace that art, for many people during this period, has actually replaced religion. But the contemporary form of art-religion has taken on a peculiar form, different in many ways from its 19th century predecessor. As artist Julian Schnabel has expressed this:

  Duccio and Giotto were painting in a society in
  which there was actually belief in God ... People
  had religious experiences in front of paintings.
  The painters were connecting people to something
  bigger than their individual experiences. I think
  people still have religious experiences in front
  of paintings. The only difference today is that
  the religion isn't organized or prescribed--it's
  consciousness. To get religion now is to become
  conscious, to feel those human feelings. (3)

The language of consciousness and personal expression resonates well beyond the art gallery and museum, it has in fact become the lingua franca of the modern person. Charles Taylor defined this consciousness in terms of what he calls a modern imaginary. He describes this social imaginary in these terms:

  The understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic
  expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, [is] that
  each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our
  humanity, and that it is important to find and live
  out one's own, as against surrendering to conformity
  with a model imposed from outside, by society, or
  the previous generation or religious or political
  authority. (4)

I will return to Taylor's argument in a moment, but here I want to point to the challenge the modern artist (and not just the artist!) faces in accounting for the freedom and human depths that she has come to enjoy. All of us expect enrichment from our concerts and exhibitions, but we seldom pause to ask the obvious question: whence this privileging of the personal in the experience of art? More importantly, in the absence of religion, what underwrites these high expectations? Though many have recognized this problem, I will cite two of the more prominent voices. Critic Peter Fuller writing in the 1980s, though not religious, recognized that:

  A society which has no hegemonising religious beliefs
  lacks a shared symbolic order, with disastrous effects
  on both aesthetics and ethics. As that great
  anthropologist Gregory Bateson (who, like me, was no
  believer) once saw, the decline since the nineteenth
  century of the belief in the immanence of god within
  nature has
  tended to lead men to regard nature as alien, as
  unworthy of ethical or aesthetic consideration. … 

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Subjectivity, the Person, and Modern Art: Theological Reflections on Jacques Maritain and Charles Taylor
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