Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Looking for Ourselves ; Arts, Less Likely to Be Overtly Religious, Still Ask 'Who Am I?'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Looking for Ourselves ; Arts, Less Likely to Be Overtly Religious, Still Ask 'Who Am I?'

Article excerpt

Christ Washing the Feet of St. Peter," a painting on vellum commissioned by Germany's Otto III about the year 1000, evokes a feeling of the coincident majesty and humility of Jesus. In the background, wide-eyed onlookers emphasize that something sacred is taking place.

At the right, Barbara Kruger's painting " 'Untitled' (Tell us something we don't know)" from near the end of the millennium (1987) is filled with eyes, too. But viewers may find them more disturbing than inspirational.

As the second millennium dawned, art in the Western world was almost exclusively in the service of the Christian church, which used architecture, music, and the visual arts to bring its message to the illiterate masses.

Today art and religion are often seen as incompatible. Art is thought of as secular, posing its own answers (or suggesting the impossibility of finding them) to fundamental questions about life.

Beyond secularization, another big change has occurred in the arts in the last 1,000 years, at least from the Western perspective. That has been the "democratization" of the arts, made vastly more available through technological changes like the printing press and television. Rapid communication has also promoted the discovery and appreciation of the rich artistic traditions of the non-Western world, from Chinese landscape painting to Inuit carvings to Islamic calligraphy.

In a countertrend, the closing millennium saw an increase in the perception of some arts as a luxury intended for a small elite (the birth of opera, ballet).

Much of the millennium was spent trying to codify an aesthetic for art, a set of rules with which to judge it. Was art's aim to invoke pleasure? To serve "the greater glory of God"? Provide moral uplift? Skillfully mimic nature? Voice truths about the human condition? Answer the question "Who am I? …

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