Humanism and the Visual Arts

By Levy, Janey L. | Free Inquiry, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Humanism and the Visual Arts


Levy, Janey L., Free Inquiry


I am happy to have joined the FREE INQUIRY staff, though I sometimes ask, what am I doing here? That question has been raised several times and in several forms in the short time since I came to FREE INQUIRY. After all, I am an art historian, and the visual arts have not occupied a prominent place in the pages of FREE INQUIRY. The Secular Humanist Declaration that appeared in the premier issue of this magazine makes almost no mention of the arts, artists were not numerous among those who endorsed the declaration, and art did not receive serious attention in subsequent issues of the magazine. Indeed, given the apparent contrast between the secular humanist emphasis on scientific method and the prevailing popular conception of artists and the contemporary art world, one might reasonably wonder what the two areas have to do with each other.

Secular humanism believes in critical thinking and the ability of human reason to understand the world, to solve problems, and to improve the quality of life for all. Visual artists, particularly in the late twentieth-century imagination, are notoriously unable to express themselves verbally, suggesting to many that they are unable to think clearly, critically, and logically. This impression is compounded by artists' statements regarding the importance of intuition and emotion in the creative process, and by the irrational and emotional qualities people often find in their work. Secular humanists embrace the linear process of the scientific method as the most reliable way of comprehending the world. Members of the art community often, in the popular view, experiment with alternative ways of knowing the world, some of which have spiritual and mystical aspects. Secular humanism stresses both individual liberty and responsibility to the larger community. Artists seem to behave in ways that are irresponsible and selfish, without regard for the needs of the community. Their personal lives may appear to lack the kind of ethical and moral standards humanists value.

In spite of such contradictions--often more apparent or imagined than real--humanism and the visual arts share important concerns. Both value liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, artists were among those most active in challenging totalitarianism. Secular humanists and artists both promote the toleration of diverse lifestyles. Many artists share with humanists a commitment to science and technology, which form an integral part of their art and their creative process. Artists also share the humanist commitment to free inquiry, believing in the necessity of raising and exploring difficult questions about life, society, culture, and human nature. They have fought for freedom to present unpopular questions and viewpoints, even when they may outrage the majority. This struggle has always been difficult, and continues to be so. In these critical areas of liberty and free inquiry in particular, artists share the struggle with secular humanists.

My discussion so far has focused on the creators of art and their connections with the values of secular humanism. But what about my field of art history, which studies the works created by others? Doesn't it just involve looking at pretty pictures, examining the formal qualities and stylistic features of works declared "worthy" by some shadowy, exclusive (and possibly exclusionary) group of "experts"? What could that possibly have to do with the concerns of secular humanism?

Like many disciplines, art history has its share of internal disagreements over the issues that form its proper domain. Connoisseurship, that is, the study of style, aesthetics, and formal qualities in artworks, formed the core of traditional art history and still occupies an important place in the field. But art history involves far more than connoisseurship. It is critical inquiry into not only the aesthetic elements, but also the subject matter, the creative process, and the visual language of imagery, as well as the relationship between the images and the larger cultural, historical, political, social, and religious context. …

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