The Revelation of Art-Religion


Knoll, Reinhold, Department of Sociology, University of Vienna; Kenneth Quandt, Ph.D. in Classics, University of California, Berkeley

Art’s original function in Christian Europe is exemplified by the way the Eastern Icon served as a window to the divine. After the Great Schism of 1054, several developments in Western Christianity separated art from church, cult, and religion. Art continued to evolve independently of the Roman Catholic Church through the Renaissance, with a continuous development of artistic style that culminated in the Baroque Totalism of
the eighteenth century.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the fully secular realm of art provided vehicles that helped facilitate the French Revolution, and then served in the nineteenth century as a medium for attempts to incubate new social meaning in the Revolution’s traumatized aftermath, either through Romantic naturalism or a historicistic retrieval of the Baroque order. The upheaval had been too great for art as such to manage, however, and instead the realm of art abandoned its long-established continuity with the past, to understand itself as continuing the Revolution toward a better but entirely unknown outcome. Some objected that only philosophy could achieve this, whereas art could do so only by arrogating to itself a new devotional status in terms the public could accept, a concept Reinhold Knoll explores as “Art-Religion.”

Hanging on to the past in the continuing present (historicism) soon became stale, and Romantic naturalism unleashed a sleep of reason, while the spiritualization of art detached it from its transient social context and disengaged the audience from its actual world by creating a vacuum to be filled by Richard Wagner’s notion of Gesamtkunstwerk (a “total work of art”), relying in part on a free merging of Christian doctrine and cult, supported by radical political aspirations for the German Volk and buoyed by a Dionysian abuse of the several arts in the name of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Friedrich Nietzsche’s growing ambivalence – he recognized the nihilism and staleness of “Art-Religion,” but looked to art only to mask what was going on – prophesied the predictable political outcome:
World War I.

The despair in the war’s aftermath, in tandem with the influence of technology, threatened to overwhelm any artistic aspiration to truth, beauty, and goodness, even though art retained its unquestionable authority as the public conscience. Reproducibility and repeatability, made possible by technological advances and fostered by market forces, indulged a new conspiracy with museum administrators to separate the spectator from his experience of the artwork with informational plaques that told him what to think, and by a reversal of master and servant dictated what the artist *must* do to have his works included in the galleries and museums. This compromise of the artist’s will either dissociated it altogether from truth or helped it achieve a mystical leap beyond the given situation: only the art collector and connoisseur were empowered to decide. The latest step is “action-art,” which suggests that the artist might be mankind’s surrogate martyr. This has left space for only two aesthetic possibilities, completely unrelated except that both are useless to life: abstraction and naked crudeness. Included is an assault on language supported by ubiquitous advertisement, an attack that ultimately cannot succeed as long as man is man. There is hope for art and for man – but not in the usual venues.

Religion, Culture, European History, Western Civilization, Religious History, Philosophy, Cultural History, Wagner, Nietzsche, Modernity, Post-Modernity, Decadence, Decay, Decline of the West
Release Date: 
November 15, 2018
Hardcover: 978-1680534696
Trim Size: 
6 x 9

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