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  • Rainey Knudson

Preach, Art! (688 words)

I recently ran across the following quotes, written 30 years apart, bemoaning the zeal for art that is morally uplifting:


[D]igital media have bulldozed an autonomous sphere of culture into a moral terrain that Aristotle would find familiar: We again want our “content” to authentically reflect the world (mimesis) and produce healthy feelings in its consumers (catharsis). Very unfortunately, this evangelical turn in the arts in the 21st century...

Jason Farago, "Why Culture Has Come to a Standstill", The New York Times Magazine, October 2023.

Americans do seem to feel, on some basic level, that the main justification for art is its therapeutic power. That is the basis on which the museums of America have presented themselves to the public ever since they began in the nineteenth century—education, benefit, spiritual uplift, and not just enjoyment or the recording of cultural history.

Robert Hughes, "Art, Morals, and Politics", The New York Review of Books, April 1992.


Farago and Hughes, both excellent writers, talk about “evangelical” art as if this is something uniquely American (and in the case of Farago, something new to this century).

Initially, I wanted to pound a table and hurrah in agreement: yes, gentlemen, I too am tired of being the choir that’s preached to in museums and galleries!

But ruffle through your mental slide deck of Western art history, and of course moralizing art is nothing new. Consider all the old church art: a different set of aesthetic and political priorities, sure, but the old Catholic stuff was all about morality.

Searching for non-religious art, you might counter that art as a moral enterprise unraveled during the Baroque, and again during Modernism (not coincidentally, both times related to catastrophic wars in Europe). Indeed, the giddy secular Rococo paintings of the 18th century and the stark abstraction of the early 20th century both fled from religiosity, albeit in opposite directions.

But those frivolous swingers and black rectangles were both still arguing a set of morals. The truth is, all art is moral—even Fragonard, even Malevich. Russian Suprematism preaching freedom from history and form, the Rococo preaching pleasure at any cost. It’s true of any example you can think of. The ancients preaching symmetry or honor; Dutch masters preaching earthiness and domesticity; AbEx painters preaching their barbaric yawp; prehistoric cave painters preaching a successful hunt (or maybe, in a more pagan, pantheistic reading, the inherent oneness of all things). But all art—all of it—makes an argument about how we should be, what we should value, and what flavors of pleasure or pain we should desire in this world or the next.

Left: Kazimir Malevich, Suprematism / Supremus No.55, 1916. Right: Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, c. 1767-8.

David Foster Wallace said that atheism doesn’t exist, that everybody worships something, whether it’s money, power, intelligence, being cool, physical beauty, or what-have-you. A similar argument can be made about art. There is no such thing as amoral art. All art preaches.


This is not a bad thing, and nor is “spiritual uplift,” no matter how Hughes may have sniffed at it.  We all hunger for connection to something larger than ourselves. There’s no shame in it. It’s hard to be a human being.

So we shouldn’t ask for art that doesn’t preach; that’s not possible anyway. What we should ask for is art that's smart about how—not what—it preaches. (We can figure out the ‘what’ that resonates with us on our own.)


I think what Hughes and Farago were railing against was the sense that at this particular historical moment, we are awash in lumpish art that preaches without any wit or skill. I agree. But maybe that’s always been the case. Maybe Renaissance merchants viewing the third-rate frescos in their local church secretly rolled their eyes the way some contemporary art viewers do (yeah yeah, we get it already—and you did a bad job with the saints’ hands!).


But maybe for other Renaissance merchants in other churches, studying the frescoes helped them to set aside their day-to-day cares. Maybe they left those churches with a renewed intention to love their neighbors, this earth, this universe, this life, as well as they loved themselves.

Search result for the term "uplifting art", 2024




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