In a previous post I questioned whether there is a ritual theory of art. Today I want to revisit that question from another angle. The expression theory of art says that art is expression. It does not say that all expression is art. Nor does is really simply categorize art as a form of expression. It is a metaphor. "Art is expression" means that metaphorically art is expression. The same would go for a ritual theory of art. It would say, metaphorically, that art is ritual. What that means depends on the rest of the theory. But what interests me about Cynthia Freeland's account of the theory is that it comes under the heading of thinking about various art practices of the 1990s, some of which have continued into our own time, as indicating that art "is" ritual or, as she also puts it, art is "communal ritual." Freeland's conclusion is that although art can have "its own ritualistic aspects" these aspects are "completely unlike those achieved by the sober participants with shared transcendent values": such as in Mayan ritual. The reason that they are "completely unlike" is that "it seems unlikely [that contemporary artists who use blood and such in their art] are seeking to contact the gods and higher reality, or appease spirits of our ancestors." At the same time she admits that art like that of Damien Hirst, which is "ugly and disturbing" may not fit the kind of theory presented to us by Hume, Kant and such more recent figures as Bell, Bullough and Greenberg. So perhaps some theory other than disinterestedness theory of Kant is needed to explain the attractiveness of contemporary disturbing art. I think there is a problem with her use of the phrase "completely unlike." I suspect that although no one (or hardly anyone) ever outright advocated the view that art is ritual, many people working in the arts in the 1990s would have been attracted to the idea not as a literal claim (yes, people like Andre Serrano and Damien Hirst were probably not literally trying to contact gods) but as metaphorical (these people were trying to do something very much like what the creators of ritual in primitive times were doing, at least from one perspective.) Moreover, I also suspect that those who would have been attracted to the claim that art is ritual (or, if you want to put it this way, should ideally be more like communal rituals of the past) are not unreasonable. The path to this is by way of Dewey.
I now believe that "art is ritual" theory is best understood in the light of John Dewey's chapter "The Live Creature" in his Art as Experience. Dewey tells us a story of the history of humankind which is a story of fall. Once there was a time when people did not set art off on a pedestal, in which the various arts were "part of a significant life of an organized community." Further, as he puts it, "the collective life that was manifested in war, worship, the forum, knew no division between what was characteristic of these places and operations, and the arts that brought color, grace, and dignity, into them." In particular, "music and song were intimate parts of the rites and ceremonies in which the meaning of group life was consummated."
Although Dewey is not straightforward about this, I believe he was pointing in the direction of some sort of retrieval of this condition, i.e. of primitive life. I suspect that he would be comfortable with the definition of art as ritual, not as a description of the role of art in our own society, but of an ideal form of art, something that we could attempt to achieve again in some way. In this respect, think of Dewey as somewhat like Plato (of course, he is not like Plato in so many other ways, for instance in his rejection of dualism and his advocacy of democracy). Both imagine an ideal republic, one that also necessarily involves a transformation of aesthetics and our approach to the arts. In Dewey's case the ideal republic is one that does not have the "dislocations and divisions of modern life and thought" that currently hinders art from achieving its true value. Dewey's philosophy in short is a critique of modernity, and one way to express that is to, in a hopeful way, say "art is ritual." A new theory of this sort would disclose "the way in which [good works of art] idealize qualities found in common experience" and recognize "the normal development of common human activities into matters of artistic value." Rather than literally assimilating art under the category of ritual this new way of looking at aesthetics achieves many of the things ritual achieved without making any commitments to communicating with or influencing gods. (See my article on Dewey's aesthetics for my summary of the content of this chapter.)
Earlier I said that "art is ritual" is a metaphor. An interesting feature of metaphorical identification is that both sides of the metaphor are conceptually transformed. We do not simply see art as ritual in some deep or essential way but also that ritual is like art is some deep or essential way, although the second claim is more indirect since to claim that art is ritual is not necessarily to claim that ritual is art. By the way, Heide Gottner-Abendroth, the feminist aesthetician would probably be attracted to the idea that art is ritual since her matriarchal aesthetics is like Dewey's aesthetics of the live creature in calling for a return, in some way, to premodern times, which she saw to be matriarchal and fundamentally ritualistic. See my post on her.
To some extent Freeland was just trying to explain why people were shocked by, for example, the Sensation exhibit in Brooklyn. She says "Symbols of pain and suffering that are central to many religions can be shocking when dislocated from their community. If they mix with more secular symbols, their meaning is threatened. Artwork that uses blood or urine enters into the public sphere without the context of either well-understood ritual significance or artistic redemption through beauty." (7) Nice point. In some ways these works were directed against ritual as it is today, i.e. in established religions. Freeland observes that Andres Serrano saw himself not as criticizing Christianity but the institutions of Christianity. The claim that art is ritual is not only a shocking claim about art but a shocking claim about ritual, especially if ritual is mainly understood in terms of the standardized rituals we see in our religious institutions today. But I also think that these artistic efforts are not just for notoriety. They also propose a vision and, once again, an ideal.
It is noteworthy that Freeland writes "Most modern art, in the context of theater, gallery, or concert hall, lacks the background reinforcement of pervasive community belief that provides meaning in terms of catharsis, sacrifice, or initiation" (4) and that is why audience members sometimes feel shocked by such art. Yes, but isn't that the Deweyan point? If art is isolated in the theater, gallery and concert hall, and is decontextualized and isolated from any sense of community, then experiences of, for instance, catharsis may be less possible. The claim that "art is ritual" is (or was) a call to change society by way of changing our relation to art.