Saturday, August 24, 2013

Further Thoughts on the Ritual Theory of Art, or How Some Contemporary Art Meets a Nietzschean Understanding of Tragic Art, Combining the Apollonian and the Dionysian

As I said in my last post, Cynthia Freeland (2001) poses what she calls "the ritual theory of art."  I considered various ways to interpret the idea.  Certainly it comes out of thinking about the relationship between tribal rituals and what we today call fine art.  There are many similarities and differences between these two kinds of practice, and these pretty much track important differences between our societies and tribal societies.  But there has also been a revival of interest in ritual, especially in the art world since the 1970s.  So let's say that there are people who hold that art is ritual and mean by that that contemporary art, at its best, gets us back in some way to tribal ritual.  For example, many feminist artists have been interested in ritual and have used ritual-like actions in their art, and favor this as the way to go in art today.  Performance art was important for feminists in the 70s and certainly the performances in performance-art were often ritual-like.  Also, a concern for ritual themes in art might be associated with a desire to overcome dichotomies between the tribal and the civilized, to make us more aware of and understanding of the "other" and to give us a deeper understanding of civilization's roots in the tribal.  At the same time, even in performance art, there are marked differences between the ritual-like or ritual-inspired behavior of artists and actual rituals. As Freeland suggests, the blood in modern art does not mean the same sort of thing as it does in "primitive" ritual.  In ritual, she argues, symbols have meaning based on a shared belief system.   The Mayan king who pierces his own penis in a public ritual thinks he is connecting himself with another spiritual reality.  This sort of shared belief system is not required for contemporary art contexts, and probably is even excluded.  It seems that appeals to ritual in contemporary art involve a kind of play-acting, although serious matters are still implicated.  As Freeland puts it, "some artists seek to recreate a similar sense of art as ritual." (2)   This sentence, however, is not entirely clear.   The Mayan king may have no sense of art as ritual since he may have no sense of art as something distinct from ritual.  So nothing of that sort can be recreated in contemporary art.  Rather, the modern artist who is inspired by ritual seeks to see art as metaphorically identified with ritual in this tribal sense.  The artist cannot and probably would not even want to recreate the very experience of Mayan ritual itself.  Rather he or she wants to use the metaphor "art is ritual" to gain a deeper form of art, one that perhaps addresses some of the same human needs addressed by Mayan ritual.  Freeland mentions the existence of blood symbolically drunk in Holy Communion as similar. However, it is noteworthy that there is already some distancing occurring here, i.e. at the stage of history called the rise of Christianity:    The Holy Communion involves no actual blood,  although of course theologians claim that it does in some strange way, i.e. through transubstantiation.  Still, it doesn't smell, taste, or test as blood.  Rather, the wine becomes a symbol of blood which is in turn is here a symbol of animal (and human) sacrifice and all the things associated with the rituals surrounding that.  Contemporary art that refers to ritual seeks to invoke some of this rich symbolism without the attendant belief.

 It is interesting that it is not all that easy to come up with the theory of art that excludes ritual from the realm of art.   Of course one can give a definition of art that requires presence of an artworld, and this would in fact exclude ritual.  But this seems ad hoc.  Freeland, herself, prefers Richard Anderson's definition of art as "culturally significant meaning, skilfully encoded in an affecting sensuous meaning."  (77).  This definition does have certain advantages over the institutional theory of art in that it does not rely on an exclusivist notion of art being tied to an artworld.  However it is also extremely broad and would not, for example, exclude a "day of the dead" altarpiece.  Expression theories of art would also not exclude rituals since they are certainly intended to convey and invoke feelings.

It is open to debate whether Dennis Dutton's recent cluster theory of art (found in his book The Art Instinct) would exclude ritual from art.   He gives twelve criteria none of which are necessary and a certain unspecified number of which would be sufficient.  It could be argued that rituals are not generally valued for giving immediate experiential pleasure, for displaying creativity or for being the objects of critical discussion, thus not meeting three conditions, and yet could be seen to meet all of the other conditions if they are interpreted generously.  That should be a problem for cluster theorists since, as Freeland observes, there really are important differences between rituals and art. 

Although I expected Freeland to draw some close connections between ritual and contemporary art that uses ritual, she in fact goes in another direction in the conclusion of her discussion (in Chapter 1 of her book).  She writes "The theory of art as communal ritual fails to account for the value and effects of much contemporary art.  The experience of walking into a spacious, well-lit, and air-conditioned gallery or a modern concert hall may have its own ritualistic aspects, but ones completely unlike those achieved by the sober participants with shared transcendent values at occasions like...[the] Mayan or Australian Aboriginal gathering.  It seems unlikely we are seeking to contact the gods and higher reality, or appease spirits of our ancestors."   The last statement is true, although understated.    So, one thing one could say here is that one would be wrong to think that a general theory of art as ritual could equally and easily cover both tribal ritual and contemporary ritual-inspired art.  But two puzzling things are to be found in the quote.  First, the gallery and concert hall experiences described are both intended to encourage an attitude of distance or disinterestedness.  So perhaps there is a ritual of disinterestedness.  Freeland seeks to separate ritual from disinterestedness, but her own example may go against this.   Second, to speak of the activity of the Mayan king and the Australian Aborigine as "sober" seems odd. Nietzsche who was perhaps the first to think seriously about the relationship between art and ritual would have seen both as Dionysian and far from sober.  In general, Freeland's discussion of blood reminds me of Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, her juxtaposition of theory of art as ritual against theory of art as disinterested makes me think of the Dionysian and the Apollonian in Nietzsche, except that Nietzsche saw these two deities as symbolically representing two different aspects of art, rather than as offering us with two competing theories of art. One of the artists Freeland discusses as poorly understood under either theory is Robert Mapplethorpe.  But perhaps he could be understood under a theory that combines both, i.e. a theory like Nietzsche's.  One could easily say that  Mapplethorpe's compositions are misunderstood if seen simply in an Apollonian or formalist way, where beauty and good taste are the goals.  They also challenge us with references to something more Dionysian.  Freeland mentions the importance of content in the work of Damien Hirst (an artist she puts in the same boat as Mapplethorpe), but it is interesting that the content remark refers to a title of one of this pieces, a dead shark suspended in a box.  This piece is titled "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," which itself refers to a deep existential truth, one that is only handled by the Dionysian side of the art equation, the presentation of the shark being very Apollonian.  Freeland ends by saying that art includes both works of taste and beauty and works that are ugly and disturbing, and isn't this to say that there is both Apollonian and Dionysian art?

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