Monday, August 19, 2013

What is the relation between ritual and art?

In her introductory book But is it Art?  Cynthia Freeland suggests that there is a theory of art called the ritual theory of art.  She even lists it along with such better-recognized theories as the expression theory and the imitation theory. This is quite surprising since one does not come upon this phrase regularly.  Indeed, a google search comes up with only eight uses of the term "ritual theory of art" and Freeland accounts for two of those.  She attributes the theory to Thomas McEvilley in his Sculpture in the Age of Doubt (New York:  Allworth Press, 1999).  I have looked through McEvilley's book and can see no mention of a ritual theory or definition of art, or any definition of art at all.  McEvilley does talk about some artworks that reference ritual, including feminist art and performance art, however, and this is probably the source of Freeland's comment.  Another surprising fact is the Freeland devotes part of the first chapter of her book, which is probably the most popular introduction to the philosophy of art going, to discussing the ritual theory.  That this is surprising is no reason to dismiss it:  there might be something valuable and new (and unrecognized) going on here.

So what is the theory, and what might it be?  Freeland's imagined proponent probably does not intend to hold that all works of art are rituals or parts of rituals.  Probably the claim would be something like this:  "There is a continuity between art and ritual.  Ritual and art are essentially connected, and art plays a similar function today to that which ritual played in the past."  Also it might mean that the best way to understand the nature of art is to understand its connections to ritual.  These, by implication, are more important than art's connection to, say, self-expression.   For there to be a ritual theory of art it has to be trying to do what previous theories tried to do.  For there to be a viable ritual theory of art it has to do those things better, or at least in a way more appropriate to our own time.  Another possibility is that Freeland thinks of the ritual theory of art as being the implicit theory held by most societies prior to the imitation theory.  It is not that such societies really had a concept of art, but they had certain ritual practices, and whatever explained these practices would also explain the successor-concept which we now call art.  (This view, though, would not explain the relation between ritual theory of art and contemporary performance-art practices that are ritual like -  a relationship that interests Freeland, although she rejects their identity).

It is plausible that Freeland (or perhaps McEvilley, since Freeland herself does not advocate the ritual theory) believes that contemporary performance art insofar as it seems ritualistic has captured something about the essence of art.  Perhaps as the essence of art evolved in the 1990s (when Freeland wrote this book) [I believe that essences change over time] it seemed that the best thing one could say about the inner nature of art was that it was closely connected to ritual, or that it should be.

Certainly there are many differences between what we ordinarily call art and what we ordinarily call ritual.  Even when they share the same materials, these are handled quite differently.  Although blood may be involved both in Catholic holy communion (symbolically) and in Shakespeare's tragedies (as many bodies pile up on stage), the role blood in each really seems quite different.  So too, the literal presence of blood in some works of art is not quite the same as its literal presence in certain religious rituals, say of the Maya.  Still, one could argue that what people were trying to do with rituals in ancient times (when such rituals were taken more seriously than today, at least in the secular world) bears some important similarity to what artists are trying to do when they use, for example, blood as a medium today. 

Sure, as Freeland observes, ritual is supposed to reinforce the community's proper relation to God, and the ritualized or ritual-like performances of contemporary art are not intended to do this.  But it may not be the case that the contemporary artists who use body fluids in their art just want to shock the audience with blood-spattered art.  Maybe they want to dig down into something more primordial, something that goes back before civilization as we know it.  Maybe what is so disturbing about Hirst, Serrano and Mapplethorpe in their use of body fluids in a ritual-like way is that they are muscling into the territory so long handled by religion.  Perhaps art is in competition with religion when it comes to ritual, and this is what is shocking about shocking art.  As Freeland says, "It is no accident that this controversial work was about religion as well as body fluids."  (7) 

The issue may ultimately have to do with whether or not Kantian notions of disinterestedness works for work like that of Hirst.  Freeland: even if we find Hirst's work beautiful "its startling content demands consideration." 

I have more to say about this here and most recently here


dharmakarma said...

Nice work - I ran into some similar ideas in a book on literary criticism in an essay by Walter Benjamin "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."

I'm not sure if I grasp what this aims at: art in forms of ritual magic, bursts of artistic production out of repetition. It's all a bit over my head. Anyway thought you might be interested in the essay.

Unknown said...

Yes! Me too! I am reading Benjamin's essay and he just suddenly thrusts the idea of art as ritual in the middle of it. Wondering what that meant lead me here :).

In particular, I'm trying to make sense of when he writes: "for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual."