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1 )NTRODUCTION Toward the end of the twentieth century, the great Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky proclaimed his credo that the calling of art is to express our “spiritual potential” and to oppose all that is “hopelessly materialistic” in present-day culture through the creation of images that express the human “aspiration towards the infinite.” The work of all artists worthy of the name, he declared, continues our “search for what is eternal, transcendent, divine,” while reminding us that all human activity finds its highest meaning in the kind of selfless creativity exemplified by art’s exploration of the purposes of spiritual freedom.1 Tarkovsky’s view that art has an essentially spiritual function is scarcely novel. It is echoed in the writings of major thinkers from Augustine and Aquinas through Hegel and Levinas and in the intention of artists from Dante and Bach through Tolstoy and Kandinsky—not to mention counterparts from Eastern cultures and traditions. But while the idea is not new, and indeed is something of a commonplace among those who are both deeply responsive to art, in one or more of its forms, and unencumbered by the burden of reductively materialist,antispiritual conceptions of human existence,it nevertheless requiresrepeatedexaminationforanumberof reasons.Foronething,artitself keeps changing and growing, finding new means and modes of expression— paintings unlike any made or seen before, music new to human ears, poetry that creates new rules for what poetry might be—as well as new types of art 2 A More Beautiful Question made possible by new technologies: photography, film, miles of billowing nylon curtain held in place by aluminum poles, multiple-screen video installations . For another, and this is perhaps more important, the cultural and social context of art also keeps changing. The world in which Raphael and Michelangelo painted their overtly religious art is not the world of J. M. W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich, nor theirs the world of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Dante wrote his Commedia in a different cultural universe than that in which T. S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land and Four Quartets. Works of art are produced within, and are created to communicate to people in, distinctive cultural landscapes, which are ever changing in accordance with the technological , economic, political, psychological, social, and other transformations that progressively yield the different situational circumstances and outlooks that succeed one another in the drama of human history. Different historical periods, thus, have differing needs regarding the spiritual resources made available in art—just as artists of every new generation face distinct challenges in expressing and communicating elemental spiritual truths. This study is concerned with how art, and especially poetry, can function as a vehicle of spiritual expression and orientation in present-day Western (or Western-dominated) cultures in the early twenty-first century. Whatever its other notable characteristics, the current era may reasonably be described as a period of religious and spiritual turmoil. This turmoil has many causes and manifestations. For over a century, much attention has been paid to what is often called a widespread “crisis of faith”: more and more people, globally but especially in Europe and North America, have ceased to believe the teachings of venerable mainstream religious traditions and institutions and have adopted a stance of agnosticism or atheism. But that is only one aspect of current spiritual disorientation. Without question, the increase in popularity of purely secularist and materialist worldviews over the last century , or century and a half, has been impressive. But the once-common modern view among many of the“educated classes”that the forward movement of history evidences, and will continue to entail, the steady withering away not only of the familiar religions but of “spiritual”concerns in general is quite obviously mistaken. For in the West, alongside (or interspersed with) the growth of secularist and materialist outlooks in recent history, one finds ever more widespread attempts to find “alternative” religious symbolisms and teachings (in ancient or esoteric religious traditions, in differing strands of “neopaganism ,” in occultisms of various types) through which to explore the spiritual meaning of existence. Even more striking from a worldwide perspective, of course, has been the growth in popularity of (sometimes militant) fundamentalist religious viewpoints, especially within Christianity and Islam. It is increasingly understood that the modern and postmodern “crisis of faith” is not essentially a matter of the evaporating of religious and spiritual Introduction 3 concern and energy, but rather of the disorientation of that concern and energy . Spiritual and religious self-understanding...


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