- The Religion of Reality
Perhaps more than any other type of artist, visual artists have the unfair impediment of being asked what their work means. The response to such an inane question is often a thinly veiled frustration at the spectator’s inability to tangle with what is present before him. It may be that our evolutionary reliance on sight informs all of our senses to the point that they no longer work together but operate under a sort of hierarchy. Our perception of reality is to first see an object, then name it, touch it, hear it, smell it, and so on.
Yet still, we remain unable to totally apprehend an artistic piece when it represents an object differently than what we expect. As viewers of art, we’ve come to accept a sky painted green or a photograph that’s been altered by a computer, but we still insist on hearing the artist’s defense of such a technique instead of nurturing our own perspective. Consider Hilare Hiler’s open essay “Why Abstract?” Written as a series of letters, it serves as a message to all his critics and friends as to why representational paintings no longer interest him and why he will continue to work with abstractions. His belief is that a painting with identifiable objects immediately distracts from his intention, which is to explore the reaction caused by a specific arrangement of colors. Hiler tells an anecdote about an art historian, saying that he was “interested in all the factors which were supposed to affect painting, but I’m not sure that he was aware of what affected him.”
It can be said that Didier Maleuvre’s examination in The Religion of Reality is also an attempt to describe the reaction of art in a viewer. However, his approach is a far more general one. Rather than limiting himself to the abstract, or even just the visual arts, his book surveys the role of art in our “modern,” secular age. For over a millennium, religion influenced all types of civilization’s achievements. At its best, all religions shape the moral nature of its followers. However, having moved into a more secular age, Maleuvre posits that art has attained a new value as that which instructs humanity. Art has supplanted religion as the prime definition of our moral and cultural values. Of course, previous generations have always placed a value on lessons studied from aesthetic products; masterpieces would [End Page 119] not exist if there were not a large population dedicated to preserving them. But with a keen analysis, Maleuvre chronicles the role of art from a purely entertaining substance to a method for strengthening one’s spirituality, and, no less, pushing one closer to transcendence.
The book is divided into two parts. The first (which takes a third of the book’s total length) concerns itself with different philosophical observations postulated throughout history on the comprehension of reality. Art, aesthetics, and beauty take a secondary role to Maleuvre’s more pressing question of how the world was interpreted, whether objectively (from a divine source) or subjectively (through man’s own conceptions and toils). It is an exhaustive survey, from the pre-Socratic Greeks to the milestone of Descartes, to the romantic tugs of Nietzsche and through Sartre, finally ending on the deconstructionist claims of existence being only “Text.” Such an extensive detailing may intimidate some readers, but Maleuvre does a fantastic job of introducing, probing, and summarizing each ideology he discusses and, what’s more, keeping their ideas relevant to one another. He breaks each theory down through the use of frequent metaphors. While overused at times, it is no doubt useful information for a neophyte.
What is brilliant about this section is its thoroughness in identifying the relationships between thinkers and their progeny. For the relevancy of aesthetic edification, this section is also padded with discussions on artists influenced by philosophers, such as Maleuvre’s detailing of Heidegger’s intellectual ancestors as being “poets and thinkers like Holderlin, Coleridge, Baudelaire, but...