Thomas Sutcliffe: Imagine a world of art without religion

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The Independent Online

I found myself wondering the other day whether the history of art wouldn't have been immeasurably improved by the absence of religion. The immediate provocation for this thought was the Royal Academy's new exhibition of Chola bronzes, a collection of about 40 sacred processional images of Hindu gods and avatars dating from the 9th to the 12th century - but in truth the Royal Academy show was just soil and water for a seed that had been planted a few days earlier by the Today programme.

Apropos of exactly what I can't remember, Peter Hitchens had been defending the role of religion in public life and had - as apologists for religion often do - included high art in his inventory of its incontrovertible upsides. For thousands of years, he suggested, religion had provided the subject matter for some of the finest creations the human mind and hand had produced.

In one sense he's absolutely right. Wipe anything with a theological bent to it from the catalogue of world art and you'd have a catastrophically diminished document. Most of the Renaissance would be gone at a stroke, not to mention huge chunks of classical art. And outside Europe the toll might be heavier. All the Chola bronzes would be gone, since they are preoccupied with the iconographic depiction of Hindu deities or saints. Hitchens' use of this argument depended on an unstated thesis - one which I've thoughtlessly subscribed to myself in the past. It understands the exchange between religion and high art as operating in one direction only. The proposal, crudely put, is that religion, or the religious instinct, gives something to the artists they would not otherwise have. A subject matter, at its bluntest, but also a subject matter that lifts them above the coarsely material.

The antithetical possibility - that artists might give to religion something it lacks - is much less often considered, and when it is, is quite likely to figure as a heresy. Yet when you encounter an art entirely in thrall to a religious sensibility it can be hard not to see it as impoverished. The artists who created the Chola bronzes were masters of their craft, and have created works of grace and beauty (this is how secular people tend to talk when they want to substitute a non-denominational reverence for a specifically religious piety). But it is sadly limited by its obedience to theological strictures. I don't know how many Shivas I'd seen before I found myself wondering what else these sculptors might have created had religion not acquired virtually exclusive rights to artistic patronage.

Because the other unstated assumption of Hitchens' argument is that had religion not been available as a source of inspiration, Michelangelo and Da Vinci and Caravaggio would have been at a loss for what to depict and patrons would have been indifferent to their talent. But that is unlikely. We can never know what Michelangelo and his contemporaries would have painted if religious commissions had not monopolised their time - but that they would have painted something is beyond doubt. And, with obvious exceptions, I would suggest it would probably have been something more interesting.

Imagine our cultural history without those endless depositions, annunciations and visitations. Would we lack images of childhood or tenderness or pity? I doubt it. The prevalence of religious themes in the great works isn't to the credit of religion, it's proof of its cramping power over the human imagination.

Race is on for a reality TV death

As I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! gears up for three weeks of light alfresco torment it looks as if its rival reality programme, The Race, is set on becoming the first reality television show to actually kill a celebrity. After the celebrity divorcee Ingrid Tarrant parked her truck on its roof, the rapper Ms Dynamite, left, has been involved in a high-speed crash. The producers were quick to rebut any suggestion they had been reckless with their talent. "We take health and safety very seriously and cover it from every angle," they said. I think what's meant by this is having two cameras trackside, another on a crane and at least one in every car. Obviously, it would be regrettable if anyone got badly hurt in the interests of mediocre entertainment - but it would be tragic if they missed the shot as well.

* Remembrance Day is always a festival of mendacity, but never quite so pointedly as when troops are currently under fire. And of all the falsehoods peddled - sometimes with the best of intentions and sometimes not - none is quite as offensive as that phrase about "laying down their lives". Not only do the words imply the dead chose their death, but the verb hints at something almost tender, an offering laid upon an altar with sombre thoughtfulness. The truth of "the ultimate sacrifice" is quite different - and we might do more honour to the feelings of the dead if we didn't always posthumously recruit them to some kind of jingoistic suicide squad. Something along these lines might do: "Was killed, very much against his will, while fighting for a cause he wasn't entirely convinced about."

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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