A night at the movies: finding the common ground of art and religion

· Logos/Ethos

August 7, 2019

An article appeared last December in New York Magazine which created a stir in the marketplace of ideas. Its author is Andrew Sullivan and it’s called “America’s New Religions”.  In it, Sullivan defines religion as “a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying Truth or God (or gods).”

He argues that modern man has attempted to replace monotheistic religion with inadequate substitutes, including our secular belief in progress, capitalism, science, and art. Even politics, he argues, is dominated by two quasi-religious cults (“Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong; and the cult of social injustice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical.”)

The article is thought-provoking, but I would like to focus today on one of Sullivan’s supposed inadequate substitutes for religion. Art.

“Art,”, he claims, “can provide an escape from the deadliness of our daily doing, but, again, appreciating great art or music is ultimately an act of wonder and contemplation, and has almost nothing to say about morality and life.” I would have appreciated a trigger warning before I read that. I could not disagree more.

Great art affects us on two levels, the ethical and the aesthetic.  It elevates the spirit through the insights it provides into the human condition and the transcendence of its beauty. In doing so, it teaches and unites communities, thus illustrating its moral or ethical impact. Anyone who has had the opportunity to participate in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, for instance, knows what I’m talking about. Since its first performance seventy years ago, the final scenes of Willy Loman’s tragic life and death leave audiences in stunned silence. It is not uncommon to see scores of audience members still sitting in their seats fifteen minutes after the curtain, unable to speak, let alone leave. To experience this is to know drama’s capacity for moral awakening.

Similarly, several weeks ago, I gathered with a hundred or so other folks at a screening of “Pavarotti”, Ron Howard’s documentary on the life of the great tenor. It was a soul-stirring experience. Howard skillfully assembled segments of Pavarotti’s extraordinary performances and drew a roomful of strangers into a realm of aesthetic beauty that can only be called sublime. On several occasions, the audience, unable to control themselves, broke into applause. But of course, the composer and the performer weren’t there! What were we doing?  We were applauding a screen reflecting fractured pieces of light, and yet we were somehow compelled to. It would have seemed unnatural not to. 

This demonstrates both art’s aesthetic and moral power. We were transported out of ourselves both by the consummate beauty of the composition and performance but also by the fact that we were sharing an extraordinary moment with other people. The essence of morality is the cultivation of human relationships and that night a hundred strangers were drawn into an unexpected but uplifting fellowship by the transcendent power of beauty.

Art is indeed moral. Literature and drama inspire humanity to moral improvement through the depiction of ordinary human beings engaged in compelling personal struggles. Some are to be emulated, like Atticus Finch in his wisdom, compassion, and humility. Some are to be pitied, like Willy Loman or Jay Gatsby. But we learn from all of them. Equally, we experience the ethical or moral when we share in public performances of poetry and music. Even art museums inspire us to connect in a powerful way with the people among whom we move and with whom we share our private awakenings.

Sullivan may be right that monotheistic religions are in decline, but I would not be so quick to suggest that art and music can’t offer the moral connection we all require.

Tom Gotsill of West Harwich is a playwright and teacher. Comments to tomgotsill@yahoo.com.