Monday, 23 April 2018 06:00

AESTHETICS AND THEOLOGY

For a long time the idea of a theological aesthetics was obstructed by Croce`s sarcastic statement, according to which this issue ”is a madhouse problem when it is not matter of politics”. However theological aesthetics takes its roots in Kant`s ”Critique of Judgement” just where he distinguishes the sublime from the beautiful: whereas the beautiful implies a sensitive form which is adequate for human faculties, so that it seems to be predisposed to our judgement, the sublime cannot be held in any sensitive form, so that it is enjoyed not for its corrispondence to the interest of senses, but for its opposition. Therefore we can find in the sublime an aesthetic experience which implies a sort of transcendence regarding the world. The sublime is conceived differently by Kant and by Hegel: according to the former only nature allows us to experience the sublime, whereas according to the latter it is linked with the form of symbolic art.
But it is in the Twentieth century that the issue of theological aestetics has developed a wide range of solutions that reflect the great variety of the religious and artistic ways of feeling on the basis of these philosophical premises. The opposite poles of theological aesthetics can be recognised respectively in iconoclasm and iconophilia. The former finds its utmost expression in the Jewish culture, which - according to Riegl - is important in the history of art not for the works that it created, but for the ones that it did not create! Iconosclasm got a great stimulus from Reformation and from those thinkers who were connected to it, for instance Kierkegaard and Bultmann . On the contrary iconophilia took its roots in the Byzantine culture and in the Orthodox Church: in the first decades of the Twentieth century Pavel Florenskij was their great interpreter.
Between these two extreme theses there are several intermediate positions, amongst which at least three are particularly relevant. The first developed within Prostestant theology (K. Barth, G. Nebel): it goes against any type of contemplative conception of the beautiful and underlines the aesthetic meaning of the event, namely of the irruption of the eternal in time. The second one arises from the aesthetic catholic sensibility and finds its most significant expression in Balthasar`s monumental work, in which the notions of form and glory play a leading role. The third one is connected with the Indian religious culture and Coomaraswamy has been its most interesting interpreter: he maintains the identity between substance and appearence, between reality and image and therefore is closed to Bizantyne iconophilia. The position of the Japanese philosopher Nishitani is not an intermediate one, but extreme because of the importance given to the Buddist notion of the Empty.
However some American theologists try to overcome of the dispute between iconoclasm and iconophilia: they give a great importance to the religious imagination. In fact Ray Lee Hart in his book ”Unfinished Men and the Imagination. Towards an Ontology and a Rhetoric of Revelation ” (New York, Herder & Herder, 1968) asserts that theology cannot confine itself to repeat the images of the past. Human condition, characterised by radical incompleteness, is pushed ahead by the imaginative discourse, in which revelation and art have a point of contact. Similarly Charles Edwin Winquist in his work ”Epiphanies of Darkness. Deconstuction in Theology” (Philadelphia, Fortress Press 1986) considers theology as an imaginative construction, which is connected to desire. The most important aspect of this book is that the thought of difference (Freud and Derrida) has been fully accepted in theologic aesthetics. In the book ”Nots” (Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1983 ) by Mark C. Taylor, iconoclasm and iconophilia have been reconsidered regarding art and postmodern culture: in this way their opposition desappears. Taylors` attention is captured by those artists and architects who, like Arakawa, Gins and Libeskind, take iconoclasm to its extreme consequences, towards a ”not art” and a ”not architecture”, as well as by those characters of the contemporary world who, like Madonna, have moved the spectacular tendency of present society towards an iconolatry which represses the negation. Both of these tendencies can be considered as the expresion of the desire for ”presence” which is the main feature of Western metaphysics. In opposition to both of these, Taylor has revived the ”question of not”, which must not be confused with negation, but is a sort of ”unthinkable” between affermation and negation, something between being and nonbeing. Western ontotheological tradition has always tried to change the ”not” in something positive which can be administrated and controlled: God, Satan, the good, evil, being, nonbeing, absolute knoledge, nonknowledge, the unconscious... But such efforts are always inadequate, because the ”unnameable” eludes every oppositional structure constructed to repress it. According to him, nihilism or the naive ”return to ethics” are unacceptable answers to the chall11e pushed ahead by present iconoclasm and iconolatry. One cannot even speak singularly about the ”not”: we are facing a plurality of ”nots” which resist every attempt towards unification and totalization: they overcome the unity of the book and of every possible book. ”I am coming - he writes - to suspect that only book worth writing is the book I cannot write”: so it seems that Taylor has come to the cul-de-sac of the metalanguage and of metaphilosophy. But the last chapter of ”Nots”, devoted to the body and to desease opens an issue about the relation between philosophy and biology rich of new and interesting ideas. In fact, illness is not only thinking and willing the ”not”, but also ”living not”! The entire issue of relation between aesthetic and theology apparently moves from postmodern to posthuman, from images to cyborgs, from imagination to artificial feeling. In this way even Taylor may be considered as an expression of this ”physiological turn” of the ” thought of difference” implied in Irigaray, in the late works of Deleuze and in many features of Derrida`s thinking.
Published in ”Estetica News”, 1995, n.22
Copyright@Mario Perniola,1995
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