Learning to Appreciate Art After Discarding Christianity

Duchamp Fountaine
Marcel Duchamp, via Wikimedia Commons
This post was based on one I wrote back in 2007. Rather than updating the original, I decided to revise it as a new post.

I have often heard that great art is supposed to be provocative, eliciting strong and not necessarily pleasant emotions in those who experience it. Mediocre art may produce mildly pleasant feelings ("Oh, that's nice"), but the great art that ends up being remembered often involves much more than that.

Great art, it seems, is not something one just encounters causally but something one truly experiences. It may involve an aspect of confrontation, forcing the audience to experience powerful emotions or encounter new ideas. Even when great art produces unpleasant emotions, we often say that the audience is actually changed for having experienced it.

It has taken me most of my life to comprehend what I now regard as a simple truth about art, and I cannot help but think that my early indoctrination into Christianity was one of the factors which stunted my growth. I realize that statement will require some explanation.

I think I must have been born without the part of the brain that gives one artistic ability. I've always loved art (e.g., music, literature, photography, abstract painting, sculpture), and I have always had great admiration for those with the sort of talent required to create it. I love how the minds of artists seem to work so differently from my own and they often seem to operate as if they are free of the various constraints that weigh me down. But I've never seen any trace of this ability in myself. I'm not sure I'm even capable of viewing the world the way artists can.

My early Christian indoctrination was about learning to behave and conform to religious dogma. It involved learning how to guard against uncomfortable thoughts that might upset divine entities, sheltering oneself from negative influences that could alienate one from heavenly rewards, and pursuing what was morally right because some sort of god was supposedly watching everything and capable of reading minds. Temptation was to be avoided. In many ways, it seemed that art with content deemed acceptable was stale, bland, and uninspiring. The dogma and constant concern with living up to impossible standards stifled creative thought. How creative can one be when one is taught that so many things were off limits?

Some things were not to be questioned or criticized (e.g., faith). As if that wasn't bad enough, some things were so off limits that messing with them could result in eternal punishments. In some ways, genuine creativity, nonconformity, and the temporary loss of control that might be necessary to overcome one's inhibitions were considered demonic and extremely dangerous.

I ended up with little appreciation for Christian art, and this mostly remains true today. Then as now, I found much of it boring and overly constrained. Art created to glorify some sort of god did not strike me as real art. Aside from the architecture and some of the sculpture, much of which I do find rather impressive, I am bored by most Christian music, writing, and imagery. Whether this is fair or not, I find that it often strikes me as being void of the raw creative passion I admire in many forms of secular art.

As I left Christianity behind and stopped being so damn terrified of the contents of my own mind, I gradually discovered secular art. I have learned, for example, that music, writing, film, photography, sculpture, and painting can challenge me in profound ways. I've had the experience of being haunted by a film, a painting, or a photograph for days, even weeks, unable to get it out of my head. I've finally had experiences of being emotionally affected by art, and I hope to have more.

I'm not sure I could do this until I reached the point in my life where I was willing to face this sort of provocation without worrying about how it might affect my "soul." I needed to rid myself of at least some of the restrictive dogma. Getting there required considerable growth on my part, and I'm not sure it would have been possible without throwing off the yoke of Christianity.