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The art of humanism.

Humanism is a nonreligious ideology that touts appreciation for and representation of the human condition, yet it has neglected to fully recognize art as a fundamental component of our collective experience. Humanism aims to represent our intrinsic drives toward rational thought, orderly scientific inquiry, and displays of compassion. But for it to honestly encapsulate the entirety of our human condition, the humanist belief system must open its doors to the inherent need to create, express, and behold the beauty put forth in poetry, song, painting, and other artistic media. In short, humanism without art doesn't adequately reflect the complex human condition.


Religious adherence is so popular because religion answers some of our deepest questions and assuages some of our strongest fears. Religion quells our apprehension of death with the promise of a supplemental (and improved) afterlife, offers us guiding principals lest we be burdened with deciphering our own moral canons, and provides us with communicative ritualistic practices to prevent us from feeling alone. As contemporary philosopher, poet, and novelist Raymond Tallis wrote in the September/October 2006 issue of Philosophy Now: "Art can and must lay claim to the hole left by the absence of God." The humanist movement hasn't yet replenished the chasms left by godlessness, but through art, humanism could address our religious desires in a secular fashion. Tallis goes on to eulogize artistic expression as the apex of human creation by claiming that "art is not, as was said of Mozart's music, 'God's means of letting himself into his own creation" It is our path to experiencing, with appropriate awe, the extraordinary world which we have in part found (nature) and in part created (culture)."


But is art up to the daunting task of filling the void left by the absence of God? Can art help us, to paraphrase Hamlet, "shuffle off this mortal coil"? Art isn't only capable of such mollification, it already provides as much, whether we are conscious of it or not. Art imparts unto us a tangible piece of the human experience in a microcosm. We are able to behold artistic works that summarize and articulate facets of existence that we can comprehend. Life rarely provides such succinct accounts of our collective experience. This benefit is what leads the artist to create and the surveyor to partake. Through art, those innumerable complex features of existence are rendered comprehensible and lucid.

Art also provides us with a semblance of control and with an understanding of a world sans God. Take, for example, something as seemingly simplistic as the beat of a song. A necessary component of music is its measured beat. Thus, "the very basis of music is rhythm, which is fundamentally a division of time using sound," claims Reneh Karamians in the aforementioned edition of Philosophy Now. How does music provide us with an understanding of and control over the natural world? The answer, Karamians states, is that "by creating the illusion of control over harmony with time, music softens the idea of inevitable death since time is the phenomenon through which [we reach] death." Time is the pervading nemesis of all beings conscious and mortal. Without God, we have only our mortality and no chimerical hope of a life that extends beyond our corporeal years. Rhythm, by breaking up time into a structure that we can understand and even tap our feet along with, allows us to believe that we can comprehend the ominous ticking clock. Repetition is also a part of it. Consider the playing of a favorite song. Listening to it again and again fills us with a sense of comfortable familiarity--we know what will come next, and we know that we will enjoy what the immediate future holds as we listen. For the duration of the song, there is no great unknown. The familiarity bestowed by music allows us to feel in control of time, rather than ceding to time the authority to do its dirty work on us all.

The same division of time can be applied to the actual beholding of works of art, the division of literature into chapters, the separation of plays into acts, as well as the lyric categorization of poetry. For, according to Karamians, "the rhythm of most poetic styles again causes a division of time; now through the use of words and syllables." Through methodological time signatures and prose, we can regain a sense of command over our ephemeral presence in a realm devoid of omniscient creators and promised eternal paradise.

Our involvement in art also answers the cry of some of our less laudable human qualities. Humanists often overlook the inherent chaos, guile, and disingenuous nature of us all while reciting the jejune rallying cry of human based-ethics, reason, morality, and compassion. While it's true that the human condition includes acts of incredible compassion and intellectual achievement, it also includes feelings of jealousy and egotism. Art permits us to satisfy not only our meritorious tendencies but also the entire gamut of human feelings and sentiments. For instance, Edvard Munch in his diary credits morose thoughts as the inspiration for his most famous work The Scream when he recounts his epiphany: "I stood there trembling with anxiety--and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature." Here Munch is sharing his feelings of alienation, anxiety, and fear about his place in the natural world. These feelings aren't of the sort often cited by humanists, but the ubiquity of his screaming image and its iconic position only speak to the reality that our collective experience is replete with these (sometimes odious) feelings. Through art we can cathartically engage those human proclivities that we perhaps would like to sweep under the rug--our recurring disquietude, self-conscious doubt, and indelible vanity. Although these characteristics may not be the values that we want to trumpet as our loftiest sentiments, they are honest facets of the human condition that art can effectively speak to and satisfy.


Art allows us to interact with one another in a way that the humanist movement hasn't been able to replicate on any substantial scale. Where religion leaves off with cathedrals and holy sanctuaries, art steps in with kindred houses of appreciation, including museums, galleries, concert halls, and each other's homes. We are invited to interact with one another socially through art. Think how many times we choose to visit museums, attend a local poetry reading, take in the latest cinema feature, or hear our favorite musicians play songs that we've heard numerous times before. We long to engage in art alongside other people. Art places us squarely in a social context, which any dedicated member of the humanist community knows is something we seek to improve.

One central tenet of humanism is that every individual has a unique nature, yet we all share inherent human qualities. There is no more perspicacious way to articulate this point than with art. Consider Rodin's The Thinker. This sculpture transcends all traditional boundaries, and thus a formally educated woman in the United States and a Zulu man in South Africa will have roughly the same reaction when viewing it. These two individuals may not be able to communicate in any other way, and only through this piece of carved bronze is the unifying nature of their humanity brought forth. Works of art can cut across the traditional boundaries of race, education, gender, culture, and language to speak to the human attributes that unify us all.

From time immemorial, we have creatively used all modes of artistic expression to articulate the myriad aspects of our human condition and experience. For humanism to ignore art as an ingredient of our history that speaks to how we approach, examine, understand, interpret, engage in, and feel about the world is a grave shortcoming of the very paradigm that seeks to illuminate the complexity of our perplexing human condition.

Alison Bates is the senior campus organizer for the Secular Student Alliance. She works to bring the values of humanism and secular activism to college students around the world.
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Author:Bates, Alison
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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