Chester Cathedral – rather surprisingly – has, for the past few months, been the host of a modern art exhibition. I describe this fact as rather surprising firstly because Chester, at least to my eyes, is somewhat of a void for the visual arts. The city itself may well be an extraordinarily beautiful place to live, but in terms of showcasing artistic creation it seems to have always remained somewhat shallow. I was, therefore, very pleased when I returned to Chester after several months away to see an art exhibition running in both the town hall and the cathedral. The second (and more pertinent) reason I describe a modern art exhibition in the cathedral as rather surprising is because modern art, at least to my eyes, is a subversive project. It challenges norms, challenges institutions and, most importantly, it presents us with new ways of thinking. As such, it would seem that modern art stands in opposition – and perhaps even presents an existential threat – to that age-old institution which is the church.
These were the ideas that I was grappling with as I entered the Cathedral building. After walking past a rather strange Damien Hirst piece I took a left and found myself face to face with a rather majestic looking silver back gorilla. Again, here I found myself slightly taken aback. Not only was the church exhibiting potentially subversive modern art, it was presenting modern art with evolutionary conotations. Sure, the gorilla was very much a wild animal, very much a beast. A proud silverback, standing strongly on all fours. Nevertheless, there was something remarkably human about its face, its expression, its entire aura. Whenever I look at a great ape I’m struck by the fact that its major sensory apparatus – its eyes and its ears – are so similar to ours. For all intents and purposes, the world that the gorilla perceives – on a base, sensory level – is the same world as ours. There is something within that gorilla’s body (a mind? Spirit? Soul?) who experiences something very similar to what we ourselves experience (on a pre-conceptual level).
This experience of continuity between myself and the gorilla is an experience strongly associated with knowledge of evolutionary theory. The UK church may well be much less opposed to the theory of evolution than their American counterparts, but I still found the display of such potentially subversive pieces of art to be rather striking. After pondering these thoughts for a while, I turned to inspect another gorilla sculpture, displayed upon the floor behind me. The first gorilla had given me some pretty thoughts to dance with, but this second sculpture took it to another level still.
This second sculpture features a gorilla almost laid upon its front, gazing into a mirror that one imagines to be a crystal clear pond. Again, with this gorilla, I saw myself – I saw humanity. The gorilla Narcissus, inspecting his reflection, clearly has a degree of self awareness. He is seeing himself, he is recognising himself. He is recognising something inextricably his own. His consciousness is reflecting in upon itself. This act of self-consciousness is one that we witness in only a small number of animals, ourselves included. The evolutionary undertones abounded once again. Here I am seeing a brother, a body, a consciousness – perhaps even a soul.
But beyond this display of self-consciousness, I also witnessed the majesty of the cathedral reflected around this silverback’s face. Alongside self-consciousness there was a reflection of the religious, the spiritual. The reflection of the religious building brought upon new reflections for the mind. With self-consciousness, is there perhaps always a sense of the religious? Of something more, of something bigger? Of something not-self, something that the self is contained within? Of a universal, an infinite, within which our finite selves are contained as vessels within a jar? Did the gorilla sitting there observing its reflection also feel an intuition of something larger than itself? Something that promotes the multiplicity, the grandeur, the vulgarity, on display within the religions of the world today?
I tend to think that the gorilla did experience something akin to this. Something similar to what I feel, something similar to what countless others feel. A kind of pre-conceptual marvel at the grandeur and mystery of existence. The very fact that there is something that is. That there is something rather than nothing. The gorilla’s feeling, however, in contrast to that of those who built the walls that surround him, was pure. The gorilla’s sense of the infinite exists before concepts, before dogma, before power structures, institutions and lies. The gorilla’s sense of the religious is pure spiritual self-indulgence – something shared purely between itself and the whence from which it came. This, to me, is the essence of spirituality. It is the feeling that the religions of today are built from, but in trying to attach meanings, concepts and stories to, they have obscured the truth (or, at least, the experience) of the expression itself.
I still have sympathy for the views of Schleiermacher, who tried to express something similar to this in his philosophical theology. He, however, later got lost by trying to plant more concrete theology on top of this abstraction. Strange, Schleiermacher was a man who had experienced how to build his house upon the rock yet instead tried to make a castle made of sand. I think we must turn to the religions of the East, specifically Taoism, to have these truths most clearly expressed in readily digestible, aphoristic form. The Tao Te Ching begins:
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
Wiser words about the essence of religion and the spiritual would struggle to ever be spoken.
These are a scattered overview of my reflections from my first visit to the Cathedral – a visit I have made several times since, but during which I have unfortunately struggled to dance the same mental tango of that original experience. I am highly impressed with the ARK exhibiton, and have a whole lot of respect for the Cathedral for staging it. Modern art, at least from the perspective of a philosopher, is designed to make us think – or, at least, it provides us with an experience of what it is to be human. Religious practices and religious institutions have also remained part of what it is to be human since the dawning of civilisation. Even amongst those of us who have experienced the death of God, this remains the case. As such, it is highly rewarding to view modern art in a religious location – it opens new perspectives, new possibilities for thought and being that we may not have experienced in a more secular location. I’d highly recommend everyone to get to the Cathedral quick to visit the exhibition – its free, but it closes next week!
Apologies for the slightly, rambling structure of this post and for the absence of blog posts for the past few weeks! I’d been wanting to get these thoughts down for a while, and thought I would write stream of consciousness style whilst I have the time (which I don’t have much of at the moment!). I intend for my next post to be a much more structured exposition of Nietzsche’s infamous “will to power” doctrine and I will use this to discuss the bias of soul atomism. It’s good stuff, I promise!