AHA Conference Day 2 – Art & Religion & Science & Reason – Zelda Gatuskin

A session on the final day of the conference, this one was close to my heart. I am an artist myself, having sung in choirs for around fifteen years, and performed on stage in over fifty productions. I love to recite poetry and prose, and derive some of my greatest pleasure from theatre, film, and music. I studied ballet as a child, and have recently taken up dancing classes again. I studied Drama and Education as an undergraduate while teaching Shakespeare in prisons around Britain, then taught English Literature and Drama as a High School teacher, before receiving my Master’s degree in Arts in Education here at Harvard. And now, I’m studying my doctorate, preparing to write a dissertation on how the arts promote human development. In short, the arts have been central to my personal and professional life for many, many years.

Perhaps because of this personal involvement, I feel that the role of the arts in modern Humanism has been deeply undervalued – indeed I explored this in my first article for The New Humanism. Generally, in nonreligious circles, science is given more weight and attention than the arts and this, I think, has somewhat unbalanced Humanism. Therefore, I was excited to see this presentation advertised in the program, and made sure to attend.

In general, I felt Gatuskin made a well-argued presentation that covered many of the central points: too often the arts are marginalized in Humanist discoursed due to the focus on science, and particularly due to the mistaken idea that, while the sciences are rational and of cognitive value, the arts are emotive and cannot help us develop our understanding. Further, NAME pointed out that the arts are often associated with religion (much great art takes religious subjects or was inspired by religious texts, after all), and that this has further undermined their place in the Humanist movement.

As far as this goes, this is a valuable analysis, one I agree with wholeheartedly. What I thought to be missing was a consideration of what strategies we might use to better integrate the arts into the Humanist movement: the problem was powerfully articulated, but the solution was almost completely absent.

It seems to me that any attempt to integrate the arts robustly into the Humanist movement must address at least the following three challenges: first, the parlous state of the arts in US public schools; second, the development of Humanist artistic rituals to accompany significant moments in life; and third, the recovery and reinvigoration of a truly Humanist artistic tradition. None of these challenges will be easy to solve: in these times of economic hardship, the arts are facing ruthless cuts in classrooms and communities; some Humanists are extraordinarily ritual-averse, even to the extent of a seeming allergy to communal singing of any kind; and the idea of creating “Humanist art” is controversial even within the nonreligious community.

Nonetheless, here are some ideas. Securing the place of the arts in schools will depend on our ability to take control of the discussion around educational ends, and argue in favor of an expanded concept of the purpose of education which is not only broader than meeting scores in standardized tests, but is broader than preparing students to be successful in a 21st Century economy. If we can convince parents (who, of course, are also voters) that their children will be best-served by a full education which introduces them to the great modes of thinking developed by human beings over millennia of civilization, then the role of the arts will seem obvious. If we keep playing catch-up, trying to argue that the arts can fulfill the goals of education established by others, then the arts will struggle to hang on to even the precarious position they now cling to.

In order to increase the level of comfort in the Humanist community with artistic ritual, I think it’s best to start by simply developing some, and encouraging people to attend. My experience is that even those who think that they hate the arts can be won over if they actually participate. While working in UK prisons, I met many inmates who thought that theatre wasn’t for them. But after engaging, with others, in that artistic experience, they found value in it, and many, now, wouldn’t give up theatre for the world. I’m not suggesting that every Humanist will immediately become a choirboy after one singalong, but I do feel that simply encouraging people to get involved in communal art making will demonstrate its value to some.

Finally the question of “Humanist Art”. I have two suggestions here. First, let’s reclaim the artistic heritage of humankind for Humanism. Even though much, perhaps most, of the greatest art created across the millennia does take a religious subject or was created as part of a religious tradition, it was all created by human beings. And, from a Humanist perspective, it is a representation of the extraordinary creativity of the human species. Since we reject any concept of true religious “inspiration”, we can happily claim the great religious art as a manifestation of human ability. Second, I do not see any problem with creating artworks which explicitly or implicitly promote Humanist values. Pullman’s His Dark Materials is a perfect example of such a work – not only is it a compelling story, filled with literary references and appealing to children and adults alike, but it also contains a powerful Humanist message. We should not be ashamed of works like this – the arts have always been used as methods to convey a message and to promote a cause, and by refusing to develop Humanist art which does the same for us, we abdicate the field and leave it to the religious, who will certainly make use of art to promote their message.

If we were to take these three steps, I think the Humanist movement would be much more vibrant, inclusive, exciting and beautiful.


1 Response to “AHA Conference Day 2 – Art & Religion & Science & Reason – Zelda Gatuskin”

  1. June 16, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    This is a refreshing perspective. Were the humanist movement to incorporate this perspective, perhaps it could also incorporate a sociological and historical perspective now lacking, overcome its fetish for Darwin, and move on to enlarge its intellectual scope.

Comments are currently closed.

%d bloggers like this: