Q&A: Spirit Quest IV

Hypothesis: Some artifacts provoke in their viewers a strong devotional or religious response whether this is the artist’s original intention or not. Sometimes these artifacts are especially well-crafted, but not necessarily; they may even be mass-produced or machine-made. It is therefore arguable whether it is the object itself or the person or things depicted in or by the object to which viewers respond, although in most cases it would seem to be some combination of the two. Significantly, however, such a response does not seem to depend on the location or setting in which the objects are encountered. They may be in a shop, out in the open, in a shrine, or in a museum. Regardless, it is possible for viewers to be struck by a sense of devotion or awe, at which point viewers tend to do (or want to do) a number of things. They may want to buy the objects and take them home; they may want to touch them or ornament them in some way; they may want to give them things, like food or flowers; they may want to sing or pray in their presence. Above all, they may want to create a special setting for the objects, perhaps even going so far as to construct buildings around them.

Given that human beings have been crafting such objects for thousands, even tens of thousands of years, it is hardly surprising that some of them have already been given elaborate settings. Paradoxically, although the settings were originally intended to honor the objects, later viewers often come to see the settings as primary. That is: they assume that the setting itself is somehow intended to provoke a response without which the object would seem simply ordinary—as, indeed, such hitherto honored objects often do once removed from their devotional settings. How pathetic and sad such objects appear, bereft of their clothing and flowers and candles! Their paint chipped and cracked, their features damaged, nothing lovely or awe-inspiring about them, just stocks and stones: clearly (or so later viewers often assume) the only way such objects could ever provoke feelings of devotion or reverence is by virtue of their setting. Clearly (or so the corollary would seem to be) devotion is something that not only needs to be, but also can be carefully stage-managed; thus, it is assumed, the original elaboration of the settings.

It is ironic, if understandable, that such confusion should arise. Who has not wandered into an unfamiliar religious setting and assumed that the surroundings were there to create a certain feeling in the viewer? After all, don’t many people (that is, Christians) say that they find it easier to pray in a church, particularly if (if, that is, they are Catholic or Orthodox) it is filled with images of the saints or (if they are not) it is empty of the same? How many Protestants assume that Catholics only put all those candles in front of the images because otherwise they wouldn’t feel anything or that they need all the “smells and bells” of their services to stimulate an otherwise inaccessible mood? Conversely, how many Catholics assume that Protestants feel nothing worshipping God as they do in settings more or less bereft of ornament or other aesthetic cues? And yet (to generalize wildly), just as Protestants on the whole remain unmoved (if not indeed repulsed) by the flickering candles, so Catholics (unless they are Cistercians) remain unmoved by the simplicity of bare walls. The setting, in other words, is only an intensifier of a devotional impulse that was already there.

What, then, does this tell us about how museums might or should display devotional objects that have been removed from their originally elaborated devotional settings? To a certain extent (if the above hypothesis is true), it would seem that it doesn’t really matter. If people are going to respond devotionally to an object, they will do so regardless of its surroundings. Indeed, attempting to fabricate (i.e. fake) such a devotional setting—e.g. with lighting, recorded music, special niches—may be worse (as if to stimulate a devotion that is not otherwise there) than simply putting the objects in ordinary cases with the usual explanatory labels. Of course, it is another matter altogether if the display itself is designed out of a feeling of devotion for the objects, although it seems likely that viewers will be sensitive to the difference between a devotionally-motivated display and one designed simply out of reverence for the antiquity or other cultural significance of the objects. I myself am highly suspicious of such artificial displays. Indeed, I am far more likely to feel manipulated in a museum (where, it is presumed, I need to be encouraged to feel something in particular that I would not otherwise feel) than in a church. Give me an old-fashioned museum case stuffed to the brim with a whole array of identical objects (say, crucifixes) over a single, dramatically-lit object any day!

Which, of course, does tend to suggest that setting matters, but not, I think, for the reasons that we nowadays typically assume. Perhaps it is the Romantics who are to blame, with their celebration of “art for art’s sake” and the conviction that aesthetic response is our best route to the sublime. Perhaps it is Pugin and his Gothic revivalist contemporaries, who were convinced that only certain architectural forms were capable of evoking true Christian morality and devotion. Regardless, we are now burdened with the conviction (rather, faith) that religious response is something that can be engineered; indeed, that it must be. What (we have convinced ourselves) other than a response to our sensory surroundings—the sensible beauties of art or nature; the pleasures of sight, smell, taste, touch and sound—could it be? And yet, predictably enough, the harder we try to produce such sensations of faith and devotion through sensory means, the feebler they seem to become. Perhaps it is precisely because we know they are fake: engineered, orchestrated, stage-managed, designed not out of devotion, but out of a sense that devotion might be a good thing, if only we could figure out how to trigger it.

I can hear the objections: of course, ancient and medieval and early modern churches were specifically designed to provoke feelings of devotion, too. It would be naïve to believe otherwise. Everyone who has visited even one of Europe’s great cathedrals knows how much planning went into the placement of windows, the height of the vaults, the layout of the chapels and aisles, the program of sculpture. But planning is one thing; irony is wholly another. Museum displays of devotional or sacred objects are more or less by definition ironic, all the more so if they pretend to reproduce the settings in which these objects were originally deployed. And viewers know this pretty much instinctually. “Pretend that you feel something,” these displays invite. “Pretend you’re a medieval Christian/ancient Roman/fifteenth-century Aztec/contemporary Hindu.” Is it really any wonder when we can’t?

To be continued….


  1. Two points, my dear FB.
    1. I am reminded of DFW's point that the only thing of value left to many of us is our attention (essentially, and abbreviating a lot of interesting argument, because this is what capitalism wants of us) and that irony is a deliberate attempt at withholding that attention.
    2. I'm not clear that churches are designed to *provoke* a devotional response so much as they are designed to *enable* it. The design point of the churches seems (to me) to be the celebration of the glory of god, both humble and awe-inspiring.


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