Left, Right and the Holy Spirit

Daniel M. Unger and Gal Ventura

My drawing was not a picture of a hat. It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant.

(Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince)


This volume is devoted to the connections between art, religion and politics, and to the interrelationships between each of the pairs making up this triangle. It originated from the annual conference of the Department of History and Theory in the spring of 2007.


One of the most interesting aspects of art is the subjectivity of the viewer. Different viewers will often find different meanings in the same work of art; in the words of Nietzsche, “There are no facts, only interpretation.” This aphorism, generally accepted today, applies also to The Little Prince and is discussed at length by Roland Barthes. He claims that an artwork is characterized by a multiplicity of meanings, and that the original intention of the artist is but one of the ways to understand it. The question thus arises: Has this presumed modern, pluralistic viewpoint always existed? The affinity between art and politics was recognized already in the fourth century B.C. by Plato, who wrote in The Republic that art is useless and pretentious; it distracts the viewer from the world of ideas by drawing his attention to the material world. Therefore,

… we shall be right in refusing to admit him [the artist] into a well-ordered State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small — he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth. (Plato, The Republic, X, 605)

Plato demanded that the connection between art and politics be censored—a demand that not only recognizes the power of art to shape and influence public opinion but also indicates the problematic nature of its interpretation.


The power of images was likewise perceived by Pope Gregory I in the sixth century; he understood the efficacy of art in persuading the masses of the truth of Christian doctrine. Ever since then, the important propaganda role of works of art has been well understood and exploited. In the post-Trent era ecclesiastical reformers such as Carlo Borromeo and Gabriele Paleotti, emphasized that the messages in religious painting must be clear and unequivocal; they warned against works embodying a double meaning or open to controversial interpretation.


The attempt to relay unequivocal ideological, religious or political messages is similarly in evidence today. In an era in which a broad spectrum of the public feels free to express its worldview, we are witness to the struggle between left and right, progressive and conservative, secular and religious, as it finds expression in art. Today, more than ever, when political struggles are waged in front of the lens of a camera, a discussion of the interconnections between religion, politics and art is not only necessary but inevitable.


The title “Left, Right and the Holy Spirit” assumes a priori that there is a direct connection between the three. That religious and political meanings have been woven into many works of art throughout history does not mean that every work of art is religious or political; but many works do encompass these intentions, and such cases constitute the core of the present volume. In addition to articles dealing with the political and religious aspects of the works of past artists, this volume also includes articles focusing on contemporary aspects of this triad of connections.


The meeting point between art and politics is discernible in Tamar Cholcman’s article, which focuses on the attempt of Johannes Bochius, the erudite secretary of the city of Antwerp, to convince the king of Spain to grant independent government to the city as was done by his predecessor, Maximilian I. According to Cholcman, this attempt may be seen in two monuments honoring the ceremonial entry of Archduke Albrecht and the Infanta Isabella, the new governors of the Low Countries in the name of King Philip III of Spain.


The same king is the focus of Giles Knox’s “Philip III of Spain, Carlo Borromeo and the Politics of Canonization.” This article discusses Philip III’s support for the canonization of Borromeo even though Borromeo during his lifetime had created difficulties for the Spanish in his attempts to implement in Milan the decisions of the Council of Trent.


Whereas the articles of Cholcman and Knox focus on the close connection between religion and nationalism, Yonatan Ventura, in “The Theotokos of Gath Semmani: Between a Poetic and National Symbol,” examines how the problematic national situation of the Greek Orthodox in Israel has led to a concentration on the universal aspect of the cult of Mary in Nazareth and Jerusalem.


Reverting to the religious-political context of the seventeenth century, the article “A Man Had Two Sons: The Parable of the Prodigal Son in Guercino’s Painting” by Daniel M. Unger, one of the guest-editors of this volume, discusses Guercino’s digression from both the New Testament’s story and its accepted iconography and connects it to the historical circumstances of the Catholic Reformation.


Nava Sadeh focuses on the status of women in Classical Athens. In "Illusions Woven in Fabric: Gender Aspects and the Sublime in 5th century Sculptured Female Victory Images," she examines the contrast between the situation of women in patriarchal Greece and female allegorical depictions of victory or divinity.


Modern perceptions of the connections between religion and politics are discussed in two articles in this volume. Shoshana-Rose Marzel analyzes Emil Zola’s Au bonheur des dames and claims that Zola’s description of the addiction of nineteenth-century French society to the capitalist consumer culture resembles devotion to a new religion. According to Marzel, consumerism replaced traditional Catholicism in the Paris of Louis-Napoleon. In “Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to Abu Ghraib,” W.J.T. Mitchell examines, first, American propaganda promoting the war on terror, following the collapse of the Twin Towers, through the introduction of religious slogans resembling those that traditionally accompanied the call for a crusade; then the shift in American public opinion about the war in Iraq resulting from the hard-to-digest pictures from the Abu Ghraib jail.


Art and communism are at the center of Igor Aronov’s article, which considers the Suprematist works of Kasimir Malevich using Lenin’s well-organized theories from the first years after the Russian Revolution.



An additional article focusing on the former Soviet Union is that by Dana Arieli-Horowitz, “From ‘Socialist Realism’ to ‘Non-conformism’: Art between Recruitment and Underground in the Soviet Union.” She analyzes the art that developed in the 1960s during the regimes of Khrushchev and Brezhnev and compares it to that which started to appear as a result of the Russian Revolution. Unlike the official revulsion from avant-garde art in the 1920s that led to Socialist Realism and sent the avant-garde artists into exile, in the 1960s the various streams of avant-garde art managed to exist in secrecy and behind closed doors.


A discussion of the close connection between art, religion and politics here in the Holy Land in the struggle between left and right, emphasizing the hegemony of the left in the local art world, can be found in the article by Dror Eydar, who compares the relations between left and right in poetry and the visual arts.


Dror Pimentel also deals with poetry. Using approaches taken from Heidegger, Pimentel examines the question of the relations between the aesthetic and the political, analyzing the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin and David Avidan from a political point of view.


The fear of death led to the idea of resurrection, which is to be found at the base of each of the monotheistic religions. Despite their religious guise, all three are fundamentally political and have served as a primary tool in designing and preserving the existing social order. Naphtali Wagner, dealing with the issue of life after death, describes how the Beatles broke through the barrier between life and death when technological methods enabled bringing into being new works even after the tragic death of John Lennon, in this way contributing to the band’s immortality.

The last article in this volume, by Naomi Meiri-Dann, surveys modern triumphal arches in relation to the traditional meaning ascribed to such monuments through the ages. Meiri-Dann points out contemporary aspects of modern arches and even enumerates the differences between arches built in democratic and totalitarian regimes.


The thirteen articles included in this volume indicate the complexity and multifaceted nature of art in religious and political contexts and may provide the basis for additional discussion of this fascinating topic.

The Left, the Right and the Holy Spirit, October 2008