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

Varda Polak-Sahm, Um El Fahem, 1988

"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.