Breaking bread with the dead

Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.
– W.H. Auden, c. 1940

I’m not sure what Auden meant by that: did he mean the eucharistic breaking of bread? Auden was a deeply serious Christian. Or is the breaking bread just a reference to our communication with the past, with what has died, but lives again in art? Or both?

Photo by PitsLamp Photography. Creative Commons.

Anyway, I was thinking about the relationship of art and the spiritual, which I think is an intimate and inevitable one, and then I remembered that in the history of humanity, the first art was religious. The first objects of the sculptor, the carver and the painter were the  fetishes, masks and images used in religious ceremonies. The first music and dance were created for the same ceremonies. The first poetry and fiction were the stories of creation and redemption told around the fire, and remembered by bards and shamans from generation to generation. In fact, shamans were the first artists.

A Naxi shaman performs a purifying ritual. This man was very old and the last of his kind to keep such traditions alive. He and other Naxi people escaped the worst of the Cultural Revolution and many old traditions survived. Photo by Deederdoll. Creative Commons.

Central to all of it has been the shaman, the holy man or woman, the wise one, who most of the time is elderly. The old artist has always held a special place in the arts.

Later, in the West, music and the visual arts nearly always sprang from biblical and religious traditions. Centuries passed before, relatively recently, art turned to the secular social and domestic worlds. In the East, what was depicted in ancient times nearly always had religious significance, whether it was a Buddha, a scene from legend or myth, or nature. In the church and the temple, art has continued to be important, though perhaps not as imperative.

The Vatican Museums, Rome. Photo by Trixnbooze. Creative Commons.

I don’t mean to conflate the institutional church and the spiritual, since I take the latter to include established religion only when it is sincere and lively. (I want to be careful because it seems to me indisputable, to take an extreme example, that the old men of the Roman Catholic Church have lost their way, even though they’re utterly submersed in millenia of art.)

Anyway, the point is that there is a profound connection between the arts and the spiritual in prehistory and history.

There have always been reasons to doubt it: string quartets in Nazis extermination camps, for example. Artists and people who appreciate the arts can be as immoral, amoral, or plainly evil as those who have nothing to do with music, painting or poetry. But then that’s also true of the religious. Another topic for another day.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I don’t believe there’s a special aesthetic sensibility that enables us to enjoy the arts and that it’s distinct from our need to reach out and touch what’s mysterious and awesome, to approach death, to do what was once the sole province of religion (and art under the rubric of the spiritual). I think they’re one and the same. And that’s true whether we’re talking about Beyoncé or Beethoven or some wonderful guy on the street.

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