Art As Religion

This week I read Peter J. Bailey’s The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen. His theme is the way Allen plays off art against life throughout his films, with a constant attack on the idea that art is more important than living, or that art redeems life. Allen, being an artist known for sacrificing personal relationships to his film work, is in a conflicted position himself on this.

Is this topic central to the themes of the films in Bailey’s book just because it is Bailey’s chosen topic to study (instead of, say, gender relationships in Allen’s films)? Or is the topic really the central recurring theme of Allen’s work? Perhaps we need to look at it another way. In the world of Allen’s films, largely the world of New York intellectuals, or the world as seen by them, art plays a role much like that which religion does for more normal people. Art is expected to provide meaning to existence, the values to guide choices, and a fullness of living that is only ever demanded of it by a few elite minorities throughout history.

It is inviting, therefore, to consider whether Allen’s films could be translated for a different broader audience by replacing art with religion and then using the same plots and personal crises. In how many films would this work, and how well? It would make for very strange movies in that movies typically don’t want to delve into the personal authority of religion. For one thing, there is no common religion to which all the film audience potentially can respond. For another, movie people are a self selected group that largely ignores religion. When it does get into a movie religion usually is treated in a weird way. The result is that Bailey’s book helps us to image a type of film does not exist, but that theoretically has a broad unexplored cinematic territory open to it.

But who could relate to such films? In the 19th century, maybe, there were intellectuals questioning the integrative value of religion–in Europe in the 18th century. Today one would have to consciously choose to take up religion as a integrative value system. It is not a background assumption that keeps intruding into life and has to be examined. How odd, then, that art could attain that status for intellectuals, to the point that someone would build a film career on questioning it.

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