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Private Symbols

Watching the West Wing episode that we taped last night. Bartlet lays out the veto materials on the desk as Toby and Doug look on. When he also pulls out a pen from his pocket, we know from an earlier scene that this pen has significance for him in regards to Mrs Landingham. What I found interesting, and I continue to find interesting, is that such a significant proportion of Art is the meditation on private symbols and how they can become public symbols. Propaganda, meanwhile, starts with a public symbol in the hope that people will be coerced or mesmerized into adopting it as a private symbol of their own.

And Art so often gets into trouble by examining the private implications of public symbolism.

Case in point: at this moment, I happen to be listening to Passion, the soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ. The fury that came down on the filmmakers’ heads was that this interpretation of Christ’s passion was “blasphemous” and “sacreligious.” But — aside from exmining the implications that Jesus chose his closest and most beloved disciple to perform the crucial role of betraying him, thereby setting the whole passion, crucifixion, and resurrection in motion — the film was also a deeply sympathetic look at the conflict within Jesus if we assume that he was both god and man.

Jung talked about how dogma comes from the concatenation, commingling, and endless revisions of private revelations and reflections over many generations. If this is true, then the way Art and Religion once coexisted was with Art producing the raw goods for the factories, so to speak, of Religion.

If Art and Religion do not love each other quite as ardently as they once did, it may be because Art now engages in many of the modes of thinking that have been developed in the laboratories and notebooks of scientists. Art has become criticism. No one, of course, cares when Art criticizes Science, because Science lives for criticism and simply cannot function without it. But when Art criticizes Religion? Look out.

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