May 2014

James Draney


Art, Religion, Amnesia: The Enchantments of Credulity by Donald Preziosi

Donald Preziosi's work has always been difficult to categorize. His style of inquiry is somewhere in between the established methodologies that underlie most art history and literary criticism. A former student of linguistics (and a former president of the Semiotic Society of America), his work tends to deal less with art itself than with visual culture's relationship to a range of phenomena. Preziosi has always been much more of a scholar or philosopher than a mere critic of art.

Since his first book, Semiotics of the Built Environment: An Introduction to Architectonic Analysis, was published in 1979, Preziosi has held a range of distinguished positions at universities throughout the world. He's best known for developing the renowned art history critical theory program at UCLA, where he still teaches.

His latest work, Art, Religion, Amnesia: The Enchantments of Credulity is written with the same theoretical rigor that helped establish Preziosi's formidable reputation. The indeterminate genre of this latest effort is evident from its very first pages. Preziosi is adamant that this is "not an attempt to articulate what might be called an 'aesthetics' of religion" or "an exploration of the religious or 'spiritual' dimensions or aspects of art, artistry and artifice" (his emphasis). Rather, Preziosi is attempting to unpack the "relations between" these two forces. He is attempting to unearth what he calls the "epistemological technologies" of art and religion, or, in other words, to figure out how they work as intellectual, aesthetic and ideological practices.

The first third of Art, Religion, Amnesia is taken up by a series of introductions. Preziosi spends the first four chapters (or Passages, as he calls them) setting up the boundaries for his critique. In doing this, he diverts from the usual dry, detached style of academic prose. The book is sprinkled with biographical and philosophical asides. In the author's own words, the book is "a reminder (and an ostensification) of the porosity or indisciplinarity of the manufactured boundaries between the personal and the scholarly (and the critical and the scientific)" (his emphasis).

The author encourages an outward reading. Rather than start at the beginning of the text and more forward chronologically, he advises the reader to start with the sixth Passage, the "propositional heart of the text," titled "Godless in Copenhagen," before working one's way through the rest of the text.

Reader be warned: Preziosi's prose is not for the faint of heart. Trudging through his sentences can, at times, be arduous. Keeping up with the wide variety of theoretical influences and references is in itself exhausting. The dialogical (rather than assertive) nature of the text leaves the reader doing her best to tie up loose ends and make connections between the author's theses, propositions and reflections.

Though, the argumentative meat of the book -- the sixth Passage -- is a meticulous and fascinating exploration of what Preziosi refers to as "the semiological processes, functions, and effects" of artistry and religiosity. This chapter is an extension of the keynote address Preziosi gave to the international conference "Godless! The Modern Critique of Religion" at the University of Copenhagen in January of 2007. The jumping off point for that conference was, of course, the controversial blasphemous cartoons published in the Danish newspaper The Jutland Post back in 2005.

According to Preziosi, the problem of representation lies at the crux between art and religion. He advocates for the obverse of Derrida's assertion that "[A] Divine teleology secures the political economy of the fine arts," such that it is also "artistry that secures the political economy of religion." For example, the reason that monotheistic religions have always been opposed to representations of their immaterial objects of worship (the image, as well as the name, of God) stems from an anxiety that aesthetic representation can lead to "the imagining of difference." Put simply, Preziosi is an advocate for art's ability to imagine other possibilities, to make other worlds. Art, in other words, has always threatened the boundaries and systems of religious belief.

Furthermore, Preziosi is disinclined to draw a distinction between the categories of "art" and "religion." In his view, they are merely two sides of the same coin: "Art and religion are variant yet mutually defining and co-determined answers or approaches to the same questions of the ethics of the practice of the self." Preziosi's project in Art, Religion, Amnesia is to alter the terms of discourse of art and religion. As much as art and aesthetics work to produce religious beliefs (or any kind of system of thought or discourse), so does religion make possible art and artifice.

The remainder of the book -- the final four Passages -- deals with the consequences of the four theses established in "Godless in Copenhagen." While the first half of the book looks more like philosophy than art history, the second half delves into and unpacks the way visual culture -- fine art, religious idols, public monuments -- interact with discursive, religious and ideological systems.

Art, Religion, Amnesia is thorough, yet verbose. Preziosi's thought is always constructive and enlightening, yet his dense, literary style may frighten off readers who could learn much from this fascinating study.

Art, Religion, Amnesia: The Enchantments of Credulity by Donald Preziosi
ISBN: 978-0415778619
160 pages