Hillsdale College’s Center for Constructive Alternatives November 1997 seminar, “Art and the Moral Imagination,” examined the role art and artists have played not only in the development of our society but in the cultivation of our ideas about such moral issues as good and evil, truth and falsehood, virtue and vice, beauty and ugliness, and artistic freedom and artistic license. Art historian and preservationist Donald Reynolds specifically addressed art’s image of the sacred.
Anthropologists teach us that notions of the sacred are inherent in human nature. In other words, as human beings we have a natural propensity to consecrate, to sanctify, to make holy. The word “sacred” refers to that which is set apart as holy or which is dedicated to some exalted purpose. We secure sacred things against defamation or violation. Sacred things, then, we say are inviolate.
Human life, for example, is inviolate. It is one of the things we hold most sacred. We have strict laws to protect it. Some cultures hold that all life is sacred. There is a certain logic to this conviction, which becomes clear if we think for a moment about the nature of life. Scientists teach us that life begins with matter and that man is its highest form. Philosophers and theologians teach us that man has both an animal and a rational nature. We are rational animals with souls that are immortal. We might say that matter aspires to life, life to immortality. That miraculous emergence of life from matter and its transcendence in the human spirit is the unifying and perpetuating principle of all creation. Its most perfect embodiment is the human person. Its most eloquent expression is the human figure.
If the anthropologists, scientists, philosophers, and theologians are correct, this principle of transcendent life is the very foundation of our instinct to survive and our drive to create. So we hold it sacred. Little wonder, then, that understanding, honoring, and celebrating this miracle of life has been the object of man’s pursuit from the dawn of civilization. Not only has that pursuit attracted the world’s most profound thinkers over the centuries but it has inspired our most gifted artists to produce many of our public monuments, much of our civic art, and our best figurative art.
The figurative tradition derives its richness and its longevity from how artists embody and express in their work the miracle of life—what I have already referred to as the transcendence of the human spirit. From earliest times, the human figure has symbolized the unknown forces that govern the universe. It has also served as the vehicle for those powers mankind ardently reveres. In one form or another, it has been at the center of ritual throughout the world since prehistoric times, and it has been the medium through which the human and the divine communicated.
The human figure embodies the universe of human existence and experience. It personifies all that is human and is, therefore, the one form in art with which we totally, uniquely, and immediately identify. That empathy derives from the fact that the figure is the complete expression of the beauty, mystery, and dignity of the human person, the quintessential form of life. Therefore, the figurative tradition occupies a unique place not only in the history of art but in the entire sweep of human history. It has always been an accurate barometer of civilization’s attitude toward humanity and respect for individuals.
The ancient Greeks were the first to establish standards of beauty for the human figure based on the perfection of physical development. They recognized that the body’s design is a perpetual marvel of proportion, flesh, and organization. They also recognized the indivisibility of the mind, body, and spirit. Medieval theologians saw the human body as a metaphor for the universal community of mankind. And they audaciously taught that all human beings are united by the divine grace of the Creator, the first maker of symbols, who gave them their physical and spiritual form. It has been said that ever since God formed man out of the clay of the ground and breathed life into him (Genesis 2:7), the human figure has been the central theme in art and people’s yearning for immortality its underlying principle.