London is bucking nationwide trends and becoming more religious. This research project seeks to map and analyse this phenomenon. (Upcoming)
I have been intrigued recently by the coverage on a growing campaign to have the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi made a saint. Gaudi’s supporters have been keen to clarify that it is Gaudi’s life (including his remarkable asceticism, concern for workers’ rights and deep faith) which is the basis for canonisation rather than the architecture. This of course is a necessary condition for sainthood, there have been plenty of phenomenal artists who have contributed something to the Church without themselves living especially pious or moral lives worthy of canonisation.
That said one wonders whether his supporters are not missing something here. They risk downplaying the extraordinary impact that architecture and art can have. Certainly it cannot be the whole story when assessing someone’s life and yet the impact on public space and, therefore, on the lives of (in the case of the Sagrada Familia) hundreds of thousands of people surely cannot be overlooked.
This takes on a particular significance in the context of mounting questions over how different groups ought to engage in the public square. It is a question with serious traction in current British society, and of course not least a concern for various religious groups. The oft-heard secularist line on this is to separate the public from the private and confine any religious belief or activity to the latter. The curiosity in this effort to split private belief from public behaviour is the underlying assumption that the public square itself can be some sort of neutral empty space free from any symbolism or influence. This idea regularly appears in blogs and essays, in the defintion of secularism provided by the BHA and frequently online:
This is to divide this intellectual debating space “the public square” from the real, actualised, on the ground public space. Of course anyone walking the streets can see quite readily that public space is nothing like the imagined and empty neutral space conceived of in debates about the public square. The real public squares are crowded with competing symbols and messages – public buildings, from schools and courts to universities, religious buildings, and government spaces are all saturated with symbolic meaning (never mind the unavoidable ubiquity of advertising). It is those who hope that they can create a neutral empty public space who are living in a strange fantasy world.
We live in an era in which advances in communication technology have made it very easy to buy into the idea of a virtual world. If we are not careful we can almost come to imagine that relationships and public space really are conducted in some sort of detached cloud. We can almost begin to convince ourselves that looking at an image of a place or piece of art is an acceptable substitute for actually being there, or that a text message or email can really equate to the experience of talking to someone face to face.
This is where the Sagrada Familia and Gaudi have their place in this debate – and why religious groups perhaps ought to take their architects and artists more seriously. They serve as a reminder that this public space in which we live is not richer for bland neutrality, nor is it plausible to expect it to ever have the sort of value-free vacuum that some would advocate.
Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos
Image from wikipedia available in the public domain.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.