Photo of logs lining a path through the woods


The Work of Art and the Art of Life

By Michael Jackson

The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne,
Th’assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge . . .
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parliament of Fowls

Painting runs in my family, but not religion. My mother’s maternal uncle, Walter Tempest, was a late nineteenth-century watercolorist and member of the British Royal Academy, and my mother was an acclaimed painter of abstract landscapes. In my early twenties, I vacillated between painting and writing before deciding on anthropology as my vocation. In recent years, my daughters, Heidi and Freya, have excelled in the arts I chose not to pursue.1 Where some people bear witness to a religious tradition, sustained over many generations, I marvel at the artistic trait that has given my family members a very present help in times of trouble. My mother’s accidental landscapes often appear to be outward expressions of her inward struggle with the pain of rheumatoid arthritis.2 The death of Heidi’s mother when she was thirteen, and her attenuated ties with her homeland following our decision to embark on a new life in Australia, undoubtedly found expression in Heidi’s New Zealand landscapes. And Freya frequently turned to painting and drawing when the confusions of her adolescent years overwhelmed her.

In writing about art, I have drawn inspiration from my family history as well as from my ethnographic fieldwork in West Africa and Central Australia, focusing not on art as an expression of individual genius or as an aesthetic, but on the work of art, where “work” is to be read as a verb rather than a noun and understood as a technê for making life more meaningful, enjoyable, and manageable. Art opens up an artificial—one might say a ritual or utopian—space for getting around or beyond the mundane difficulties that beset us and the tragedies that befall us. Crucial to this point of view is the pragmatist assumption that art (ars) and technê are intimately linked, and that the work of art is a matter of making, acting, and doing before it is a form of knowledge, an object of contemplation, or a thing of beauty. The same might be said of religion. Like art, it is a resource for exploring how our individual lives intersect with the lives of others and may be made more fulfilling through the consummation of a relationship with life itself. Rather than identify religion with belief and liturgy, I prefer to focus on the existential situations in which divinities and spiritual entities, as well as ideas of ultimate reality, fate, and morality, come into play as potential means whereby human beings gain some purchase on shattering experiences and regain some measure of comprehension and control over their lives. Limit experiences, however, do not necessarily bring us to religion, as my own family history makes clear. Nor do post-Enlightenment notions of religion necessarily illuminate the African and Aboriginal lifeworlds I have described in my ethnographies. Nor are “spiritual” resources the only resources available to us in crisis, despite our tendency to use a quasi-theological language in recounting experiences that confounded and overwhelmed us. For these reasons, many of the forms of life we refer to as “cultural”—including religion, art, ritual, ideology, and belief—may be construed as ways of circumventing immediate reality,3 ways of affirming “another nature,”4 ways of living by other means.

My approach reflects the work of several contemporary anthropologists of religion whose starting point is neither religious experience, construed as belief, faith, or other forms of consciousness, nor institutionalized religion, defined monothetically as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Animism, and so on. Rather, their emphasis is on the varieties of religious experience and practice—the quasi-propositional dimensions of religious experience in a “minor” rather than institutional mode.5 This echoes the polythetic6 and nonreductionist approach of several scholars of religion who have sought to identify what Ann Taves calls the “building blocks of religious experience”7 and Jonathan Z. Smith calls “the bare facts of ritual.”8 Ann Taves calls this approach “ascriptive,” because it avoids any sui generis model of religious experience; instead, it construes “religion” as those experiences we decide to import into a box we have predesignated in this way, or that scholarly consensus has agreed to label “religious.”

It is this ascriptive approach that I use in exploring the work of art. Rather than make a priori assumptions about the intrinsic nature of religion, ritual, and art, I seek to identify attributes that are shared by the phenomena that we conventionally classify under these headings. What we call art or music is thus defined by whatever the art or music world accepts under such rubrics. Think, for example, of the urinal Marcel Duchamp placed in an art gallery and called Fountain, or John Cage’s provocative questions, “Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school? Are the people inside the school musical and the ones outside unmusical?”9 To assign a similar arbitrariness to the term “religion” is to echo Mark Rothko’s view that art dramatizes the struggles of human existence, and though these struggles find expression in religious texts and ancient myths, they are grounded in recurring human anxieties and questions, “no matter in which land or what time, changing only in detail but never in substance”:10

 I’m not interested in relationships of color or forms. . . . I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions. . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!11


In exploring what Durkheim called the elementary forms of religious life, we cannot assume that forms may be identified in so-called societies without history, whose worldviews are allegedly animistic, totemic, pantheistic, and anthropomorphic.12 Rather, we must turn our attention from what is evolutionarily prior to what is existentially ever-present. This requires bracketing out some of the conventional academic language that fosters the illusion of mutually exclusive domains of reality—sacred/secular, art/religion, subject/object, modern/premodern—in order to bring into relief some of the recurring questions, perennial quandaries, and basic experiences that characterize the human condition. James Davies puts this succinctly in a discussion of the fictive character of words like “secular” and “sacred.”

Surely it is the way a person lives and practices, or treats his neighbor or those in need, that is more expressive of religious living than the conventional markers of affiliation and action. Practices and beliefs, after all, are not primary phenomena, but are rooted in social and psychological processes that may or may not have as their central aim the full realization of the religious life.13

Thus, when Louise Bourgeois speaks of art as her “religion,”14 or the Arrernte painter Wenten Rubuntja compares his Dreaming to the Bible15 (as revealed truth), or the great Anmatyerre painter Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri identifies the Dreaming with God,16 or an Aboriginal elder in the Pilbara points to a rock on which the oldest sketch of a human face can be discerned and says “this is a bible for us,” we cannot conclude that Aboriginal religiosity can be understood through a Judeo-Christian lens. Indeed, it may be that the reverse is true—as one can see in the way Wenten Rubuntja emphasizes the complementarity of agnatic (Aknganentye) and uterine (Altyerre) kinship ties in his Arrernte version of the story of Jesus:

Jesus has two places—his father’s father’s place is Heaven and his mother’s father’s place is the world. The relationship through his father’s father is called Aknganentye. Jesus is related to Heaven through his father’s father. The world—his mother’s father’s country—is what he called Altyerre. . . . That’s a true story.17

If art implies religion, it is not religion in any orthodox sense of the word. It is religion as mystics might understand it—something one discovers for oneself through direct experience and articulates in one’s own way.18 Consider Joseph Beuys’s views in this regard. Opposed to bourgeois Christianity, he sought “a religion of his own,” “not imposed from the outside, but . . . germinated from [his] own depths.”19 Or Lucian Freud’s dilemma, seeking to distance himself from his mother, whose interest in his welfare the son found suffocating, humiliating, and oppressive. Only when his mother had been rendered ineffectual after a drug overdose did the painter take an interest in her—now as a submissive “model” that gave him the upper hand, and whose image he could vicariously control.20

What is at play here is a struggle to bring some semblance of continuity, comprehension, and control to a person’s relationship with unknown forces, both within and without. One avails oneself of extant ritual, artistic, or narrative forms and has recourse to what is given in one’s particular tradition; but what is given is inevitably changed under the impress of one’s own existential needs. This is why it is never enough to declare that art is a process of creating coherence out of confusion,21 or encouraging cognitive play.22 We have to understand what existential quandaries and questions compel these activities, and come to terms with the distinctively human impulse to perennially re-create the world as if it were one’s own. In this process of world-making, one avails oneself of whatever materials come to hand—fire and water, wood and blood, sand and ocher—as well as whatever experiences weigh on one’s mind—birth and death, separation and loss, sickness and health—and through bricolage reconfigure one’s sense of being-in-the-world.


One of the most compelling articulations of the mysterious interplay between the world within and the world without is the Aboriginal worldview known as the Dreaming. Because the Dreaming, as myth and ancestral law, often makes its appearance in the nocturnal dreams of individuals (particularly women), an understanding of what Freud called the dream work may help us understand the work of art. For in dreams and art alike we unconsciously process past experiences in ways that make it possible to begin a new day, helped rather than hindered by the residues of the past.23

Yet, as Jung pointed out, “one cannot recount a dream without having to add the history of half a lifetime in order to represent the individual foundations of the dream.”24

Such is the case with Aboriginal dream interpretation.

In the course of fieldwork in Central Australia in the 1990s, I discovered that, rather than focus on static conditions—being and nothingness, life and death, presence and absence, subject and object—Warlpiri emphasize metamorphic processes, phases, or passages. Moreover, organic experiences, such as gestation and birth, sexual intercourse, digestion and defecation, sleeping and waking, fullness and emptiness, were the basic ontological metaphors Warlpiri used in conceptualizing and naming these transformations through which all things pass.

In Warlpiri thought, life is a continual interplay between what is latent (inchoate and invisible) and what is apparent (articulated and embodied).25 The process of “coming into being” is compared with “giving birth” (palka jarrimi). Thus, the quickening of new life in the womb, the greening of the desert after rain, the ritual performance of an episode from ancestral times (recaptured in a dream), and the chanting of ancestral song-cycles to the clapping of boomerangs are all ways in which latent or potential life is “drawn out” and realized in embodied form.26 The contrary movement is manifest in a person fainting, feeling homesick, accursed (“sung”), drained of energy, separated from kith and kin (who are out of sight and out of mind), or “passing away” (dying).

Nancy Munn, whose fieldwork among the Warlpiri was carried out in 1956–1958, glosses this relational mode of thinking slightly differently: “If we examine Walbiri statements and narratives about the Dreaming, we find that a particular kind of process in which phenomena ‘come out’ (wilibari) and ‘go in’ (yuga) recurs in a variety of contexts and is figured in different concrete images.” A primary image is of the ancestors emerging from the ground, traveling about performing ceremony, impregnating the ground with their vital essence, before growing weary and re-entering the earth whence they came. The process of coming out is not only associated with the ancestral creation of the world but with sexual intercourse (“the erection of the penis as well as birth”) and increase ceremonies,27 while the counter-process of going in is associated with detumescence and death.

Death, though, is not the end of a life but the beginning of a period in which the name of the deceased is taken out of circulation and all trace of his or her identity erased from the earth and from the memory of the bereaved. This period of latency is followed by a “rebirth,” or reappearance, in which the name is brought back into circulation. Just as the generative potential of the ancestors steeped the ground on which they walked or where they camped, only to be drawn out and made present again in ceremony and in the conception of children (the ancestral essence is genitor, not the actual father), so life itself comes and goes in a perpetual reproductive cycle. This explains why rituals to multiply animals and rituals to reanimate the ancestors depend on the same sexual imagery.

Nancy Munn describes how the interplay of coming out and going in is basic to stories of the Dreaming, the sand drawing that accompanies storytelling, conventional wisdom, and the “various visual constructions and enactments of men’s ceremonial dramas.”28 One such construction was created for the ‘increase ceremony’ of a flying ant (pamapardu) Dreaming. Uterine kinsmen (kurdungurlu) “began the painting at the centre: a hole was dug and water poured on the ground. After blood had been rubbed on the wet soil, concentric circles of red-ochred fluff were laid around the sides of the hole and circling it on the surface of the ground. Additional graphic elements were added and white fluff attached to complete the design. The post was decorated with white dots representing numerous ants. Bloodwood leaves, which Walbiri always interpret in ritual contexts as ‘life-giving’ (gudugulu, child-having) were attached to its top, and it was placed in the hole. Men identified the post as the ant hill, while the hole (concentric circle) was their camp.”29 When the construction was completed, patrilineal custodians (kirda) of the site and its Dreaming crouched on the sand painting and beat the ground with leaves as they shuffled toward the pole. These men were “ants crawling toward their camp,” and then entering their hole. “This movement towards the centre (dying) is a procreative act.”30

This drama encapsulates the thesis I am proposing: that art, religion, ritual, dance, and song are not essentially different phenomena but modalities or moments in an existential struggle to act obliquely and vicariously upon the world—bringing it into being, in this instance, by increasing the flying ants (pamapardu) that played an important part in the desert economy. Flying ants build earth mounds (mingkirri) that are common throughout the Tanami Desert. When heavy rains come in summer the mingkirri get flooded out, so the pamapardu grow wings and fly off to make new homes, following their queens to dry mounds or to build anew. When they have found their new home they drop their wings. In this stage they can be collected, lightly cooked in coals, and eaten. As they fall to the ground women collect them to eat, because they are tasty and sweet. Moreover, when certain species of acacia and grass are in seed, ants collect the seed for their own use, often carrying it great distances to their holes in the ground. Because the ants only eat the white thread by which the seeds were attached to a pod or grass stem, the discarded seeds can be found in great abundance around their holes.

Nowadays, no one depends on ants to maximize seed gathering for food. But, though the economic value of ceremony has changed, its existential value endures. Over the last half century, Aboriginal art has become a symbolic supplement to initiatory journeys and the performance of ceremony—a way of articulating one’s imperiled sense of cosmological connectedness, of working through traumas of displacement and loss, and of ensuring that secret-sacred knowledge is passed on to the next generation. These changes belie the continuities that underlie them, such as the symbolic equivalence of different colored paints with menstrual, venous, or urethral blood, semen, milk, urine, and excrement.31

The increase of natural species may be less important these days than ethnic survival and an income, and painting has become critical to the articulation of political claims to land, national recognition, and indigenous self-determination. As Wenten Rubuntja puts it: “I can’t die for nothing! I’ve got to leave something back. . . . We can’t just let things die out, and the children get lost. The children will all lose themselves, and then they’ll go mad, being confused and not knowing what to do.”32

This regenerative process of coming out and going in also survives changes in media. Though painting with acrylics may have eclipsed some forms of ceremonial life, Warlpiri readily identify ceremonial sand painting or body painting with acrylic painting on canvas.33 Whether retouching a rock painting, making a film, painting one’s Dreaming, or preaching a sermon, the same images recur, the same cooperation between patrikin (kirda) and matrikin (kurdungurlu) is required,34 and the same consummation is sought. One’s intimate relationship with country and ancestry is brought to light and kept alive, again and again and again, both in body and in mind.

All these media express iconographically a geo-mythological matrix that a person experiences viscerally, emotionally, and conceptually as the ground of his or her individual being—in Warlpiri, his or her walya (earth, ground, or country). Wenten Rubuntja nicely captures this anthropomorphic fusion of self and country: “Landscape painting is the country himself, with Tywerrenge (sacred object, Law) himself. Tywerrenge come out of there. Songs come out of all that body [of the country].”35


The interplay between what is potentially within and what is presently without broaches the mystery of birth. Does a person enter the world as a tabula rasa, or is he or she already bearing the imprint of experiences that go back many generations? Whether genetically or epigenetically, we carry the lives of predecessors into our own lives, just as we influence the lives of generations to come by what we do or do not do in the course of our own life span. From this perspective, even our physical birth is a rebirth. And every person’s lifetime is punctuated by separations and losses in which we die a little and from which we are, in a sense, perennially reborn. Our relationship to earlier chapters in our life resembles, in this respect, the relationship between an artwork and the artist. The latter is never a mirror image of the former, and it may be impossible to read what has been from what comes into being, whether that new issue is a child, a reinvention of oneself, a personal story, or a work of art. From this arises the mystery of where art comes from. The Gola of Liberia find it so incredible that the marvelous Sande and Poro masks are carved by human hands that they declare them to be the “visible form of a supernatural being” (a jinni), and impose a ban on speaking of the masks as having been made by ordinary men.36 Alfred Gell calls this “enchantment,” and he relates it to our inability to reconcile the object we see with a source we cannot fathom: “It is the way an art object is construed as having come into the world which is the source of the power such objects have over us—their becoming rather than their being.”37

That this mystery is intimately connected to the mystery one experiences when one first takes one’s newborn infant into one’s arms and gazes into his or her face, is beautifully captured in a Gola carver’s experience of “intense and mysterious fulfillment” as he watches his masks “come to life.”

I see the thing I have made coming out of the women’s bush. It is now a proud man jina with plenty of women running after him. It is not possible to see anything more wonderful in this world. His face is shining, he looks this way and that, and all the people wonder about this beautiful and terrible thing. To me, it is like what I see when I am dreaming. I say to myself, this is what my neme38 has brought into my mind. I say, I have made this. How can a man make such a thing? It is a fearful thing I can do. No other man can do it unless he has the right knowledge. No woman can do it. I feel that I have borne children.39

It is not only the Gola who are filled with wonderment at the work of art or who compare its appearance with the birth of a child, mystified as to how perfection can be produced by imperfect human beings. The readiness with which we call great music “divine” or soulful, speak of stories as spellbinding, and evoke the language of spirituality or even spirit possession when speaking of great art calls to mind Rudolf Otto’s notion of the numinous—the experience that allegedly underlies all religion. Hearing voices, divining portents, experiencing divine grace, being inspired, or being moved by the spirit may be compared to the process of creativity in art. As mysterium, the numinous is “wholly other,” entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. It takes our breath away. We become speechless with wonder. But the numinous is also a mysterium tremendum. It provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power. Finally, the numinous presents itself as fascinans, as merciful and gracious.40

But can we understand the emergence of art without evoking supernatural agencies, spiritual sources, artistic genius, or the concept of the unconscious?

Natality is a generative capacity to make something of what one was made—to realize one’s potential—and to live that which is given—genetically, parentally, or culturally—in ways that simultaneously reproduce the world and produce one’s own world.

That sexuality implies natality, and natality implies many forms of symbolic birth, means that we may speak of the work of art and the labor of childbirth as linked ontological metaphors. And rather than the narrow Freudian view of creativity as the sublimation of sexual drives, we see creativity—whether in art, storytelling, ritual, or everyday life—as any world-making or world-sustaining activity.

Such a view, however, flies in the face of widespread assumptions about an allegedly natural division of labor between men and women that defines women’s work as the bearing and raising of children and men’s work as making a living and, by extension, making art.

If this assumption were true, why is it that male production—whether of food, ritual, or art—is so often couched in terms of reproduction? And why do initiation rites the world over involve role reversals, in which men pretend to bring children into the world and women imitate men?

In Central Australia, men’s ritual is analogous to coitus, conjoining human beings with natural species and uniting ancestral beings with their living counterparts.41 This process is vividly enacted by the erotic wriggling, trembling, and quivering, which scatters feathers or down from a performer’s body. This symbolic semen (associated with the Dreaming ancestors) brings new life into being.

What is most illuminating for our purposes, however, is that all secret-sacred materials have, as Róheim puts it, “a double aspect.” On the one hand, they represent the beings with whom life on earth began (the ancestors and, by extension, all parents) and the human beings who devote such care and attention to the correct use of these materials in ritual. Performing a ritual may thus be likened to creating a work of art; it involves, as Róheim points out, a narcissistic aspect.42 In both ritual and art, one is simultaneously channeling one’s forebears, projecting oneself into the world, and participating in the re-creation of the social order. One is, as it were, at once dutiful midwife, self-absorbed child, and parent-progenitor.

Methodologically, however, I consider it imperative that we break a longstanding academic habit of reducing human actions to some unconscious meaning, ulterior motive, or hidden cause. For what the hermeneutics of suspicion all too often means in practice is not only an academic subversion of nonacademic perspectives, but an interpretive license that avails itself of indigenous exegesis to justify its own excessive claims. That initiated Aboriginal men compare the subincised penis with a woman’s vulva does not necessarily mean that they envy women’s capacity to bear children or equate the bleeding penis with a woman’s menses.43 We may draw an analogy between male initiation and childbirth without implying that men are at the mercy of an unconscious wish to arrogate the role of mothers to themselves. A similar argument may be made against the Freudian view that making art is a way of sublimating sexual drives.

What is at stake here is our understanding of analogical thought.

All communication involves saying one thing by way of something else. And metaphor is one of humanity’s original techniques for expressing one’s own immediate experiences in an outward form that can be grasped with others. In controlling patterns of sound, names for things, and images of exterior objects that captured the essence of some interior reality, sociality itself was born, for how would social relations be possible unless the state of one individual’s mind could be translated into a form—either gestural, graphic, or linguistic—that others could recognize and read?

But to draw a distinction between tenor and vehicle, as if one term of the metaphorical relationship were prior or more fundamental, is a little like privileging one party to a conversation over the other. Rather than construe metaphor as a way of saying something “in terms of” or “by way of” something else—claiming, for instance, that Central Australia totemism originates as a psychic defense against “the primal scene,” or that all long objects are “basically” phallic symbols, and all round objects “basically” breasts or wombs44—I prefer to place both terms on a par, each disclosing properties of the other, but neither being regarded as prior or primary.45

Only in this way can we avoid the kind of subject-object splitting that leads us to interpret works of art as either expressions of unconscious subjective processes or of aesthetic conventions, market forces, and objective realities. If, as Lygia Clark says, “the inside is the outside” (the name she gives to her 1963 stainless steel sculpture in the New York Museum of Modern Art), surely the reciprocal is also true—the outside is the inside?

In fact, it is never a matter of either-or, nor of both-and, but of the mysterious and indeterminate relationship between what is deemed to be within and what is supposed to be without. One never knows whether the outward form mirrors the artist’s original intention, or betrays it. And one can never predict what people will make of a piece of art when it begins its second life, circulating in the wider world.

My own focus is on the interplay of an artist’s consciousness and the work of art, by which I mean to imply both the “first life” of producing an object and the “second life” that the object begins when it is taken out of the hands of its maker and put into circulation in the public sphere. This relational approach implies that the meaning of an art object resides neither in the intentions of the producer nor the interpretations of the consumer.

It is because meaning cannot be traced to one identifiable source that the work of art is always mysterious. As Gell observes, art creates the real world in an enchanted form, and the magical property of any work of art derives from the mystery of how and from whence such a thing could be brought into being.46 It is this enigmatic and mysterious quality of an artwork that leads us to associate art with religion and spirituality—words that conjure our relationships with the ultimately unknowable.

Philosophically, this relationship is one of nonidentity. Being and thought are not congruent. Concepts may appear to subsume a diverse body of characteristics, but in truth they privilege one trait over others in order to create the illusion of a perfect fit between the signified and the signifier.47 Similarly, the world within is not entirely explicable in terms of the world without, and objective expressions are never entirely explicable in terms of subjective experiences. What is on one’s mind or in one’s heart influences what one says and what one does, and vice versa, but there is never complete overlap, fusion, or synthesis between these dimensions of human reality. As Jacques Derrida puts it: “The logocentricism of Greek metaphysics will always be haunted . . . by the ‘absolutely other’ to the extent that the Logos can never englobe everything. There is always something which escapes, something different, other and opaque which refuses to be totalized into a homogeneous identity.”48

Ars longa, vita brevis. Art always falls short of life. It fails to do it justice. And life is never long enough to perfect one’s art, let alone the art of living.


  1. Heidi Jackson exhibits regularly in Sydney and teaches art for a living, while Freya Jackson, now studying art in college, already promises to follow in her sister’s and grandmother’s footsteps.
  2. Michael Jackson, The Palm at the End of the Mind: Relatedness, Religiosity, and the Real (Duke University Press, 2009), 62–102.
  3. James Faubion, “Paranomics: On the Semiotics of Sacral Action,” in The Limits of Meaning: Case Studies in the Anthropology of Christianity, ed. Matthew Engelke and Matt Tomlinson (Berghahn, 2006), 189–209.
  4. Jean Duvignaud, The Sociology of Art, trans. Timothy Wilson (Paladin, 1972), 30–32.
  5. See Dan Sperber, “Culturally Transmitted Misbeliefs,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32 (2009): 534–535; Albert Piette, Le fait religieux: Une théorie de la religion ordinaire (Economica, 2005); T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Vintage, 2012); and Ordinary Lives and Grand Schemes: An Anthropology of Everyday Religion, ed. Samuli Schielke and Liza Debevec (Berghahn, 2012).
  6. Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago University Press, 1982), 1–18.
  7. Ann Taves, Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things (Princeton University Press, 2009). See also Religion: Beyond a Concept, ed. Hent de Vries (Fordham University Press, 2008), 4–5, 13.
  8. Smith, Imagining Religion, 53–65. These recent explorations of the indeterminate relationship between normative schemes and “how people actually live [their] religious lives” (Ordinary Lives and Grand Schemes, ed. Schielke and Debevec, 2) reflect earlier critiques of reification and Eurocentricity in religious studies by Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Talal Asad.
  9. John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 41
  10. Cited in Stephen Polcari, “Mark Rothko: Heritage, Environment, and Tradition,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 2, no. 2 (Spring 1988): 34.
  11. Mark Rothko, quoted in Selden Rodman, Conversations with Artists (Capricorn Books, 1961), 93–94.
  12. Unfortunately, even the most trenchant critiques of the post-Enlightenment bias in the ways we frame our understandings of religion continue to invoke pejorative notions of primitiveness, simplicity, and lack of sophistication when describing religions among “the noncivilizational peoples of the world” (Smith, Meaning and End of Religion, 53–54). Jacques Derrida speaks of a “globalatinized,” Greco-Roman bias, in his “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone,” in Religion, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo (Stanford University Press, 1998), 4, 30.
  13. James Davies, “The Rationalization of Suffering,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 39, no. 1/2 (Winter/Spring 2011): 56.
  14. “I have a religious temperament. . . . There are 140 religions or so, so one more doesn’t matter. My religion is art. It allows me to make sense of everything”; Louise Bourgeois (Phaidon, 2003), 183.
  15. Wenten Rubuntja with Jenny Green, The Town Grew Up Dancing: The Life and Art of Wenten Rubuntja (Jukurrpa Books, 2002), 128.
  16. “But this Dreaming, that’s God for us”; cited in Vivien Johnson, The Art of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (Gordon and Breach Arts International, 1994), 17.
  17. Rubuntja, The Town Grew Up Dancing, 173. Fred Myers recounts an equally compelling biography of the Aboriginal artist Linda Syddick (Tjungkaya Napaltjarri), whose work obliquely references Christian motifs, traumatic childhood experiences, and her participation in Pintupi ritual life; Fred R. Myers, Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art (Duke University Press, 2002), 304–310.
  18. “Art and Religion are, then, two roads by which men escape from circumstance to ecstasy. Between aesthetic and religious rapture there is a family alliance. Art and Religion are means to similar states of mind”; Clive Bell, Art (1914), pt. 2, “Art and Life,” chap. 1, “Art and Religion.”
  19. Lucrezia De Domizio Durini, The Felt Hat: Joseph Beuys: A Life Told (Charta, 1997), 23–24. For Beuys, hierarchies of high or low art, and even the concepts “culture” and “the artist” are called into question: “When I say everybody is an artist, I mean everybody can determine the content of life in his particular sphere, whether in painting, music, engineering, caring for the sick, the economy or whatever. All around us the fundamentals of life are crying out to be shaped or created.”
  20. Geordie Greig, Breakfast with Lucian: The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain’s Great Modern Painter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 55–61.
  21. Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps, Living Narrative: Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling (Harvard University Press, 2001).
  22. Brian Boyd, On the Origins of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Harvard University Press, 2009), 3–4.
  23. Carl Jung presages this current understanding of the process of dreaming: “The dream, we would say, originates in an unknown part of the psyche and prepares the dreamer for the events of the following day”; C. G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation: An Analysis of the Prelude to a Case of Schizophrenia, 2nd ed., trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton University Press, 1967), 7.
  24. Ibid., 8.
  25. Nancy Munn’s famous essay is very relevant here: “The Transformation of Subjects into Objects in Walbiri and Pitjantjatjara Myth,” in Australian Aboriginal Anthropology: Modern Studies in the Social Anthropology of the Australian Aborigines, ed. Ronald M. Berndt (University of Western Australia Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1970), 141–163.
  26. Michael Jackson, At Home in the World (Duke University Press, 1995), 26, 57–58, 113. See also Myers, Painting Culture, 5, on Pintupi notions of “making visible” (yurtininpa). Peter Sutton draws an analogy between the body and ceremonial knowledge. Both have “an outside, more or less readily available to perception, and an inside, which becomes grasped only with revelation”; Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia (George Braziller, 1988), 76.
  27. Nancy Munn, “Spatial Presentation of Cosmic Order in Walbiri Iconography,” in Primitive Art and Society, ed. Anthony Forge (Oxford University Press, 1973), 193–220 (200).
  28. Ibid., 208.
  29. Ibid., 208–209, emphasis added.
  30. Ibid., 209.
  31. Géza Róheim, The Eternal Ones of the Dream: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Australian Myth and Ritual (International Universities Press, 1969), 219–220.
  32. Rubuntja, The Town Grew Up Dancing, 94, 150.
  33. In her afterword to the 1986 edition of Walbiri Iconography, Nancy Munn alludes to this transition from “traditional graphic forms” to acrylic painting; Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society (University of Chicago Press, 1986), 223n3. Pintupi also draw analogies between painting designs on the body and painting on canvas or canvas boards; see Myers, Painting Culture, 58–59.
  34. See Michael Nelson Jakamarra’s remarks in Sutton, Dreamings, 102.
  35. Rubuntja, The Town Grew Up Dancing.
  36. Warren L. d’Azevedo, “Mask Makers and Myth in Western Liberia,” in Primitive Art and Society, ed. Anthony Forge (Oxford University Press, 1973), 126–150 (140).
  37. Alfred Gell, “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology,” in The Art of Anthropology: Essays and Diagrams, ed. Eric Hirsch (Athlone Press, 1999), 166.
  38. Neme is etymologically cognate with the Mande nyama, life energy, “energy of action”; Patrick R. McNaughton, The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa (Indiana University Press, 1988), 15–16.
  39. D’Azevedo, “Mask Makers and Myth,” 148, emphasis added.
  40. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 1950).
  41. Róheim, The Eternal Ones of the Dream, 101.
  42. Ibid., 100, 99.
  43. Ibid., 166–167. Cf. Bruno Bettelheim, Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male (The Free Press, 1954).
  44. Róheim, The Eternal Ones of the Dream, 195; Munn, “Spatial Presentation of Cosmic Order,” 199.
  45. Michael Jackson, “Thinking Through the Body,” in Paths Toward a Clearing: Radical Empiricism and Ethnographic Inquiry (Indiana University Press, 1989), 137–155 (142).
  46. Gell, “The Technology of Enchantment.”
  47. Theodor W. Adorno, Lectures on Negative Dialectics: Fragments of a Lecture Course 1965/1966, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Polity, 2008), 6, 7, 80–83.
  48. Jacques Derrida, “Deconstruction and the Other,” interview with Richard Kearney, in Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage, ed. Richard Kearney (Manchester University Press, 1984), 117.

Michael Jackson is Distinguished Visiting Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and the faculty advisor to the Bulletin. This essay is excerpted from the preface to a book he is currently writing on art and religion. He recently received a faculty research grant from the Center for the Study of World Religions in support of this research.

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