The entrance to the central gallery of The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam opened in 1885. It was designed by the foremost Dutch architect of churches, Pierre Cuypers, and whilst it looks for all the world like a cathedral, it is – all the same – a museum.
Like many of his European contemporaries in the 19th Century, Cuypers was beginning to anticipate a decline in faith across the continent spurred on by a rise in scientific thinking and scepticism. Many intellectuals were beginning to believe Nietzsche’s now-famous declaration: “God is dead.”
There were fears that this decline in faith could signal a decline in morality and a loss of community: the coming of an age where humankind no longer regularly celebrated the highest ideals of goodness, beauty and truth. Cuypers felt that some sort of substitution was required – a replacement for the role which religion had played for so long in our society – and he was not alone in believing that this replacement would be Culture. We would (he and others believed) go to the museum in the same way as we’d once gone to church.
The accompanying rallying cry was: ‘Museums will be our new cathedrals.’ By this people understood that the kind of consolation, meaning, solace and purpose once found in religion could now be found in culture, but without any of the supernatural bits that were making belief so problematic.
This is a beautiful idea, but the trouble is it hasn’t quite been fulfilled in the way that intellectuals of the 19th Century imagined. Though officially we revere culture, we don’t – day to day – behave as though it really can change our lives, guide us, console us and lend us meaning in the way that religion once did.
We don’t visit museums in order to break down in tears for all the sadness of the world and call for redemption. (It is possible to do so, of course, but the security guards might have something to say about it). We also don’t typically apply to a humanities course at a prestigious university and announce to our interviewers that we hope to study to find meaning and salvation. If we did, the professors would most likely regard us with more than a small amount of suspicion or concern.
This is a shame because our minds are full of frailties that culture can help correct. One of these frailties is that the human brain has trouble concentrating for long periods: it forgets things very easily, and frequently gets jumbled with all sorts of excess information, worries and distractions.
Art and culture can help us to overcome this problem and remain focused on what’s most needed or most useful. To return for a moment to the ways of religions, Buddhism has long been aware of the utility of art in overcoming our forgetful and distracted minds. It recommends that all its followers have a portrait of the Buddha always in view as a purposeful reminder. This encourages those who follow the values of patient endurance and enlightenment to look upon the face of one who is serene and peaceful; to share the quality of mind it exhibits.
We can all practice this in our own home. Someone who is inclined to despair a little too easily might hang a reproduction of Henri Fantin-Latour’s flower paintings prominently in their home, since – with all their colour and freshness – they speak to us of promise and new beginnings. Someone who is prone to get distracted or carried away by new, exciting things might benefit from a few pieces of furniture inspired by the Victorian artist and designer William Morris: his use of hand-crafted materials signals the beauty of tradition.
These insights are not limited to individuals either. An organisation which needs to help its employees remain relaxed might employ a minimalist designer to order the office furniture and décor along clean, simple lines which promote a sense of simplicity and peacefulness. It might be that the nature of employees’ work is often stressful, with lots of tight deadlines and difficult negotiations, but the right immediate surroundings will help them to stay level-headed. Indeed, using design to keep a team or organisation focused and motivated is one of the more seriously neglected pieces of business strategy.
Another key function of art is to make clear what we may only know in a hazy way. This is perhaps most helpful when it comes to self-knowledge. We are not transparent to ourselves; we have intuitions, suspicions, hunches, vague musings and strangely mixed emotions – all of which resist simple definitions.
Then, from time to time, we encounter works of art that seem to latch onto something we have felt, but never clearly recognised before. Alexander Pope identified this as a central function of poetry: to convey what ‘was often thought, but never so well expressed.’ In art, a fugitive and elusive part of our own thinking and experience can be taken up, edited, and returned to us better than it was before so that we feel, at last, that we know ourselves more clearly.
Many of us already intuitively grasp this function of culture; it is the principle at work whenever we ask one another, “which character in Games of Thrones are you?” We are seeking out a bit of insight about ourselves by connecting it to something in a cultural work. (Whether GOT is the most illuminating place to start can remain up for debate).
It is by turning to cultural works rather than (say) cultivating a social media profile or even an expressive wardrobe that we are perhaps best able to help us attain a higher degree of self-understanding, and later, to communicate it to others. Culture allows us to better understand and explain to others who we are and what we are about. This knowing ourselves is, once again, no small matter—it is the first step in knowing what we might want; it helps us to make crucial decisions in our lives.
The decline of religion in the West is old news. But we have yet to recognise the potential for culture to change our lives in similar ways, as imagined by Cuypers and his contemporaries. Individually and collectively we ought to explore how art, music, literature and other cultural works can help us to cultivate our best selves and share them with others. In this way, culture can be used to truly transform our lives: to make life a lot less lonely, confusing, agitated, narrow and mean.