Has art replaced religion? Not an original thought, I know, but something I wondered as I stood in front of William Holman Hunt's The Scapegoat at the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate Britain yesterday.
The painting depicts a sacrificial goat, as described in the Jewish Torah and elsewhere, expelled from the tribe to die in the wilderness as part of a ritual cleansing. If the red crown on its head, thought also by some to represent Christ's suffering, turns white, then the sins of the group are expunged.
I don’t know anyone who goes to church, no one who admits to it openly anyway, but I know plenty who genuflect to Ticketmaster, booking outings to exhibitions and concerts and theatre in a sort of unquestioning frenzy.
And here I am with my girlfriends, worshipping these paintings with a reverence once accorded to church. Our outings are pilgrimages, the perfection we stand before, our holy relics, the little piece we take away with us, a postcard, a calendar or some other arty accoutrement.
As we stare, our audio guides clamped to heads, the better for art's incantation to be absorbed more directly, what are we hoping for? Enlightenment? Truth? Knowledge? That some small part of this genius might rub off on us? What do we gain apart from a laugh with some mates, a mediocre coffee in the café, and a nice spot of lunch?
Somehow I think we’re hoping it will make us better people. That, as empty worthless vessels, if we pour in a drop of art, a splash of theatre, a smattering of music and a pint of film for good measure, the sum of our parts will increase; we will be full to the brim with loveliness, even able to take a little bit of it home to spread the word, when really we’re just the price of the ticket/tube fare/coffee/audio guide/lunch worse off. I worked it out: £39.50. This art malarkey don’t come cheap.
I read all the blurb. I learnt stuff. I mentally noted which ones I liked and which I didn’t much care for and swapped these invaluable observations with my friends, who did the same. I decided that the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers were an incredibly talented but humourless lot, awesomely well educated with all that self-conscious referencing to Shakespeare and Tennyson and Greco-Roman myth. I resolved to use the word 'accoutrement' the next time I wrote something because it was there in the extremely well written guide.
And finally, I felt rather superior to the woman standing next to me also pondering The Scapegoat, who had apparently made the cardinal sin of not investing in the audio guide, nor reading the well written explanation, and who consequently said, and I quote: “Oh dear, that red thing on the goat’s head… that doesn’t really work, does it?”
Henry Wallis - Chatterton
I really liked this one. Not quite sure why.