January 28, 2014

A Butterfly of Reason

There was a shop in the small town of Elloree, South Carolina, that was a masterpiece of folk art. Painted boards of greens and blues were nailed to the exterior in a haphazard yet sensitive way. One of these boards sported a lovingly rendered black and yellow butterfly. Below the image of the butterfly a phrase was painted in all upper case letters that ended with a portly exclamation point. “HE IS RISEN!” the sign proclaimed.

I photographed this building with the bright summer light bouncing off the facade. The image was a favorite of mine and I eagerly anticipated the day that I would paint in oils again so I could render these glorious shapes and colors on a panel or canvas. I finally got around to it this winter.

This small art work almost painted itself. There was not much that needed to be modified from the original photograph. I kept most of the shapes and colors true to the original but did change the brick texture to a smooth stucco one. Then, on a sudden impulse, I made one very obvious change in the message on the facade of the building. In the painting I replaced the words “He is risen!” with the single word “Reason!”

So why the dramatic change of words? Was it sacrilegious to change the sign? I confess that I felt a twinge of guilt about changing the message on the building, even though it was my painting to do with what I would. The change of words came about perhaps due to my recent reading and film watching. I had just watched Julia Sweeney’s monologue, “Letting Go of God,” and had also finished reading the monograph, “Against All Gods,” by the British philosopher and former acquaintance Professor Anthony Grayling.

Julia Sweeney’s monologue was a humorous take on her rather Woody Allen style angst ridden personal search for a meaningful and acceptable concept of God. At the end of her search, she decides to let go of a belief in God altogether - as all faiths, both modern and ancient, fell short. In contrast, Professor Grayling’s monograph was a polemic proclaiming humanism and rationalism as the only sensible alternatives to faith. No soul searching or trying on of various belief systems required. Two very different routes to the same conclusion. Julia Sweeney’s account was the more entertaining of the two but A.C. Grayling’s monograph was more engaging. This was in large part due to the fact that I found myself in disagreement with a few key points, one being his faith that humankind would have produced just as voluminous great art without the help of religion, and the other that atheism was not a belief but rather a proclamation against belief. I had my doubts about both points. Some of the greatest art ever produced was created out of veneration or as a means to venerate. And this corpus is just too massive to dismiss. And it would seem to me that the belief in God as well as the belief that God does not exist are simply equal but opposite answers to the same question. Both claim that something ineffable is knowable.

My brief foray into the writings and performance of two atheists may have had an influence in the making of this small painting of the butterfly on the store front. Perhaps I am testing out A.C. Grayling’s contention that art need not be based on faith to still be illuminating. I wouldn’t call it great art but a butterfly of reason does seem to shine as brightly as a butterfly of faith.

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