To understand the logic, theoretically and methodologically, behind our study of death and Christian aesthetics we'll need to review a few ideas. First, a primer on Terror Management Theory (TMT). Last year in a presentation here at the university I used some of the pictures below to walk through the main ideas of TMT. To begin, the terror of "Terror Management" is existential terror, mainly the anxieties we feel upon approaching death. To quote Ernest Becker:
“The animals don't know that death is happening and continue grazing placidly while others drop alongside them. The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it…But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one's dreams and even the most sun-filled days--that's something else.”
In short, humans are the only animals on the earth that consciously know they are approaching their death:
And, as Becker notes, this approach causes existential anxiety and terror:
How do we cope with this anxiety? We cope by creating cultural worldviews that allow us to approach death via activities that taken on symbolic, transcendent, and religious significance. We approach death by investing in cultural activities that give life meaning:
Once we imbue life with cultural "significance" we are able to calm (or repress) our existential fears:
In short, according to TMT theorists, one feature of culture is death repression. Again to quote Becker:
"The fear of death must be present behind all our normal functioning, in order for the organism to be armed toward self-preservation. But the fear of death cannot be present constantly in one's mental functioning, else the organism could not function."
How, then, might we use these ideas to determine if Christian art is implicated in death repression? Recall from Part 1 of this series that TMT researchers have demonstrated that artwork can be a repository for cultural ideals and values. In short, some artwork can encode and symbolize the cultural values and ideals that make life meaningful and significant, existentially speaking. Consequently, in the face of death, these cultural symbols are clung to, preferred, and protected. These cultural products become existentially important to us.
What we did on our laboratory was to replicate Landau et al.'s study with American iconic art using Christian art in a Christian population. The logic of the design was as follows.
First, we selected as our stimuli two pieces of art. One was an overtly Christian piece of artwork and the other was neutral. According to TMT, for Christian participants the Christian art would be existentially important. That is, the Christian art activates symbols implicated in how Christians might manage death anxiety. Conversely, the neutral art (a landscape) plays no such function:
Prior to evaluating the art the participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the Mortality Salience condition the participants completed a short essay about what they think will happen to them when they die. This essay primes death awareness:
Participants in the control condition completed an essay about an unpleasant but non-death related experience (dental pain).
After going through the priming conditions we expect that those in the Mortality Salience condition would feel more existentially unsettled relative to the control participants:
The question then becomes: How will these participants handle/manage their anxiety? The prediction is that in the face of death the Christian participants would prefer the Christian art relative to the neutral art:
This tendency is believed to be due to existential reactivity. The Christian participants, in the face of death, are gravitating toward symbols (unique to their worldview) of death transcendence. Presumably to soothe/comfort themselves. By contrast, it was expected that Christians in the dental pain condition would display no such reactivity. That is, feeling existentially settled (relative to those in the Mortality Salience condition) there is no psychological motive to prefer one painting over the other (other than personal preference). In sum, we basically poke at a person's existential worldview to see if it kicks back at us.
The outcome? Well, it's a little more complex than this, but we were able to replicate Landau et al.'s findings. In the face of death (relative to the control condition) participants significantly preferred the Christian art over the neutral art.
What is interesting about these findings is that by "preferred" we also mean aesthetic judgments. That is, Christians in the death prime condition rated the Christian art better as art. In short, death issues were affecting aesthetic judgments.
The question of these posts is Why is Christian art so bad? This research might provide us one answer. Specifically, if many Christians are using their faith as an existential defense mechanism (a position I argue in Freud's Ghost), then Christian aesthetics are routinely being pushed around by death anxiety. As a consequence, this art is less challenging and provocative. The goal of this "death repression art" is sweetness and comfort. Artistic quality has been sacrificed for psychological needs.
But is this the case for ALL Christians? Nope. More on that in Part 3.