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Tis the season of “The Artist”: On screen, in print, and on stage, the man of the hour is the creative genius, the absolutist, the martyr, the suffering sinner redeemed only when he gives himself away, lovingly and without reservations, to his art.

Just ask Hollywood, which is all aflutter at Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Leonard Bernstein in Maestro, a masterly portrait of the composer that shows him, baton raised like a magic wand, willing gorgeous music into life like a sorcerer summoning the spirits from beyond. Or stop by your local bookstore for a glimpse at Werner Herzog’s long-awaited memoir, Every Man for Himself and God Against All, an account of a life lived on camera in extreme devotion to his craft. Or treat yourself to a night on Broadway, where the most-anticipated play this year is a revival of Cabaret. Movie star Eddie Redmayne takes the role of the Emcee, the commander-in-chief in the battle between a doomed but noble band of performers and the Nazi machine out to extinguish them.

Why this sudden infatuation with art and the wild-eyed men and women who give to it their all? Popular culture, after all, has spent the last decade staging airless, mirthless auto-da-fés as its finest practitioners declare publicly (often with arms painfully twisted behind their backs) that art is merely the handmaiden of ideology and that no creative effort is worthy of praise unless it echoes the right dogmatic convictions. Why the change of heart? Why pay so much attention to maverick artists, real or fictional, who defy the conventions of their time and sacrifice everything—money, marriage, morality—in pursuit of truth and beauty?

The answer is subtle yet immensely encouraging. We’re busy celebrating The Artist because we are coming to realize, though we’re loathe to admit as much out loud, that we very desperately miss the powerful force of transcendence desired and fleetingly obtained that, from time immemorial, has driven mankind to create. In a word, we miss the power of faith.

Think of those early artists, the Paleolithic painters who adorned the walls of their caves with rhinos and horses and other beasts. They etched these animals because, even though they lacked anything resembling organized religion, they yearned for some way to capture and evoke the magic of creation. They wished to honor in images a mystery whose mechanics they couldn’t quite comprehend but whose bounties—fertility, fecundity, growth—they could see everywhere around them.

Art, in other words, has always sought faith, clinging to the promise of something greater than bare life, like a child clutching at the hem of a mother’s dress. Modernism, that rebellious adolescent, declared itself emancipated and devoted itself, to borrow a term from the critic Philip Rieff, to “decreation.” We have been through a long season of autoerotic art, as it were, the project of setting up “fictions where once commanding truths were.” But even modernism couldn’t keep the jig up for long. We are tiring of its distractions and are beginning to demand the real thing: art in the service of faith’s devotion.

If this strikes you as a mere flight of fancy, consider the biographies of the artists du jour. The filmmaker Werner Herzog describes himself as an atheist. He also describes his films as attempts to capture the “ecstatic truth,” the deeper layer of meaning unavailable to the rational mind. The yearning is manifest in his life as well. He once marched, on foot, from Munich to Paris, to see ailing film historian Lotte Eisner and plead with her not to die. The ascetical enterprise was very like older practices of personal sacrifice offered to encourage God to perform a miracle, hardly a pursuit befitting someone who truly believes in nothing. When pressed, he admits that he’d been a Catholic as a boy and, though he did his best to abandon the faith, he doesn’t believe it has ever abandoned him. “Baptism,” he told an interviewer, “is an indelible mark on your soul.”

Christopher Isherwood’s novels inspired Cabaret. As he grew famous, he declared himself cured of the Christianity of his youth. But the thirst for transcendence nagged on, and Isherwood converted to Vedanta, spending the remainder of his life toiling on translations of the Bhagavad Gita and attending Wednesday night lectures at the Hollywood temple to study the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna with his swami.

And the impresario Leonard Bernstein, the son of a Talmudic scholar, whose life choices were considerably less orthodox, found himself drawn in ways he couldn’t always explain to the traditions of Judaism, if not necessarily to its articles of faith. When an invitation to the White House clashed with the holiday of Hanukkah, for example, Bernstein brought with him a small menorah and lit it in the bathtub of the Lincoln Bedroom.

All three artists flirted with faith. Yet in the end, each believed he could somehow sublimate the old-time religion and create new mythologies, new epics for the modern, godless age.

All three were felled by their ambitions.

Isherwood, a conscientious objector who believed war was immoral even if waged against the Nazis, spent the last four decades of his life splitting hairs, telling the federal agents presiding over his naturalization ceremony, for example, that he would defend America only if called to serve in some pleasant and nonviolent capacity like loading ships with supplies meant for refugees. Far from awakening the muses, this insipid humanistic moralism dulled his pen. From publishing The Berlin Stories in 1945 to his death in 1986, he wrote very little of note.

Bernstein and Herzog provide more intricate variations on the same theme. The composer was spread thin by his appetite for recognition—a flaw, the new biopic suggests, that had something to do with his downfall. And his penchant for flamboyantly progressive virtue-signaling led him to throw that infamous party for the Black Panthers, egging Tom Wolfe to coin a searing new term: radical chic. Herzog, who grew up in Bavaria without a toilet, toys, or a father, was always too wry and weary for such foolish gestures, but he, too, eventually saw himself become a parody of his youthful passions, more cultural meme than filmmaker studied and revered.

Like Prometheus, each artist discovered to whom fire truly belonged. Each was obliged, at one point or another, to acknowledge that divorcing the creative process from faith meant denying a profound truth about humankind. Chasing greatness, all three eventually settled on political dogma, or faint metaphor, or some other poor replacement for the still, small voice of divine revelation.

Yet we, their fans, crave this voice. Our religious imaginations are blunted by decades of vulgarity, titillation, and commerce, and therefore at this moment in history we search for it—like the boy in the old joke who looked for the penny he’d lost under the lamplight, because no other spot was properly illuminated—in all the wrong places. We revive Cabaret again and again and again, hoping that the next iteration will end with Sally Bowles’s love triumphing over Hitler’s goons. We flock to yet another Herzog documentary, hoping that this time he’ll finally deliver, in his perfect monotone, an account of life here on earth that makes it all cohere. And we return to Bernstein hoping, as he himself had hoped, that he’ll deliver something as stirring as the music he’d heard in synagogue as a boy, music that brings us closer to God.

They never quite deliver, these capital “A” Artists. Each time they stumble, each time they fall short, they confirm what we’ve always suspected: Art is no business for atheists. Deny art its spiritual combustion, and it becomes like a car without an engine, capable of moving only if it’s pointing downhill. We watch and listen to and read men like Herzog, Bernstein, and Isherwood because they’re among the best we’ve got. But, secretly, we yearn for greater artists. We hope to bask in the creative genius of believers who can lead us on the long trek back up the mountain.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.

Image by Library of Congress on Picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped, filter added.

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