A recent blog of mine on the question, What is Paganism? provoked some interesting responses here and on social media. So I think it’s worth carrying on with this one. One of the concerns people raised is wanting to make value judgements about other people’s behaviour when really problematic, and the idea that without really firm edges, Paganism doesn’t mean anything.
So, let’s talk about art! Literally anything can be art these days. It’s not defined by what you create, but by the act of putting a frame round it, or putting it in a gallery, or announcing it as art, or being officially An Artist. Arty people have pushed this one in every way imaginable, which means that ‘can this be art?’ is, from an art perspective, no longer an interesting question. Curiously there’s now a resurgence in art that looks like representation of things. Once the question of ‘is it art?’ is no longer relevant, the question of ‘is it any good?’ becomes more relevant. ‘Good’ is notoriously hard to define, and we will all disagree about which works of art are ‘good’ clever, innovative, and which are rips offs and rubbish.
I think there’s a lot of similarity between Paganism and Art. For decades we’ve been pushing the edges of what can be considered Paganism. Is a Zen Druid a Pagan? Is a person whose practice is almost entirely Yoga a Pagan? Can Christians also be Pagans? Is a World of Warcraft Druid a Druid? And despite the lengthy internet arguments, the truth is that if someone wants to self-identify as a Pagan, then it’s impossible to prevent them using the term. By saying ‘I am a Pagan’ we’ve hung ourselves up in the Pagan gallery, we’ve framed ourselves in a certain way.
Like the question ‘is it good art?’ the question ‘is it good Paganism’ is often subjective. Good Paganism for a polytheist Heathen living in a yurt is not necessarily going to look much like the Good Paganism of an urban vegan Witch or the Good Paganism of a Yoga Druid. Having framed and carefully labelled ourselves, we might look round at all the other frames and labels hanging in the Pagan gallery and find they make no sense at all. But then, this also happens with art. In a physical gallery many of the things on display won’t make much sense to us either. Goat with flowers, still life of dead birds, blotchy thing, unmade bed and of course urinals and piles of bricks. Art doesn’t have to make sense to everyone looking at it. Maybe Paganism doesn’t either.
The problem with wanting to define Paganism along ethical lines, is that we rapidly have to exclude all ancient Pagans. Animal and human sacrifice would not be acceptable today. In modern Paganism, we do need ethical considerations. We do need to be able to say ‘what you are doing is not what I think a modern Pagan should be doing’. However, I think ethics are more effective when they aren’t tied to a belief system, but come from a more pragmatic view of the world. An ethics you can argue a logical basis for is a lot easier to explain and defend than an ethics that depends on belief. You don’t need an Art Ethics to decide whether burning £20,000 or giving away everything you own as a piece of art might have an ethical dimension.
I think it gets really interesting when we hold these three things separately.
Is it Paganism? To answer that we have to decide what we mean by Paganism. We will all come up with slightly different answers.
Is it good Paganism? A wholly subjective question, but well worth asking, as we also have to figure out what ‘good’ means.
Is it ethical? Which requires us to decide what is ethical in the first place.
There will never be tidy agreement between all Pagans on this, there will always be people who self identify as Pagans who are innately troubling to other Pagans. The question is not how to eliminate the ‘problem’ Pagans. You only have to look at other faiths to see how unworkable that is, or how vile it is when it works. So let’s ask some other questions about what we do with this, because those are bound to be more interesting.