The point of art for most of human history was magical- culture was about the cult.
The goal of art was to commune with the gods- to create environments in which human beings were surrounded by images of them. We'll leave aside the obvious parallels with the post-World War II cargo cults and the rest of it (for now at least), because I'm more interested in exploring the cultural aspect of this.
The rise of the Protestant movements in the late Renaissance were accompanied by distinct anti-cultural trends-- the iconoclasts, Biblical literalism, the anti-liturgical movements and so on-- that were in fact the logical precursors to atheism.
What arose from this was an emphasis on legalism and the power of speechmaking that very easily allowed successive generations to peel away from the cult, exactly as what we're seeing in America today and what we will see in the developing world in the future. The Puritans of old New England evolved into the Congregationalists and then into the Unitarians, both of whom are in serious decline today, if not in fact moribund.
The Church was the culture for over a thousand years, until successive technological innovations-- the invention of the printing press foremost among them-- gradually began to chip away at its monopoly. The rise of Protestantism eventually whittled away at the artistic and cultural aspects of Christianity, mostly because the people it tended to attract didn't understand art or music and were primarily concerned with the law, money and most of all, politics.
The Middle Ages weren't much different than Ancient Egypt when it came to the use of the arts in ritual, which is to say magical ritual. Pre-Christian architectural techniques were revived and improved upon in order to create a literal sanctuary (meaning "holy place"), a place where the parishioner directly encountered the supernatural.
Chartres is probably the greatest expression of this, but it's by no means alone. The wealth and relative social harmony of the High Middle Ages gave birth to the artistic movements that would later result in the Renaissance, meaning the rebirth of the old arts, sciences and particularly, the old gods.
The Romans paid lip service to culture, but were always more concerned with the material world and its pleasures. But the massive influx of conquered peoples into the Empire brought all of the Mystery cults with it, as well as a worldwide craze for all things Egyptian. Isis nearly conquered the world, and it was mostly because of her beauty, her rich and complex rituals, and of course all of the art. Isis was a goddess of the senses, a lush, feminine presence in otherwise bleak lives.
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No Roman who visited Egypt could come away unimpressed with the art; the sculpture, the paintings, the architecture, the music, the beautiful costumery. It was everywhere, especially in the major metropolises and cult centers. And ALL of it was dedicated to the gods and designed to create Heaven on Earth. To create an environment in which the gods never left, in other words.
The grandeur of Egypt would influence the Greeks and the Romans to upgrade their temples from humble, functional shrines to places like the Temple of Zeus and the Parthenon, where supplicants would be awestruck by enormous, painstakingly rendered depictions of the gods. Clever priests would devise elaborate machines to make these images "speak," using an early type of PA system.
All of this is to say that people in ancient cities were as heavily mediated as we are today. Advertising was everywhere as well, as was grafitti, particularly that of the pornographic variety. It didn't matter that most people couldn't read; they didn't need to. Someone would always be on hand to tell them what all of those hieroglyphs were saying, or at least their own interpretation of them.
As I wrote about in Our Gods Wear Spandex, modern fandom has recreated all of this. I'm no different- my walls and shelves are cluttered with artworks depicting gods old and new. What this is all about is creating your own sanctuary and creating your own reality.
From time to time you'll see stories on super-collectors; people who spend all of the disposable income on tchotchkes: posters, figurines, collectibles and all of the rest of it in tribute to their respective obsession. This becomes a question of degree; the only difference between these fanatic fans and everyone else is simply their level of commitment.
So we have an ancient and modern analog of cultish devotion, all in service of creating an alternative to the crushing boredom and endless disappointments of ordinary reality.
We also have the billion dollar advertising and promotion industries working to sell us their clients' alternative reality, a dreamworld in which that popular soft drink isn't just semi-toxic fizzy water but a totem, a kind of amulet guaranteed to summon the good times back into your life.
A delusional state in which that odious bodyspray will get you laid by the hottest chick you've ever seen in your life. Or in which guys who don't drink that light beer that tastes like O'Douls-flavored urine are all homosexuals.
It doesn't end there, of course. It get a lot more insidious and destructive. Those very same agencies also create a world in which anyone who mildly inconveniences --or even looks cross-eyed at-- our plutocracy is a communist or a Muslim or a homosexual (these guys always go for the homophobia fail-safe, whether they're trying to sell beer or a bloodsucking political candidate).
Subsequently, billions upon billions of corporate dollars have been spent pushing Evangelical Protestantism all over the world as the closest thing there is to a One World Religion on the market today, ensuring a huge labor pool of docile and submissive serfs.
Imagery, music, and other sensual stimulants create realities. What you pay attention to becomes the building blocks of your weltanschauung. Targeted media has accelerated this process, created a multiplicity of microcultures, all certain of their beliefs and all equally certain of the invalidity of the belief system of those who disagree with them. These in turn become schismatic, leading to ever more refined micro-mini-cultures.
In this context, there's no reason at all to ask permission to create your own culture and your own worldview. All of the minicultures out there can wax ecstatic about the shortcomings of their opponent's worldview, all the while ignoring the fact that their own shortcomings are nearly identical, if not identical in their opposition. So don't worry about them at all.
However, what then becomes the aim is efficacy. Sure, you can find a bunch of people to worship some old Sumerian fire goddess or the works of some obscure Italian anarchist philosopher, but does that mean that culture produces the results you're looking for? The great cults rose because they answered the questions of their adherents, producing results if often only in the form of a beatific or tranquilized state.
The great cults fell when the times changed and the old answers stopped applying to new realities. The old pagan cults gave way to the Mystery cults when civilization softened the hard edges of Nature, and the Mystery cults gave way with the rise of the philosophic religions and the challenges of the imperial state. Catholicism gave way to Protestantism with the rise of mercantile capitalism and Protestantism gave way to Evangelicalism with the rise of corporatism and electronic media.
Religion is giving way to Science today only out of a kind of forfeiture, since most sensible people realize that the real power of Science is monopolized by the corporate state. Atheism and skepticism are negatively inspired in that they are reactions to religious fascism. The corporate fascism that Science is the completely submissive handmaiden to is less of a concern to the people gravitating to the movement. But that will surely change. And soon.
We're well into an age of upheaval, a state of flux, of uncertainty. Historically-- specifically, the late Roman republic and the Industrial Revolution-- people gravitated towards belief systems that seem to tame uncertainty while exploiting it. The occult, the Mysteries and so on are expressions of this process.
And this is why mainstream culture has so perfectly co-opted those expressions that we don't even notice anymore. Harry Potter, Twilight, The Walking Dead and World of Warcraft are nothing but a new coat of paint on a very old geek chassis. But they speak to young people in a way that religion or high culture no longer can. The hideous celebrity culture is a fantasy as well-- fake celebrities who are built up by the media solely so they can knocked down again.
You are what you eat, and your worldview is evidenced by the culture you surround yourself with. I won't even get into the magical possibilities of all of this right now. But you can at home.