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Wach, Religion, and "the Emancipation of Art"

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Despite the abundance of lore about Joachim Wach's lifelong passion for literature, music, and other arts, the pertinence of his aesthetic reflections to his formation as historian of religions is often ignored or under-appreciated. Yet his involvement with the Kreis surrounding the poet Stefan George was perhaps one of the chief early factors that led Wach to liken the study of the history of religions to contemplation of literature and the arts. It is even possible that ideas of the literary historian Friedrich Gundolf about the relationship between the artist and the artist's work helped stimulate Wach's early thinking about the relationship between religious experience and the theoretical, practical, and institutional expressions of that experience. Indeed, throughout his own scholarly writings Wach displays an irrepressible tendency toward combining religionswissenschaflich theorizing with aesthetic reflection, and toward encompassing literary, musical, and other artistic examples within the scope of data to be considered by scholars of religion. This article analyzes the development of that tendency in Wach's scholarship, paying special attention finally to his notion of the modern Western "emancipation of art" from religious influence. This notion, while reflecting a general optimism that characterizes his view of the diversifying, developmental course of numerous other religious and cultural phenomena over time, may ultimately be too strong or reductive for describing what has actually occurred over the past several centuries in the relation between artistic and religious phenomena.

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