The Relationship of Art and Religion

Art as Theology: Chapter Nine

      1. Art and Religion
      2. Apprehension of the Unseen
      3. Metaphysical Art

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“It is a well known fact that games and the principle forms of art seem to have been born of religion and that for a long time they retained a religious character.” (Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1961)

Art and Religion

In the simplest of societies, it is sometimes hard to completely separate any field of endeavor, especially magic or religion. Art always has an occult or religious purpose. This is partly explained by the concern within these societies that any pictorial image has power, as noted in the chapter on “Magic Art”. If there is a fear of inadvertent powers being released, there is not likely to be any doodling. A similar sentiment is expressed in connection to the power of words. In particular, notice the fear of misusing God's name: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7, KJV; also: Leviticus 19:12). This is not just a prohibition against cursing, but against any vain, that is arbitrary, offhand, prideful or other frivolous use of God's name (think OMG). As a result the Israelites stringently avoided writing the name of God, as it would dishonor God to ever erase or destroy His written name. Modern Jews even in English translation prefer to write ‘G-d’ or ‘G!d’.

While some would say the practice of magic is a religion, most would make a distinction. Where religion seeks a depth of spiritual relationship. Magic tries to manipulate and control unseen forces. Where religion reaches outside of the body of believers, magic manipulates in a self-centered way. So you might quarrel with me, what about the examples above, is this religion or magic. That really is the point. It is a sliding scale from pure religion to pure magic. The extremes are obvious, but in between it can get more difficult to say what it what. Art and religion, as described in the last two chapters form a similar sliding scale. Many people go to Vatican City to look at the art, with no religious interest at all. Others go to worship and have no artistic interest. Both groups walk the same halls and gaze at the same sculptures, paintings and architecture.

Recognizing the relationship between art and religion is much easier than describing it. “Religion and art spring from the same root and are close kin. Economics and art are strangers.” (Willa Cather, On Writing, ‘Four Letters: Escapism’, 1949). Hegel notes that in some cases the religious life is so lacking in spiritual reach, so lacking in religious vigor, that artistic vigor is the best marker of the religious life. “‘A more spiritual religion can rest satisfied with the contemplation and devotion of the soul, so that works of sculpture pass for it simply as so much luxury and superfluity. A religion so dependant on the sense of vision as the Greek was must necessarily continue to create, inasmuch as for it this artistic production and invention is itself a religious activity and satisfaction, and for the people the sight of such works is not merely so much sight-seeing, but is part of their religion and soul-life.’” (Hegel, quoted in Kaminsky, 1962).

Tillich's distaste for Renaissance art, noted in the last chapter, reflects a distaste for art reflecting so much flesh and so little spiritual longing, (Tillich, 1987. Page 209), so much so that he refuses to admit it as art. Hegel is not in real disagreement. Greek religion had lost so much of its interior vigor that the sensual expression was all that was left. The same could be said about Papal Christianity during the period of the Renaissance. It is not surprising that Renaissance artists were so intrigued by Greco-Roman art.

For Tillich “the form of religion is culture” (Tillich, 1959 Page 47. Similar: Tillich, 1969. Page 60). “For Tillich, neither religion nor culture can be spoken of in the absence of the other, for they both convey meaning, granted the difference in direction and level of intensity.” (Morgan, 1969. Page 370). In the same way that religion must be expressed in the concrete tools of a particular culture, so art is a concrete expression in a particular culture's language. Religion and what it expresses is a broad category. Art and what it expresses is even broader. I have tried to tackle both in the last two chapters. Hopefully it is obviously that art can and may almost inevitably tackle the same spiritual longings that religion does. Before getting to that let's look at culture.

Culture, as Merriam-Webster says it, is “the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education”. The broader definition, also from Meriam-Webster, is “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time”. And finally a definition more appropriate to art: “enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training”. So the definition moves from the most generic definition, culture is how we express ourselves as a peculiar people group, to culture as the term expressing the refinement of a citizen of a peculiar people, and finally the term culture can be used to identify a person with refined intellectual and aesthetic sensibility. In some ways, I am using all of these meanings.

Religion has to be expressed in the community of believers. Culture is the expression of who we are as people, whether believers, make-believers, or non-believers. Religion can be expressed in very mundane artifacts of culture, such as head coverings. Religion desires to refine us according to the dictates of its own spiritual sensibility. As we become refined spiritually, our cultural expression is refined. This can be expressed in the way we dress, our speech, how we socialize (dance, drink, eat), or where we spend our time.

Art, according to Tillich, has a spiritual reach, which is essential to art, making it distinct from decor. “All art is religious not because everything of beauty stems from God… but because all art express a depth-content, a position toward the Unconditional.” (Tillich, 1987 Page 52). He continues by suggesting, “Art indicates what the character of a spiritual situation is; it does this more immediately and directly than do science and philosophy for it is less burdened by objective considerations… Science is of greater importance in the rise of a spiritual situation but art is the more important for its apprehension.” (Tillich, 1987 Page 67).

“Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.” (Andre Gide)

Apprehension of the Unseen

It is the apprehension of the unseen depth and the ability to convey it in more or less concrete terms that makes art sizzle. Art which disengages from spiritual depth may be as dazzling as a building wrapped in linen, but less meaningful than pornography. To return to the example above, “[Compte] already saw that Renaissance art, although technically superior to that of the Middle Ages, was in fact inferior from a social point of view, simply because it was less socially relevant… The personalization of art has combined with the depersonalization of taste, to utterly deprive him of any meaningful public. He [the artist] now paints for himself or for money, and this is a condition which he cannot tolerate for long.” (Becker, 1968. Page 221).

The implication is that the artist must have a depth of spirituality. For most of art history artists have unselfconsciously brought out the depths of prevailing religious beliefs. Modernity, with its fascination with psychology and introspective philosophy, turned society and therefore artists more consciously inward. A cynical glance at current religious atmosphere would break down to the self-reflective church of me, the church of rules, rules and more rules, the occult and mysticism. Much of it lacks any spiritual depth. I have found deeply spiritual people nestled in the ruins of most denominations or traditions, but this is not the place where I lay out my path to knowing God. The point is that for most of us it is difficult to find spiritual depth among the spiritual leaders of this world, are we to believe that the artist is any more likely to cross that veil?

Our world today is full of distractions. With more time and more money, we spend less time on the porch smelling the approaching storm, and a lot of time tracking news, entertainment, things to worry about, how to protect the children, better schools, better jobs, better house, and so on. We spend more time planning how to relax than relaxing. The atmosphere of this world is filled with information streams, far beyond our ability to sift through and digest. When do we have time to sit and listen to the ‘still small voice’?

“We need to be willing to learn from the artist,” entones Roger Lipsey, “who is elaborating new signs, if not new meanings, within a culture that has long since abandoned traditional spirituality and its conventional signs.” To my point of view this statement exudes an aura of hubris. The conventional signs of traditional spirituality were the work of artists, even as the screaming popes and abstract colors of more modern arts are of modern sensibilities. If the former works are now incomprehensible, is the failure that of the artist or is our modern spirituality grown dull and unable to comprehend? If this is the case, then are we to suppose that the modern artist is plumbing greater depths, or are they now moving to the shallow end of the pool? What is their spirituality?

If we imagine an artist who has made the effort to retreat from the noise. Our hypothetical artist is secluded in the woods with no phone, no computer, no internet, no television or radio. The artist tries to reach across the veil. Does the artist use the language of Christianity, Buddhism, or what? And say the artist narrows down to a tradition they know, is the path fundamental, liberal, legalist, mystical? We know many traditions and styles, so that the language of one tussles with the language of another. How long does it take for the turmoil to settle? My own current peace with it all is only because I have chosen not to wrestle with matters of less weight, but have diligently sought the more important answers. It took me a long time to sort out the trivial from the issues of importance.

The artist wants to open a spiritual door, but does the artist have the ability to do any more than dabble with the incomprehensible? Art critique Harold Rosenburg states, “In sum, what the new American artist sought was not a richer or more contemporary fiction (like the Surrealists), but the formal sign language of the inner kingdom—equivalents in paint of a flash, no matter how transitory, of what had been known throughout the centuries as spiritual enlightenment.” (quoted in Lipsey, 1988. Page 300). This sounds like transitory flashes of this and that, designed to leave an impression of spiritual enlightenment, but with no depth. Is this the spiritual finger-print of our present age on display?

The artist is not at fault here. Society in general is at fault. Attacking our sacred traditions and exploring every imaginable option, we have the bits and pieces of many picture puzzles. They are all jumbled up and we've lost the box cover(s). Those traditions which have not fully embraced the modern liberal West, have every reason to feel uncomfortable about its gravitational pull. Modern Art, in so far as it is anything other than anti-spiritual, is the language of picture puzzles made of all those pieces of puzzles. The pieces don't fit together without damaging amounts of force.

The artist who lacks a strong spiritual foundation, born out of a strong spiritual community, has no spiritual roots from which to produce a piece of artwork which shines a light into spiritual depths. When an artist does have a strong foundation and a vibrant community, and produces artwork that speaks to what he sees, it is unlikely that it will speak to those outside of his community.


Metaphysical Art

Metaphysics has been particularly central to the thinking of many artists attempting to slot themselves into the role of priest/prophet. Jean DuBuffet speaking of the primitive nudes in his ‘Corps de Dame’ series says, “It pleased me (and I think this predilection is more or less constant in all my paintings) to juxtapose brutally, in all these feminine bodies, the extremely general and the extremely particular, the metaphysical and the grotesquely trivial.” (Lucie-Smith, 1969. Page 90). “Dada, according to Duchamp, was ‘a metaphysical attitude—a sort of nihilism—a way to get out of a state of mind—to avoid being influenced by one's immediate environment, or by the past: to get away from cliches—to get free.’” (Gardner, 1959. Page 711; quoted from the Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, Vol.13, No.4-5, 1946. Page 20).

While one might wish to dismiss the claims of these two artists as grand spiritualizing of their work, a sort of self congratulatory righteousness common to many artists of the last two centuries, it exposes something that separates an artist from a decorator. Even if an artist has no discernible religion, and even if their pride makes their work appear to be an egotistical showpiece, the artist is struggling to reach beyond what they can know in the flesh. This is the most essential aspect of the artist, the artist does have a spiritual reach. The sublime may have eluded them, so DuBuffet paints the metaphysical with the trivial, and Duchamp is reflecting the absurdity of his metaphysical conclusions, but in both cases a reach into metaphysical space is present and I would suggest crucial to their work being labeled art.

In fact, this metaphysical thrust is the glue which attaches Modern Art to art down through the ages. Whether we are talking about Zen painting, Dervish dances, or Balinese theater, the heart of the artist quest has been to reach a deeper connection to something beyond the mechanical aspects of tangible reality. A simple search for ‘art expresses the metaphysical’ turns up a wide assortment of offerings. Schopenhauer, the Metaphysical Art movement, Nietzsche, the list stretches on. I ran the search and got “ECSTASY: In and About Altered States” an exhibit of psychedelically inspired art at the LA Museum of Contemporary Art and a animator who goes by the name -)|{< ]o[ >}|(- and states, “Animation is uniquely able to present to us that which we imagine and bring it to life. It enables me to create or translate realities from imaginary or metaphysical states into a material manifestation. I am striving for the realization of dreams that transcend the individuals’ consciousness, to craft the multifaceted world within the mind of the observer.”

Modern metaphysics is as banal as Huxeley's Doors of Perception, so it is not surprising that much of our art is decidedly lacking in metaphysical depth. Depth or not, the artist driven to seek something that draws us out of the cage of our mundane vision.

There is another aspect to art and metaphysics, artistic creation can be an exercise in metaphysics. This is most pronounced in dance and music. Most religions incorporate worship music and often dance in a way intended to achieve a higher religious state. The very name “Trance” used for a particular form of industrial music shows that this music in combination with various drug cocktails is intended to alter awareness. I would like to suggest that many efforts at metaphysical art do not lead to a higher state, or to anything good, just that the performance of the art is intended by the artists and audience alike to create an altered awareness.

And finally there is art created while in an altered state of mind or to create works based dreams or waking visions. The intent is to open a window into metaphysical realities. In this category would certainly fall art produced under the influence of psychedelic drugs. Literature is full of descriptions of visions. The Bible includes many such descriptions. William Blake among others painted his visions with a startling energy. Currently in Charismatic Christian circles painting “in the Spirit” is a popular addition to worship. After stripping away all the pretensions and overpriced doodles, there is a valid art here.


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