Art as Religion without Religion

Art as Theology: Chapter Ten

      1. Art Replaces Religion
      2. The Artist/Prophet
      3. Artist in Dialogue

backlast chapter contentsContents homeBurning Coal bibliographyBibliography nextnext chapter

“One of the fundamental assumptions of modern art is that art can replace religion as the repository of the spiritual and the bearer of moral conviction.” (Barbara Rose, Autocritique, Essays on Art and Anti-Art 1963-1987, 1988, pg.243)

Art Replaces Religion

Religion has been struggling to maintain social power and influence for several centuries. During a this last century the arts have risen to an unprecedented level in public favor. While the arts and humanities are encouraged and even required subjects for most college curricula, religion, if it even exists in the curriculum, is required only at specifically religious schools. Most religious departments have turned to the empirical study of ‘comparative religions’, that is, they have been ‘demythologized’. All large metropolitan centers maintain art museums, cultural and performing arts centers and support art installations.

The artist and the art critics having risen in social prominence and have become artist advocates. In an industrial era in which the religious past was at best uncomfortable and to many it was quite abominable, the arts were a marvelous alternative. The arts fell easily into the hands of secular advocates. Each shocking new movement in art, from impressionism to rock & roll, became a proud boast for the advancement of culture without religion.

A part of the high place sought by and at least partially obtained by the arts community requires art to move beyond its traditional confines and to usurp the realm of religion. As the spiritual leader the arts must have their own theology to do this. Theology implies theologians, a priestly class of discoverers and explainers. Also required are shrines and sacred objects. Art critics and art historians are the redactors and theologians of the art world. Museums, monuments and show places serve as shrines and temples. Breakthrough art works, such as ‘The Fountain’, serve as sacred objects. Duchamp was among those surprised to find his witty nose-thumbing turned into a revered icon of the modern art world.

When artists first disengaged from the control of patrons, there was a significant minority who clambered for a priestly function. At a time when the left was sure that they had slain God and religion, some assumed that the arts would fill the void. “In the imaginary conversation between an artist and a scientist in Saint-Simon's Opinions Litteraires, the former says that, ‘it is we artists who will serve you as avante-garde,’ and claims for his work a priestly function: ‘The power of the arts is in fact most immediate and rapid: when we wish to spread new ideas among men, we inscribe them on marble or on canvas.’ Most intelligent citizens, Left or Right, believed art could fill that role. The ideas of what painting and sculpture could do to people were obviously pitched much higher 150 years ago than they are today.” (Hughes, 1980. Page 368).

This attempt to establish social values is forcefully put by Walter Gropius (1883-1969), director of the Bauhaus: “Since my early youth I have been acutely aware of the chaotic ugliness of our modern manmade environment when compared to unity and beauty of the old, pre industrial towns. In the course of my life I became more and more convinced that the usual practice of architects to relieve the dominating disjointed pattern here and there by a beautiful building is most inadequate and that we must find, instead, a new set of values, based on such constituent factors as would generate an integrated expression of the thought and feeling of our time.” (Gropius, preface. see also comments by Lipsey, 1988. Pages 206-207).

While it might be a stretch of the imagination to suggest a priesthood, there is a sense in which the modern zeitgeist is being accurately reflected in the arts. Much of modern art reflects anger, rebellion, confusion, anomie, or to use Tom Petty's phrase, the modern artist is a rebel without a clue. Ultimately, this represents a community fear and a community stand against whatever, but there is no cohesive spirituality or spiritual reach for the artist to serve or to be priest of. Western society has become so big and so democratic that no artist can properly serve any but a thin slice of the larger community. Most arts institutions serve a liberal/‘progressive’ community as do the universities which support them.

It should be said that the last several decades have had a gradual pulling back of the arts from its forward position. Fewer artists now claim spiritual aspirations. There are still many artists functioning as cultural spoilers or deconstructors, but fewer who continue to see themselves as genuine social constructors. At the same time religion seems to be regaining strength.

But all of this is what is on the surface. Art and the pretentions of the arts culture are not the issue. The issue is that Western culture has been slowly starving its own spiritual roots. Liberal democracy depends upon upholding the right of dissent. I have heard learned men suggest that all religions are equal. This is a poisonous distortion of Western liberality. Some spiritual beliefs and practices lead to a higher spiritual state, others lead to a more moribund spirituality. Liberality is granting the freedom to believe what I and/or my society, church or nation believe to be wrong. When Liberality becomes its own driving philosophy, it makes hash out of all truth claims what-so-ever. Liberalism as philosophy has so disembowelled belief and therefore spiritualiy that Western spirituality has lost all vigor. It resembles patches of debris on the water which cluster, but are easily knocked apart. The closer the artist approuches to the light, the less he wants to stand in it.


The Artist/Prophet

Art and religion speak to the muzzy regions of the mind. They dig under the distinct verbalizations and visions to the heart and soul of the individual, the society, and the nature of being. They both touch on the places where attitudes and impressions are born. Both are only affective when they reach the audience at ‘gut’ level.

The prophet and the artist are similar. The prophet looks at the real world (spiritual and physical) and tries to discern its direction and how to reconnect it to God, how to cleanse and improve, or how to sidetrack the insidious, and then communicates the discoveries in a priestly language. The artist, on the other hand, is an anarchic cousin. The artist is less concerned with a salvific vision and more with a reflective vision. The artist communicates the ‘isness’ of dreams and the spirit of reality in any language effective and accessible to the audience. The artist has none of the constraints of the prophet. The artist is not concerned with God or perfection unless they specifically choose to be. The artist discovers without purpose.

To the artist, depth of vision is more important than direction. As Tillich notes, some artists have a genuine touch of the prophetic: “Artists do not merely express a moment of the social situation of their time. They express the dynamics in the depths of society which come from the past and run toward the future. Therefore, they have a prophetic character. It is not that artists have a vision of a future which is not yet real. They are not romantics, but in their creative depths they are aware of those elements in the present which will determine the future of society. A most telling example of the prophetic function of the artist was the way in which the expressionist painters before the First World War foresaw the catastrophes of the twentieth century.” (Tillich, 1987. Page 29).

In some ways it can be said the artist as prophet is an obsession of artists, not always actualized in expression. Hughes discusses Rothko's vision in his Shock of the New: “[Rothko] was not only a Jew but a Russian Jew, obsessed with the moral possibilities that his art would go beyond pleasure and carry the full weight of religious meanings—the patriarchal weight, in fact, of the Old Testament. What was more, he expected it to do so at the high tide of American materialism, when all the agreements about doctrine and symbol that had given the religious artists of the past their subjects had been canceled. Rothko would have needed a miracle to bring this off, and the miracle, naturally enough, did not happen. But his efforts to make it so were recorded, shortly before his death, in a cycle of paintings, 1964-7, commissioned by the de Menil family in Houston, as objects of contemplation in a non-denominational chapel attached to Rice University.” (Hughes, 1980. Pages 320-323). I live in Houston, and have visited the Rothko Chapel several times. The atmosphere is peaceful and meditative, and the paintings are wonderful. However, coming after a long history of artistic eruptions, their impact is mostly mute.

For Rothko, those paintings were his prayer, I suppose a final prayer. But to see how Rothko's art contributes to any larger spiritual vision we would have to see it press heavily against the tongue-in-cheek banality of Warhol or Oldenburg. His quest alone points a different way, but without force. It is vague like Western spirituality in general.

The arts have struggled to maintain this quasi-spiritual position. In an interview in Christianity Today, former NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer says, “Artists are watchers of society, and thinkers about what society is and what it could or should is really our ultimate expression.” He goes on to say, “Our government has an obligation to look out for the mental and emotional health of the nation as well as to protect us and ensure that we have the necessities of life. The arts are a central part of that.” ("Art Gatekeeper: Man Under Fire", vol.34, Christianity Today, June 18, 1990. Pg.53).

Any prophetic importance of the artist is heightened by the decline of the societal importance of religious institutions in the modern West. Often the true prophet has difficulty finding a ready audience. The religious sphere in the democratized Western world splintered into many factions from several melded traditions. Religion is less significant and for many not significant at all. Modern day prophets have almost no mass appeal. The movement of modern Western history is occurring with less and less influence from religion. The artist, by remaining aloof from religious sectarianism, speaks to a larger audience without becoming factionalized, functioning as a secular prophet (if that even makes any real sense). Unfortunately, the artist speaks to an audience whose spirituality has lost all passion.


Artist in Dialogue

“Art is parasitic on life, just as criticism is parasitic on art.” (Harry S. Truman)

Artistic vision, because it reaches into the soul of humanity, has a great deal of influence on the vision of the individual and the society with which it communicates. More evocative and less direct, the artist is less likely to suggest “Thou Shalt...”, and more likely to alter perceptions in a way that causes underlying spiritual realities to emerge. This coaxing is more comfortable to the fully democratized society of the modern West in which personal opinion outweighs all others. On the other hand, the same disintegration of vision which has struck the heart of modern religion ultimately disintegrates artistic vision as well. The artist has served the needs of the forces of disintegration much better than those presenting any positive vision.

Our contemporary situation presents a confusing pool of competing spiritual realities. The overall societal result seems to be increasing toleration of individual moral disintegration coupled with increasingly less toleration for societal moral or humanitarian abuse. For the artist to engage in spiritual commentary, there must be a clear spiritual direction, which general society and thus the arts have lacked since the decapitation of aristocratic privilege. The arts have never genuinely led a moral crusade: “for the arts to function in this spiritual role, there must be a subject that communicates with the viewer about life or living, and most modern art lacks a genuine subject...” (Paul Georges, in Cochrane, pg.59). Ultimately the artist, although more free to operate, is less suited to the vacuum than is the true spiritual prophet.

Modern art has led, through aesthetic liberalization, a movement towards personal and societal liberalization. Artists have introduced us to the totally abstract, mundane objects, blank canvases, and absurd juxtapositions. Modern art has celebrated the profane and the extremely profane. The arts have long since introduced nudity, dismemberment, suicide, and denigration of religious and political institutions. So finally the artist has nothing to attack, but the sacredness of art itself, dismantling the role of art as spiritual informer, (Rose, 1988, pg.243).

The art world, lacking any other moral crusade, is currently fighting to bring the truly profane into public institutions. It is a sad end to a foolish attempt.


backlast chapter contentsContents homeBurning Coal bibliographyBibliography nextnext chapter

copyright © 1999 Wm W Wells. All rights reserved.