The human experience cannot be adequately addressed or described without speaking of art and religion. Both have been born within and across all cultures from the beginning of human existence, despite not being necessary for basic survival, and both have played an unquestionable role in shaping our understanding of the world around us. Art and religion have each been used to explore all of the intriguing facets of who we are and what our purpose is—and in many cases, they’ve been combined in that exploration.
While the concept of art includes all of the images or processes that painters, architects, musicians, dancers, poets, or film makers create to discover themselves, their purpose, and their world, religion is a system of ceremonies, rituals, or beliefs that serve the exact same purpose. While separate principles, art and religion have also complemented each other across time. From the sacred geometry of Stonehenge and the pyramids, to the temples and cathedrals that reach to the sky with swirling spires, mosaics, and religious iconography, the intersection of religion and art is a common thread throughout humanity’s pursuit for higher ideals than what is required for basic survival.
In his 1976 study conducted for Marquette University’s Department of Philosophy entitled Art and Religion: A Transreligious Approach, Curtis Carter notes the absolute integration of art and religion from humanity’s beginning:
“Primitive cultures of the world provide a model of art and religion as inseparable elements of culture, where the two are integrally connected with each other and with the whole cultural process. As T. S. Eliot has noted, ‘The Dyak who spends the better part of a season in shaping, carving, and painting his barque of the peculiar design required for the annual ritual of head-hunting is exercising several cultural activities at once-of art, religion, as well as of amphibious warfare.’ African arts, particularly the dance, present a paradigm of unity between art and religion….. The unity that exists between African dance and religion extends to music, sculpture, masks, iconography, and poetry, all of which are replete with spiritual energy that manifests the essence of the sacred. Art and religion appear as coequal partners in such primitive communities, and there is no effort to subordinate ‘artistic form’ to ‘religious content.’”
From primitive to contemporary cultures
Carter’s deep-dive into this intersection continues with an exploration of how these forms of expression started to diverge in more modern paradigms, where philosophers such as Hegel see art as a predominantly sensual experience, rather than a spiritual one. He writes, “In this state of disengagement from its religious grounds, art loses its highest vocation and exists in a state of rootless freedom where it can offer at its best an occasion for the exercise of the artist’s imagination and a means of diversion for its viewers.”
If Hegel’s interpretation is true, what, then, does this contemporary division between art and religion mean for artists? Are we to see the original and early connection between the two as a primitive association that no longer applies to a modern world? If so, then in what sense can artists reclaim the spiritual aspect of their work rather than relying on a solely sensual process? And for artists who don’t consider themselves to be “religious,” is there still a way to tap into the spirituality of art and the process of creating it without attaching it to one particular religion?
The future of spirituality in art
Just as religion once held influence over the sacred art that was inspired by it, some modern writers and philosophers have suggested that art has now become more important than religion. In an article published in The Journal of Aesthetic Education entitled Art and Religion, author Richard Shusterman writes:
“While Hegel once saw religion as superseding art in the evolution of Spirit toward higher forms that culminate in philosophical knowledge, subsequent artists of the nineteenth century instead saw art as superseding religion and even philosophy as the culmination of contemporary man’s spiritual quest. Artistic minds as different as Matthew Arnold, Oscar Wilde, and Stephan Mallarmé predicted that art would supplant traditional religion as the locus of the holy, of uplifting mystery and consoling meaning in our increasingly secular society dominated by what Wilde condemned as a “dreary worship of facts.”
Despite these seemingly shifting perspectives, in truth, there are multiple issues that still appear at the intersection of religion and art. Both have always had and still retain the capacity to inspire change and tackle some of the weightier concepts involved with what it means to be human. Whether that topic is our ecological future, war and poverty, overpopulation, technological advancement, discrimination, nuclear capability, or realizing the human potential, religion and art play still both play a pivotal role in understanding and positioning one’s experience and impact as a member of a tribe.
Perhaps, through this lens, we can see that they are not so separate as they might seem in a modern world. Whether there is an overt connection or a more subtle influence, religion—or more specifically, spirituality—is still an important part of the artistic process. It’s the component that gives art the ability to transcend time and space and affect the artist and viewer separately in their own experience with the divine.