How Does Art Serve Religion In Our Own Time?

My current class is an art appreciation class and I was given the title question as an essay assignment. Let me start out by saying I don’t really know anything about art, except that I think a lot of it is garbage. I used to have some readers that were great art-minds, so if anyone has some opinions to share feel free. In my response, I am intentionally being controversial, yet it is what I really think.

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Religion and art have had a checkered history. The relationship between them has been at times cordial but always uneasy, particularly in the West. Though much could be said about the history of art in Western Christianity and what theories there are for reconciling the two, the purpose of this essay will be to say that art does not serve religion in our time, because today’s art is construed as being something oppositional—it is against whatever is perceived to be established.

It may be true that artists can use their creativity to give tangible expression to the unknown or feelings of awe and majesty like they did in the past. But this sense of mystery and wonder is not valued by today’s religion nor does it seem to be valued by today’s culture, hence nullifying the main purpose art can serve in religion. This is not to say that people in general do not have existential moments of wonder and mystery today; rather, it is our culture in general that does not seem fascinated by such sacred realities.

On the contrary, religion has fallen into disrepute among artists as evidenced by the vast amount of iconoclastic creations adorning our Modern Art museums. In the modern age, art has been influenced to value autonomy above all else even to the point of divorcing art from beauty. In the past, artwork that did not contain beauty was deemed to be a failure. Today, innovation is so highly valued that anything that smacks of tradition is uniformly opposed. This distorted view of creativity, so valuing originality to the point that it seeks to reject everything, has brought all kinds of ugliness into the art world, much of it offensive to moral and religious sensibilities, and reduces the artist’s quest to attaining celebrity and notoriety rather than expressing beauty.

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4 thoughts on “How Does Art Serve Religion In Our Own Time?

  1. b-nut says:

    “the purpose of this essay will be to say that art does not serve religion in our time, because today’s art is construed as being something oppositional—it is against whatever is perceived to be established.”

    Is there no room for an oppositional force in religion? That sense of opposition and reformation seems to be what Christianity is all about, starting with Jesus.

    “But this sense of mystery and wonder is not valued by today’s religion nor does it seem to be valued by today’s culture”

    What? I must be misreading your point here. The whole late modern movement seems bent towards mystery and less representational depictions of reality, less foundational declarations of truth. The sacred seems very existentially mysterious and that mystery seems to be embraced by culture – it is religion and culture that could mutually benefit by engaging this dialogue.

    “Today, innovation is so highly valued that anything that smacks of tradition is uniformly opposed.”

    This is a great point, but has more to do with a paper entitled “What’s wrong with the art industry.”

    Art isn’t just a communication tool. It is more broadly a tool for engaging emotions and inviting experiences…even disturbing ones. It’s job isn’t merely to display beauty. It doesn’t hand out declarations as much as it invites dialogue, something religion could learn from and is learning from. In a deconstructed world it is hard to know just how to put things back together. Art reflects the conundrum. But I would guess that as soon as we figure out what to say next about God and our experience of God, the artist will say it first. Religion would do well to brush up on it artistic hermeneutics.

  2. “What? I must be misreading your point here. The whole late modern movement seems bent towards mystery and less representational depictions of reality, less foundational declarations of truth. The sacred seems very existentially mysterious and that mystery seems to be embraced by culture – it is religion and culture that could mutually benefit by engaging this dialogue.”

    Perhaps the modern art movement is starved for the sacred? Since it reaches for those non-representation things that the sacred constitutionally is, we have what we have in modern art museums. But since our culture and religion don’t really care about it, we do not have a very connected life in our art, culture, or religion. I would agree that religion and culture could benefit from the dialogue.

  3. Your last paragraph is great, really insightful. “In the modern age, art has been influenced to value autonomy above all else even to the point of divorcing art from beauty.” While b-nut’s point that art can create dialogue is valid, you’re right that there has been a very definite shift away from the “art ought be beautiful” school.

    More so, though, I dig your point about the emphasis on originality. The possibility of creating something new is nearing (or has reached) its asymptote. And that’s so incredibly lame. But it gives me a new appreciation for Sherry Levine, whose works, in case you’re not familiar, are copies of classics.

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