Art is, to some, a kind of secular humanist religion that fills the cultural gap in the lives of contemporary people. I know that this has been said many times before but it is worth repeating not because it is true but because it should be considered.
If art is a religion with an abstract divinity (art) it has lots of minor deities, or saints (major artists). There are places of pilgrimage and holy relics – art galleries and significant works of art. The history of art bears many similarities to religious history forms like hagiography or jeremiads. As a religion it is observed with Sunday arts programming on ABC TV. It is a religion that believes that art is good for your soul and for your moral outlook and that the world will be improved by art.
In part this attitude has been inherited from the Ancient Greeks who believed that beauty was the point of contact between mortals and the gods. Without this same appreciation of beauty there was nothing but an immense power imbalance.
David R. Marshall is critical of the idea of art as a religion in his “Review: Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists” on the Melbourne Art Network. Specifically Marshall is critical of de Botton for suggesting that art galleries go further in turning art into a secular religion especially for his desire to replace art history with what Marshall calls “pop psychology”. To Marshall de Botton is a high philistine who wants to use the art as “merely illustrations of the moral or social issues that concern him.”
Other problems occur when thinking of art as a religion, strange irrational ideas about artists and art. Concerns are often raised about the Simony in art; Simony is the issue of buying or selling of something spiritual. This religious concern is at the root of many discussions about non-commercial art.
If art is a religion it is a very strange religion. It is not an exclusive religion, you don’t have to renounce your other faiths you can still have doubts. You don’t need to be initiated into this cult, there are no requirements, you can even scoff and critique, anyone is welcome. This doesn’t sound like a religion at all if the iconoclasts, blasphemers and scoffers are part of the congregation.
Art is not a religion however much de Botton and others might wish it. They will remain disappointed because art history has not worked that way. Art was divorced from religion about two centuries ago. Art, as we know it today, was invented a secular response to the removal of religious propaganda values from paintings and sculpture.
I have been interested in the arts all my life. Am I not the ideal candidate for this religion of art – the child of middle class secular materials parents? But I don’t believe in the religion of art. I doubt that art will make me a better person or the world a better place. Maybe contemporary art is not a religion but a type of walking and seated meditation; exercises for the mind and body.