Is Art a Religion?

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.


About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

8 responses to “Is Art a Religion?

  • Bill Halliwell

    Ah, yes, art and the concept of it. Before one can attempt to grasp if art is a religion one must first define ‘art’. Now there’s a challenge. Is art a multicoloured Campbell’s soup can; is art the sublime music of ‘The Lark Ascending’? Is art a wrapped up kilometre of coastline? Does ‘art’ have to be ‘artistic’? Take a piece of man made machinery from a factory floor – paint it purple and turn it upside down in a gallery space – does it ‘become’ art? Possibly, if the person who does it can talk incessantly about it as ‘art’. How does the genius of Da Vinci stack up with the bloke who cuts cows in half and displays them in galleries? Hell, I don’t know. But what I do know is that, given the above, it seems that art is everything and, at the same time, nothing. It is a human construct, as is time therefore it can be ‘removed’ or ignored. One can live without adhering to time as one can live without any notion of ‘art’ as some isolated peoples do around the world. I don’t know what art is but I’m glad it’s there just as I am glad I have an egg timer. Art is no more important than my alarm clock although I derive much more pleasure from a symphony or a well taken photograph. Perhaps if I glue my alarm clock to an ironing board and suspend them in a public space and blog about the importance of my ‘installation’ I’ll be viewed as an ‘artist’. That, of course, is silly and meaningless but so is art because it can be anything; and if it can be anything then it is as nothing. A gag spoken by a comedian can cause thousands to laugh; to enjoy; just as a piece of ‘art’ can cause joy or anger. As I said defining art is a challenge. I’ve been on the planet nearly 60 years and I’m damned if I’ve ever read or heard of a definition that comes anywhere close to what art is… or isn’t.
    Perhaps it’s just nothing.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Your right I should have posted something about defining art first but that means opening up my Masters thesis again – so I went for a new direction. Art is a you point out a piece of psychotechnology, a piece of mental and physical technology, like time measuring or comedy or religion that we could live without but that some enjoy living with. I was hoping to define art through its divorce from religion – now that you have raised the point maybe I should have looked at the divorce of time measuring or comedy from religion. I should write a post about if bird or whale songs are art too – thanks for the ideas.

  • CDH

    So many pomo artists have discussed this question of ‘what is art?’. I think it’s a silly and pointless question. As Bill has basically pointed out, art can be anything. It’s a definitional question. You can define anything you want to be art. This question is a debate over a taxonomy and it doesn’t lead anywhere. I could say tagging is art, another person might say tagging is not art… and then apart from some high minded rhetoric there’s no where to go in the discussion.
    I think a much better question to ask would be ‘what is good art?’. Then the debate has somewhere to go.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Taxonomy although often a matter of trivia can be important to get a handle on things. Defining what is art allows us to distinguish between art that is good at being art as opposed to art that is a good investment or art that propaganda for a good cause as both could be confused for good art. My lecturer in meta-ethics said that ethics was the duration of the discussion about what was moral and that ethical theories that limited the length of the discussion were bad theories, like old fashioned subjectivism where after stating different opinions there is no where left to go in the discussion. So in understanding what is art we need a definition that will allow the discussion to progress further than stating different opinions.

  • Celeste

    To draw a statement from Bill’s reply, “Art is everything and nothing”, all rolled into one. To some, it is perhaps just a mere commodity and to others, a way of life. You have picked a very thought provoking subject here Mark,once again!

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thanks Celeste. Art is obviously not nothing – “no particular thing” might be better, otherwise you get a self-contradictory statement that might have mystical appeal but doesn’t really make sense. Religion is a means to power for some and a way of life for others – so that is another similarity to art.

  • Hels

    If art is a religion, it would have to be a very flexible one. Over the centuries we have had deeply religious Christian art, secular art, anti-religious art, Jewish and Islamic art that was not allowed to reflect God etc etc.

    I realise this is using the one word in completely different ways, but perhaps we need to find a new word.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Jewish, Islamic and Christian iconoclasts certainly regard art as a threat or rival to their religion that has to be eliminated and so, in a way, regard art as a religion. At the opposite extreme the ancient Greeks believed that it was the beautiful that provided a common ground between the gods and men, the basis or superstructure for a religion, without which there would be nothing but massive difference in power between the gods and men.

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