Art is a religion
how art can function as a religion in our modern society
The western world becomes more and more secular by the year. In The Netherlands the percentage of atheists lays around 25%, while the believers are around 17% (ANP, 2015). Philosopher Marcel Gauchet even wrote a book (already years ago) about it with the following disturbing words: “The disenchantment of the world”. How we live now in our western culture, without a prominent religion, is very different from what it used to be when more people had one or when religion was more dominant than it is now. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a different form for meditation, ritual and other religion bound things? What we can use to reflect on ourselves, relate to or use to connect with others?
Perhaps it is even the last form of ‘magic’ that still exists.
Art is a new kind of religion in my estimation. Without art we don’t have one overall thing (such as religion) in common as a mass and it can be used as something that connects entire groups just as religion did and still does. Art is therefore important. Art still has that enchantment that Gauchet talks about. Perhaps it is even the last form of ‘magic’ that still exists. Francesca Gavin from The Guardian even highlights other mutual characteristics of a religion and art. For example, she thinks both art and religion take devotion. She also states that events or places where art is present or exhibited, are sacred places to go to on free days. Places to meditate and be at peace at times and take away daily pressure:
“In this highly secular society, spiritual expression and religious ritual are waning. I, like many, am too absorbed in the freedoms and excesses of urban life to slow down and meditate. So where do those sacred urges go? If you don't do "days of rest" what do you do? It seems to me that art has replaced religion” (Gavin, 2007).
Although art may come off as something positive this way, one famous philosopher from the past is not that enthusiastic about art in society, not to mention art as a religion in society. This man named Plato was not that into art unfortunately. He, as a philosopher and believer of the rational, thought art would distract us from the truth and for philosophers the truth is everything/the most important thing in life. So, to get to the truth, strict rules were needed especially when it comes to art. Because art was one big lying mess that was made of imitations and copies of copies that could not possibly the truth. So, it was bad for Plato. But, if things being true matter the most, and we do not know if God is true, then why would art be censored? If art is religion, we do not need the truth that much… right?
I do not want to 'believe' in art. I want to sense it.
Yes, from the latter you can probably sense that I am a pro-senses person when we talk about philosophy and art. Thus, Plato is not a great guy for me to talk about. I believe that the truth is visible in the sense that: “I need to see it before I believe it.” This is in my eyes a big difference with religions such as Christianity since they believe in God, but we do not know if he truly exists because we never saw him. We can only trust our believes. Now, when I say my religion is art because I believe in it, I am as much as an empiricist as a Christen is so this is not what I want to say. I can touch several art forms though. Yet, my goal is not to believe in art, but to do every other kind of religious things with it and sense it, to get a pleasure from it or just to let me feel things even when it is negative.
The latter brings me to a second guy named Immanuel Kant. Kant also thought that art wasn’t the truth, or more specific that art doesn’t make a truth claim. But the significant difference with Plato was, that Kant (probably) thought: “Well, hmm… art is not completely useless, you know.” (not his exact words). He thought, that art is not that useless as Plato states, if you keep in mind that art or aesthetics does or do not add anything to our knowledge of the real world, hence, it is not scientific. Aha! What is the least scientific thing you can name within 10 seconds? Right: religion. So, art can be religion.
Even more important in Kant’s theory and in relation to this topic of art being a religion, is the fact that art satisfies a certain desire. Maybe we desire for that unity within our surroundings again in these secular days? This because art is autonomous. Even though art is different for everyone, it can have this coherent purpose while more people are experiencing it and let their desires be satisfied by different works of art.
This dreaming of unity brings me to the last philosopher I want to address to prove my point, namely Nietzsche. Nietzsche, from all three mentioned in this blog, I feel most connected with your thoughts. Since he is a romantic German philosopher, he talks about tragedy in one of his most famous works. According to Nietzsche, we live a senseless life. Why? Well, we know we are going to die, so that’s already a problem. We feel that we need to make sense of this life as long as it lasts. Still, there is problem number two: we do not have any clue of how or when we are going to die. Does life make sense at all then? We don’t know but we try to let it make sense at least. This more or less a tragedy. And tragedy to Nietzsche is the only way to get to the truth, we need to think of what it means to be. We have to deal with death every day. What can help to ease this kind of hellish suffering? Art. Not only to me, also to Nietzsche. To him art is a gateway and a way to give meaning to life. This is in my opinion a sort of meditation to relieve the soul a bit. Again, art is a new religion.
Art can be a form of meditation. An escape from daily life.
To come to a decisive point, I again want to address the main purpose for me of art as a religion. Although there are many criticists when it comes to art and especially when it comes to the meaning of it, I think the most important thing nowadays is to connect people again with that one thing that they have in common. Contemporary art becomes luckily even more interactive which doesn’t only connect a bigger group, but also connects the viewer with the artwork. We live in a secular era in which we get more distant from each other. There isn’t that one magical thing that connects random people or that has a group of believers behind it. Art doesn’t have to be something you believe in but think of it as something you sense and what calms your longing for something. Art doesn’t have to be true either. Art can be an escape from daily life. Art connects, inspires and is always there. Art is a religion.
ANP. (2015). Voor het eerst meer ongelovigen dan gelovigen. De Volkskrant. Via:
Bloom, A. (1968). The Republic of Plato. BasicBooks.
Gauchet, M. (1985). The disenchantment of the world. Via:
Gavin, F. (2007). How art replaced religion. The Guardian. Via:
Kant, I. (1911). Critique of Judgement. (J. C. Meredith). Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1790) Retrieved from http://bradleymurray.ca
Nietzsche, F. (1999). The birth of Tragedy. Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1872).