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Art as a Complement to Religion and Realm of the Spiritual

Ilona Ivova Anachkova

Phd Student, Faculty of Philosophy

Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski


In ancient times there was no boundary between art, spirituality and religion and art successfully served religion - it helped the supersensible get a sensible (visual) form. Works of art supported and fortified religious discourse and practices. Modernity is the period when traditional religion was challenged and often discarded completely. However, the interest towards spirituality, or the spiritual quest, as I call it, didn't vanish away. Spiritual matters and religious questions were 'transported' to the field of arts. This is perhaps due to the relationship that art and religion had in early history, after which, to a certain degree, art has continued to serve religious and spiritual purposes. Or it may be explained by the spiritual aspect of human nature. But the tendency to associate art with spirituality, especially in Modernity is also due to over indulgence with rationalism that characterized this period. Art served as a vent for "irrationality" or those aspects of reality that could not be explained by positivistic rational paradigms.

Overview and Use of Terms

Thus, despite the intensive secularization process, which Max Weber famously called "disenchantment of the world," not all art but yet, crucial part of modern art, has never withdrawn its focus on matters that all religious discourses focused on - spirituality of human nature. From a traditional religious perspective, the focus is on divinity, while in secular context the focus is often on the human being. However, both perspectives present spiritual experiences of man. Modernity and Postmodernity allow different approaches towards spirituality. For example, nineteenth century Romantic painters referred to traditional Christian themes, while at the turn of the twentieth century occultism and esotericism took over and addressed social and philosophical problems in their own eclectic style.

With the advent and progress of post-war Abstract Expressionism art continued to focus on its function to be realm of the spiritual. Unlike religion, which implies strict rules and requirements, art could help semi-religious or anti-religious people experience something like a spiritual encounter or spiritual transformation. "Spiritual" in Rina Arya's terms relates to the great questions of existence - meaning of life and the problem of death (Arya: 2016). It also has to do with moral implications, that is why spiritual art, whether religious or non-religious, most often deals with spiritual growth of human being. In traditional religious discourse - Protestant and Catholic Christian discourse, to use James Elkins' taxonomy - spiritual can be either with positive, or with negative connotations. However, I will use the term when it aims at positive ethical self-transcendence (Elkins: 2004). Such self-transcendence can be seen in Barnett Newman's art or Christine Palamidessi's work, for example. Spirituality is also related to revelation of and communication with a metaphysical being considered in charge of universal affairs - a Creator God or other Being that controls processes in nature, of which we are a main part.

Spirituality is a term that needs to be considered separately from religion. Religion is often negatively viewed in terms of detached following of rules, without personal interest in deep communication with divinity or experiencing higher realities. It is associated with externality. Spirituality, on the other side, is related to private experiences and assumes authenticity in approaching religious matters. Spirituality is the core of religion, but religion often "goes without it." The notion of contemporary spirituality is ultimately eclectic, combining different religious views, esoteric teachings, philosophies and personal beliefs. Spirituality is a basic human feature and even if it is not related to specific religious systems, it implies concerns for existential and ethical questions. According to the art historian James Elkins "religion is ... public and social, requiring observance, priests or ministers or rabbis, as well as choirs or cantors. It involves the family, the congregation, and the wider community" (Elkins, J. 2004: 1). Spirituality on the other side "is any system of belief that is private, subjective, largely or wholly incommunicable, often wordless, and sometimes even uncognized. Spirituality in this sense can be part of religion, but not its whole" (Elkins, J. 2004: 1). In this text religion is used to refer mainly to traditional religion in Elkins's view - Catholicism and Protestantism - but it can also include other religions with similar views. This is why I use the general term 'religion.' I focus mainly on visual art but examples of the complex relationship between religion, art and spirituality can be drawn from any type of art.

Considering modern processes of disenchantment of the world and secularization, art became a field of great ontological, existential and ethical significance. Such attitude has its legacies today. Religion and religious practices share similar functions, and this is one of the main reasons for art to supplement or partially substitute religion. Today, considering the inevitability of spiritual questions and concerns, mainly due to our own spiritual nature, art can be seen as substituting for religious practices or complementing them for fuller and deeper experience of spirituality and worship. Art as complementing religion and the realm of the spiritual can  have significant role in society. It can prompt thinking on crucial existential questions and it can turn into a helpful tool for individual and social change. Although, it often doesn't give concrete suggestions for solution of different problems, art can be a great spiritual exercise that aims at ego-transcendence and "moral growth" of the individual, which in turn would lead to overall positive effect in society. When combined with deep faith, rather than rigorous but mindless religiosity, art can serve personal well-being and better social and political relationships.

Andrew Bowie considers art as filling the gap that Modernity left after the secularization of the world (Bowie: 1990). During Modernity scientific approaches towards the world appeared inapplicable to ethical and other spiritual questions, thus we see a growing tendency of spiritually oriented art, inspired by theosophy, anthroposophy, or spiritualistic practices among other sources. Later on, the dissolution of traditional social and cultural narratives brought feelings of uncertainty in individuals. The sociologists Zygmunt Bauman (1925 - 2017) and Michael Fry talk about the feeling of burden that globalization imposes on individuals who are forced to avoid traditional ways of relating to the world. Bauman considers people as "uprooted" - this term appropriately describes the condition of a Western man as an effect of secularization and globalization. In his article The Conditions of Religion in Contemporary Society Michael Fry suggests that religion could regain its position in society as becoming one of the main alternatives to the havoc of globalization by helping with formation of social identity and relieving the "burden of choice." In contemporary world the effects of dissolved religious metanarratives and globalization leave individuals fully responsible for finding truth in their own ways and making their own choices about religious (and not only religious) identity. To a certain extent this is good as it provides a greater chance for authenticity. But from another point of view, it facilitates arbitrariness and subjectivity in relating to the spiritual.

Michael Fry's theory sounds good but in fact traditional religion is rejected by many. Thus, in modern and contemporary context we see growth of occult practices and ascription of many functions of religion to the realm of art. This is not by coincidence. Art (at least part of it) and religion have a lot in common in terms of themes and goals. Both art and religion are the opposite of everyday life, of profane existence, they are expression of metaphysical reality, and a call for humanness. However, they also differ from one another. First, we will see how and why art was/is 'sacralized' in, and then we will explore the complex relationship between artistic practices, spirituality and religion.  

'Sacralization' of Art in Philosophy

In the Introduction to Aesthetics and Subjectivity: from Kant to Nietzsche Andrew Bowie shows the crucial change that takes place in philosophy of Modernity (Bowie: 1990 - 16). He emphasizes the most distinguishing feature of Modernity - in philosophical perspective the world was no longer considered as created and ruled by a divine being. This immediately made it necessary for man to find new legitimation of notions such as truth, infinity, meaning of existence, etc. The serious break in the foundation of the world led to the idea of complete freedom of man, which formed two visions about man and the world - anthropocentric, as I call it, and nihilistic, as Bowie describes it. In both cases, Bowie claims, aesthetics (art) was of crucial importance. In the first case, it gave man who has emancipated himself from divinity, opportunities for development and creation of new meanings. In the second case, according to Nietzsche's views, it helped individual and society form consoling illusions that suppressed the feeling of meaninglessness of life.  Art and aesthetics came as a substitute for metanarratives which were becoming 'out of service.'

'Sacralization of art' is a term coined by the French philosopher Jean-Marie Schaeffer (1952) in the process of making a critical overview and analysis of the so-called speculative theory of art. In his book Art of the Modern Age: Philosophy of Art from Kant to Heidegger (2000) Schaeffer  compares modern views on philosophy, science, and art, and shows that Modern philosophy has ascribed to art big, perhaps too big ontological and ethical significance. Art was closely related to metaphysics. During Romanticism, for example, art has become the main field of the revelation of Being (Schaeffer 2000: 68-70.) Only poetry could fully reveal the Being in its essence since it was not a rationalistic discourse but a field of true creativity and freedom. Poetic discourse was considered more authentic and apt to reception of Being, while philosophical discourse was viewed as too systematic and to that reason, more estranged from Being, it was considered artificial.

Religion too is a systematic display of spiritual truths, thus it could be considered as a complex discourse that 'suffocates' Being, although Schaeffer does not focus on religion. Rather he deals with the relationship between art and philosophy. But religion also includes spiritual or non-rational aspects of reality. Both artistic and religious practices operate in a zone that includes rationality andnon-rationality. Artistic discourse is poetic and beyond the rational and prosaic. Religious discourse is also beyond the rational, it is miraculous - reflecting (on) phenomena beyond any rationality that help for fuller revelation of God. However, during Modernity art was more easily considered the realm of revealing important metaphysical truths, and it was art that was considered connecting individuals with spirituality on a deeper level.

Richard Shusterman is not a philosopher that one would superficially call a participant in the 'sacralization of art' camp. He is not as exalted as Romantics were when it comes to art as the realm of metaphysical truths. However, he gives an interesting and important perspective on art as an effective substitute for religion that can be an argument for philosophy of 'sacralization of art.' According to Shusterman, art exceeds religion by essentially being more peaceful. In his lecture Art and Religion, which he delivered in the Krakow John Dewy Institute in 2008, Shusterman delineated the main functions of religion and compared them to those of art. First he exhibited the positive features of religion but then he displayed the negative effects of commitment to religious views.

Shusterman considered religion as a social glue that eventually changes the society for the better. However, he also reminded us that religious fundamentalism could cause a lot of conflicts that lead to death. The so called 'clash of civilizations' was based namely on conflicting religious views, he affirms. Unlike religion, art, however radical its followers are, cannot produce such negative effects. In essence, art is an expression of wisdom and spiritual meanings, characteristic for religion. It gives intellectual and sensual pleasure without evoking uncontrollable arguments that could lead to death. Thus art, Shusterman claims, is a good alternative to religion since it holds its treasures but does not possess its defects. According to him, art can indirectly change societies by changing the individual. A similar view is exhibited in Kant's Critique of Judgment. Kant understands art as the basis for education and moral action (Kant: 1987). Thus, in Schusterman's view art, rather than religion, is a great way for man to tap spiritual wisdom and engage in spiritual matters.  

Nicholas Buxton - a priest in Newcastle who also holds a PhD in Buddhist philosophy - pays attention to the relation between religion and art, and particularly to the question of how art substitutes for religion in contemporary world. In his article "Creating the Sacred: Artist as Priest, Priest as Artist" (Arya 2013: 49 - 68), Buxton emphasizes that in the Romantic period art has been rendered so much significance that it could be called a new religion. If we apply Schaeffer's term, art was "sacralized." Buxton, too, notes the ubiquitously known fact that was mentioned at the beginning of the article - that both religion and art have been considered realms of the spiritual without being separated as fields of spiritual investigations. This common history of art and religion, according to me, contributes to continuous wedding of the two realms. Art and religion also have common approaches and mechanisms. Both open horizons for thinking of questions such as Being, meaning of life and death, moral duties. Such themes are well expressed in Rothko's paintings who painted the "human drama", or Barnett Newman, who presented the idea of transcendence by utilizing the sublime. Newman's paintings aim at 1) bringing transcendence to the phenomenal world, 2) pulling the individual up to experiencing the sublime and changing her egocentric vision on the world. Doesn't traditional religion do the same? Yes, it does, however, unlike traditional religion, art is more inclusive. For better or worse, art allows spiritual experience of any kind. Such an open attitude can be observed in the foundation of non-denominational Rothko chapel, based in Texas, which is to be attended by agnostics, atheists, and people with different religious backgrounds and practices. In such occasions art serves as complementing religion by stirring the mind on important spiritual matters. Buxton makes a good comparison between themes of contemporary art and themes of religion, stating that contemporary art points at some of the crucial questions that religion itself deals with. Thus, although in a controversial way, Tracy Emin's art for example, deals with problems of evil, lust, and greed in consumerist society. In his own way Damien Hurst,  interprets similar questions, focusing on problems such as consumerist culture, human greed and strife for immortality.  

Along with that, Buxton analyzes the priest and the artist, thus showing that they have similar functions. A crucial term in his analysis is the notion of calling, or invocation, which both the artist and the priest feel regarding their 'job'. Also, both of them mediate meanings, providing groups of "ordinary" people with interpretation of hidden truths. An artist and a priest create or interpret meanings that aim at ethical transformation. The artist does it on the canvas and the priest - in sermons and everyday life. Transformation is a fundamental characteristics of both art and religion. Questions of life and death, of ethical behavior are inherent not only to religious communities and discourse, or religious art, but to "secular" art as well - Mark Rothko deals with such issues. He characterizes art making and art viewing as a process of religious type. Newman shows the ethical function of art elucidating the goal of self-transcendence.

'Sacralization of art' takes place in the way art and aesthetics appropriate religious discourse. Both Buxton and Shusterman note the influence traditional religious discourse had on contemporary art and art criticism. The American critic Jason Farago also makes a pertinent overview of 'sacralization of art' by way of applying religious terms to art and art practices. In his article Why Museums are the New Churches? he analyzes the way museums are built to reminisce of churches, and considers ubiquitous museum attendance as contemporary secular 'pilgrimage.'

This shows that in post-Christian world, which is susceptible to re-enchantment as Michal Fry implies, art is considered a realm, strictly close to the religious domain - a place where spiritual and existential questions are to be tackled. It seems that art has taken much of religion's functions because the latter sometimes appears too discredited by intellectual processes of Modernity that consciously aimed at marginalizing it. Art however, does not give answers to the questions it poses as often as religion does. This can be viewed in a positive way as lack of structured and imposed paradigm of thinking (which religion often is) diminishes risk of any kind of spiritual imitation. One is to find answers by themselves, without prejudices and without imitation. In this way, art is a necessary stirring of the mind, helping one to identify and solve spiritual and ethical problems in an authentic way. However, as Arya (Arya: 20013) and Buxton show, by being only an agent of questioning, art remains partially ineffective in dealing with ethical and spiritual matters. Concrete answers could be seen in religion, while art can only supplement good faith and practice. Moreover, Buxton argues that essentially, art cannot be really effective in fulfilling one of its main purposes - ethical transformation. In an era of capitalism and myths about artists as superior human beings, the artist can remain a grave egocentric. It seems that the priest is less endangered from falling into this trap namely because in traditional religion he is to be held responsible for such an attitude, which is considered a sin. We can say that in the field of art ethical transformation - when not accompanied by religious commitments -  is optional, while in the field of religion it is necessary. Long-term salvation from the 'drama' of human condition in Rothko's terms can be sought in eschatological religion while art, as Schopenhauer points out, can be a temporary relief from willing of the will.

Buxton also asserts that art cannot be equal to religion as the latter is a social phenomenon, prompting massive social changes, while art remains in the privates sphere, thus less engaged with society and less contributing to its wellbeing. However, remembering Mahatma Gandi's vision that we can change only ourselves, and Shusterman's and Kant's views on art, we cannot accept this view fully. Art does change society positively, whether it be in a direct or indirect way. Transformation just takes place mostly in the private sphere, while religion necessarily includes the social aspect of it.

Art as Religious/Spiritual Practice 

In this part I focus on a few examples, in which art has been associated with spiritual and religious practices. In his sociological project Creative Spiritualty. The Way of the Artist (2001) Robert Wuthnow investigates different aspects of the life of contemporary artists who identified art making with spiritual practices or considered art and spiritual practices complimentary to each other. Wuthnow finds out that "for many, spiritual practice is set off from the rest of their day as a special time for communicating with and listening to God. For others, the routine of firing clay vessels or perfecting dance movements becomes a spiritual exercise" (Wuthnow 2001: 107). Thus, there are different dimensions of the relationship between art, spirituality and religion.

One of the artists Wuthnow works with is the pot maker Willi Singleton who admits that he is not committed to a specific religion and that his "whole family has a problem with established religions and dogmatic institutions" (Wuthnow 2001: 112). However, Singleton is open to spirituality and considers art making a spiritual practice. He chooses to work with natural materials and has a specific way of choosing his clay because he thinks that natural materials draw him closer to the force of nature, which he serves by making pottery. Having studied this particular way of pot making in Tamba, Japan, Singleton prefers using wooden Anagama kilns to gas or electric ones because, according to him, they allow for the universal Force or Nature to reveal itself more fully. He deliberately avoids controlling each part of the process, because he thinks the purpose of art making is to allow natural power to reveal itself through the artist. Singleton also identifies art making with meditation, describing that monotonous work over the kiln can throw the mind into a state of deep trance and calmness.  In Singleton's work art equals spirituality, and commitment to specific religious practice is not a necessity.

What essentially characterizes art as a spiritual practice is the idea of service to humankind (Wuthnow 2001: 107-138). The idea of service is fundamental not only to Christian religion, but to all monotheistic religions. Singleton, as well as other artists who Wuthnow interviews, share that they feel their art has a true meaning only if it helps someone else.

Many of the artists that Wuthnow interviews use art making to complement and extend their spiritual practices. The visual artist Lydia Garcia and the pianist Paul Kim, for example, attend to specific religious practices, which is to show that art could be considered a good spiritual practice but it is not enough for deeper religious and spiritual growth. Art only complements religious devotion by creating discipline and more individual relationship with divinity. Lydia Garcia is a Catholic who makes religious art - the so called retablos - and in this way she thanks the Blessed Mother for helping her get through difficult times. Garcia does not abandon religious commitments, and takes art as crucial part of her spirituality. She goes to church daily and takes mass in order to receive divinity in spirit, flesh and blood, but she also does artistic work to supplement her religious commitments in her daily life. "I go a lot to Mass because I receive Eucharist... but it doesn't stop there. I need to come and do something with it." (Wuthnow 2001: 119).

Christine Palamidessi is another artist who identifies spiritual practices with art making. Palamidessi switched from a very successful writing career to visual art, mainly producing papier mache works. She says that to her art has always been salvation from the tyranny of desire, thus confirming Schopenhauer's view on art and allowing us to see art helping "de-ego-isation." (Palamidessi: 2016). Since a very early age she has used art to sink into mystical and self-less experience, which religion definitely aims at. According to her, art, as Buxton's analysis also shows, is a matter of calling, and perhaps one of her criteria for good art is to serve people - to move and help them, giving them consolation and a way out of mental and spiritual puzzles.


In its extremes 'sacralization of art' might be an inadequate approach. However, as it became clear, art, religion and spirituality have similar functions and many points of contact. Having been either a substitute, or a complement to religious discourses, art proves itself to be a realm of the spiritual with its own unique characteristics and means of expression. Today art (or, more precisely part of it) can be seen as complementary to religious practices or substituting them when artists and spectators consider themselves agnostics or atheists. Focusing on important existential and ontological questions and the idea of ethical transformation, art can be a good environment for and an agent of positive social change. Aesthetic experiences, as all other positive spiritual experiences, are to elevate the soul and make it more suitable for being in service to humankind in general. The great thing about art is that important themes and goals that characterize religious views can be addressed by agnostics and atheists. At the same time, art supplements and extends spiritual practices of religious people and helps them discipline their mind and worshipping practices in order to gain deeper spiritual experience. 




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  2. Bowie, Andrew. Aesthetics and Subjectivity: From Kant to Nietzsche. Andrew Bowie, 1990, pp. 1 - 16.

  3. Buxton, Nicolas. "Creating the Sacred: Artist as Priest, Priest as Artist". In: Arya, Rina. Contemplations of the Spiritual in Art. Peter Lang AG, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, 2013, pp. 49 - 68.

  4. Crowther, Paul. "Barnett Newman and the Sublime." Oxford Art Journal Vol. 7, No. 2, Photography (1984), pp. 52-59. Oxford University Press, 1984.

  5. Farago, Jason. Why Museums are the New Churches? Retrieved from, on July 17, 2017.

  6. Fry, Michael. The Conditions of Religion in Contemporary Society. Retrieved from, on October 20, 2017.

  7. Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Transl. by Werner S. Pluhar, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1987.

  8. Palamidessi, Christine. Art as A Spiritual Practice. Retrieved from, on October 20, 2017.

  9. Schaeffer, Jean-Marie. Art of the Modern Age. Philosophy of Art from Kant to Heidegger. Transl. Steven Rendall, with a foreword by Arthur C. Danto. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2000.

  10. Shusterman, Richard. Art and Religion. Retrieved from, on March 23, 2017.

  11. Wuthnow, Robert. Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist, University of California Press, Berkley and Los Angelis, California, 2001.