Essay on Art and Religion

Outline:

  • Art for Art’s sake or Art for life’s sake
  • The conception of beauty in art
  • The connection between Art and Religion
  • The characteristics of religion in relation to nature Religion and Art, two parallels
  • The union of Art and Religion exhibited in primitive man
  • The moral and spiritual view of an artist

Towards the close of the 19th century, a school of thought arose who said that art had nothing to do with life, whether moral or social, but that it existed for its own sake.

It has not, and it need not have any bearing on life. They asserted that the purpose of art is to achieve perfection in the formal expression of life and nature. The end of art, according to this theory, is not to preach but to give aesthetic pleasure. It does not have any social purpose. The artists who believe in “Art for Art’s Sake” put the manner, the technique before everything else. To them, the art has no ties, no duties, and no assignment in the scheme of life, except to exist as the symbol of beauty. Consequently, this school of thought tries to find what stands eternally beautiful in the sheer perfection of form, the most adorable of all created things, the cherished of the world.

But there is another school of thought who attaches great importance to moral and religious values in art. Mathew Arnold, the renowned poet and critic of the Victorian age, interprets literature in terms of moral and religious values. He maintains that without poetry, our science will appear incomplete. Most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry. The greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas of life. Hudson remarks that all great literature should be essentially based upon ethical views. There should be no negation, no violation to the religious ideas in literature, as such an attempt would destroy all what is good and virtuous in man. He writes, “The emics must be wrought into the texture of the story, the philosophy must be held in isolation, the novelist must never for a moment be lost in propagandist or preacher.”

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“Art” says Herbert Read, “is most simply usually deemed as an attempt to create pleasing forms. Such forms satisfy our sense of beauty and the sense of beauty is satisfied when we are able to appreciate a unity or harmony of formal relations among our sense-perceptions.” An artist appeals to persons directly as is done by Music most effectively.

A general notion has been presented in the minds of people that art is always beautiful. A layman perhaps will hesitate even to differentiate Art from beauty, because in his mind there exists notion of the necessary beauty. Goethe says, “Art is formative long before it is beautiful”. “For man has in him a formative nature, which displays itself in, activity as soon as his existence is secure. And so the savage remodels with bizarre traits, horrible forms and course, colours his feathers and his own body. Though this imagery consists of the most capricious forms, yet without proportions of shape, its part will agree together, for a single feeling has created them into a characteristic whole. And this characteristic of art is the only true Art. Here comes the unity – the characteristic of Art. Art has unity and harmony. This unity and harmony give value and beauty to a piece of Art.

Beauty may be defined as that which gives pleasure and thus people are driven into admitting that all physical sensations can be regarded as art. Though this seems a ludicrous idea but it is correct. And so to avoid definition in which the word ‘beauty’ comes nearer to Art and is thought to be related to it. Benedetto Croce has propounded another theory of Art. According to this theory, art is bettered deemed when simply defined as an imitation. This theory has been proved to be much more correct and clear more than other ones.

Now we come to Religion. Art is the idealization of Nature. Similarly, Religion may as well be deemed as an idealization of Nature. Religion and Art, in this way, are closely connected.

Man has a sense of the sacred, and religion falls under the category of the sacred. The sacred is quite a vague term. It may be deemed as that which is deemed to have an indefinite worth and value or to involve an unconditional obligation. The savage may treat as of infinite worth this fetish; he may give his life rather than break a ritual law, which in itself has no rational significance. Here he projects his sense of the sacred upon that which is intrinsically worthless, but his prostration before his crude idols is no less than Plato’s Relato’s reverence, for the idea of the good is an illustration of man’s innate sense of the sacred. Man’s spiritual advance can be measured by the worth of the object of his worship to that which is really of infinite worth or which really involves an absolute obligation.

Religion offers an answer to the insistent questions posed to every human being by human life itself. Hence it belongs to the rational part of man’s nature. But it is not solely or even primarily a matter of the intellect. It is the response to the environment. The history of Religion is not so much intellectual as it is passionate. “Most of which we call Religion” says Frazer in his “Golden Bough”, “is a confused jumble of ideas and practices, almost infinitely vaxious, almost equally irrational and often repellent or obscene.” He is certainly correct, as there is many travel religions, which are so horrible and so obscene.

But, anyhow, since human nature is everywhere fundamentally the same, it is likely that if we fully understand ourselves, we should be in a position to understand all religions. This gives a uniform and universal character to religion. All men share a common human nature; sympathy, imagination and self-knowledge can make us intelligible to one another. Religions, no doubt, differ in proportion and emphasis, yet they are rooted in a common nature.

Religion is, ultimately, not a matter of temperament or even of speculation, but of response to that superposable reality of which all men, or most men, dimly or clearly are aware. It is not given to all men to see the same part of spiritual landscape nor to see with equal clarity; man’s response may be right or wrong, perfect or imperfect, but because his super-natural environment better called God is one, there is a unity in religion amidst all the diversities of the various religions.

Religion has the quality of unity, which is also possessed by Art. Whistler said that he mixed his paints with his brains; in Germany, they say that a man paints with his blood; these phrases show simply that the elements of a picture have a coherence by means of the personality which dominates them, and moulds them into a unity which is the unity of a painter’s direct emotional apprehension of the subject before him. “When we have finished analyzing all the physical elements in a picture” says Herbert Read, “we have still to account for this intelligible element which is the expression of the artist’s individuality, and which, when everything else is shared in common subject, period, generation and materials – still leads to totally different results”. R.H. Wilenski has gone so far as to suggest that we are really concerned with two entirely different conceptions of art – art produced in the service of religion, and art pursued as a consciously held idea. This distinction amounts in fact to judging a work of art in the light of its intention, a course that seeks to the intrusion of all kinds of irrelevant prejudices. The Chinese Lahan in the British Museum, a figure from the West Portal Charters Cathedral and the latest work of Eric Gill or Epstein must be related to the same sensibility.

It is evident that religion and art is a sort of two parallels. The history of art is parallel to the evolution in the man’s understanding universe – his philosophy and religion. The immense distance between a Negro statue and a statue by Praxiteles is the immense distance between Negro’s animistic religion and the intellectual insight of a Greek at the highest point of their civilization. Greeks had attained the summit of intellect – they lost all the fear of external world and turned towards this world with quite a sympathetic attitude – and hence their art became the true and sincere expression of their observations and idealization of nature. The organic rhythm of life became the very essence of Greek art.

Religion and Art have a very intimate and close relation with one another. They emerge hand in hand from the dim recesses of the pre-history. Due to their familiarity and close connection, they remained with one another till the Renaissances became more free and independent and individualistic in its origins, and now it aimed at expressing something more than merely the personality of the artist. Religious sensibility has always been there with the great artists of all ages.

Primitive man is perhaps the best example of the union of Art and Religion. Sensuality is worked on in his art as well as in his religion. His art and religion cannot be separated. The magicians and priests are identical with the creative artists and art only exists as a function of worship or propitiation. In modern times so many statues and painting of Virgin and Child, Christ, Angels, God and the like in Churches, all show the same thing. It is entirely lacking in the primitive men except in Egyptians and Indians. Pyramids and the caves of Ajanta and Alora can be presented as examples of the oldest unity of Art and Religion. Classical Art and Christian Art of the Middle Ages are the highest attainers of the thing. The only difference between them is that sense of glory, which is the offspring of spiritual courage. The change, which has occurred from the art of primitive man to the art of civilized man, is not something of human value nor it is any change in the psychological working of the mind of the artist. The real change is the change of religion which caused the change in the art altogether. It can be asked if art is so much dependent on Religion for all sorts of intuition and inner feelings etc., is there no possibility that there can be any artist who creates works of art, which will hold their own with the greatest creation of religious art? No artist can work well without the sense of an audience it means that Art is communication, and though it works by and with the sensibility, there is simply no reason why it should not communicate a sense of values. Hence this question depends on values. Judges are the community folk, and an artist can, therefore, achieve greatness by only in some way appealing to a community of feeling. And so much is evident those uphill modern times the most considerable community value has been religion.

Another instance of the relation of Art and Religion is that the Art was possessed to lead to Religion in earlier days. Art was conceived as an allegory, a figurative expression that under its sensuous form concealed an ethical sense. But in both cases, in its moral as well as in its theoretical interpretation, art pressed no independent value of its own. In the hierarchy of human knowledge and of human life, art was only a preparatory stage, a subordinate and subservient mean, and painting to some higher end – Religion or whatever they called it then.

It cannot be denied that an artist who loses sight of moral and spiritual view and contents himself with the perfecting of his technique only is no longer an artist, but only a craftsman. The moral and spiritual objective is important for the true artist because it has a chastening effect on his works and therein he comes in touch with the fundamental issues of life and serves a social purpose. So far as the artist deals with this, his art is fundamentally moral, ethical and spiritual and it plays a prophetic role.

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