For many, the proliferation of religious groups, mega-churches and televangelists provides ample evidence for the existence of God. Shutterstock

Art and God

By Richard Viladesau

 

Gabriele Paleotti, one of the major writers on art in the 16th century, wrote that ‘The primary objective of painting is to persuade people to be pious and to submit themselves to God; its aim is to inspire people to the obedience and allegiance owed to God.’

This applied not only to sacred art, but to secular art as well. Baroque art theory saw all art as a kind of visual rhetoric. Its purpose was to serve as a “theater” for God’s works. Painting was not only a “liberal art,” but was an intrinsically religious and ethical effort, whose ultimate goal was to spur people to virtue. Hence the artist himself should be a person of virtue and devotion.

Look at any contemporary art gallery – are the works on display there likely to inspire people to worship God? Could anything be more foreign to the mainstream of contemporary Western art, or to modern thinking in general?

Indeed, for some cultured people today, both terms in the title of this article – “art” and “God” – refer to something that has long been dead.

Hegel pronounced the end of art – at least in its “highest vocation” – in his Lectures on Aesthetics of 1818. Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God seventy-one years later in The Gay Science. There is a connection between the two deaths: for Hegel, the “highest vocation” of art was to express the unfolding of absolute Spirit – God – in sensuous form. Hegel thought that rational thought had now replaced the symbolic level, so that merely symbolic thinking – art – could no longer fulfill this purpose. “Art” would lose its high vocation and devolve into mere amusement and decoration. But the demise of art could be seen in another way after the “death of God” – that is, after people no longer believed in an ultimate ground and goal of existence. Without God there is no ultimate value or standard, no common ground for ideas such as “beauty” or “truth.” These were once the reference point for art. Once they are gone, art loses any consistent direction, and becomes essentially an individual venture. The result is that, as Marshall McLuhan put it, “art is whatever you can get away with.” In this sense, art died in the 1960s, at about the same time as the “death of God” movement was taking place in theology.

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