Art always and everywhere has been a medium through which people have sought to express their religious beliefs, or a vehicle through which societies have sought to have their religion represented. Probably the majority of European artworks produced in the past thousand years and more have had an overtly religious content, celebrating or representing Biblical narratives or seeking to express a human sense of the divine. Of course, not all European religious art has been religiously inspired. Much of it is the work of artists labouring to church commissions – artists who themselves may have had no particular religious enthusiasms and who would execute a religious commission in no different a spirit than a secular one. Equally, European religious art continues to interest and move people who think of themselves as without belief in the existence of God or the immortality of the soul
Some significant art of the recent past has been religiously commissioned or inspired. The names of Cecil Collins, T S Eliot, Eric Gill, John Piper, Stanley Spencer and Graham Sutherland come to mind among British 20th century artists and writers. Not all of this religious art is orthodoxly Christian, and most contemporary art has no obvious religious aspiration. Even when an artist has firmly held religious beliefs, it may not be obvious that they are at work in his or her art. So it is, for example, not clear that one should read David Lodge’s novels as illustrations of a Roman Catholic vision of the world in the way that, in contrast, Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair has to be read as an illustration of his faith.
It is an arguable claim that all serious art is in some sense an attempt to articulate something ineffable, something which transcends everyday reality, and that it is consequently religious art, whatever the conscious beliefs of the artist or the audience. On this basis one may think that artistic creation is (in some sense) a religious act. “To reproduce is human, to create is divine” says Man Ray. One may also see the art work as (in some sense) sacred, and the experience of art is a (quasi-) religious experience in which the attention which we pay to a work is really an act of piety or worship. Anyone, for example, who feels shock or outrage at the destruction of an artistic work – the breaking of a sculpture, the destruction of a canvas, the burning of a book – is probably not far from seeing such acts as literally sacrilegious.
In a widely publicised book, Real Presences (1989), George Steiner has responded to the nihilism of deconstruction and, more generally, of post-structuralism by invoking the name and presence of God in defence of art. He believes that,” on the secular level, on that of pragmatic psychology or of general consensus, the claims of nothingness cannot be adequately answered” (p. 199): art is not even meaningful without “a wager on transcendence”, a wager “that there is in the experience of meaningful form, a presumption of presence” (p. 214) – where “presence” alludes to the Catholic doctrine of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine of the Mass. Embarrassed as we are to admit it, “the entrance into our lives of the mystery of otherness in art and in music, is of a metaphysical-religious kind” (p. 178). The strongest claim that Steiner makes is that “there is aesthetic creation because there is creation. There is formal construction because we have been made form” (p. 201). A much weaker claim is that there is, at least, in all art, “a postulate of transcendence ….Plato’s ‘aspiration to invisible reality'” (p. 223).
Now the strong and the weak claims are significantly different. Slipping between these very different claims, Steiner may well elicit in different kinds of reader a vague sense that he must be right. Indeed, anyone who takes art at all seriously and who has ever asked themself about the meaning of life, is bound to accord a hearing to someone as fervent as Steiner on behalf of the art-act and the aesthetic experience. But having once read Steiner’s oracular prose (there is not a hint of his indebtedness to other writers, like Mikhail Bakhtin), one must read it a second, cooler time, and insist boringly and pedantically on some of the distinctions that Steiner dazzles over.
Thus any claim for the real presence of a real God in art cannot be any stronger than the claim for the real presence of a real God anywhere else. Even among Christians there re those who have been moved more by a sense of God’s absence than of his presence (the Jansensists, for example). There are also those who would reject any (pantheistic) notion of God’s omnipresence in human works. After all, they might say, there is also art enacted against God and experienced as such: what else could have led the Bishop of Wakefield publicly to burn Hardy’s (already bowdlerized) Jude The Obscure (1895)? He didn’t think he was burning a real presence! Nor did the crowds who some years ago now were burning Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988).
In other words, if you wish to understand art through theology, either metaphorically or analogically, or literally as exemplifying a theology – then you have first to sort out your theology and this George Steiner does not attempt.
In contrast to the strong and literal claims that one might make, the idea that art is always – or at least, often – “an aspiration to invisible reality” is a commonplace which carries no specific theological commitment. One might, for example, be thinking of ‘invisible’ reality in Kantian terms as the scientifically-unknowable ‘thing-in-itself’ and consequently conceive of art as an (always doomed?) attempt to grasp or express that of which we cannot have propositional knowledge.
Again, one might come at ‘invisible reality’ as a Marxist and think of it as some non-existent but potentially realizable Utopia, the character of which art can intimate. In The Aesthetic Dimension (1978) Herbert Marcuse writes of art as transcending its social determination and as invoking a beautiful image of another reality which has an “overwhelming presence” just because the ” world formed by art is recognised as a reality which is suppressed and distorted in the given reality” . For Marcuse, as for his contemporaries (Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno), the transcendence of art is placed and explained – as protest, aspiration and intimation – within a secular eschatology. Steiner might not wish to give such a vision house room, but – like the Kantian view – it is an alternative allowed by the weaker formulation of his own claims, and it is open to the reader to prefer the secular eschatology to Steiner’s theology.
Interestingly, the Marxists have not been oblivious to the theological antecedents to their thought. In a panel discussion, Ernst Bloch quotes Brecht’s expression “Something’s missing” and remarks, “This sentence, which is in Mahagonny, is one of the most profound sentences that Brecht ever wrote, and it is in two words” (p. 15 in E. Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature. Selected Essays. MIT Press 1988). Adonro interrupts at this point: “May I add a word?….We have come strangely close to the ontological proof of God, Ernst [Bloch interjects, “That surprises me!”. Adorno continues:] All of this comes from what you said when you used the phrase borrowed from Brecht – Something’s Missing – a phrase that we actually cannot have if seeds or ferment of what this phrase denotes were not possible” (p. 16)
The analogy with the Ontological Proof (or Argument) is this: just as God is a concept which includes the necessity of God’s existence (so that “God does not exist” becomes self-contradictory) so the idea that “Something’s missing” is articulable if and only if something is indeed missing. The happy consciousness unaware that something other than this wearying reality of ours might be possible, would not even be able to grasp the idea encapsulated in “Something’s missing”, which is a thought available only to a consciousness which has already understood that something else is possible. Steiner is not the only recent writer on the arts to refer to a theological context for thinking about them. Peter Fuller does it in Images of God (1986) and Roger Scruton in various essays. Denis Donoghue (a Catholic) does it in a book which parallels Steiner’s, though in a non-oracular style. In The Arts Without Mystery (1983), he distinguishes art from religion and writes:
Even in a world mostly secular, the arts can make a space for our intuition of mystery, which isn’t at all the same thing as saying that the arts are a substitute for religion. There is nothing in art or in our sense of art which corresponds to my belief in God. In religion, our faith and love are directed beyond ourselves. In art, faith doesn’t arise. It’s enough that the arts have a special care for those feelings and intuitions which otherwise are crowded out in our works and days. With the arts, people can make a space for themselves and fill it with intimations of freedom and presence” (p. 129) – and this is surely a position with which it would be churlish for the atheist to quarrel.
Revised and expanded from ‘Religion and Art’ in Trevor Pateman, Key Concepts. A Guide to Aesthetics, Criticism and the Arts in Education. Falmer Press 1991, pp 150 – 152.