On Creating Art Religiously The Role Of The Artist

It is not only the work of art as such that can become religiously significant and a bearer of transcendent meaning. Advocates of art as a spiritual discipline are well aware, for instance, that the very act of singing Gregorian chant in a dedicated group and at prescribed hours can function as a spiritual exercise aside from any purely musical outcome. Even when the artwork can be valued for its own sake, the process of creating the work can transform the creator, who is thus worked on spiritually in the act of working. Michelangelo in his later years meditated long on the themes of judgement and grace as he laboured irregularly on his final two Pietas. The first of these—the Florentine Pieta—he reportedly intended for his own tomb. The second, known as the Rondanini Pieta (Milan), he worked on until six days before his death in 1564. He completed neither one. Surviving letters and reports suggest that, indirectly influenced by the Reformation, the deeply troubled artist turned during this time from pride in his artistic accomplishment to trust in the mercy of God alone. It is not implausible to see the last Pietas, poignant and compassionate, as protracted prayers worked out in stone, yet unfinished as art.

With a celebrated artist like Michelangelo, it becomes clear that the very person of the artistic creator can at times embody and signify spiritual values transcending matters of mere personality. In European civilization, the view that the artist potentially has a sacred vocation or divinely bestowed gift goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks, with their notion of the inspired madness of the poet-singer. In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance the cult of the artist grew in relation to larger-than-life figures such as Dante and Michelangelo, later expanding in the eighteenth century to include the 'genius' of a writer like Goethe, and in the nineteenth, to include such 'titans' as Beethoven and Wagner. Eventually the Romantic cult of the artist led to the modern apotheosis of a very different kind of figure, such as the sensitive and tortured writer Franz Kafka and the vulnerable, psychologically exposed poet Sylvia Plath.

The theological question remains as to whether, and when, the artist and the religious figure (prophet, priest, apostle, or saint) can be said to coalesce. Despite the artistry of his own theological essays, Soren Kierkegaard scorned the idea that the roles of the apostle and the creative genius can ever be united (Kierkegaard 1955:104-5). By contrast, William Blake wrote: 'The Whole Business of Man is the Arts.. A Poet, a Painter, a Musician, an Architect: the Man or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian' (Blake 1953:328). Between these extremes, the theologian can say that the role of artist can at times be religious, and in a unique way. This is true when aesthetic imagination and artistic creativity disclose the particular qualities of human fault, finitude, and possibility, or when (as we have seen) the artist's work is able to generate an awareness of transcendence in one of its authentic modes. Beyond that, some theologians have argued convincingly that there is an oblique religious significance to artistry when the artist is able to produce something delightful in itself or aesthetically captivating; for this can contribute to 'shalom', the peaceable flourishing and communal harmony that God ordains for earthly existence at its fullest (Wolterstorff 1980:169). Undertaken with such ends in mind, the making of art can be (broadly speaking) a religious calling.

At about the same time in modern history that art began to establish a large measure of independence from religion and morality, the secular institutions of art began to cultivate and capitalize on the widespread quasi-religious veneration of the artist. Concert halls and museums began to foster an attitude of what can only be called reverence, often becoming places of pilgrimage and spiritual renewal. Modern artists themselves have at times consciously assumed the posture of the shaman or prophet or sage—an image only enhanced by the unconventionality of many artists' lives.

The cult of the artist is not confined, of course, to high culture. Popular musicians and media stars with worldwide followings can become not merely purveyors of entertainment but also the makers of powerful dreams and symbols that articulate basic attitudes towards life. In the confusion of the media marketplace it is seldom clear what religious needs are being met or possibly distorted at the level of popular culture—or, for that matter, in the contemporary museum or classical concert hall. What is clear is that artists in both popular and elite culture participate in the formation and transformation of cultural ideals and moral values. It is also clear that, outside the Church, modern and possibly postmodern religious sensibilities are shaped to a large extent by the same conflicting forces (economic and spiritual) that together shape artists themselves.

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