Most artists I know have no religious beliefs whatsoever, but that wouldn’t stop us from getting married in a church or attending a funeral. Most artists appreciate the cultural aspects of religion, but don’t need religion as a guide for life. Some contemporary artists will reflect their concerns for others using their own stories as social or political statements but most often they are geared towards an aesthetic or emotional approach that is without any moral code. Contemporary art is more often about art than about life, to the point where art can become its own ideology with little interest in making moral statements and little room for a competing ideology like a religion.
I consider myself a progressive classicist, meaning I do have my own moral code, but it is designed from an idea that art is integral in performing basic social functions that we can’t live without, and that these functions combined with a progressive viewpoint can be a guide for life. My progressive classicism is a blending of classical art functions with popular art and fine art. Many artists take the same approach without thinking about it much or putting a name to it.
What is fascinating about contemporary art however, is that I’ve known three people who gave up religion for a strong ideological artistic belief. A formerly Christian friend of mine, I’ll call her Liz, in Victoria, British Columbia, has a son who overdosed years ago. At the age of fourteen with only one hit of crystal meth he went from being a shy teenage boy to a raging proselytizing miniature priest, with great lapses in memory and total loss of social intelligence. At the time I knew her, Liz had suffered through divorce, near poverty, health issues, and deaths in the family. Liz was a regular church goer and maintained her faith. Her church provided help and solace throughout her trials. But with her son’s total transformation for the worse Liz completely lost faith. She couldn’t understand how God could allow such a thing to happen to her son after she had already suffered so much while committing her life to God.
Her interest in art, which brought us together as good friends suddenly became a passion that eventually broke our friendship. Liz returned to becoming a full time student in the University of Victoria Fine Arts program. Only a few months into the program she became a die hard post-modernist. Nothing wrong with that, but her belief and faith in art also came with the sudden zeal to admonish other artists who didn’t believe what she believed. My illustration work suddenly made me beneath contempt. I put up with her hard core opinions for years until we finally drifted apart.
I have a vague understanding of what happened, but I never delved into thinking about it much until recently when reading a book called Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, written by Phil Zuckerman. It is a fascinating study revealing that the most content people live in countries with the fewest number who are religious, and those countries that are often the most religious have the most trouble with poverty, violence, health issues or massive inequality, as in the United States, which strangely claims to be a religious nation.
We are fortunate enough to live in a country to be able to think and talk openly about such things, to question our beliefs, religious, artistic or otherwise. There were times among Western nations where questioning such authorities was extremely dangerous. Artists like Michelangelo could only hint of their lack of faith in their art, as seen in the Sistine Chapel. It has been thought that Michelangelo hinted at such with his painting of God creating Adam. The strange shape the robe takes, complete with a “stem,” looks amazingly like that of the human brain. The suggestion is that man made God.
We may be able to live without God, and although man made art too I believe strongly that art is something we can’t live without. Yet what art is and what it does and how it best works for us is an ongoing discussion as deep and lasting and contentious as any discussion of religion.