The shared symbolic order that defined much of art throughout human history had a lot to do ( some may say everything ) with theology. From Astarte the many breasted fertility goddess of clay, to the Parthenon through to the Sistine Chapel, endless icons and intricate designs in places of worship were the desires of patrons and states and the mainstay of the working artist.
It was necessary in a conscious mind to know what heaven may look like what eternal life may be like, what the being who bestows these onto you may look like and what he can do. Art brings the imaginings of the mind before the eyes and, in such a way, makes them real. Through the art of architecture it plants them in the landscape and gives us the mistaken excuse to suppose we have created civilisations.
With the loss of faith came the retreat of this kind of work but the inner feelings this kind of art generated, were, and are still, our inner longing. When atheism becomes strong the idea of soul in humanity becomes lessened in the imagination and theological models lose most of their context and awe. But the individual is used to seeing art in this way and looks for it to continue – to express their feelings, their thoughts, their experiences and transmute it in such a way that the image becomes the preferred language of our experience of existence. What we face today is the idea that the soul is only an idea as is the feeling that art has an unrivalled purity, imbibed by the practising artist.
To call contemporary art godless is not to define it or belittle it. Quite the opposite. But to define it as soulless is to pinpoint the lack of passion, the loss of certainty, the theft of immortality that is the culture of modern, late capitalist society. The theologies of the past were inventions of non-scientific minds trying to explain Nature. Today we still have everything to explain and no god to adjudicate the disputes.
Contemporary art tries to exhibit everything without explanation. It has none. This is the fact that disengages public perception and leaves only aficionados visiting galleries. Artists endlessly try to justify themselves and patrons attempt to make the contemporary art scene as important as in the past. The new theology that will regain this feeling without god, is to rediscover nature, landscape and our mortality within knowledge. Artists working on these issues will do well because when it comes to it, theologies end up looking the same.
Volume 32 no.2 November/December 2017 p2