“Why should the devil have all the best tunes?” asked Methodist preacher George Whitefield in 1774. But did the devil ever? And does he still? As conservative and dated as ‘religious art’ might seem in the West (where religious practices have been somewhat marred by schisms, crusades, inquisitions, Nietzsche, existentialism, and that ever-pesky science), I think the paganity to which Whitefield referred has less of a cloven-hoofed power-stance over the arts than the reality of the situation might suggest. Not only were many of the modern antecedents and influences of contemporary Western artists religious, but a great number of today’s practitioners remain resolutely Christian in their outlook.
By this I do not mean to refer to the likes of Andres Serrano, who brought you such delights as ‘Piss Christ’ (the title says it all… – the joys of Conceptualism) who during the resulting stir caused by his artwork maintained his Catholic faith. But, in terms of art-forms that retain aesthetic awareness, it is unlikely that religion can ever entirely be separated from their creation, at least not in civilisations built around transcendental religious moralities. Could the beautiful geometry of Islamic architecture, even with a rebrand, ever have spread so extensively and recognisably without its rationalistic aesthetics connected to Islam? With Easter quickly a-hopping towards us then, let us take the opportunity to examine some of the great modern and contemporary Christian art in the West, which offers (whether wisely or naively) an alternative to an abundance of faithless nihilism.
The composer Arvo Pärt, for instance, is deeply motivated by his Eastern Orthodox faith, and his music incorporates much of the hymnal qualities of the religion, especially the Gregorian Chant method of its Catholic counterpart. His work is the most-performed of all living composers, demonstrating the appeal of Christian aesthetics to a wide audience. Equally, Calvinism is central to the work of Pulitzer Prize-winner Marilynne Robinson. Her books resound with an ultimately optimistic alternative for the USA, seeing the potential for the continuation of the Puritan experimental spirit that founded the country.
It seems, strangely enough, that the art forms most immediately associated with modernity tend towards the religious. The major figures of 20th century cinema produced religious art. Kubrick’s 2001, widely respected and imitated in both artistic and commercial spheres, is rife with religious connotations. Christian faith also influences cinematic aesthetics ranging from the films of Andrew Tarkovsky, to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, to even pop-television like Stranger Things. And in Western popular music, Bob Dylan (the only songwriter to have won a Nobel Literature Prize) draws on a plethora of religious influences, and during the late 70s and early 80s produced a great deal of devoutly religious music. Albert Ayler, perhaps the most influential avant-garde jazz stylist, consistently reflected on religious motifs in his work, as did Alice and John Coltrane. While many of the great innovators of these artistic forms may have died, they have left a strong impact on the arts of today, and their spiritual aesthetics remain deeply ingrained within their respective forms.
To deny the deep connections of artistic innovations with religious motivations, even in the contemporary West, is to ignore swathes of achievement and its roots. Whether spiritually-inclined or otherwise, it is surely worth recognising how faith plays such an instrumental role in the art-world of today. We should not, as Whitefield did, resign our awareness quite so readily to overtly non-religious art.