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Religion & Art: the Sacred & the Profane
Occasion for this essay.
These remarks introduced one of the many public sessions marking the completion
of new buildings designed by Kenzo Tange for the arts campus in Minneapolis,
Minnesota, USA. Dedicated as the
"Fine Arts Park", the campus included the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the
Children’s Theater Company, and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. At
that time the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts was the governing board for all
three of these institutions. The dedication events were spread over several
weeks to accommodate a variety of special interest groups. Attendees for
this session were mostly clergy, architects, designers and others with an
interest in art & religion. Roman
chaired the panel for this seminar held in the
College’s new auditorium.
The text, with illustrations was published in French translation as: "Quelques
remarques sur l'Art et le Religion le Sacré et le profane", Art
D'Église No.170, First Quarter 1975, Brughes, Belgium.
will initiate today’s discussion by suggesting a very
concrete yet broad view of the word art.
In its root Latin meaning the
word ars referred to human skill
and we have come to use the word both in reference to human skills and the
products of those skills. Thus we speak of the art of cooking, composing
music, designing clothes, painting, gardening, writing, or whatever; we
also refer to the product of these skills as art. From this broad view of
the word art we could say that
all tangible traces of human activity in this world constitute the deposit
of man's art.
if we are exploring a desert in New Mexico and we come upon a spider's web
we recognize the web as a manifestation of spider activity - not of human
skills. If however we chance upon a beer-can we recognize the “can” as
a product of rather sophisticated human manufacturing skills though we
might not consider it a high form of art. If we were to ponder the nature
and structure of the beer-can for any considered length of time we would
learn a great deal about the civilization that produced it. The shape,
logotype, manufacturing technology, - all are interconnected with 20th
century society's principle occupation - - marketing and production. The
aluminum beer-can may very well emerge, in the archaeology of some future
century, as an important artifact of our society. The can itself is
relatively stable, universally distributed, and, out of its myriad
promotional signs and advertisements, some few are sure to survive for the
scrutiny of future scholars. What I would like to suggest by this
diversion is that everything we humans produce is art - some of it good,
some mediocre and some quite atrociously bad. Every gesture and human expression,
of whatever level, does reflect a value structure, an attitude, a point of
view -- such viewpoints may be rooted, consciously or not, in religious
concerns, profane concerns - - or perhaps even bland indifference.
the instance of the beer-can we are confronted with an object whose size,
shape, and logo are generated by the principle interests of modern
industrial society --profane concerns - - production and marketing.
Whether I sing, write a poem, wire a house, or do a painting - - whatever
I make reflects the life values I hold.
For example, if I do sloppy irresponsible electric wiring in my
house my work shows that I have little concern for the future users of the
house and the safety of others. Ultimately it means that either I don’t
know any better or my life values do not include a sense of responsibility
to others in building the world we live in.
us return to exploring the desert and our chancing upon the beer-can.
Although being ecologically minded we might carry it back with us for
recycling, we would not be inclined to exhibit the can as a work of art in
our living room or at the Institute of Fine Art.
Suppose however that we came upon a 19th century painted pottery
jar - -say of Pueblo origin. Both
the can and the jar are containers - - products of sophisticated human
skills - - both in a broad sense are art, yet we recognize a value in one
that is not present in the other. We would certainly treasure the Pueblo
jar - - in fact, given a usable specimen we would find it quite suitable
for use as a container in religious ritual.
The beer-can on the other hand we would regard as of little or no
value whatsoever; in fact we would experience it as litter. What makes the
difference? In order to draw a pointed comparison between the two I should
like first to direct our attention to several broad considerations on the “sacred”
and the “profane”.
are two rather common usages for the term sacred in western society. First
we refer to the sacred as that which has been marked off or set aside
explicitly for some religious purpose - - such as ritual or devotion.
Thus we speak of a place of worship and ritual appurtenances such as
books, vessels and vestments as sacred.
Contrasted with this conception of the sacred is that of the
profane which comes from the Latin compound profanum,
literally meaning before or outside the temple.
Thus profane in its most general sense has meant that which is not
holy, or that which does not pertain to the sacred.
The second and foremost usage occurs among those religious persons who have conceived of the Sacred as God - - the Wholly Other; this absolute being or divine force whether we conceive of experiencing it in terms of the Logos of John's Gospel, the Wakonda of the Sioux Indians, the Heaven of the Emperor of China, the Unspeakable one of the Hebrews, or the Zeus of the Stoic Cleanthes -- we do recognize it in our vague human terms as an indefinable experience of Being which, for our purposes we call the sacred or the holy. One thing that characterizes religious people and religious cultures is the presence of a sense of the "sacred" manifested in the firmament, stars, water, trees, vegetation, stone, a work of art or whatever. For Rudolph Otto in his book Das Heilige, this experience of the Holy as the Wholly Other (otherness of God) was characterized by an ambivalent nature, being simultaneously a mysterium fascinans (attracting element) and a mysterium tremendum (awe inspiring element). Homo religiosus (the human person as “religious”) perceives the physical world as the ground for catching a glimpse of the sacred or the holy, that fascinating yet awe-inspiring sense of mystery.
I am convinced, that a truly religious person is one who, over the years,
grows to perceive with greater wonder and awe the life and substance of
the physical milieu of daily existence.
He perceives the texture and quality of stone, wood, color, sound,
taste; he is awed by the event of all forms of life; he is tuned to
structures, people, relationships; and when he acts as artist (homo
faciens) he builds with a basic reverence and respect for the quality
of the things he uses and the people he serves. He shows vivid concern for
the quality of life, the way we build our world, and the way we relate to
and use our natural resources. This
is especially true of the artist who is architect and designer. And, if we
are fortunate (and responsive), his work may lead us to experience
something of the mysterium. I am suggesting that the artist who is truly an artist is
basically a religious person though he frequently may have little to do
with formal religion in our times.
might note here that the sacred and the profane were rarely separated in
primitive societies. Perhaps
Teilhard de Chardin's vision of the whole stuff of this world as sacrament
is particularly appropriate for our times.
With this perception there is no profane time and no profane place.
The world we live in is the temple.
You don't dump your garbage and poisons or cultivate slums in the
temple. Taking this view both
those in religion and those in the arts may come to work more closely in
addressing the proliferate abuse of our resources.
They may both show leadership in discovering effective ways to
build a world to live in. Where there is no place for the profane there is
no task too menial. Everything from the sewer system and waste disposal to
the design of the altar relates to the quality of human life.
this view point there is no need to designate certain kinds of human
making as "fine art" while relegating other kinds of making to
the "servile arts. " Such distinctions suggest that there is a
higher purpose in making a painting or piece of sculpture than there is in
designing a textbook or a food container. By the same token I believe that
all aspects of life are so intimately interdependent that we ought not
seek to isolate specific kinds of artistic activity as “religious”. As
most of you know this would be the same as suggesting that one is
"religious" only when engaged in certain kinds of activity - -
say like going to services on Sunday.
It seems to me that we ought to strive to develop and patronize
artists, architects, and designers whose work is born from the kind of
sensibility I have outlined here. Our world is a profane world only in as
much as we make the world profane or let others profane it.
fundamental difference between the beer can and the Pueblo pottery piece
is that the beer-can is profane. The
beer can is profane because: in the design of the can we find no interest
on the part of the designer for providing an object that satisfies a human
aesthetic as well as filling a practical need without doing violence to
the world we live in. Apparently there is little concern on the part of
the buying public about this profanity - this obscenity (one doesn't have
to buy beer in cans). We get
our beer, and the producer makes a profit.
Meanwhile the important processes of pouring from a fine vessel
that could be used for generations is lost to us.
We have, as it were, profaned the whole process of “having a
drink” which, in a more religious society would have the character of a
sacramental. To add to the profanity we have, for several generations,
strewn thousands upon thousands of cans throughout the land suggesting
that we view our land as a garbage dump.
does religion have to do with art? As with all of us in our world those in
religion have to combat the profanities of modern society and teach our
young how to bear their responsibilities in creating a world to live in if
not more to salvage the one they are inheriting.
I think I am nearly theologically correct to label as blasphemy the
crass abuse we see around us in building matchbox houses, printing junk
that gobbles up tons of newsprint, producing inane tapes for TV
and we have only to go shopping to be reminded that the packaging
and marketing of food and goods is rife with excess, redundancy, waste,
banality, falsehoods, etc. All of this is the art - mostly
junk and, if I could interbreed disciplines,
I would say aesthetically “immoral”. We are coming to see that
a great deal of it profanes the earth we walk on. But fortunately, among
our artists, architects, and designers, we do have those who are concerned
about these values and have succeeded, in some degree in their own work to
do something about it. We recognize that the religious leaders in our
community care about these same values.
It seems to me that the only way we can achieve any significant
change in our perception and making of the world is to generate a change
in the perception of broad sections of people in our society through
have three practical suggestions that might be of help to our religious
See that anything that is church related for which you are
responsible is well designed and well built. This means everything
from the graphics of announcements to the design or renovation of church
properties. Get qualified
professionals who are responsible.
Encourage the more capable members of church related groups to get
involved in public planning issues.
We will consider these practical measures more extensively during our discussion period. I should like to conclude by noting again that we need to recognize the profane in our everyday lives. This is where both the artist and the person in religion need to join their efforts.
J. Verostko, Minneapolis College
of Art and Design
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