Art and Meaning

August 2016 Pulse

In his profound study on symbols and the sacred, the Catholic religious philosopher Louis Dupré observes that for the longest stretch of human history art and religion are inseparable. Changes in cultural sensibilities, however, have caused the two to drift apart.

‘A heightened sense of transcendence and an increasing secularization separated the two to a point where art could be without being sacred and where religion developed some of its symbols outside the range of aesthetics’, writes Dupré.

That art and religion are so closely related to one another should not surprise us. Cultural anthropologists have long noticed that art and religion seem to have the same roots. And even though aesthetic and religious symbols are in some important sense different, they enjoy such close affinity that they affect each other, often in creative and surprising ways.

From the standpoint of theology, the basis and the possibility of human art is the creation, fashioned lovingly and purposefully by its Creator. As The Hispanic theologian Alejandro García-Rivera explains: ‘Art’s theological dimension has its origin in God’s own art, the natural beauty of Creation’.

Creation’s beauty reflects the beauty of its Creator, for as theologians like von Balthasar have pointed out God’s glory is his beauty. The beauty of the world, through which the beauty of God is revealed, is a creaturely beauty that transforms the beholder – it is a beauty that in some real sense demands a decision, a conversion.

Furthermore, it is important to note that human beings are themselves part of God’s art. Thus as García-Rivera has perceptively pointed out, in contemplating the beauty of the world, ‘the human creature catches an intriguing and wondrous glimpse of itself.’

Perhaps the distance that modernity has created between art and religion can be attributed to its lost of the sense of true beauty. This has two adverse results: the inability to recognize beauty’s intrinsic value and a morbid preference for the banal. This is the constant lament of the British philosopher Roger Scruton in his thoughtful book, Beauty.

Insofar as beauty – together with truth and goodness – is a transcendental, the secularization of art in modern and post-modern culture may be characterized as the lost of the sense of those universal qualities that belong to the very essence of being itself.

This eclipse of the transcendentals has caused modern art to lose touch with reality itself, plunging it into the barrenness of what some have called an ‘aesthetic nominalism’, where art becomes merely a celebration of the individuality of the artist. We see this in the baneful iconoclasms of Duchamp and Picasso.

Such ‘art’, in fact, spells the end of art. The great art critic, Ernst Gombrich is therefore quite right to characterise the modern predicament thus: ‘There is no such thing as “art”. There are only individual artists’.

It is only when beauty is returned to art – or to put it the other way around, it is only when art begins to take the transcendentals seriously – will art begin once again to be in touch with reality. And when art does that, it will in different ways attempt to give form to the transcendental mystery.

Only such art may achieve ‘an evocation of the sense of the absolutely unknowable’, writes Joseph Campbell. This is especially true for religious art; but it can also be the case for any form of art, as long as it is good art (in the way that we have sought to defined it here).

Art that seeks to penetrate and interpret the real can therefore be a kind of prophetic word – speaking a visible word and with an articulate image – raising its image-voice against some of the ills of our society. And as Karen Stone has put it so eloquently, such art has the ability to cause us to ‘imagine and form an alternative to the ruling order within ourselves and in our world’.

The evocative nature of art can sensitize the viewer to the needs of others, even alerting him to the plight of the people whom he has never met. Art can help us to come to grips with the irrationality of human atrocities and the depths of human suffering.

For example, in Backs Magdelena Abakanowicz, who lived through the horrors of World War II, portrays the prisoners in the concentration camps in World War II, depicting both the atrocities they suffer and the endurance of the human spirit in a way that is truly compelling. Such art in some sense transcends the particularities of culture and history and speaks to the human soul.

Of course, not every piece of art – even good art – does this. But insofar as art is truly in touch with the real – in both its revelation and hiddenness – it has the potential to do so.

And when it does, art acquires that sacramental quality – it becomes the means by which God’s grace is able to make present (to disclose) profound truths about our human condition and about the world in which we have created for ourselves.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.