Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Art is a sacred endeavor. Not in a theological or ideological sense—which is clouded by intellectualism and socio-religious determinations—but in the purer and more experiential sense of apartness. The primary aim and impetus of art is connection with the “beyond-the-ordinary”: a sensation of transcending the confines and occurrences of the mundane world. The artist who labors undisturbed in the creative process occupies a separate and all-consuming sphere of consciousness.
This explains the casual observation that artists are rarely drawn to the usual aspects of religious life: regulated rituals, group affiliation and formalistic prayers. Without having statistics to support this perception, it nevertheless seems that utterly artistic people—those who exist in an almost perpetual state of inward reflection and inspired invention—live the ideals that religion strives to impart through texts and structured practices. The artist is intimately familiar with transformation and elevation, making religion’s attempt to manufacture these qualities superfluous or even disruptive.
This does not mean that artists cannot be religious in the normative sense. The same variations of religiosity and non-religiosity are found among artists and the general population. Obviously, too, numerous artworks have been created for and commissioned by religious institutions, and many performing artists (mainly musicians) find steady employment in houses of worship. Even so, artists need not rely on public rituals or religious calendars to tell them how or when to encounter otherness.
From a humanistic perspective, religion, in all its forms and modes of engagement, is but a particularistic means toward a universal goal. The aspiration for transcendence is present within every human being. It is built into our biology. The fact that religions emerged at all in the course of human evolution is proof of this inborn longing of our species. Those who do not find sacred peaks in the everyday often turn to religious events (or pseudo-religious events, such as sports or concerts) in order to be pushed into that experience.
William Sharlin, a cantor-composer who found ecstasy alone at the piano and transmitted ecstasy through liturgical singing, included this remark in a lecture on the topic of art and the sacred: “The non-artist at best may strive for the occasional moment of transcendence and therefore may need the help of worship to separate himself from the ordinary.” Not so the artist.
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