Chapter Five: Can art be a religion?

Review of Chapter 5 in What Good are the Arts? by John Carey.  Transpositions is hosting reviews of each chapter of this book from 28 March – 3 April 2011.

In the fifth chapter of his book, Carey evaluates the relationship of art to religion, particularly whether art can be considered a religion or play a religious role. Ultimately, Carey argues against this notion. In order to make his case, he gives a brief history lesson on aesthetic theory. Considering art as a religion itself is an issue traceable to the mid-eighteenth century. Before this, he says, “art was, at best, religion’s handmade.” (135) But rather than art serving religious purposes such as aiding worship or teaching, art began to be understood as the highest human activity, surpassing conventional religion and becoming a religion in itself. Here, Casey criticizes thinkers such as William Blake, John Ruskin, Wassily Kandinsky, and Clive Bell, who all quite clearly elevate the role of art above its former place.

But how could art be considered a religion? Carey considers several different perspectives. First, he says, “Turning art into a religion often carries with it the assumption that there is a higher morality of art, distinct from conventional morality.” (136) This does not mean that art engenders morality in its viewers, but that art becomes moral in itself. According to John Ruskin, taste is not only an index of morality, but is, in itself, the only morality. Aesthetic taste, in this case, becomes a measure of religious truth. Carey disagrees, pointing out that we cannot connect taste and morality since this would mean that evils such as murder would imply merely a lack of taste, or that a person with bad taste is immoral even if they have done nothing else wrong. Second, artists were elevated above the rest of society and credited with divine power, genius, and prophetic gifts. The artist, then, is compared to a religious figure. But this, Carey, says, devalues ordinary people, especially those who are inartistic or lack appropriate taste. He notes here that Hitler held a very high view of art as religion but, in his same worldview, people were expendable. And finally, Carey quotes George Steiner who argues for the immortality of art. “Culture is religious, he explains, because the artist or writer aims at immortality.”Carey perceives this idea as “childish and self-deceiving.” (149) Furthermore, he relates Steiner’s view with that of Hitler’s: if endurance or “immortality” of art is stressed, it compromises a proper view of the ordinary person by replacing it with a glorified artist or artistic object.

Art, then, is a poor religion according to Carey, and it bears no resemblance to actual religion, especially Christianity, to which is it often paired. “As a religion,” he gathers, “art is simply an idolatrous fake.” (151) Carey, however, seeks to save art from its entanglement with religion by offering a rather different perspective on its role. Rather than preserving a theory that considers art a religion and devalues ordinary people in favor of the enlightened individual artist, Carey believes art should be more communally driven and actively understood as a process of making that engages the common person. At this juncture he interacts with the writing of Ellen Dissanyake, who asserts a broader view on the function of art. Particularly, he is interested in how “active participation in art alters people.” (158) As an example, he cites a study of arts programs in prisons and the effect that making art had on prison inmates. It was not just looking at art that had an effect, but actively participating in it that altered the attitudes and actions of the inmates.

Art should, he argues, be a communal affair, not relegated to the upper echelons of society. As it has been typically understood, “The religion of art makes people worse, because it encourages contempt for those considered unartistic. We now know that it can foster hideous and earth-shattering evil. It is time we gave active art a chance to make us better.” (167) While Carey argued in the last chapter that art could not make us better, here he provides an alternative view of art that opens up that very possibility. Individualized, high art set on a pedestal cannot make us better; but an art focused on the community’s active participation and engagement with physical materials can engender us to become better people.

He makes no conclusions, however, about whether the process of making art can be considered a religious activity. While the modern notion of art as a religion is clearly flawed, do you think art can still be considered religious, particularly in light of what Carey says about the effect of actively engaging with materials? As Christians, can we draw any religious conclusions from Carey’s argument for a communally driven “active art”?


  • Jennifer Allen Craft is a regular contributor at Transpositions. Jenn is from southwest Georgia (think swamp, red clay, peanuts, and gnats) and holds a B. A. in Biblical Studies and Humanities from Atlanta Christian College and an M.Litt. in Theology, Imagination and the Arts from St. Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD on the theological significance of place with special attention to the role of the arts in the way we make and identify with places.

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  1. says: Alex Garleb

    Wes, I am a good friend of Brian Hecker and I have been enjoying your sites very much: here’s a link that I thought may be apropos:

    Alex Garleb

  2. says: John Franklin

    Thanks for you thoughtful account of Carey’s remarks on art as religion. The connections between aesthetic and religious sensibilities are well known. Though it is also well known that art does not deliver all that one expects or receives from religious commitment. Its ironic that while rejecting the religion option for art he lands on the communal idea where “active participation in art alters people” – religion of course has great interest in seeing people change/be transformed. I would concur that art does not make a good or adequate religion. Carey’s comments on Steiner seem to miss the mark for me…. Steiner is less about art as a religion than about art as a “signal of transcendence” (Peter Berger) In Real Presences Steiner writes – “…the aesthetic is the making formal of epiphany. There is a ‘shining through’.” or again “… it is the enterprise and the privilege of the aesthetic to quicken into lit presence the continuum between temporality and eternity, between matter and spirit, between man and ‘the other’.” And finally “The questions What is poetry, music or art? How can they not be? How do they act upon us and how de we interpret their action? [Carey’s question] are ultimately theological questions.” (pp 226-227). So a close link between art and religion – but not the same thing.

    Sorry this is so long…. John Franklin

    1. says: Jenn Craft


      Yes, I was actually very surprised by some of the things he said in this chapter based on earlier remarks in the book. It was no surprise that art should not be considered a religion, but his emphasis on participatory art being able to change people was incredibly intriguing. You’re right that those are all theological questions, but I suppose Carey, not coming from a theological point of view, wouldn’t want to put them there. I’m not very well read in Steiner so your comments are helpful. I think Carey acknowledged that Steiner didn’t directly talk about art as a religion but that his views had the same implications for art as a religion as the others he addressed. He still thinks Steiner’s view places art on a pedestal, which is dangerous for Carey.

      Thanks for your comments!

  3. says: Cole Matson

    I agree with Carey that art makes a poor religion, and that there is little to no connection between good artistic “taste” and moral behaviour. C.S. Lewis addresses this confusion between art and morality in The Personal Heresy and An Experiment in Criticism. He says that Matthew Arnold “inaugurated the error” by using the German word “geistlich” to mean both “spiritual” (in the sense of the religious/moral) and “spiritual” (in the sense of intellectual/artistic). I’m looking forward to reading Carey’s book to read his argument further.

    I also agree that, like religion, art necessarily involves community, in that art is communication, which involves two parties, not just self-expression, which only needs one. Even art that is created and then stuck in a drawer still involve a process of communing with an experience or vision outside oneself, in the process of creating. I wonder if there’s a parallel to be drawn between this experiencing of communing through artistic creation, and private prayer, as well as between the sharing of artistic creation with an audience and the public enacting of religious ritual. Though the artistic activities are no substitute for the religious.

    1. says: Jenn Craft


      Yes, I really liked the community emphasis that Carey takes in this book. Though he may make art a little too subjective in his “anything goes” mentality, his desire to remove art from the realm of the elite is of much value. That community orientation is indeed a very clear point at which art and religion find a contact, and if we are going to talk about art and religion together, then we can’t dismiss the role of community in the way we think about and enact both art and religion. The connection you draw to private prayer is interesting. I’ve actually come across a book that we’ll be reviewing for Transpositions in the near future called Contemplative Vision, that may address something along these lines. The author draws on interpretations of artworks for devotional purposes, specifically private contemplative prayer. Stimulating thoughts indeed.

  4. says: John Franklin


    I agree with you and Cole in your support of art and community. Calvin Seerveld in his writing has been a strong advocate for this as has Nicholas Wolterstorff. Breaking away from the “high art” idea.

    One example of this is what has being done among those who are marginalized or among those who suffer – to allow communal art projects to bring healing and hope to the communites. See for example the Keiskamma Altarpiece from South Africa.

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