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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.  September 30, 1974.  

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.

click here for the French version.

Indian Pottery, Acoma (Pueblo). Artist unknown, New Mexico. This ceramic probably dates around 1960. Collection of the Minnesota Museum of Art, Saint Paul, Minnesota (Photo Bradfort Palm)

Religion & Art: the Sacred & the Profane

I will initiate todays discussion by suggesting a 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 objects and traces of human activity on this earth may be viewed as “art”, everything from canals & skyscrapers to prehistoric cave paintings, 20th Century movies and the Rembrandt we have at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Thus, 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 the art of human skills. If however we chance upon a beer-can we recognize the “can” as a product of advanced 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.

In 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.

Let 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”.

Beer-can for storage & drinking.
Photo by the author, 1974.

There 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 a place marked off or an object related to religious practice.

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.

 From this perspective the truly religious people are those who, over the years, grow to perceive with greater wonder and awe the life and substance of the physical milieu of daily existence.  They  perceive the texture and quality of stone, wood, color, sound, taste; they view the event of all forms of life as awesome; they are tuned to structures, people, relationships; and when they act  as  artists (homo faciens) they create  with a basic reverence and respect for the quality of the materials they use and the people they serve. They show pronounced 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 those who are architects and designers.  And, if we are fortunate (and responsive), their work may lead us to experience something of the mysterium.  I am suggesting that artists who are truly artists are, by their profession, religious persons even though they may have little to do with formal religion.

We 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.

 From 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 should 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 profane only in as much as we make the world profane or let others profane it.

 The fundamental difference between the beer-can and the Pueblo pottery piece is that the beer-can is profane.  The beer-can is profane.  The design of the can’s primary concern appears to be marketing for profit with no interest no interest in ecology or aesthetics. Apparently there is little concern on the part of the buying public about this profanity - this obscenity. We get our beer, and the producer makes a profit.  Meanwhile the important process 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.

What 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 consumption; 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 education.

 I have three practical suggestions that might be of help to our religious leaders:

(1) Educate your congregations to recognize the profane in their common­place everyday life.  Teach them to buy only those things which are well designed and well made - - and to boycott all manner of junk.  This might take on the form of an on-going study group who can make practical suggestions for members of the congregation.

 (2) 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.

 (3) 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.

Roman J. Verostko, Minneapolis College of Art and Design
September 30, 1974



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