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The importance of religion 5: Religion and art

Professor Gavin Flood
Monday, 17 November 2008 - 11:00am

Shifting from explicit politics to implicit cultural politics, this lecture will focus on the relation of religion to art, raising questions about how religious art expresses tradition and links in to a cosmology absent from secular art. Questions of aesthetics and function will be raised. An exhibition in London by Gilbert and George in January 2006 presented religion through a pastiche of images that showed religions to be essentially oppressive. In the context of this radical juxtaposition between secular art in late modernity and religious art, the lecture will show how the problem of aesthetic appreciation in tradition and modernity is linked to the problem of the world seen as cosmology or as stripped of cosmological understanding. Thus icons, cathedrals and images of gods function only within religious cosmology in contrast to the work of Gilbert and George which draws on an aesthetic devoid of, and antithetical to, religious cosmologies.

But the religious imperative, while prototypically expressed in religious tradition, also finds expression through art. In the contemporary context this can be seen especially in the work of artists such as Bill Viola who deals explicitly with the themes of transcendence and being born and dying and whose work attempts to penetrate the world of life. The idea of the artist as shaman who shows human communities something from another place is relevant here. The religious imperative shows us the proximity of art to religion and in the context of modernity shows how art outside of religious tradition nevertheless still deals with questions of transcendent meaning in human life.