A brief history of religion in art – TED-Ed
It’s only been the last few hundreds years or so that Western civilization has been putting art in museums, at least museums resembling the public institutions we know today. Before this, for most, art served other purposes. What we call fine art today was, in fact, primarily how people experienced an aesthetic dimension of religion. Paintings, sculpture, textiles and illuminations were the media of their time, supplying vivid imagery to accompany the stories of the day. In this sense, Western art shared a utilitarian purpose with other cultures around the world, some of whose languages incidentally have no word for art. So how do we define what we call art? Generally speaking, what we’re talking about here is work that visually communicates meaning beyond language, either through representation or the arrangement of visual elements in space. Evidence of this power of iconography, or ability of images to convey meaning, can be found in abundance if we look at art from the histories of our major world religions. Almost all have, at one time or another in their history, gone through some sort of aniconic phase. Aniconism prohibits any visual depiction of the divine. This is done in order to avoid idolatry, or confusion between the representation of divinity and divinity itself. Keeping it real, so to speak, in the relationship between the individual and the divine. However, this can be a challenge to maintain, given that the urge to visually represent and interpret the world around us is a compulsion difficult to suppress. For example, even today, where the depiction of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad is prohibited, an abstract celebration of the divine can still be found in arabesque patterns of Islamic textile design, with masterful flourishes of brushwork and Arabic calligraphy, where the words of the prophet assume a dual role as both literature and visual art. Likewise, in art from the early periods of Christianity and Buddhism, the divine presence of the Christ and the Buddha do not appear in human form but are represented by symbols. In each case, iconographic reference is employed as a form of reverence. Anthropomorphic representation, or depiction in human form, eventually became widespread in these religions only centuries later, under the influence of the cultural traditions surrounding them. Historically speaking, the public appreciation of visual art in terms other than traditional, religious or social function is a relatively new concept. Today, we fetishize the fetish, so to speak. We go to museums to see art from the ages, but our experience of it there is drastically removed from the context in which it was originally intended to be seen. It might be said that the modern viewer lacks the richness of engagement that she has with contemporary art, which has been created relevant to her time and speaks her cultural language. It might also be said that the history of what we call art is a conversation that continues on, as our contemporary present passes into what will be some future generation’s classical past. It’s a conversation that reflects the ideologies, mythologies, belief systems and taboos and so much more of the world in which it was made. But this is not to say that work from another age made to serve a particular function in that time is dead or has nothing to offer the modern viewer. Even though in a museum setting works of art from different places and times are presented alongside each other, isolated from their original settings, their juxtaposition has benefits. Exhibits are organized by curators, or people who’ve made a career out of their ability to recontextualize or remix cultural artifacts in a collective presentation. As viewers, we’re then able to consider the art in terms of a common theme that might not be apparent in a particular work until you see it alongside another, and new meanings can be derived and reflected upon. If we’re so inclined, we might even start to see every work of art as a complementary part of some undefined, unified whole of past human experience, a trail that leads right to our doorstep and continues on with us, open to anyone who wants to explore it.