Session 14

Max Liljefors / Lund University, Sweden


Art and Spirituality in a Secular Society


“Every era has to reinvent the project of “spirituality’ for itself”, Susan Sontag writes in her 1967 essay “The Aesthetics of Silence” and adds, “In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is ‘art’.”

This session will discuss if and how art channels spirituality in today’s society, where a diversity of religions exists side by side and many people do not confess to any faith. As for Sontag, spirituality here can mean any aspiration towards or experience of the ineffable or the sacred, framed by religion or not. It means transcending the contradictions of consciousness and language. Perhaps with echoes of mysticism, as for philosopher Iris Murdoch, who feels “the walls of the ego fall” before a demanding artwork (1992).

Premodern art was often embedded in religion. Romanticism invested spirituality in art as such. Schleiermacher stated that art and religion both cultivate a sensibility towards the numinous. Modern art inherited this idea as abstraction and purification, which Sontag calls an “aesthetics of silence” reminiscent of the mystic’s via negativa. Can art still harbour spiritual impulses? Some say religion is anathema in contemporary art (Elkins 2004). Others seek epiphanies of presence in the aesthetic (Gumbrecht 2003; Seel 2014). While spirituality may seem remote from dominant art discourses today, it is central to many people’s expectations on art.

Papers should consider questions such as:

  • In a globalized art world, how do art museums frame art with spiritual content from different cultures? Being secular institutions, how can they encompass expressions of faith(s)?
  • Can spiritual aspirations co-exist with political engagement in art? Can they co-exist with irony and intellectuality?
  • Can art historians express spirituality in their writing about art, inside or outside belief systems?
  • Has the very dichotomy religious — secular become outdated? If so, where do art and aesthetics stand in this new landscape?