Home > Uncategorized > Religious Art is Useless

Religious Art is Useless

Even some atheists are prone to giving religion credit for producing great art as a happy byproduct of its dangerous and deluded superstitions. Such arguments always remind me of the first line in Act 2 of Tomfoolery, a musical in which I once appeared as the non-singing narrator:

    World War II produced many great songs, but it was not primarily a musical

Of all the lines I stumbled on and over during my short and unspectacular career in amateur theatre, this was my favourite. Even with the sober midweek audiences, it never failed to get a laugh and, with it, a perfectly timed shot of adrenaline (if the first joke of Act 2 flops, it is bound to be a long night — for all involved).

Back to my original point: great art came out of religious faith and it would be churlish for even non-believers to deny it…so goes the theory at least.


As I write this, I am at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, my favourite of all the city’s many fine cultural institutions. As I wander around, I am struck again by the repetitive nature of religious imagery on display here, especially in exhibits of any century up to and including about the 17th.

This seems to be such a waste of artistic talent for one thing — imagine if all those artists felt able to produce original work instead of endless covers of the same song.
It is even a greater shame when you consider the extent to which this constricted artistic menu has affected our capacity to understand the past. Artists provide a unique window into life in past centuries in the absence of photographic or other records. And yet, most of the artistic record is completely useless except in telling us that people were (a) quite religious and (b) convinced that Jesus and family were Scandanavian.

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  1. October 6, 2010 at 16:40

    One might argue that the function of art is precisely to elicit repeatedly the transcendental experiences common to the human condition — the emotional reactions of awe, love, despair, or horror, for example. Whereas the imagery and subjects in the art have historically situated meanings and understandings, the underlying effect of art is less circumscribed. Your Met experience is evidence more of the weakening of grand narratives that necessitated uniformed experiences of seeing Jesus represented in art, and less so that artistic talents and abilities were wasted for centuries.

    • PQ
      October 6, 2010 at 16:42

      One might argue that but its hard to imagine that as many as two would.

  2. Fiona Robertson
    October 8, 2010 at 06:29

    Hmmm. You’ve forced me to think. Again. I’ve been doing the “organised religion has been good for art, music and architecture, and also for death, torture and oppression” argument for years. Come to think of it, the art argument is significantly weaker than the other two. Still, St Peter’s in Rome is unlikely to have been built had God not been involved somehow. Well, it would have had less small “just the right size for an intimate encounter” spaces anyway.

    • PQ
      October 8, 2010 at 09:08

      Hi Fiona. Not saying there isn’t awesome god-themed art. There is. But what fabulous art was never created because painters and sculptors felt bound to doing YET ANOTHER FUCKING MADONNA AND CHILD? It’s an opportunity cost issue.

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