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date: 17 June 2024

Spirituality and Contemporary Artfree

Spirituality and Contemporary Artfree

  • Rina AryaRina AryaUniversity of Wolverhampton


The artworks under discussion detail the scope and breadth of art that can be described as spiritual by virtue of its revelatory, revitalizing and contemplative capacities. Rather than interrogating the relationship between art and religion, more pertinent questions in the contemporary age are: What is the nature of the dialogue between art and spirituality, how do the two come together, and what form does the meeting take? The range of multimedia brings novel forms of encounter that occur outside the gallery and other spaces and involve audio-visual and other means of articulating the spiritual. These new forms make different demands on viewers; they create greater intimacy (often through immersion), both physically and psychologically, and one of the consequences of having greater intimacy can be a heightened awareness that increases presentness and a sense of embodiment. What we learn is that there are potentially as many interpretations of spirituality as there are viewers.


  • Mysticism and Spirituality
  • Religion and Art

In the 21st century, the concept of spirituality is becoming increasingly important to various cultural discourses, including that of contemporary artwork. Art that is described as spiritual may reference or represent a spiritual and/or religious tradition. Whether referring to specific religious traditions or not, spirituality concerns the feelings stirred or probed by the art, which may prompt viewers to reflect on the meaning of life, often drawing on existential questions, such as: Why are we here? What are we doing? What happens after life ends? A sense of the spiritual also gives people the sense of belonging that they crave, a feeling that they are part of something greater than the self. The spiritual also contrasts with the material, where the material concerns acquisitiveness and worldly success. Spirituality seeks to transcend worldly goods and ambitions.

The relationship between art and spirituality has been historically mediated through the relationship between art and religion, something which has been periodically problematic throughout the centuries. But in spite of the decline of organized religion in Western Europe, there has been growing interest in spirituality in areas of cultural life, especially in art. Many people no longer view traditional religion, in the sense of institutionalized religion, as adequate for exploring their spirituality and look to new forms of spirituality as alternatives for finding ultimate meaning and addressing the profound needs of humanity.1 Central to the role of the artist has been a preoccupation with the deeper questions of life, often to reveal sights that are normally kept hidden from the public gaze and to challenge entrenched beliefs. The process of creating art is often described in quasi-mystical terms, whereby the artist-as-shaman unleashes or channels special creative powers in a process of making that transports the viewer to a different realm of the imaginary. Given these affinities between the roles of art and spirituality, it is unsurprising that spirituality is an enduring feature of contemporary art.

Definition of Terms

“Spirituality” is a term that is often used vaguely to refer to an attitude or approach toward life that involves a search for meaning. Before looking at how spirituality is articulated in cultural life, it is imperative to set down its forms. One of the first points to make is that historical religions are comprised of spiritual traditions that vary in significant ways but which can be considered within the framework of religious discourse. There are also spiritual forms that exist in alternative (and non-doctrinal) religions that are not classified as organized or institutional religions, such as new religious movements (NRMs). Spirituality also exists outside of theology or religious practice, where it is allied to ethical issues about identity, selfhood, and human interaction in the world. Although from a secular viewpoint spiritual concerns do not involve religious views about the supernatural, secular spirituality should not be opposed to religious spirituality because they have shared concerns, even if the roots of their concerns are different.

Philip Sheldrake provides some useful initial definitions of spirituality: “‘[S]pirituality’ refers to the deepest values and meanings by which people seek to live.”2 It conveys an outlook, vision, or aspiration about life that involves thinking holistically about identity, about one’s own and that of others, and of being cognizant of death. The mystical writer Evelyn Underhill suggests that the drive for spiritual fulfillment takes us beyond a purpose that is geared toward the practicalities of “tool-making” to something that is “vision-creating,”3 thus conveying the sacred (in the sense of the non-mundane) aspects of spirituality.

Sheldrake also describes the study of spirituality as an academic discipline and discourse. In some formulations, spirituality is viewed as an individualistic project of “self-realization” that typically takes the trajectory of “inwardness” or can be directed outwardly, in a consumerist sense, to promote various lifestyle choices like “fitness, healthy living, and holistic well-being.”4 Since the 21st century, there has been a drive toward an expanded sense of spirituality that goes beyond the quest to fulfill or orient the self to using it as the basis of policy formation in fields like social work, education, health, psychotherapy and even business.

The second term that needs qualification is “contemporary” in the sense of contemporary art. “The contemporary” can be used to refer to the current, the present, the here-and-now. The sense in which it is used here encompasses this description but also incorporates the art historical meaning of “the contemporary” as referring to the postmodern. Historically, this delineates work from the 1960s onward but earlier work, where pertinent, will be discussed. Also addressed will be artworks that express (either directly or indirectly) spirituality or that give rise to interpretations of spirituality. In some cases, artists are motivated by particular religious traditions; in other cases, the art broadly reflects a personal or communal vision about the nature of reality. Wade Clark Roof and Robert Wuthnow discuss the prevalence of “seeker spirituality,” which describes many people’s attitudes to finding spiritual forms or ideas that resonant with them, even if these forms and ideas are from different traditions.5 This eclectic sense of gathering together ideas from different sources reflects the nonspecific nature of the spirituality identified in the artworks. What is perhaps more important than being able to identify or attribute a specific type of spirituality, if that is indeed possible, is to recognize that contemporary art provides an avenue for the spiritual.

The Separation of Art and Religion in Modernism

In Western art history prior to the 20th century, spirituality was often subsumed by religion. The relationship between art and religion was fractious; at times they were mutually reinforcing, while at others there was dissension because of the lack of unanimity about the image. The crux of the Iconoclastic controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries, and later the Protestant Reformation, was not so much a denial of the importance of imagery but, on the contrary, was about just how much power images held. The iconoclasts believed that the use of images distracted from the main goals of religious practice, and could lead to moral and religious corruption.

Before the 17th century, many leading developments in Western art were primarily in the sphere of religious art; we can observe this in the development of linear perspective in the great works of the Renaissance, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495–1498) and Masaccio’s The Holy Trinity (c. 1427).

The Enlightenment developed a critical view of institutional Christianity and its defense of miracles, the supernatural, and divine authority. In philosophical thinking, the idea that God was an a priori foundation for our belief system was also replaced by an increase in scientific knowledge that placed the onus on inquiry rather than revelation as the ground for thinking. Belief in God was affirmed in Deism, which was known as a “rational” religion. Less than a century later, Nietzsche made a more radical shift by articulating the untenability of God’s existence, epitomized in his declaration that “God is dead” in 1882. Death of God philosophies may have problematized cultural conventions but did not remove the pervasive need to express spirituality, which sprang from a presumed human need to engage with existence.

Experiences of the spiritual were sought outside of the traditional themes of Christian narratives and imagery, and were often in veiled or coded language. Counter to the prevailing notion that art since the Enlightenment did not engage with religion, there have been a number of artists, operating in different traditions and styles, such as Caspar David Friedrich, Philipp Otto Runge, William Blake, Eugène Delacroix, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and Paul Gauguin, who have attended to religious themes and often to religious commissions. The philosophical and aesthetic concept of the sublime, as revived during the 18th century by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) and Kant in his Critique of Judgment (1790), gave artists a platform for the secular translation of religious ideas in the form of new motifs that were of the natural world. “The sublime” referred to any overwhelming or awe-inducing experience, such as the encounter with nature. Although it should not be presented as a singularly secularizing trend, it can be seen in terms of a spiritual and transcendental experience. It was a reminder of the total vulnerability of humans in the face of an unpredictable nature.6 In “The Abstract Sublime” (1961),7 which was developed in Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, Robert Rosenblum argues for a counter-French tradition in modern art that traces a history of the sublime in the “Northern Romantic Tradition,” from Friedrich in the 19th century to Mark Rothko.8

Throughout most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, concerns pertaining to religion were marginalized in art history; the coded religiosity of Romanticism gave way to Realism, which focused on physical here-and-now reality rather than the underlying mysteries of the universe. There were exceptions, though, in the work of particular individuals, such as Vincent Van Gogh, who probed the depths of materiality in his depictions of the natural world. The aesthetic sensibility of modernism brought about further tension between art and religion. As expounded by critics such as Clement Greenberg,9 modernism extolled formalist values—purity, autonomy—and purged the artwork of external reference. Meaning was gleaned not by any reference to the external world but by examining the formal relationships in the artwork, which were self-referential. This aesthetic was seen in abstraction, a form practiced by many artists who were interested in devising a language that went beyond the particular to the universal. Although the strident aestheticism of modernism was antithetical to interpretations that went beyond those contained in the artwork, there were a number of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt whose work utilized formal motifs as a vehicle to express their spiritual outlooks.

Key written works, particularly Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) and Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (1912), defended abstract art and revealed how non-objective forms could evoke the inexpressible through engagement with its formal qualities. In his 1911 work, Kandinsky emphasized his staunch belief in the redemptive qualities of the spiritual. He envisioned the Kingdom of God as an artistic domain that could be accessed by the artist-as-prophet, who was able to traverse “[t]he nightmare of materialism”10 to attain spiritual utopia through art. Abstract art provided the necessary means to do this, and the belief presented was that “[t]he more abstract [its] form, the more clear and direct is its appeal.”11

It is possible to discuss the work of the aforementioned artists with reference only to the aesthetic trajectory of the erasure of figuration and the concomitant progression of abstraction and minimalism, where the ultimate goal involved the emptiness (or emptying out) of form, as apotheosized in Reinhardt’s Black Square (1963). However, such interpretations are incomplete without discussion of the role of the spiritual, which is integral to the symbolization of formal elements. Abstraction gave viewers an experience of transcendence, what is beyond the empirical. In theosophical terms, which was the tradition by which many of these artists were inspired,12 the relationship of formal elements was construed as a relationship of contraries—between one and the many, between the vertical and the horizontal, and between materialism and spirituality—and the ultimate goal involved revealing or unveiling spiritual essences that lie behind the everyday world. Abstraction requires contemplation to reveal its meaning.

An artist who warrants special mention for his exploration of spirituality in the 20th century and the aftermath of the Holocaust is Anselm Kiefer. Kiefer took it upon himself to face the aesthetic and ethical predicament of how to create in the face of the atrocity of Auschwitz, and responded by encountering directly the symbols of fascist terror. His quest was motivated by his identity; as a German born shortly before the end of World War II in 1945, he inherited a particular historical legacy to which he felt called to respond. In his version of history painting, he used the forms of Nazism, such as architectural structures reminiscent of the edifices of Albert Speer and related sources such as Wagnerian opera and Norse myth, to negotiate between the past and present, the private and political. A leading exponent of Neo-Expressionism, Kiefer uses characteristically large canvases heavily textured in sombre tones of brown and grey, and incorporates materials such as straw, ash, and even blood mixed in with paint. This layered, raw, and visceral surface of cauterized paint and debris reflects the density and tragedy of his message and departs from the German Romantic idealized notion of the land. Interior (1981) is a stark reminder of the Nazi regime and represents a room in the New Reich Chancellery. Although it was destroyed immediately after the end of the war, Kiefer works through the symbolic memory by depicting the moment of ruination.

Aside from his chief preoccupation with German history and culture, Kiefer also had a broader interest in ancient belief systems and religious mythology, which he explored repeatedly, and symbolically. As is characteristic of his work, particular references take on epic proportions. One of his most powerful works, Zim Zum (1990), which takes its reference from the Kabbalah and refers to the contraction that must occur (zimzum) so that creation can take place, is depicted at once by this simultaneous sense of emergence and withdrawal. A more recent work, Palmsonntag (2006), features a palm tree and a number of panels of mixed media (in lead frames under glass) and refers to the Christian holy day symbolizing the relationship between death and resurrection.

Kiefer’s elegiac work probes the manifold challenges of representing the unrepresentable, of finding redemption in tragedy, which denotes a different type of sublime. An overriding theme in his paintings is the coming together of creativity and destruction, where creation is bound up with devastation and the trauma of history.

Recovering the Spiritual

In contemporary culture, the relationship between art and religion can be reconfigured in terms of art and spirituality, where the latter may encompass religion. This resonates with a more contemporary and global perspective and is a way of recasting the hostility that art has to religion, as evidenced in the 2010 issue of the contemporary art magazine Frieze on “Religion and Spirituality.” Dan Fox explains the resistance to the descriptor of “religious” in reviews of contemporary exhibitions and accompanying press releases in favor of “words such as ‘spiritual,’ ‘transcendent,’ ‘meditative,’ and ‘sublime,’ which gives the false perception that “it is OK for artists to be ‘spiritual’ in some vague, New Agey sort of way, but not ‘religious’—as if being ‘spiritual’ is somehow free of ideological baggage.”13 The rekindling of interest in art and spirituality has been reflected in internationally renowned exhibitions, including Maurice Tuchman’s touring The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 198614; Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1996; and Traces du Sacré, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2008.

Various scholars have propounded the idea of spirituality as an alternative to institutionalized religion, thereby challenging the idea of secularization. In The Reenchantment of Art (1991), Suzi Gablik responds to her previous study Has Modernism Failed? (1984) by setting out her vision of an art that is ecologically empowered, community focused, and rooted in a sense of the power of mythology, and she uses the example of artists who extol such ideals. She bemoans that “[w]e live in a culture that has little capacity or appreciation for meaningful ritual”15 but believes in the power of art to restore sacrality in a disenchanted world. Robert Wuthnow’s Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist (2003)16 looks to artists (from the visual arts and other creative disciplines) as the vanguard for spirituality in a secular age when the American public is, according to the author, becoming more skeptical about the offerings of traditional religion. Delving into their personal struggles, the artists interviewed explored avenues for hope in their creative practices. James Elkins sets out the hostility between religion and art in On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (1994) where he comments on the suspiciousness that each side exhibits about the other; on the one hand, theologians do not want to have anything to do with contemporary art, while on the other, the art that is produced in churches is of no interest to the art world.17 He uses examples of his students’ work to demonstrate that spirituality is indeed alive and active in art schools, even if there is resistance to engage with it. James Elkins and David Morgan’s Re-Enchantment (2008) documents the disjuncture in the relationship of art and religion and/or spirituality and deliberately resists homogenizing the responses into a single account.18

In the other camp are scholars of religion or theology who have advanced the study of art and spirituality. In 1910, Max Weber argued that art becomes an alternative to religion: “Art takes over the function of a this-wordly salvation, no matter how this may be interpreted. It provides a salvation from the routines of everyday life, and especially from the increasing pressures of theoretical and practical rationalism.”19 Paul Tillich’s theology of culture defends the importance of art. Following his experiences on the front line in World War I, Tillich believed in the revelatory power of art to disclose ultimate reality. In a lecture delivered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1959, he “came to the conclusion that an apple of Cézanne has more presence of ultimate reality than a picture of Jesus by Hoffmann (which can now be found in the Riverside Church of this city).”20 More recently, the cultural theorist Mark C. Taylor has examined what he considers are the deep-rooted but little explored connections between art from the 20th century onward and religion in his postmodern a/theology that explores the relationship between opposites. In Refiguring the Spiritual (2011), Taylor argues how “the commodification, corporatization, and financialization of art represent a betrayal of principles and values that guided artists for more than two centuries,” and he singles out four artists for consideration who have defied this approach, and whose work can be seen as embodying spiritual values.21

There are also church members who extolled the importance of the arts as part of their mission. In France, the Dominican friar Marie-Alain Couturier was an influential figure who played a groundbreaking role in the revival of 20th-century church decoration, which, he argued, had become outdated and sentimentalized. He called on the church to enlist the ideas of contemporary artists regardless of their religious persuasion, in the belief that it is better to offer commissions to geniuses without faith than employ believers without talent. This unprecedented move of placing artistic expression above religious affiliation led to a stream of commissions to well-known modernist artists, such as Germaine Richier, Henri Matisse, and Marc Chagall, to make art for religious spaces at, amongst others, the Church of Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce du Plateau d’Assy. A fellow pioneer active at the same time was Walter Hussey, an Anglican patron of the arts at St. Matthew’s Northampton and Chichester Cathedral, who commissioned a number of artworks (including musical compositions) by such artists as Graham Sutherland, Marc Chagall, Benjamin Britten and John Piper.

Another way out of the “impasse” between religion and art, as Elkins calls it, is to consider the methodological solutions offered by “religious visual culture,” which was an approach inaugurated in the 1990s by American scholars who were working at the intersection between the two fields, such as David Morgan, S. Brent Plate, Sally Promey, and Colleen McDanell.22 Religious visual culture looks at the study of religions and its relationship to images and objects. It differs from art history’s preoccupation with iconography and style in favor of an engagement with images and objects as visual practice. While art history’s remit is about showing how images (from high art) reflected, reinterpreted, or critiqued textually-based and often biblically-based readings, religious visual culture is about making religious studies by showing how images and objects operate in meaning-making. This involves thinking about the different ritualized practices that the images and objects are employed in, including liturgy, meditation, and other forms of instruction that they occupy in people’s lives.

Although primarily seeking to expand the horizons of the study of religion, religious visual culture—in its focus on the interplay between objects (such as artworks), spaces, and the viewers who interact with them—parallels the approach of viewing contemporary art as evoking spirituality. In the artworks that will be discussed, thoughts and feelings that give rise to the spiritual are determined by the dynamic between the viewer’s interaction with the objects in the allotted space, which may involve walking around and through the spaces made available by the work, and his or her interacting with it in other ways.23 Religious visual culture endorses the democratization of objects and imagery that dispenses with the sharp hierarchy in the history of art between high and low, or mass, art. Virtually all contemporary artists make art about life, involving everyday subjects and materials. That is not to say that the contemporary art world is not without hierarchies; it is just that images and objects are not subject to the same categorization that they were in former centuries. Indeed, there are popular devotional images, such as Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ (1940), that have enjoyed much commercial success as “sacred” images but which would not be taken seriously in the art world.24

Refiguring the Spiritual in Contemporary Art

The sheer range of artworks that can be described as “spiritual” conveys the numerous possibilities that are open to artists in the current day as a result of fewer prescriptions or expectations about what forms spiritual art should take. The situation was very different for artists before modernism, as they were bound by the particularities of iconography and the proposed setting, and were sometimes obliged to work in the service of the Church. In the present day, artists are at liberty to combine genres, materials, and forms and to represent a range of global subjects, some of which refer directly to societal issues, whereas others are more universal and timeless. Themes of interest include the War on Terror, the fragility of the body, consumerism, and human rights. Some artists explicitly use ideas and symbols from religious or mythological traditions in the expression of their ideas; others have a more “pick-and-mix” approach to spirituality, where aspects from different traditions, including private beliefs, are amalgamated. It is far from necessarily the case that the most meaningful spiritual reflection is found in explicitly religious art.

Most contemporary artists are drawn to secular sources—ordinary objects, motifs, symbols and metaphors—but in the encounter with them, transformation occurs. The video artist Bill Viola frequently uses everyday people, including himself, in his installations and performances, and takes the viewer to an experience beyond the mundane, which conveys the power that art has of transporting the viewer to extraordinary states. Graham Howes argues for the non-specific (amorphous and generic) nature of spirituality expressed in contemporary art, claiming that

today’s artists are—unlike Grünewald—far more likely to disclose the broadly numinous rather than the explicitly incarnational, and are far more likely to offer generalised religious experience rather than Christian revelation. In doing so they, like Rothko and other abstract expressionists before them, move religious art beyond its traditionally didactic and narrative intentions towards the primarily experiential.25

In contemporary culture, when viewers talk about experiencing art as spiritual they are rarely picking out a particular tradition and are just responding to the encounter with the art, in its imagery and formal qualities, and what this has opened up in them. The art often involves threshold states of encounter and experience, such as the feeling incurred by the sublime, or it may entail the setting apart of an object that is sacralized in the ritual of art. When viewers perceive art that brings about these feelings, it is often difficult to put into words how or what they are feeling, and they often resort to emotional language or analogy to describe their responses. Such emotional states prompt reflections of a spiritual nature. When viewers talk about experiences of a spiritual kind, they are implying that there is a temporary alteration in their psychological state that involves the setting apart of that moment from the mundane, a making sacred.

In “Contemplating the Spiritual in the Visual Arts” (2011), Rina Arya discusses two imperatives that need to be considered in mapping out a paradigm for spirituality—the relevance of context and receptivity.26 The placement and environment of the artwork affects the way we read it; the lighting, interspatial relations, and role of the viewer are determining factors in the production of meaning. A shift of context may alter the reading of a work. The receptivity indicates the degree of openness, the extent to which the viewer is amenable to being moved emotionally and otherwise by the artwork. Receptivity usually entails the willingness to sacrifice time, to harness concentration, and to allow the artwork to be. A lack of openness to the particular artwork, or indeed art in general, will not be conducive to spiritual feelings.

A final factor that needs to be addressed concerns the artists’ intentions. In many artworks that are described as eliciting spiritual experiences, we cannot assume that the artist intended it to be so. This does not devalue the experience but demonstrates the often personal and subjective nature of viewing, as well as the different ways of engaging with the spiritual.

New Media and Spirituality

Since the late 20th century, artists have used a range of new media, where the latter refers to new types of media as well as the technical term “New Media.” New types of media refer to art forms that go beyond the traditional forms of painting and sculpture. These include installation art, where the art is made for a particular location (site- specific, or site-sensitive), often on a temporary basis; it characterized by an inventive use of space and an internal dialogue among the objects in the space. Performance art, as the name suggests, involves the artist as performer making the work, often through interaction with an audience and using his or her body as the platform of creativity. New Media is an umbrella term that refers to changes in electronic communication that have taken place since the arrival of digital technology in the 1980s such as video and computer art.

The forms described here invite different and more intimate types of interaction than those of traditional media and revive the sublime in a technological medium. The passive viewing of a painting on a wall or a sculpture on a plinth is replaced by active participation in a multisensory domain that entails much more than viewing and involves walking around, through and sometimes into the art work itself. It is impossible to perceive the work in a single instance of time, and continued interaction is required in order to understand the work. Contrary to the misconception that technology distances people from their bodies, digital multimedia often heightens the sense of the phenomenological or the embodied. Spirituality is felt rather than simply understood.

Viewers have to sacrifice more in accessing the art, including giving up time, negotiating the artwork (which may involve following instructions), interacting with artists, and placing themselves at risk. This transaction closes the gap between the viewer and the artwork as the former becomes immersed in the art and implicated in the meaning of the work. In many instances, the work necessitates the willing interaction of the viewer, who becomes a participant, sometimes collectively, in the making of meaning through ritualized action. The interaction with the artwork also involves the potential for a transformation of our perception of mundane reality. Risk is involved because the “safety” of the frame or plinth is withheld and the viewer is placed in a more immediate and individualized relation with the artist and artwork, and has to be receptive to their supra-intellectual demands. Another factor that needs to be taken into consideration is context. Spiritual experiences are no longer confined to religious buildings but can be found in a variety of secular spaces—the museum, art gallery, nature park—on a temporary or long-term basis. This involves the expansion of context where art works are exhibited, as well as the blurring of boundaries between the sacred and the secular.

What follows is an exploration of examples from different media in turn, focusing on key artists who are associated with the form, while conveying how the context and reception give rise to a spiritual experience. This signals a conceptual and interpretative shift away from an exclusive focus on content and imagery, which defined the approach taken to art before the 20th century, and to the experiential and immersive dimensions that make different demands on the viewer and participant. The art itself and the conditions of production, circulation, and reception change so fundamentally that they sharply distinguish the work from earlier art.

Installation Art

Anthony Gormley’s work is about the ontological relationship between the human and its environment. He places his body casts, based on a human body, often his own, in various places, usually outdoors. This represents a departure from Land Art in the 1960s and 1970s, which was chiefly about using nature as the tools and backdrop for art. Here, Gormley chooses the urban environment to present his figures. Usually placed on their own, in unexpected placements—on the top of a building, or overlooking the A1 motorway in Gateshead (which is where Angel of the North [1998] is placed)—the figures make people stop in their tracks. Coming across the work prompts shock because, at a distance, some of his figures look like potential suicide victims. In Another Place (1997), a hundred cast-iron figures face out to sea on Crosby Beach, near Liverpool. Tidal changes create the impression of people walking into the sea.

In 1994, Gormley was awarded the Turner Prize for Field, a series of 35,000 handmade clay figures placed in a gallery space, which when viewed at a distance filled the space. There were a number of versions of Field, with each being the result of a collaboration with select communities, where each figure was made by an individual whose unique molding determined the form of the figure. On one reading, the communal act of contributing to something that was greater than the self was in itself a spiritual act. As with Gormley’s philosophy, each figure, whether life-size or miniature, was an allegory for the human race. Even though the artist used his own body as the mold for each cast, the finished figures were impersonal, which facilitated identification with them. This existentialist projection occurs in Event Horizon, a multipart installation that was first shown in London in 2007. The work consists of thirty-one life-size male bodies that were placed on top of well-known buildings along London’s South Bank. Three years later, the figures were moved to New York City, and in 2012 they moved to São Paulo. This bleak metaphor of spiritual emptiness in the city signaled a global crisis in personal identity. The locations change, but the people remain in similar states of isolation and despair.

James Turrell’s artwork is about light, but rather than representing light, his work is light. Typical installations consist of site-specific spaces that have been flooded by light. Turrell takes an element that is central not only to art but also to viewing and perception and turns it into his subject. When a viewer enters one of his spaces, there is no object or focus, and that is precisely the point; we become focused on the act of looking itself, and sight becomes a form of touch. Many works introduce illusory surfaces and shadows as Turrell manipulates the emission of light through partitioned shafts, but they all instill a sense of contemplation and meditation. This is facilitated by seating that invites relaxation and absorption, for this is not art that can be passed over but requires time.

In 1977, Turrell purchased the Roden Crater, an extinct volcano located near Flagstaff, Arizona, to undertake a monumental project that is ongoing and involves the shaping of chambers and apertures, both on the surface of the crater and internally. The intention is to capture the changing lighting conditions as day passes into night. In making this artwork, he was returning to his roots as a Land and Space artist of Southern California of the mid-1960s. Land artists were preoccupied with the wonderment of nature and used the natural environment in the generation of their work. By shaping the crater to maximize its capacity as a receptacle of light, Turrell is opening his work up to the forces of nature and setting up this disused site as an observatory of light for visitors.

Performance Art

Performance artists of the 1960s and 1970s started using their bodies (both the outer and inner) as a medium of expression. The artist’s body was disclosed as valid art material, or a vehicle, in its own right, and became the tool of experimentation for artists to explore philosophical and political notions about identity (including gender and sexuality) and community, and by which they could question strictures imposed on art and society. Extreme actions (including piercing, cutting, ingesting, and expelling) were employed to push the body and mind to their limits, liberating the self from pain.

The artists—Gina Pane, Chris Burden, Franko B., and Ron Athey—adopted different roles that depended on their personal motivations, casting themselves in the role of sacrificial victims, and invited preselected assistants or audience members to mutilate their bodies for the purposes of collective ritual.27 The ritualized pain undergone by the artist had a cathartic and “purifying” effect, a comment made by RoseLee Goldberg, who added that these actions were necessary “in order to reach an anaesthetized society.”28 By subjecting themselves to situations that ranged from the uncomfortable to the downright dangerous, performance artists opened their bodies up to a spirituality of embodiment whereby wounding becomes a way of knowing and feeling and connecting to others. The 1960s group, the Viennese Actionists, were influenced by pagan and early Christian rites, and staged spectacles that involved ritualized sacrifice and torture in order to attain abreaction and catharsis. In Orgies Mysteries Theatre (OMT), one of the actionists, Hermann Nitsch, carried out sacrificial rites using dead animals and humans. Doused in blood and eviscerated, the mimetic violence was reminiscent of the Dionysian rites of the bacchanal.

Violence is enacted on the body of the artist in Marina Abramović’s Rhythm O (1974), but the perpetrators this time are the audience as participants, who are issued an instruction: “There are seventy-two objects on the table that can be used on me as desired. I am the object.”29 Abramović, who remains silent, stands by the table and passively offers herself to viewers, who are permitted to objectify her body using both innocuous and more dangerous weapons—a saw, a gun with ammunition, and knives. Each performance lasted for six hours, and by the end “all the clothes had been sliced off her body with razor blades, she had been cut, painted, cleaned, decorated, and crowned with thorns and had had the loaded gun pressed against her head.”30 In this series of defilations, Abramović was rendered abject and set apart like the impure sacred. The audience, too, was rendered abject—morally abject—by their complicity in their objectifying and dehumanizing actions.

Witnessing violence without intervening has moral implications, and so all audience members were complicit even if they did not directly bring about harm. This work tests boundaries: the boundaries between the individual and the group, the boundaries of the artist’s body, and the boundary that determines what is permissible and morally acceptable. Abramović maintains the integrity of at least two concepts that are unreservedly spiritual. The first is to push the physical and psychological limits of tolerance, both in herself and also indirectly in others, and secondly, in doing so to create a heightened awareness of being in the present, and in the here-and-now. This work functions, like her many others, as a spiritual exercise that seeks to recenter the self in interaction with its external environment.

Video Art

Bill Viola is an American video artist who employs electronic sound and image technology to create an extensive range of works, such as videotapes, architectonic video installations, and flat-panel video pieces. He studied at Syracuse University in the early 1970s and has had a central role in establishing the contemporaneity of video art and in expanding its possibilities through his innovative explorations of content and form. Viola’s works are meditations on the human condition and are concerned with embodiment, suffering and existential anxieties. Often featured on their own, his figures operate as the Everyman that stands in for the viewer.

Viola’s approach to spiritual traditions was syncretic and he was influenced by different religions, including Zen Buddhism and mysticism (from St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, and Islamic Sufism). In spite of the explicitly Christian nature of his titles, Viola did not intend his work to be interpreted religiously in the sense of belonging to a particular religious practice, but instead he used religious ideas evocatively to channel spiritual feelings and the experience of the sublime. His work, like many examples of installation art, constitutes a totalizing environment that involves more than the simple interaction of what is projected or screened; engagement is about the total environment between the viewer and objects in space.31 This dynamic facilitates spiritual exercises whereby constant and continuous engagement with the visuals and sounds leads to a deeper understanding of life, and where sense perception becomes a route to self-knowledge.

He weeps for you (1976) demonstrates this synchronicity of the viewer, the objects, and the spatio-temporal projection. A drop of water emerges from a small brass spigot. As the drop emerges, it is magnified by a video camera and projected onto a large screen. The close-up image reveals that the viewer and part of the room where he or she stands are visible inside each forming drop. The viewer sees each drop expand, and as it falls, it lands on an amplified drum. A new drop immediately begins forming and the cycle continues in infinite repetition. A simple act like this generates a cycle of meaning that opens up a space of contemplation where the repetition of the action of a drop forming becomes connected with a representation of the viewer.

Viola’s work demonstrates an important point about how technology can be used in order to enhance and not detract from spiritual meaning, raising the issue that the transience of technological innovation has the potential to engage with enduring spiritual themes and does not depart from them.

Space of Exiles: Spirituality as Identity

The artists and artworks discussed so far have been predominantly from Western traditions, but it is important to consider how artists from different cultural and religious backgrounds construe spirituality in their practices. Shirin Neshat and Shirazeh Houshiary are from Iran but have both set up home in the West. Art fulfills a critical role for both women, as a means of processing feelings of disenfranchisement and dislocation and as providing powerful images of cultural identity and transformation.

Shirin Neshat’s black-and-white photography and multimedia art responds to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Using her own image as a template, she exposes the complexity of identity for a woman who is subjugated by the political regime in which she finds herself, and in addition faces the cultural objectification of women from the West. In the series Women of Allah (1993–1997), the chador (the Iranian veil) is used simultaneously to frame and veil the subject and prevent her image from being fixed. The traditionally religious symbols of the veil and Islamic calligraphy are used to embolden the image of the revolutionary woman who asserts her power against perpetrators who want to silence and exoticize her. The Farsi writing on her skin—face, torso, hands, and feet—serves not as decoration but to mark the body as a politicized surface.

Neshat had left Iran by the time of the revolution when she began her art education in the United States, but she was moved by the plight of her homeland after a visit in 1990, in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, which reinforced her ongoing quest for women’s liberation. Neshat seeks to liberate the female body from both Western stereotypes and the fundamentalist Islamic state of Iran. The Islamic veil, so often misappropriated as a symbol of oppression and otherness, now represents militancy, particularly in the case of politically strident secular women in the revolution who opposed the Shah’s rule. This symbol is strengthened by the presence of another stock symbol, a gun. In her emboldened stance, Neshat invites viewers to question the contemporary identity of a Muslim woman, acting as documenter, performer, and witness. Although resident and established as an artist in the United States, she is still operating in a postexilic state and seeks a homeland, poignantly symbolized by the tooba, a sacred tree mentioned in the Qur’an, which offers comfort to those in need and is featured in her 2002 two-screen video installation of the same name.

Having worked through the layers of meaning, we reach an impasse in that we are confronted by a woman who is both veiled and unveiled, pious and strident. Unveiling (1993) is especially problematic as it draws attention to her beauty. The chador is open and cloaks her body like a mantel of luscious black hair. It parts to expose a strip of bare flesh, the tactility of which is reinforced by the loose script that adorns the surface. In her oeuvre, Neshat has expanded the significance of the veil in the variety of ways it shapes meaning. Another shift in meaning is the realization that this Islamic calligraphy does not articulate holy scripture but is, instead, contemporary Iranian women’s poetry about the role of women in the revolution. The meeting of opposites, central to Neshat’s work, conveys the complexity of identity in a global world.

Shirazeh Houshiary moved to England from Iran in 1973, shortly after which she commenced her art training at (what was then called) Chelsea School of Art. Unlike Neshat, who took a figurative stance, Houshiary draws on abstraction vis-à-vis Sufi mysticism, among other influences, to express her metaphysical understanding of reality, which she does with a variety of means. Her overarching concern is about the physical instantiation of the spiritual, which is played out in a relationship of opposites, in particular between unity and multiplicity, presence and absence, form and formless, and the tangible and intangible. Breath (2004) attempted to literalize the presence of religious chants from different religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—both visibly and audibly. Inside a white brick tower constructed in Manhattan, four video screens visualized the imprint of the breath of the chant. These sounds were projected for all to hear outside the tower.

The dynamic of making visible is expressed in Houshiary’s abstract paintings, which are often given titles that evoke the multisensory, such as Touch and Presence. The motif of the veil is also recurrent, and although it resonates with her cultural heritage, she uses the reference in an expanded sense to signify a barrier or membrane between different states and to make the viewer think about perception. In its outward appearance, Veil (1999) shares similarities with the black paintings of the modernists, but on close-up, the textured surface of the graphite markings of Arabic writing, combined with layers of pigment, covers the black ground and adds a whole new level of complexity.

Houshiary’s most celebrated work (in partnership with Pip Horne) is her commission for the East Window of St. Martin in the Fields, London, which is of a cross being formed around a circular motif as a result of the warping of the metal framework. Perhaps the most striking point about this artwork is the fact that an Iranian female artist of Muslim descent was selected to make work for this historic church, which signals a shift in the attitudes of the Anglican Church.

The work of Neshat and Houshiary represents a snapshot of the many voices of postcolonialism: of artists who reflect on their displacement to explore the different threads of their political and cultural identity. This coincides with developments in the art markets in the Middle East and Asia that started in the early 1990s with the United Arab Emirates Biennale and various national art fairs.

Contemporary Art in Religious Spaces

Today in certain parts of the Western world, the Church (the Protestant Church, in particular) has become viewed as a cultural space for exchange and dialogue, and part of this identity entails accommodating artworks on a temporary or permanent basis via a program of commissioning. Works are not necessarily commissioned to reflect Christian theology or to support the liturgy; they might indeed offer a critique of or challenge to Christian values, but the intention is to respond sensitively to the space in which the work will be contained, and to encourage spiritual reflection, even if this is not always in connection to religion. The placement of artworks in these settings is not unproblematic. For churchgoers, it may be seen to enhance lived worship, or viewed as a distraction or intrusion. The presence of contemporary artworks might attract a different demographic, including non-churchgoers, into spaces they would not normally visit. In general terms, contemporary artworks that do something other than reflecting ecclesial truths expand the parameters of the sociocultural function of churches and cathedrals.

Alison Watt’s Still (2004) is a four-paneled, twelve-foot-square painting that was made in response to the surroundings of the Memorial Chapel that is located in Old St. Paul’s Church, Edinburgh. Suspended above the altar, the work depicts folds of cloth that are separated from the wearer. The fabric simultaneously denotes the absence of the physical body and yet indicates the traces of the wearer through the palpable forms made and the hints of flesh tones that are suggestive of human form. Inspired by the use of drapery in Jean‑Auguste‑Dominique Ingres’s painting Madame Moitessier (1856), fabric has been an ongoing concern in Watt’s work, and the apparitional nature of her paintings of fabric invites contemplation of a spiritual nature; the placement of Still in a chapel facilitates these intuitions.

An example of a shift of placement creating different meanings is Tracey Emin’s installation in Liverpool Cathedral. For You (2008) was commissioned by the cathedral chapter and was exhibited as part of the 2008 European Capital of Culture Year. It is a pink neon sign comprised of the words “I felt you and I knew you loved me” written in Emin’s handwriting and placed just under the west window.32 The artist’s rationale was that she wanted people to contemplate and share their feelings of love—for each other, for God—an exercise that she thought was rarely done due to people’s tendencies to internalize love. Her message, which can be read on different levels, is integral to the Christian ethos of agape, but also encompasses more universal and humanitarian sentiments. However, outside the parameters of the cathedral, the wording, replete with its gaudy presentation, may have different and inappropriate connotations.

The power of Still and For You has been internationally recognized, not simply by art organizations but also by bodies that support the religion–art dialogue, in particular Art and Christian Enquiry (ACE), where both artworks were the recipients of the award for art in a religious context, in 2005 and 2009, respectively.33 The receptivity to art shown by Christian places of worship and its related organizations reveals that greater attempts for rapprochement are shown by the Church and willing artists, rather than by the contemporary art world.

Transgressive “Religious” Art

Having relatively fewer constraints than artists in earlier centuries, and hence greater autonomy, contemporary artists have sometimes exploited religious symbols in ways that go against their traditional role to support faith, and are used instead ironically or blasphemously, in order, alternately, to critique and to provoke. Both inside and outside the contemporary art world, iconic images of Christ are summoned because of the degree of familiarity and connotations they represent.

Sarah Lucas’s tongue-in-cheek Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy (2003) uses the figure of Christ, composed of cigarette butts, to provoke humor in what resembles an advertising slogan. A number of isolated cases of controversial artworks, however, go beyond irony and cause outcry. These are transgressive because they cross the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable to religious groups and lead to ramifications that include their banning or destruction. The sensationalist examples of transgression by Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore, known as Gilbert and George, particularly in their 2005 show Sonofagod Pictures: Was Jesus Heterosexual at the White Cube (London), took an openly provocative stance, but there are other works that are carefully nuanced and, when looked at in the round, convey the complexity of religious expression. Frank Burch Brown’s claim that “[t]he art that has the greatest religious significance is not necessarily the art of institutional religion but rather that art which happens to discern what religion in its institutional or personal forms needs most to see” is prescient34

In the 1990s, a number of “religious” works became the site of controversy in the Culture Wars. In 1999, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was outraged at the public display of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) because of what he deemed to be the unacceptable use of cutouts of female genitalia that surrounded the main image of the Virgin, and also the further fact that the Virgin’s right breast had been fashioned out of elephant dung. He regarded this as being disrespectful to the holiness of the subject and unsuccessfully attempted to have it banned when the Sensation exhibition moved to the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. From another point of view, it could be argued that by showing graphic cutouts of images that we would not conventionally place next to the Blessed Virgin, Ofili is actually reinforcing her sanctity and virginity.35 A similar analysis can be leveled at Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987), which, too, has courted controversy. The work consists of a photograph of a plastic crucifix that is immersed in a container of urine. Turning the charges of offense around, Serrano can be seen to be literalizing the Eucharist and adding urine to the list of bodily substances that that the Eucharist symbolizes. Far from being blasphemous, he is underscoring the corporeality that is at the center of Catholic tradition.36 S. Brent Plate makes this point in his “religious visual culture” approach, which is differentiated from what could be described as the more art historical “analysis of the image itself” and involves “a complex of issues” that takes into account “the importance of cross-cultural meanings and interpretations.”37

A number of artists use religious images in ways that cause offense for the sole purpose of debunking religious tradition and flouting propriety. Francis Bacon is a special case. In his career he used more than fifty images of crucifixions and popes, which were evidenced in the titles of works and symbols. He was vehemently atheistic, and commentators have often closed down discussions of religion in his work. Rina Arya’s Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless World (2012) interrogates his use of these images by examining the significance that these symbols held for Bacon.38 The frequency, prolonged use, and the fervor of his nonreligious expression cannot easily be explained away. It is too simplistic to assert that Bacon was denigrating religious symbols in a manner akin to Gilbert and George. He may have been atheistic, even antireligious, in his pronouncements, but his work involves much more than transgression. One plausible reading is that Bacon was commenting on a Godless world that had just experienced the atrocities of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, where the crucifixion indicates the violence of humanity and the pope languishes in a world in which he is redundant. The symbols of the Christian faith are mere mythological symbols of a belief system that is no longer tenable. Arya argues that by returning to the same stock of images, he was underscoring his militant atheism, as well as making the point that Christian symbols are still able to fire the imagination. The paradox is that by taking the viewer back to the crucifixion and pope, albeit in an idiosyncratic way, he was emphasizing the theological significance of the crucifixion and the uniqueness of the pope. In his denigration of the symbol, he was paradoxically reinforcing its meaning, if only as a fiction—he believes in the power of the symbol, but not in the symbol itself. Bacon was documenting the spiritual malaise of a humanity that has been made level with the animal in the absence of God.

In Bacon’s work, then, we are exposed to religious bankruptcy and, in an unusual way, through the vehicles that in Christianity are meant to give rise to a profound feeling of wholeness. The lack of religious meaning does not preclude a spiritual reading of Bacon’s work, though; his work is deeply spiritual as it is about themes that are central to human life, including embodiment, isolation, and mortality. His vision also anticipates post-Christian and post-secular attitudes to God and religiosity, and gives a foretaste of the spiritual tenor of contemporary art.

Concluding Remarks on Spirituality and Contemporary Art

The artworks under discussion here detail the scope and breadth of art that can be described as spiritual by virtue of its revelatory, revitalizing and contemplative capacities. This communicates the significance that art holds in the contemporary world. Rather than interrogating the relationship between art and religion, more pertinent questions in the contemporary age are: What is the nature of the dialogue between art and spirituality, how do the two come together, and what is the form the meeting takes?

The range of multimedia brings novel forms of encounter occurring outside in the gallery and other spaces involving audiovisual and other means of articulating the spiritual. These new forms, as typified in installation art, create greater intimacy (often through immersion), both physically and psychologically, which heightens the impact they have on us. Most of the artworks introduced here are not paintings on walls or sculptures on plinths that are kept at a “safe” distance from us but are, rather, objects that we have to negotiate our way around, that intrude, often testing our equanimity, resulting in an outpouring of emotion.

One of the consequences of having greater intimacy through interaction or immersion can be a heightened awareness that increases presentness and a sense of embodiment. Although firsthand viewing of artworks is preferred to representational documentation of any kind, in the context of contemporary art it is often essential for understanding and appreciating the spiritual aspects. In the examples discussed, perceptual knowledge cannot be relayed secondhand, and the viewer has to interact with the artwork in various ways before understanding can be achieved. The alignment with the here-and-now that contemporary art brings about is part of the “mantra” of mindfulness, and opens up spiritual reflection on identity and meaning. The upset created is not necessarily distressing and may provide a welcome release and relief at one’s being able to stop and be still. These musings take on a personal form, which means that there are potentially as many interpretations of spirituality as there are viewers, which is unproblematic and demonstrates the malleability of spirituality.

What can be agreed on is the growing importance of, and need for, spirituality in contemporary society. In an ever-changing world, spiritual artwork provides the space and opportunity for contemplation and reflection.

Further Reading

  • Arya, Rina. Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless World. Farnham, U.K.: Lund Humphries, 2012.
  • Elkins, James. On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • Francis, Richard. Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Life. Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996.
  • Gablik, Suzi. The Reenchantment of Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991.
  • Howes, Graham. The Art of the Sacred: An Introduction to the Aesthetics of Art and Belief. London: I. B. Tauris, 2007.
  • Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Translated by Michael T. H. Sadler. New York: Dover, 1977.
  • Lipsey, Roger. An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art. Boston: Shambhala, 1988.
  • Morgan, David. Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  • Plate, S. Brent, ed. Religion, Art, and Visual Culture: A Cross-Cultural Reader. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
  • Rosen, A. Art and Religion in the 21st Century. London: Thames and Hudson, 2015.
  • Taylor, Mark C. Disfiguring: Art, Architecture and Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  • Taylor, Mark C. Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
  • Tuchman, Maurice, ed. The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985 Exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1986.


  • 1. See Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005).

  • 2. Philip Sheldrake, A Brief History of Spirituality (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007), 1–2.

  • 3. Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1993), 16–17, in Sheldrake, A Brief History of Spirituality, pp. 1–2.

  • 4. Sheldrake, A Brief History, p. 2.

  • 5. See Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), where the term “seeker spirituality” is used. See also Wade Clark Roof, with the assistance of Bruce Greer, A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993); and Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), for a development of these ideas.

  • 6. The sublime was similar to the concept of the numinous that was presented by Rudolf Otto in The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational (London: John W. Harvey), originally published in 1917 and translated into English in 1923.

  • 7. Robert Rosenblum, “The Abstract Sublime,” Art News 59 (1961): 38–41.

  • 8. Robert Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978).

  • 9. See Greenberg’s essay “Modernist Painting,” in Art in Theory 1900–1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 754–760 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).

  • 10. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, translated by Michael T. H. Sadler (New York: Dover, 1977), 2.

  • 11. Ibid., p. 32.

  • 12. Theosophy was a system of metaphysical thought developed by the Theosophical Society, founded in New York in 1875, that promoted the mixture of Western and Eastern traditions.

  • 13. Dan Fox, “Believe It or Not: Religion versus Spirituality in Contemporary Art,” in Frieze. Religion & Spirituality 135 (November–December 2010): 15.

  • 14. Tuchman’s curatorial thesis was to provide a radical rethinking of abstraction in the works of artists who had been marginalized by the hard-edge abstraction of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich etc. (who had been favored by formalist art critics like Clement Greenberg).

  • 15. Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991), 2.

  • 16. Robert Wuthnow, Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001).

  • 17. James Elkins, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (New York: Routledge, 2004), 15–20.

  • 18. James Elkins and David Morgan, Re-Enchantment (New York: Routledge, 2008).

  • 19. Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. and trans. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, ch. 13, 323–359, 342 (New York: Routledge, 2009).

  • 20. Paul Tillich, “Art and Ultimate Reality,” in Art, Creativity, and the Sacred: An Anthology in Religion and Art, ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, 219–235, 225 (New York: Continuum, 1995).

  • 21. See Mark Taylor, Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 13; and Disfiguring: Art, Architecture and Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

  • 22. Morgan develops the idea that the study of religion involves visual practice, which implies a sensory engagement with images and artefacts. See The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

  • 23. Graham Howes uses the word “transaction” to describe the experience of encounter with an artwork; “What kind of ‘transaction’ does talk place?” he asks. Howes, The Art of the Sacred: An Introduction to the Aesthetics of Art and Belief (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 45.

  • 24. This image has been written about extensively by David Morgan. See his Icons of American Protestantism: The Art of Warner Sallman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996); and Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

  • 25. Graham Howes, The Art of the Sacred, p. 134.

  • 26. Rina Arya, “Contemplations of the Spiritual in Visual Art,” Journal for the Study of Spirituality 1.1 (2011): 76–93.

  • 27. Artists such as Joseph Beuys adopted the role of shaman and would orchestrate the performance, bringing about transformation.

  • 28. RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 165.

  • 29. Tracey Warr and Amelia Jones, The Artist’s Body (London: Phaidon, 2000), 125.

  • 30. Ibid.

  • 31. Chris Townsend, “In My Secret Life: Self, Space and World in Room for St. John of the Cross, 1983,” in The Art of Bill Viola, ed. Chris Townsend, 125–141, 125 (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004).

  • 32. See “Art in the Cathedral,” Liverpool Cathedral.

  • 33. Formed in 1994, ACE is the leading U.K. organization in the field of visual art and religion.

  • 34. Frank Burch Brown, Religious Aesthetics: A Theological Study of Making and Meaning (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 111.

  • 35. His use of elephant dung could be explained by citing the magical and spiritual powers of dung in his ancestral home of Africa, although this reading has been received skeptically given his real identity as a British-born African. S. Brent Plate, “Introduction,” in Religion, Art, & Visual Culture: A Cross-Cultural Reader, ed. S. Brent Plate, 1–5 (New York: Palgrave, 2002).

  • 36. See Eleanor Heartney’s defense of trangressive religious art in Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art (New York: Midmarch Arts, 2004), 6.

  • 37. S. Brent Plate, “Introduction,” in Religion, Art, & Visual Culture, pp. 4–5.

  • 38. See Rina Arya, Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless World (Farnham, U.K.: Lund Humphries, 2012).