What if spiritual practices and secular art have a lot in common?
What if art making could help people better understand religious traditions?
What if the spiritual significance of secular art isn’t dependent on the beliefs of those engaging with it?
For centuries, rituals and art have both been central to the spiritual life of a religious community. Throughout the world and in every system of belief, artists have created art for religious and ritual purposes. However, in our increasingly secularized society, there is a widening gap between secular art and religious contexts.
Consider, for example, Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” a late 15th-century mural painting. The content is overtly religious: Christ initiating the ritual of communion before his impending crucifixion. But what of Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper” series created in the late 1980s that has advertising logos superimposed on images of Da Vinci’s acclaimed work? Did Warhol transform a religious work of art into something secular or even profane? Or should the revelation of Warhol’s secret religious life after his death affect how we experience the series? Among his last works, do they reflect Warhol’s “spiritual personality,” as one expert has argued?
Lexi Eikelboom, D. Phil. and David Newheiser, Ph.D. from the Australian Catholic University, think that, as interesting as these questions are, another question is worth considering, namely, one about the structural similarities between religious rituals and artmaking more generally. Moreover, both appear to be active, purposeful ways of seeking self-transcendence and the unknown. Do these similarities suggest that we might be able to understand the distinctive spiritual significance of art, not in terms of its content, but in terms of its motions and structures?
Based on studies in experimental psychology showing that ritual practices produce similar cognitive effects regardless of whether they’re performed in a religious or a non religious setting, experimental psychologists Miguel Farias, Ph.D. and Valerie van Mulukom, Ph.D. from the University of Coventry joined the project to test whether engagement with art might also produce these cognitive effects.
With funding from Templeton Religion Trust, Eikelboom is testing a hypothesis: that the study of ritual from both scientific and humanities disciplines can illuminate how art works as a kind of embodied understanding with spiritual significance. Various scholars have convincingly argued that art without religious content may have religious significance. Their project, however, hopes to support this claim empirically by identifying concrete processes by which secular art may contribute to spiritual understanding.
To achieve that goal, the team has designed a highly original research process. Using ritual as a lens, they have been exploring the spiritual significance of art with a fresh perspective and new methods. In light of research showing that cognition is not only internal and brain-centered but also embedded, embodied, enacted, and extended, the team is studying how art practices may contribute to spiritual cognition even without propositional beliefs.
On the scientific side, Farias and van Mulukom are studying the effects of an art performance on an audience, measuring, specifically, feelings of self-transcendence. On the humanities side, Eikelboom and Newheiser assembled a group of scholars to identify knowledge processes involved in art-making through dialogue with practicing artists brought together by the local fresco artist Sarah Tomasetti. In this way the project takes into consideration both empirical measurement and irreducible complexity, as well as both makers and receivers of art.
People today often think of rituals as nearly mind-numbing repetition. Eikelboom, however, has a less restrictive view. Like the scaffolding of a building, she says, rituals can be a supportive framework “to create openness and being receptive to whatever might come” – including the experience of divine presence.
“There’s a way in which the scaffold enables rituals to change over time,” Eikelboom, continues. “In different times and places, they come to look different. And something similar happens in art practice where there are scaffolds that people learn through repetition in their bodies for how to make certain kinds of images. And then they also are open to the changes that process produces in their artmaking.”
Using tools developed in religious studies and experimental psychology, this 18-month project has three stages:
The overall objective is to understand the spiritual significance of art, using ritual as a means to that end.
“Theology can happen in different ways through different kinds of modes of inquiry,” says Newheiser. “We think about it as something that’s done through research, thinking, and reflection. But there’s also a way in which theology is done through rituals. We’re interrogating that parallel to try to understand whether there’s spiritual and theological significance to art as its own kind of practice — a practice that’s not reducible to religion or a replacement for religion but has spiritual significance that might be like that which happens through the embodied action of religious rituals.”
As a never-before-conducted exploration, the research team hopes their project can expand religion’s understanding of secular art. Even more broadly, they hope to create better understanding between people who identify as religious and those who don’t.
“By empirically supporting the claim that secular art produces spiritual understanding, we hope this project will help religious people engage art as a potential source of spiritual understanding even when the art is without religious thematic content,” Eikelboom concludes. “Likewise, the project intends to encourage people who are not religious to see religious traditions as offering conceptual resources that may clarify the significance of practices that aren’t explicitly religious.”