The Sacred in Art.

Claude Monet’s "Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat" (1874)
As vandalized in 2012.

Sacred (from the Oxford English Dictionary)
...
4) Regarded with or entitled to respect or reverence similar to that which attaches to holy things
5) Secured by religious sentiment, reverence, sense of justice, or the like, against violation, infringement or encroachment.

What is the “sacred” in art?

To ask that question brings up images of religious significance. Statues and paintings of saints, the illustration of words of religious wisdom; this is art created to express the glory of a god or to communicate the theology and authority of a religion. The vast memorial of art through the ages is an encyclopedia of deities. Artists manifest the gods of Sumer and Egypt, buddhas and saints, demons and angels; rendering the spirit world visible to inspire devotion, or fear. But these are simply exercises in illustration, for there is in the image of a god nothing intrinsically sacred. The sacred comes from the viewer. Once the belief in the god has faded, the religious quality of “sacred” is lost. The work becomes a historical artifact with meaning limited to informational context and the value retained in the materials of its manufacture or the aesthetic appeal of its appearance.
 
So why do we still value some ancient works from cultures radically different from our own? There must be some other expression of the sacred manifested. Some element, not dependent on prettiness or culture or faith, that sustains the importance of an art object in diverse societies through changes in belief and fashion. Art that has been imbued with a quality of the sacred that thwarts the inevitable decay into irrelevance.
 
How can a “sacred” quality in art be defined? It is more durable than a religious belief. It persists even when the meaning and context of its original culture is lost. It is sustained long after the artist is dead and forgotten. The sacred expresses itself like an invisible and immortal soul in a work of art. It touches us like another consciousness, silent and cold in material reality, yet still speaking with warmth and passion.
 
It is possible to discern art lacking the sacred. Without the sacred in art, it becomes nothing more than an expression of contemporary novelty, mechanical craft, or shock, or distraction, or lust, or greed. The empty output of cynicism where the artist is merely an agent of reaction with the shallow goal of generating a stimulus to incite a response. The demands of such creations are few. The engagement of base-of-brain faculties are sufficient. The initial stimulus may generate a strong response, but like all such interactions (for example, addictive drugs) eventually the viewer becomes desensitized and indifferent. Each time requiring a stronger dose to generate a similar response. There is some transitory emotion in such experiences and a little cognitive involvement that quickly fades. In fact, a clear sign of such dead art is the vast amount of art historical genealogy and critical pretentiousness required to sustain it.
 
If what is not sacred is clear, then what are the components of the sacred? Integrity, idealism, life, hope, love; even a simple child’s drawing can contain these and lend it a quality of the sacred that demands it be protected and preserved. The perfection of craft is not required and fine materials are irrelevant except to the degree that these communicate the devotion of the artist and an uncompromising materiality. The negative emotions of rage or despair can be sacred in a noble cause. Pain and ugliness rendered with empathy and compassion can sensitize the viewer to suffering, rather than desensitize. Think of all the art you have ever known. Which of them was most sacred to you? Was it the most attractive, the most valuable, the most rare? Or was it something else that came from the artist who created it that grants it the quality of “sacred”? Did it in some way create a sense of connection to a universal experience of humanity?
 
Does the passion of life and the recognition of its frailty and brevity add to a sense of the sacred to the works from Tutankhamun’s tomb? Does the intensity of Van Gogh’s devotion to his art and the tragedy of his life lend his works the quality of sacredness? Is the work of Keith Haring more than that of an innovative and rebellious painter, but also a sacred memorial to all those who have died of AIDS? Does the painstaking detail and evidence of a lifetime of training and attention in a Japanese lacquer bowl demand we reverence the life devoted to its creation? Does the artist, in some way, imbue in the art they create a portion of their own soul? Or is it something greater? A synergy of creative spirit and revelation of cosmological beauty that in these works create a composite being, independent, a child of consciousness, silently speaking, a whisper awakening a growth in spirit to those that listen, that in its turn, gives birth to a new mind, itself creating and growing from one generation to the next.
 
The Art, the Artist, a palimpsest of the sacred, the testimony of sublime beauty, the validation of consciousness, the redemption of humanity.

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