Not Confusing Faith with Religion

An evening lecture on The Sacred and the Secular in Contemporary Art with Charles Saumarez Smith (Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts), left a deep impression upon me.

Before I get ahead of myself, the lecture was billed as’An exploration of some of the relationships between the practice of contemporary art and religion: the search for transcendence; the idea of the sacred; and the use of symbolic meaning.. with examples drawn from the work of, amongst others, Alison Watt, Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Edmund de Waal.

Before you juggle with all of that, it boiled down to this:  are people today finding something in galleries which they used to find in Church?


Interestingly cathedral visits are increasing as church attendance declines. We like the experience of the numinous but may be rejecting the dogma, prefering experiencing evensong to attending regular worship. It was a wonderfully engaging lecture.

Mr Smith certainly felt they were, and statistical attendance of galleries does suggest that in terms of numbers and regular attendance, galleries may indeed be fulfilling a need in people to get away from the rhythms of everyday life and experience – if even for an hour or two – a life less ordinary, if you will.

All of this touches on why the experience of seeing great Art is so uplifting, and it was to this question to which I was drawn – or rather directed to,  by Mr Smith’s excellent lecture.

Not all art is uplifting of course, much less spiritual. You must have experienced this; go to any number of local galleries and plough through wall after wall of those old standards; local landscapes, dog portraits, a sunset or two, maybe a snow scene and a harbour scene… quite.

You might be by turns, informed, impressed or so forth ; but moved? Spiritually in the moment? Not likely.

Now transport yourself in your minds eye to a great show, and place yourself in front of a powerful piece of Art – and it doesn’t matter which one -as long as it works for you. How do you feel? Can’t take your eyes off it? Lose yourself in the moment? Thrill at the use of colour? Of artistic vision? Of value? Of scale?

Great Art takes us somewhere other than where we are, and leaves us with a memory of something which is more than the sum of its parts. It’s experiential. Have enough great art in one space and the whole thing might fairly be described as creating  a transcendental – almost religious experience.

And so to the most interesting part of an interesting evening. Mr Smith discussed in passing the general public’s cogent, coherent and articulate reaction when asked to jot down their thoughts on Rembrandt’s works, before noting (with not a little regret, I’m pleased to say) these ideas were not, felt by the gallery to be qualified, as compared to those of an art historian for instance .

In plain language;  Art should be seen, approached and commented on through the lens of academia, if opinions on it are to be given weight, but is that a sustainable position for publicly funded institutions?

I’ve never had a problem with differentiating religion – as in organised worship, with faith, and understand that its quite possible to have one without partaking of the other, and indeed the two may become incompatible . This it seems to me lies at the heart of Mr Smith’s observation, in a time when people are increasingly being engaged with art , are our institutions increasingly engaging with people?


Rembrandt, we can all ‘get’ him and be moved by him; but are we qualified to feel that unless we’re academics?

When I look around the contemporary art world, I wonder – I really do – if inclusivity is at the top of many curator’s measures of success. When institutions meet public demand they must bend to that flow or the stream of public enthusiasm will simply find a new course.

Fail to meet demand,ignore expectations, inform people they are wrong and the public will break with you. Schism – as the church would assure you – is a terrible thing.

So to keep with Smith’s religious metaphor, we have in one corner the established Church with all its rituals, dogma, and formality, in the other unqualified expressions of faith, honestly felt and directly expressed. As with the Catholic Church and early Protestantism, so with art historians and art lovers.

Replace the word’Church’ with ‘Gallery’ and we neatly have both Mr Smith’s opportunity and his dilemma.

The opportunity here, it seems to me is to open the Art world to these honestly and directly expressed opinions, and not disqualify people from holding a valid opinion on art merely on the grounds they are not ordained to do so by having passed through some course in Art History on how to think and feel about Art.


Mr Smith has an enviable track record of democratising Art  by putting big shows on at the RA and getting people from all walks of life engaged with them – now that’s somebody whose work I can support and follow.

If, as Mr Smith asserts, the common man is finding something in our galleries and museums which he or she no longer finds in church, then it follows that these institutions  should now consider if they are doing enough and if not then how the common man reacted to dogma in times past.

As Machiavelli noted ‘Prudent men are won’t to say – and this not rashly or without good ground – that he who would forsee what has to be should reflect on what has been.’


Luther overturning centuries of exclusivity; we should all be encouraged to engage with visual arts without the ‘help’ of our academic and cultural betters; starting with an acknowledgement that public taste is a good barometer for progressive curation.

Mr Smith strikes me as a prudent, impressive and thoughtful figure, I eagerly await the time when he nails his equivalent of Luther’s 95 theses to the door of the contemporary art establishment.

One thought on “Not Confusing Faith with Religion

  1. Having just spent a week in Umbria visiting a host of cathedrals and Churches where the art of early renaissance and medieval art sit happily next to each other, there is no question in my mind that to see the earliest Giotto begin to step out of the past into a new reformation of art does something for the mind and the soul. So it was interesting to see the exhibits of sculpture at this weeks Gubbio Biennale where the most modern of work is on display. Some of it is meticulously produced and emotionally effective. Interestingly it tends to be work created by older sculptors. Of the more contemporary work being done, by I assume talented young sculptors and often sponsored by their universities around the world, it is pretty hard to really sense a depth of something be it faith, dynamic spirit or even an expression that takes you to “another” place. It lacks a true new and fails to deliver on the old, maybe the young sculptors will be inspired by a visit to the Duomo just across the courtyard from the Palace where the Biennale show is on display. interesting thoughts Martin…thanks


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