On Sacred Art And Profane Art

We might contemplate, as if drinking cool spring water to quench our spiritual thirst, the following passage from Frithjof Schuon on the prerequisites for creating sacred art:

In the ancient Church, and in the Eastern Churches even down to our own times, icon painters prepared themselves for their work by fasting, by prayer and by sacraments; to the inspiration which had fixed the immutable type of the picture they added their own humble and pious inspirations; scrupulously they respected the symbolism–always susceptible of an endless series of precious nuances–of the forms and colours. They drew their creative joy, not from inventing pretentious novelties, but from a loving recreation of the revealed prototypes, and hence came a spiritual and artistic perfection such as no individual genius could ever attain.

The Essential Frithjof Schuon, p. 374

Sacred art, Schuon states elsewhere, is “Heaven descended to earth, rather than earth reaching towards Heaven.”

As the manifestation of the divine in form, sacred art is beautiful. That beauty is only channelable, however, for those who have prepared themselves–through deep spiritual practices–for the reception of divine inspiration. Similarly, sacred art is only appreciable, nay lovable, by those who have become spiritually ripened to the point at which the apprehension of simple, perhaps understated beauty can be immediately felt and fully imbibed.

For some years, I’ve been horrified by preponderance of profane art. One such example is Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” (1998). In this piece, we see Emin’s actual bed where she slept, had sex, smoked, and drank alcohol for four days straight.

To be clear, we need pass no uncompassionate, uncharitable moral judgment on Emin or on her life, both of which are of no concern to me nor is such a judgment on point here. Instead, our hearts should feel weighed down by the direction that much postmodern art has taken, a move where an unsound, disordered life–an ugly soul–is treated to critical acclaim on the grounds that one is being at once courageous and original. To the ugly soul, alas, there goeth ugly art–and we are the worse off for it, for our souls are in no way blessed by the near ubiquitous experience of ugliness, hollowness, and, above all, a sense of lostness.

Our souls, when prepared by spiritual practice and when opened by grace, long for more: for the kind of humble beauty that uplifts and encloses.