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I note that he is extremely careful to describe the work in deliberately secular terms: as a symbol of history, as a work of art, as a sculpture, but not really as an angel, absorbing and engaging with the iconography of the angel, going back to early Christian mosaics; the idea that the wings, excessively elongated in the work, might be a source of spiritual comfort and protection; the possibility that the reason why The Angel of the North has had such a symbolic resonance and significance to people in the north is precisely that it is an angel, an emblem of rebirth.

Near us at home in the East End is a solitary figure on a post in the Thames outside The Grapes pub in Limehouse. We know that every work by Antony Gormley is based on himself. But the image of the man on his own surrounded by water; the sense of spiritual isolation and the opportunity for redemption; the idea of man born into the world in order to make sense of it — it is not a purely secular work of art, but has something of the sacred about it, which we respond to, even if we do not necessarily pay attention to it, and possibly even resist it, as an idea.

It is probably not for me to comment on the possible reasons for the decline in church-going, except that I am myself a symptom of it, having been brought up to take it for granted that I would attend church and now being an almost entirely lapsed Christian. 

What should be obvious is that, as a culture, we have not lost a need for an understanding of, and interest in, the unknowable: the origins of man; our purpose in the world; the ethical requirements of our behaviour towards one another; the belief that there is more to life than the satisfaction of material wants; the importance of understanding other people’s culture as well as our own. These human needs used to be satisfied to some extent at least by church attendance. But no longer. We no longer, or at least the great majority of us, no longer look to the church for the understanding and satisfaction of these needs. But these needs for the immaterial, for the experience of transcendence, for the mysteries of life as well as its material wants, have not just gone away. They have to be satisfied in some way. That is why contemporary art has moved into the space of the unknown, the exploration of the ineffable, through the experience of transcendence. Contemporary art is not just secular, but sacred as well.
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