Kenan Malik at Eurozine:
One does not, of course, have to be religious to appreciate religiously inspired art. One can, as a non-believer, listen to Mozart's Requiem or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's qawwli, look upon Michaelangelo's Adam or the patterns of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan in Iran, read Dante's Divine Comedy or Lao Zi'sDaode Jing, and be drawn into a world of awe and wonder. Many believers may question whether non-believers can truly comprehend the meaning of religiously-inspired art. We can, however, turn this round and ask a different question. What is it that is “sacred” about sacred art? For religious believers, the sacred, whether in art or otherwise, is clearly that which is associated with the holy and the divine. The composer John Tavener, who died at the end of last year, was one of the great modern creators of sacred music. A profoundly religious man – he was a convert to Russian Orthodoxy – Tavener's faith and sense of mysticism suffused much of his music. Historically, and in the minds of most people today, the sacred in art is, as it was with Tavener, inextricably linked with religious faith.
There is, however, another sense in which we can think about the sacred in art. Not so much as an expression of the divine but, paradoxically perhaps, more an exploration of what it means to be human; what it is to be human not in the here and now, not in our immediacy, nor merely in our physicality, but in a more transcendental sense. It is a sense that is often difficult to capture in a purely propositional form, but which we seek to grasp through art or music or poetry.