Learning to Appreciate Art After Discarding Christianity

sculpture angel boy
Image by Daria Nepriakhina from Pixabay

I have often heard that great art is provocative, subversive, or even dangerous. It elicits strong and not always pleasant emotions. In contrast, mediocre art is safe. It may produce positive feelings (e.g., "Oh, that's nice"), but it is rarely the type of art that ends up being memorable. Great art, then, might be something one experiences rather than encounters. It may involve an aspect of confrontation. The audience experiences powerful emotions or encounters new ideas. When great art produces strong emotions, it changes the audience.

It has taken most of my life to realize this simple truth about art. My early indoctrination into Christianity stunted my growth in this area. I realize that statement requires some explanation, so I will provide it.

I must have been born without the part of the brain that gives one artistic ability. I've always loved art (e.g., music, literature, photography, abstract painting, sculpture). I admire those with the talent required to create it. I love how their minds work. They often seem to operate as if they are free of the various constraints that weigh me down. But I've never seen any trace of this ability in myself. I'm not sure I'm even capable of viewing the world the way artists can. Of course, it doesn't help that I was discouraged from doing so.

My early Christian indoctrination focused on learning to conform to religious dogma. It involved guarding against uncomfortable thoughts that might upset divine entities. I had to shelter myself from negative influences that could alienate me from heavenly rewards. I pursued what others told me was moral because some sort of god was watching. I could not conceal anything because this god was capable of reading my mind. Avoiding temptation translated into art that was stale, bland, and uninspiring. The dogma and concerns over living up to impossible standards stifled creative thought. How creative can one be when so many things were off-limits?

Some things were not to be questioned (e.g., faith). Some of what was off-limits were dangerous. Messing with them could result in eternal punishment. Genuine creativity and nonconformity were among them. The transient loss of control associated with overcoming one's inhibitions was demonic.

I ended up with little appreciation for Christian art, and this remains true today. Then as now, I found much of it boring, constrained, or irrelevant. Art created to glorify some sort of god did not strike me as real art. I can appreciate some church architecture and many religious sculptures. But I am bored with most Christian music, writing, and imagery. Fair or not, it often strikes me as being void of the raw creative passion I admire in many forms of secular art. It seems too safe.

As I left Christianity behind and stopped being so terrified of the contents of my own mind, I discovered secular art. I learned that music, writing, film, photography, sculpture, and painting can challenge me. I've had the experience of being haunted by a film, a painting, or a photograph for days, unable to get it out of my head. I've finally had experiences of being emotionally affected by great art, and I hope to have more of them.

I couldn't have an emotional connection to art until I was willing to face this sort of provocation. To do that, I had to stop worrying about how it might affect my "soul." I needed to rid myself of at least some of the restrictive dogma. Reaching this point has not been easy and required considerable growth on my part. I'm not sure it would have been possible without first throwing off the yoke of Christianity.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was revised in 2016 and again in 2022.