Today’s critics have a blind spot when it comes to religion, says David Cowan

No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art

by Thomas Crow, Power Publications, 144pp, £18

It is increasingly difficult to detect spirituality in art, especially when art is largely seen through recording devices and smartphones or used as a backdrop for selfies.

Using theological language to articulate art is even harder. This surprising volume is an attempt to explain why this is the case, and makes a plea for the restoration of theology in art criticism.

New York University’s Thomas Crow poses the question of whether modern art, specifically art-historical criticism, has stripped religious art of its theological significance. Like Gregorian chant used as mood music, art is separated from its spiritual resonance. The theology is submerged by secular values. Crow writes that Christian devotion, the raison d’être of religious works, has been effectively displaced from the field of art history. Religious doctrine and practice appear as cultural artefacts to be dissected and decoded with clinical detachment. Devoid of its original meaning, nothing is truly at stake for the viewer. The critic doesn’t want us to peer into religious art and see that our very soul is at risk in the encounter. The divine within us all, and thus in all art, is obscured by the interpreter and educator.

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