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God and art

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 12 September 2013

God and Art.

The philosopher whose thought brought the middle ages to an end was William of Ockham. He did this by arguing that universals, the Platonic ideas that were more real than things did not have independent existence.

Since universals simply reduplicated individual things they were redundant. This shaving off of universals produced what is known as Ockham's razor. Furthermore, if universals only existed in the mind as ideas they did not really exist.


This conflict between the ideal and the real continues in our time between those who understand ideas as being more real than things and vice versa. For example, those who regard sensory experience of the real world to be unreliable will opt for the ideas being more real than things in the world.

Those who in our day are likely to have been trained in natural science will believe that particular things are more real than ideas. Examples in the history of philosophy abound. Thomas Hobbes was an extreme materialist for whom ideas were mere phantoms. At the same time, in England, there existed the Cambridge Platonists who understood the truths of the mind to be superior to sense knowledge, as did Bishop Berkeley.

Thus there is a tendency to emphasis either the life of the mind or the reality of the world. Our time is characterised by an oscillation between the ideal and the real.

While this is evident in many areas of our culture, politics and economics come to mind, it is writ large in the visual arts which are bounded by the real on the one hand in photorealism and the ideal on the other in conceptual art.

Photorealism, an imitation of the work of the camera give us the surface appearance of things and that alone. I am thinking especially of a group of painters here in Western Australia that paint detailed images of beachscapes that may be instantly attractive but soon become dull to the eye. This is because once one has seen the image there is little more to explore.

Conceptual art, on the other hand, jettisons the objective in order to present an idea. However, once the viewer has got the message the work itself is of no consequence and may be discarded. Where is Duchamp's original urinal now?


This movement, in its "look at me" ethos, has become desperate in its effort to attract attention and has resorted to shock tactics. My favourites are all scatological: Piss Christ, the poo machine at MONA, and the tinned artists shit at the Tate.

Where do we place abstraction on the polarity between idealists and realists? Kandinsky wrote that abstraction was a representation of the soul, in which case it would seem to be firmly in the camp of the idealists being to do with the interior world of the mind. But do abstract works represent the soul, or is that mere pretension? What does he mean by "soul"? Does he mean the thoughts and feelings that play in our consciousness, or does he refer to the soul of mind body dualism, whatever that is?

Although I have at times enjoyed abstraction, and particularly a painting by Kandinsky, I experience no feeling that something profoundly soulful is being evoked, merely a skilful application of paint to produce a pleasing picture.

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Peter Sellick is indebted to Philip Blond and his article "Perception: from modern painting to the vision of Christ" in Radical Orthodoxy ed. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward and to conversations with the Revd. Bob Booth, priest and painter.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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