Any examination of a contemporary, non-traditional art within ecclesiastical spaces, one often lacking any explicit Christian content or conventionally Christian form, will almost inevitably hinge upon the play between the sacred and the profane, since these are the parameters so often invoked to determine the fields of legitimate operation for religion and art. As we will see, these terms, so entrenched in any discourse concerning the role of religion within secular cultures and so frequently employed in any disparagement of modern art in ecclesiastical contexts, should not be accepted as ‘givens’ within which to manoeuvre. Invariably presented as universally applicable by early anthropologists of religion, their historical and cultural relevance today may not be so axiomatically construed. The nuances of this disputed history will allow us to reassess the role of religion within anthropological ideas that were once foundational in order to assess imaginative possibilities for a rethinking of the sacred and the profane as valid categories in the troubled affinity of art and religion. In seeking to answer these questions, Emile Durkheim will figure prominently. Though not alone in his summation, he, above all, is responsible for a reading of so-called primitive religions that divides the sacred and the profane into states of enmity. Subsequently unsupported as an idea by many leading anthropologists, it was nonetheless taken up by the second major figure of this discussion, the religious comparativist Mircea Eliade, who used it as the basis for his influential, though today largely discredited, studies of religious patterns of belief and practice. Both Durkheim and Eliade were key inaugurators of well-established orthodoxies concerning the sacred and the profane. Yet if both begin with an idea of their differentiation as distinct states, both end up stressing their inherent ambivalence. From Durkheim comes an idea of the sacred in which this ambivalence redirects attention away from a strict polarity of the sacred and the profane towards an ambiguity within the sacred itself, along with a more porous sense of the threshold between sacred and profane worlds. From Eliade’s initial emphasis on polarity, he arrives at a sense of the sacred as modal, emerging from within the so-called profane world itself and manifested above all in what he calls ‘hierophanies’. Although the currency of Durkheim’s and Eliade’s ideas has depreciated over the years, in other respects their persistence retains a hold on the popular imagination to an extent that makes them worth revisiting. Their work continues to raise questions around sacrality still unresolved, still subject to discussion, still producing art and exhibitions. Regardless of their arguable claim to ethnographic truth, there can be no doubting the scope of their influence, but is this enough to justify their revival in these pages? That is precisely what this chapter will attempt to discern, beginning with Eliade’s conceptual schema before returning to that of his predecessor.

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