A philosophy of sin and art

On the 17th of November, the CPA and the National Gallery hosted “A Philosophy of Sin and Art”, an event which examined the relationship between sinfulness and art both historically and in contemporary artistic practice. Dr Deborah Casewell began by offering a potted philosophical history of sin. Casewell started with “the cardinal sinner” Augustine who we were told understood sin as “the love of the self at the exclusion of all else” and, most importantly, at the exclusion of God. She observed that in art sin is often shown as the damage we cause ourselves through our desires and as a temptation, as with depictions of the Temptation of Saint Anthony.

Pieter Huys, The temptation of Saint Anthony

She also discussed the relationship between sin and authenticity, drawing on the work of Luther and Sartre. A language of sin allows us to come to terms with ourselves and our failings which is crucial for living authentically. Thus, “to deny sin is to deny ourselves.”

We then heard from The Reverend Dr Ayla Lepine who explored art historical depictions of sin to draw out the different ways in which we have conceptualised sin in the past. Often, sin appears as a turning away from God. We see sin manifested as lust in William Homan Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd where we are invited to contrast the negligent shepherd with Christ, the good shepherd. After analysing works by Lucas Cranach the Elder and William Morris, Lepine then discussed Pieter Bruegel’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery.

Christ and the woman taken in adultery, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

At the feet of the woman and her accusers, Christ begins to write “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” but the maxim remains unfinished. The composition is designed to draw our eyes to this moment so that we can, Lepine noted, “fill in the blanks”. In doing so, the work provides us with an opportunity to reflect on ourselves as imperfect and to look more lovingly on the accused woman.

Amrou Al-Khadi brought us to the present day by offering some personal and profound reflections on sin in their artistic practice. Al-Khadi spoke of their experiences growing up in a Muslim home where homosexuality and gender-transgression were conceived of as sins. They observed that “everything was a sin growing up. Good deeds were hard to do.” Al-Khadi described how performing in drag had become a cathartic, public expression of what was once private, insular suffering.

Amrou Al-Kadhi

They reflected on how embodying their sin was a form of healing and a way of getting back to God, recalling Dr Casewell’s remarks on the link between coming to terms with our sins and living authentically. Reminiscing about a gig where they had remixed the Islamic call to prayer with Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, Al-Khadi said “through transgression and sin, I’m getting back to transcendence.”

Overall, the panellists agreed that sin is a fundamental part of the human condition in that it is a way of conceiving of the moments when we fail. In this sense, sin is somewhat inescapable. Yet, there is an uplifting dimension to sin in that if we embrace ourselves and our sins, we can heal, learn to live more authentically and reconcile, not just with our Gods, but also with ourselves.  

Colette Olive

Colette is a postgraduate research student at Kings College London in the Philosophy department. Her research is in philosophy of art, ethics and Russian philosophy.