I Can See the Light: Spirituality in Pop Culture

Religion is undoubtedly a large part of human history. Whether it be admiring artwork dedicated to the divine or finding comfort in the traditions celebrated with relatives, religion has inevitably influenced many facets of our lives. Religion is considered to be a unifying source of humanity, as it tells us that we are all considered descendants of God. Yet, often times, organized religion has achieved the opposite, dividing individuals on the basis of religious affiliation and sexual orientation. In response, society has shifted away from organized religion, averting identification with a divisive congregation or community. Despite this movement, however, the desire to connect with a greater source and the nonphysical realm persists. Many people have therefore begun to favor the concept of spirituality, a nondescript connection with a higher source that is not confined to the conditions prescribed in religious text, above that of organized religion. Spirituality has also started interesting and influencing leading figures within the arts and entertainment industry, facilitating society’s movement toward spirituality over organized religion.

Claiming society has moved away from organized religion appears inaccurate. It was just last year that the MET Gala honored the Catholic Church with their theme, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion in the Catholic Imagination. The event and exhibit housed various designs that are inspired by religious artwork and traditions. However, it is evident the event was a secular appreciation of the history and work the Catholic Church once influenced. Religion and art were formerly inextricably tied. The Catholic Church was the greatest commissioner for pieces such as the paintings by Michelangelo plastered on the Sistine Chapel’s wall. Commissioning and obtaining artwork solidified one’s power, and thus legitimacy as a leader. Political power was a large factor within organized religion, enabling corruption to exist within the church. As individuals are continuously empowered to speak against atrocities such as sexual assault and mistreatment, church corruption has been brought to the public’s attention. This reality has been a prominent reason individuals have turned away from organized religion. Contemporary art, however, is no longer commissioned by the church. It is free to take on any form, lifting spirits and connecting with a higher self.

One powerful example of this work can be seen in Artist James Turrell’s exploration of spirituality through his work with light. Light is his primary material. Light is frequently referenced metaphorically within religious text to represent purity and goodness. Turrell, however, repurposes light as a medium for transcendence and meditation. Turrell captures the ethereal properties of light as an earthly viewing of the spiritual realm. The works of interest are those of a distinct color light that permeates throughout the space, submerging viewers. Turrell’s focus on light and color illicit a mood and energy felt by the audience. Both light and space impact the body in his work, but simultaneously encourage the mind to explore beyond the corporeal. The work is truly an experience of total immersion, unrestrained by the confines of two-dimensional artworks. His pieces are influenced by a combination of perceptual psychology and his personal pursuit of reflection, self-awareness, and virtue.

Kanye West states in an interview with David Letterman on his Netflix series, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction that Turrell’s work is used within his Sunday services as his inspiration and design. The two went into detail on several contentious topics, notably mental health. Kanye utilizes his own experiences with mental health and subsequent treatment as a testament to the effectiveness of his services and Turrell’s work with the healing power of light. The Sunday services take a unique form, independent from the protocol within customary religion ceremonies. The design of the service is frequently within a minimalistic space with a distinctly colored light. The service has no iconography or symbols that reflect particular religions. It is simply a spiritual event with an emphasis on the nonphysical light and sound. His network of friends and family are brought together celebrating their gifts and the comfort of a community. However, the service does still pay homage to the spiritually uplifting elements of certain religious denominations. Each service, for example, is accompanied by a full band and choir, reflecting the soul and gospel roots of African American culture. Letterman accompanied Kanye during one of these services, and attests that the event was spiritual for him as well. As he shared his experience on The View, he recalled the profound unity of the corporal and incorporeal, highlighted by the drummer. The drummer indicated to the audience that the origin of the drum beat is the pulse of the human heart.

It is evident that these services and works utilize religious morals of peace, patience, and acceptance and incorporate them into neutral environments that are not limited by the traditions of organized religion. Through such art forms and entertainment, there is a profound celebration and experience of spirituality within our realm that extends beyond, uniting us with the higher self. Light, sound, mind, soul, and all of the incorporeal connect us with pureness and perfection of the unknown.  

Claudia Morgan