“All Art Is Religious Art”

[The Rothko Chapel, photo courtesy of Arch Daily]

Long before I acquired even the faintest interest in modern art, I was down visiting my dad in Houston, hanging out with a college buddy, Andrew. We were both about twenty at the time.

Looking for something to do, Andrew suggested we should go see the Rothko Chapel, and so we did. I had never heard of either Rothko or the chapel before.

When we got there, all I saw were these big, dark, blank canvases, not unlike the monolith in Kubrick’s “2001”.

I didn’t get it, frankly… I walked out, unimpressed. Some big, black rectangles. Any half decent house painter could’ve made those. So what?

But the visit stayed with me, somehow. For reasons I couldn’t explain, for weeks afterwards I couldn’t get the Rothko’s out of my head. The paintings struck a nerve, one that I didn’t even know I had.

Nearly three decades later, I think I now know why. By painting these big, black monster paintings, Rothko was trying to get the viewer to “gape into the void”. He wanted us to contemplate “The Mystery”, the awesomeness (good or bad) that is Creation, that is the Divine, that is the Universe.


[One of my early works, 1987]

Decades later, I realize that all art- the good stuff, anyway- is trying to get us to do the same thing: Understand the immensity of existence, whatever that might mean.

Do you have to be religious to do that? Of course not. No matter what you believe, call it either God or The Void or the Physical Universe or something else altogether, the immensity is still there. What Werner Herzog calls the “Ecstastic Truth” is still there.


And it’ll always be a mystery; your existence in it will also remain a mystery, no matter what the clever folk in the TED videos may tell you.

Screen Shot 2013-01-18 at 2.02.00 PM

So I wrote that line down, “All Art Is Religious Art”.

All art is trying to be a conduit… of Ecstatic Truth.

You don’t have to agree with me, but the older I get, the more I believe it myself, the more I want to live like it IS true.

And we are here. And it’s immense. And it’s a mystery. And…

And maybe it applies to stuff other than “Art”? Like maybe some of the stuff you do, to make a living, perhaps?

Maybe what you do for a living is more meaningful than it sounds.

Just askin’…


  1. Amen, Hugh. I saw your “All Art is Religious Art” after watching a repeat of a fabulous show on artist John Nava and his series of Tapestries for a church in California. One thing he said resonated (well, more than one actually). In the history of mankind we did not separate art from religion. They were both holy. Only in the past two hundred years or so have we decided to segregate one from the other. Then I saw your cartoon. An eerie coincidence? Or divine intervention?

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Hugh MacLeod is a genius.  Genius.

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His work acknowledges the absurdity of workaday life, while also encouraging employees to respond with passion, creativity, and non-conformity...   MacLeod’s work is undeniably an improvement over the office schlock of yore. At its best, it’s more honest, and more cognizant of the entrepreneurial psyche, while still retaining some idealism.

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