Contemporary Religious Art

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When talking about contemporary art, religious pieces are not the first things that come to mind. We often think of works such as Andy Warhol’s painting of Campbell’s Soup Cans or Damien Hirst’s shark submerged in formaldehyde. With these examples, the average person is led to ask: is religious art even relevant in these times?

Damien Hirst - Shark

Artwork by Damien Hirst – Shark

Is Religious Art Still Relevant?

Before we tussle over the relevance of religious art, it’s important to take into account the number of believers versus non-believers. And the numbers may surprise you.

In a BBC article published last August 2014, only 2% of the American population has openly declared themselves as atheist. Meanwhile, a 2012 Gallup poll found that 77% of Americans identify themselves as a follower of a Christian faith. With these many followers, a religious art piece (especially of the Christian variety) does not only have the potential to reach a large audience. These works can also strike a chord in the majority of Americans.

Yet the question of religious art’s relevance becomes a more poignant one to ask, with the impending closure of the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) this June. As David van Biema, writing for The Atlantic, remarks: “Art museums go out of business all the time: The truism is that few last more than three years. But fewer still disappear on the heels of a triumph like Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces From the Florence Cathedral.”

Relevant to Whom?

As that quote shows, MOBIA had a lasting impact in the 10 years of its existence, even in the secular art world. van Biema even enumerates the praise that the museum’s exhibits has received from various secular publications, including The New York Times and The New Yorker. So why did it close?

Ruth Graham argues in her Slate magazine piece that MOBIA’s closure was both the failure of both religious and secular art patrons. The museum was unable to attract big-ticket sponsors due to its association with the American Bible Society. “It’s a shame that in order to survive, a museum like MOBIA apparently has to become either overtly ‘faith-based,’ or not frighten anyone by even including the word ‘Biblical’ in its title,” Graham writes.

This only highlights the facts that religious art is still relevant to many and is still being made. Yet the art world is still averse to acknowledging it as such.

As Jonathan A. Anderson writes in his paper The (In)visibility of Theology in Contemporary Art Criticism, paraphrasing the art critic James Elkins: “In Elkin’s view, the rift exists not in artistic production per se, but in the academic writing about art … We do not make similar efforts to de-specify the political themes of artists like Hans Haacke or Kara Walker, for instance, such that their work “might apply to almost any system of beliefs.”

Anderson further traces the roots of this distrust by analyzing the most common frameworks for art criticism today, which include psychoanalysis, Marxism, structuralism, and so on. He explains that: “Central to each of these methods is a suspicion that artworks (and cultural activity in general) are operations of “ideology”—meanings in the service of power … Not only is organized religion too much a part of the very social orders that the avant-garde was constructed to interrogate, but more profoundly—and I take this to be the central point of Elkins’ book—religious content is unable to survive the suspicious interpretive operations of avant-garde theory and criticism.”

Contemporary Art and Religion: A Recipe for Controversy ?

Hence, it is from this perspective that a lot of contemporary art about religion is viewed. One such work is Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of the crucified Christ submerged in urine.

ArtNet News describes the fallout behind the work as follows: “In 1997, while on display at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia, Piss Christ was removed from the wall, kicked, and hammered, after the local Catholic archbishop failed to obtain a court order to stop the piece from being exhibited. In 2011, when the French Collection Lambert in Avignon showed the work, employees were greeted with death threats and the work, again, was hammered. More recently in Corsica, protestors stormed the museum where the piece was exhibited.”

That said, controversial religious pieces can be seen as the artist’s way of grappling with his/her faith. As S. Brent Plate, Visiting Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College explains in a Huffington Post article: “The simplistic view would say these are all anti-religious pieces, except for the fact that every one of the artists spoke up about their own faith, and how art became a way of struggle with their spiritual lives.”

Anderson interprets the anti-religion sentiment in a slightly different manner in his essay (emphasis mine):

“An artwork conceived as a “vehicle” for religious meaning will find itself interpretively derailed and destabilized before the vehicle even gets going–or, more commonly, it will be simply be ignored as unworthy of serious engagement. And, interestingly, this dynamic doesn’t only preclude religious subject matter: Elkins rightly devotes a chapter to articulating why art has that anti-religious message to deliver is disqualified by the same principle. Religious and anti-religious art alike—and really any work with a “message” to deliver—simply misunderstands and is ill-suited for contemporary art discourse.”

A Theological Art Criticism Method for All

Anderson later argues that religion is not the one actually missing from contemporary art, but a “substantive theological voice in contemporary criticism.” A theological analysis can help us interpret an artwork “by the question of God’s relationship to the world, not necessarily by affirmative answers to that question.”

Hence, this theological position does not intend to preach, convert, or to convince non-believers that there is a god out there. Rather, this aims to create a deeper analysis of an artwork, in the same vein that we view an artwork through a political lens.

This position can jive with the position of several contemporary art critics who admit to being non-believers. Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin, in an article published in The Guardian, points to David Mach’s 2011 Precious Light sculpture as “a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible and consisting of works re-imagining well-known biblical stories in modern settings.”

Meanwhile, critic Jonathan Jones, remarked in another piece for The Guardian: “Atheism has never come up with anything like the art of 17th-century painter Francisco de Zurbarán, who created a pure and intense religious visual language. I find his images uniquely appealing at Easter – even though I don’t believe in his, or any other, god.”

This viewpoint allows a critic to appreciate works from different faiths. In the same article, Jones mentions getting “thrilled at Islamic art in Morocco and at Catholic art in Spain.”

These remarks may well point to the return of “religion”—or discussion of religion—in the contemporary art scene.

Contemporary Religious Art

And times have certainly been changing. In a blog post, Matthew Milliner, Assistant Professor of Art History at Wheaton College, shares how James Elkins is now being invited to Christian institutions that have been traditionally not included in academia. And in an email exchange, while Milliner acknowledges that secularism is still the dominant note in the Western art world, “actual reverence becomes the avant-garde.”

There is also a renewed interest in openly religious art. One example is Bill Viola’s Martyrs, which was exhibited at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 2014. As the name suggests, the piece alludes to the martyrdom of Catholic saints. But it is handled differently.

Bill Viola - Martyrs

Artwork by Bill Viola – Martyrs

As The Telegraph reports: “In the past altarpieces dedicated to martyrs have tended to be rather specific about the details of torture and death: St Bartholomew being skinned alive, St Erasmus having his intestines removed with a windlass and so on. On the four screens , four people are at first shown at peace, then each is assailed by a different element, one is licked by flames, the others by raging winds, erupting earth and a cascade of water. But all remain steadfast.”

The Lasting Impact of MOBIA

Meanwhile, the news of MOBIA’s closure—and the extensive coverage it has attracted—has been met with sadness by the art world, signifying what Milliner calls the “thawing of the secular ice.” As MOBIA founding director Ena Heller recounts in The Atlantic article, at the time of MOBIA’s opening in 2004, most museums showed “an undeniable reluctance to interpret the religious component of art.”

The Atlantic article notes the impact MOBIA had:

“To cite one example, the Met has been gradually supplementing Evans’s blockbuster Byzantium exhibits with other smart religion shows. Two years ago it hired Rhonda Kassel, a curator sensitive to religious context, from the Indianapolis Museum. The Met’s European galleries sport a wonderful new video explaining the function of medieval altarpieces. The Met’s online Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, initiated in 2005, includes fine essays on religious themes. One can hope the trend will continue, in which case MOBIA’s example may have had some impact.”

Interestingly, had it not closed, MOBIA would have hosted an exhibit of Andy Warhol’s final artwork series—based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Warhol, after all, was raised in a Slavonic Catholic household.

Da Vinci - Last Supper

Artwork by Leonardo da Vinci – The Last Supper

Despite MOBIA’s closure, these are signs that the art world is now more open to works with religious themes. And as these examples show, contemporary religious art can still remain thought-provoking and relevant; artists can still pose questions about their faith without inciting a mob.

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