Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Religion as Subject Open Thread

Despite being virtually inseperable for centuries, it's no secret that contemporary art and religion have had an ambivalent if not downright contentious relationship for a while now. Religious institutions still commission works of art, often from very well-know artists, as well as use the arts for community-building, teaching, and celebrating, but it's rare to find a sincere, straightforward expression of faith in a Chelsea gallery. Oh it's apparently fine to question religion in art---From Serrano' Piss Christ to Ofili's Madonna to Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper the contemporary art that deals with religion (at least that which gets press) is very good at raising controversy---but given that in no other point in my lifetime have the faithful been so vocal, it's a bit surprising we're not seeing that reflected more in the visual arts.

Perhaps it's just a matter of time. Zach Feuer predicted on artnet a while back that we'll see a rise of "Republican" artists in 2006. Perhaps that rise of the conservative voice will go hand in glove with an increased attention to artists dealing sincerely with their religion.

I have to say, I wouldn't mind that (so long as the crtique machine keeps its voice to maintain balance). There are wide calls among pundits and politicians for an Enlightenment in Islam, assuming that would correct what leads to the violence among its faithful that dominates our news these days, but I'm not sure Judiasm and Christianity (to limit this to the big three religions on this side of the world) aren't due for a bit of an overhaul or updating themselves. Clearly the bulk of figuring out how to fix what ails contemporary religion falls to the theologians, but when the main talking points coming from the more high-profile churches, synagoues, and mosques these days are aggressive messages of condemnation and hatemongering, perhaps it's time a few more artists took a stab at it.

Now I know a big contingent of the art community is atheist. As I've noted here before, I'm one more disappointment from the church from being atheist myself, but there's a climate in which sincerity in faith is automatically rejected in most quarters of the art world. I was reminded of this in Seattle, where Howard House Gallery's associate director Gary Owens explained a typical reaction to Lauren Grossman's work is one of knee-jerk rejection. From the press release for that exhibition:

A veteran Seattle Artist, Grossman consistently galvanizes viewers with her formally engaging sculptures and biblical subject matter. Although it is uncommon for a contemporary artist to be so invested in Judeo-Christian iconography, Grossman's work points to the persistence of the ecclesiastical in the functions of western thought. Her metaphors are apt in a world marred by fundamentalism.
Which is perhaps the most important reason for a very public sincere dialogue about religion, including in the art world: to curb the corruption of it by the more exploitative elements within the fundamentalist movements. They have incredible power at the moment, because they thrive when they can feed off fear, and that power will inevitably corrupt.

If I had only read the press release and not seen Grossman's show (which includes many passages from the Bible), I would probably have dismissed it, even though on other blogs I've enthusiastically agreed that the Bible is a wonderfully rich text, if only as literature. Which makes me think that my dismissal of Grossman's exhibition would have been based on fear. I wouldn't have shyed away from work based on texts by Shakespeare or Joyce or Socrates or Whitman (quite the opposite, I would have run to see what part of the dialogue I agreed or disagreed with). But when the subject is raw religion, my first inclination is to stay away. Something about it seems threatening (will it brainwash me? will it turn me into a pillar of salt?). Perhaps that something is merely my sense that that discourse is owned by those who would use religion to oppress others. Perhaps by participating in that discourse, however, a bit of it can be reclaimed. I don't know...these thoughts are in their infancy.... Consider this an open thread.


Blogger Christopher said...

"Perhaps that something is merely my sense that that discourse is owned by those who would use religion to oppress others. Perhaps by participating in that discourse, however, a bit of it can be reclaimed."

I think you are spot on there Ed. Islam and Christianity both get bad raps b/c of very vocal minorities. And a lot of people within these 'institutions' recognize that. I wouldn't be surprised if religious leaders turn back towards art as a PR move.

I for one am all for that - it would be nice to see some modern day cathedrals amongst our mundane landscape.

3/07/2006 09:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

All ideological work, meaning religious and political work, tries too hard to affirm rather than explore, to proselytize rather than communicate. It says, "This is my philosophy. It is of course correct. And of course you agree." The viewer is left with only the possibility of a yes/no response. This is hardly the type of reaction which leads to long-term engagement with a large audience. From the photos I very quickly scanned, Grossman's show looks more engaging than didactic, using biblical material as a starting point rather than an ending point, which if so is much to the artist's credit.

3/07/2006 10:05:00 AM  
Anonymous pc said...

Okay, am I not qualified to talk about this subject! I'm an atheist who hates and fears religion and who has never read the Bible, Koran, Torah or the writings of Marshall Applewhite, Jim Jones or David Koresh or been to a church or temple service or prayed or anything. Yes, I feel out of it, somewhat impoverished literarily speaking, and maybe even intolerant. With that said, what an interesting topic!

3/07/2006 10:23:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Perhaps that something is merely my sense that that discourse is owned by those who would use religion to oppress others. Perhaps by participating in that discourse, however, a bit of it can be reclaimed.

Ed, since you often make comparisons of art and science, this is probably a place where the two really are similar. In both art and science the discourse is a pretty open conversation where competing views are encouraged (sometimes ridiculed, yes, but not outlawed). From what I can tell of the approved "discourse" in western religion, it's mostly a discussion about how to interpret a given truth that itself is never questioned.

3/07/2006 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear Edward,

Some of your readers may find this project of interest:

Drawing on the Past for New Bible
Illustrated, Handwritten Edition Is a First in Recent Times

By Jason Kane
Religion News Service
Saturday, March 4, 2006; Page B09 - http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/03/AR2006030301770.html

Donald Jackson and his team are using ancient and state-of-the-art technology to make a Bible by hand for St. John's Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn.

I found the following quotes from the article to be especially interesting:

Although the monks coached Jackson, who shies away from describing himself as religious, on Catholic interpretations of the Bible, Hollas said the artist surprised the committee with some of his insightful spiritual interpretations.

"I don't know what I expected, but I was certainly amazed to see how his art could draw out meaning from the text," Hollas said. "It has this mystical quality you don't get from print."


3/07/2006 11:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Great topic. And I like your call for the maintenance of criticism in this area because there are trully many bad examples of contemporary religious art. They often seem preachy and trite, almost exploiting their own religious texts for power rather than the work generating power on its own formal terms. They often lack a serious effort concerning exploration and discovery because they are so focused on intention. Beyond that, artwork tied too closely to any text seems burdensome because it is denying art something that only it can do, communicate non verbal things that don't pass through the circuits of knowledge. By the way, I am religious and an artist, so no hard feelings to anyone. I'm just not interested in art that is driven (controlled) by such defined prerequisite ideas.


3/07/2006 12:21:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

"I for one am all for that - it would be nice to see some modern day cathedrals amongst our mundane landscape."

We have a modern day cathedral in Los Angeles. It is not particularly different from the bank up the street. Cast concrete behemoth. But Robert Graham did do some work for it.

Artists cast off this oppressive client generations ago. I, for one, am OK with that. Art really took off when the subject of art became art. I don't think that should be so lightly abandonded. Artists and others continue to be confused about the roll of content. That is their problem.

I think it is a little like when Science separated itself from alchemy (magic), then it could really get down to the work of figuring out what is going on and leave behind the politicizing mumbo-jumbo. Art is not science, I know, but extracting itself from the manipulative practices of religion was a good thing and should be considered the beginning of that process, of which we are still engaged.

Since religios can stir up a hornet's nest of trouble when confronted, I think ignoring them is the best way forward. Attracting their attention has proven to be a bad strategy for progress.

If you want to talk about the spiritual in art I would have something different to say.

3/07/2006 12:48:00 PM  
Anonymous jj said...

Well, Damien Hirst, Emin and Matthew Barney brought a ritualized syncretism back to contemporary art (aka surrealism?)...

I think it has always been there... even in Greenbergian formalism and its relationship to islamic art but now that Postmodernism is dead (plus increased terrorism) we understand that belief structures matter... and thus it has recieved more attention lately.

here is an interesting show in Portland http://www.newamericanartunion.com/artshow.php?artshowid=19&artistid;=31&pieceid;=337&view;=slideshow

3/07/2006 01:08:00 PM  
Anonymous paul said...

well, Kinkade is the best selling artist in the States...

3/07/2006 01:21:00 PM  
Anonymous onesock said...

What is interesting to me is that the 2 most popular (and that is an understatement) types of Christian art recently are Thomas Kincade and "Passion of the Christ". So, christians either prefer insipid , nonthreatening cliche or way-over-the-top violence, hmmm. This is not necessarily a criticism mind you, just an observation.
Probably due to my lack of imagination, I cannot envision and art that is both republican and goes against the status quo (which is what art does best)But I wholeheartedly support the attempt, just as I supported my friend in grad school who wanted to make art that spoke against abortion, even if I disagreed with her politics.

3/07/2006 01:29:00 PM  
Anonymous onesock said...

let me refine: Now a repulican artist may be going against the artworld status quo but not the larger one.

3/07/2006 01:33:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

I think most good art expresses the faith of the artist, whether or not that faith emerges from a worldview that includes a higher power or is influenced by religion.

We believe in what we're doing, and that somehow it holds some meaning or significance.

Unfortunately we're still so close to the religionist mindset that we see ourselves through the eyes of religion. We call ourselves atheists, a misleading, broadbrush term that means nothing except to religionists -- and to them its primary meaning is "You're not one of us."

3/07/2006 01:49:00 PM  
Anonymous onesock said...

This question may speak more to that last topic on this blog (on truth), but what sort of conviction do you think an artist needs? If I take your comment that the artist and the relious person share some sense of faith in something, what if an artist does not have faith? What if that artist is making art with that nagging question "Is this valid?" The result being a questioning art rather than a statement. It is an art that is unsure, it embraces insecurity. Is that the same as someone going to church each Sunday with questions rather than accepting whatever the preacher says as truth ?(oh boy, theres that word again!)
Can I be an artist without dogmatic convictions?

3/07/2006 02:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that the US is pretty much the only country in the West where there is so much "debate" going on about religion. In that sense, the US is much closer to countries like India or even Iran. I mean just compare the reaction about the "Piss Christ", say - clearly a piece of art designed to piss off as many people as possible - with what happened in Britain just a little while ago when Gilbert & George published their new work "Sonofagod - Was Jesus Heterosexual?". Two openly gay older men dealing with Jesus - it's not hard to imagine what kind of reactions this would have caused in the US (and in that sense, the US is very similar to Iran, except that in Iran, the religious right is in power, and people are desperately trying to break free from it, whereas here, it's the other way around: The religious right is desperately trying to stage their equivalent of the Christian revolution, but many people don't want it). In Britain, not much happened. One PM complained, and that was it.

For the art work, see, for example

And if you think about it, at the beginning of the 21st Century, the way religion is played out in the US is quite anachronistic: It's basically an 18th Century discourse (at best) with 21st Century means.

3/07/2006 03:36:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

I agree with everything who write, Edward, and I find Zach Feuer's remark interesting, but I feel his prediction, "a rise of 'Republican' artists in 2006," unlikely. Instead, we'll see a number of artists more sincerely invested in religious subjects, but not necessarily religious belief or practice.

I'm one of those annoying atheists, myself, but I've long been fascinated by religious - particularly Christian - iconography, as are most of us. The sardonic, angry work made by so many artists in the twentieth century was, in essence, reactionary. Today, despite the contemporary surge in fundamentalism, the majority of Westerners, religious and otherwise, view religion as a matter of faith rather than right or wrong (the one truth mentality). As a result, it doesn't frighten or repell as much as it once did, the fundamentalist nuts - and the current administration's efforts - aside. (I certainly don't mean to gloss over the very real threat the religious right poses, but the "culture wars" will largely be decided in the political arena.)

I plan on writing about Lee Baxter Davis soon, but his work seems pertinent to the discussion. Currently an assisant pastor at a Catholic church in Texas, his work - now up at CUE Art Foundation in Chelsea - is filled with religious iconography, but is in no way off-putting, even for a heathen like myself. In fact, a few minutes with the work should convince all of us, atheists and the devout alike, of just how rich religious narratives are. Fertile ground...

3/07/2006 04:04:00 PM  
Anonymous ck said...

Christianity of the 21st century demands allegiance in a way that precludes its consideration as a cultural heritage. We can't insert religious symbols or ideology as innocently as we can use mythological (ancient cultural heritage) sources. I would very much like to so without it being a huge battle (or mortification for my mom ;)).

Can an artist use religion as a cultural heritage without believing in it? And what does that look like?

3/07/2006 04:20:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...


I think we would be making a mistake if we take faith only at its most extreme sense: a rock-solid conviction in a crystal-clear, specific idea.

Faith has some of that creed to it, to be sure. But it also has a searching aspect, as you mention. So much of art making is that way, isn't it? We pick up the tools and we move, with no idea where we'll end up. We have a sense that, somewhere out there, there's something clear and real that we'll eventually reach.

This, too, is faith. In my opinion it's every bit as much faith as that of my friend who pastors an Assembly of God church. Maybe moreso in the sense that, in a church, your faith is reinforced by 100 other people behind you believing roughly the same thing. But in art, we agree on a few things and disagree on oh-so-many things. We are often very alone, even in the blogosphere. Yet we keep on keeping on.

This faith of ours may or may not ever be rewarded, just like religious faith. We may die and rot in front of a drawing that was the best we'd ever done, yet it just wasn't quite there. But we stay with it.

Jackson Pollock would ask his wife, "Is this a painting?" He stayed with it and did a lot to define painting for some decades to come. To me, that's immense faith. Eventually, in my opinion, he lost that faith, and had nothing to back it up, no reason left not to drink. He had no God, which in effect means he had no net.

Faith has a lot more dimension to it, a lot more range, than it's typically given credit for.

Love is involved too, but that's another topic.

3/07/2006 05:12:00 PM  
Anonymous onesock said...

fine answer Mr Gusky.

3/07/2006 05:33:00 PM  
Blogger benvolta said...

Great post edward.. as a christian on the left left I find it disturbing that the religious voices that are loudest are the ones that are wrapped up in a cult of belief and simply absent of any real understanding of respect and love.

I think that it starts with love. the democratic pluralistic respect kind...

It really is a no brainer to me... but I think that doubts that faith is still super relevant within a larger cultural dialogue can be unravelled when you pick up some Cornell West or Edward Said.

oh and Thierry deDuve approaches this topic with style. He has a good essay in the Heaven catalogue entitled "Come on Humans! One more stab at becoming post-christians" Alongside this one, some of his other writings address ideas of incarnation and resurrection in contemporary art : 100 years of Contemporary Art and Kant after Duchamp ect ect...

3/07/2006 06:29:00 PM  
Anonymous oncesocked said...

didn't James Elkins write a book on contemporary art and religion? I think I saw it at my school's library and thought "Oh Lord!"

3/07/2006 10:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I like Tim's analogy to science separating itself from alchemy. I think art had to separate itself from religion in partiuclar, mythology in general, and narrative even more generally in order to explore the options of modernism. Religion has driven art for a long time, maybe even since the Neolithic, and it has always seemed weird to me that it would cede the field so readily to the Enlightenment. But it did - maybe humanistic values match those of art better than religious ones.

It's worth noting that a lot of contemporary critical thinking derives from Marxist, and therefore atheist, ideas about dialectics. You might be able to make a case for the history of Western art as a history of diminshing numbers of gods, from the polytheism of the Greeks, to the Christian trinity of Europe, to the monotheistic and sometimes Jewish tropes of modernism, to the atheism of postmodernism. Maybe there's nowhere to go from here but back up. On the other hand, now that I'm reading it, it looks like one of those half-baked ideas I get when I'm up past my bedtime. Goodnight.

3/07/2006 11:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


3/08/2006 08:23:00 AM  
Blogger James Pepper said...

For the past 18 years I have been making by hand an illuminated manuscript of the Bible. I have blessings of John Paul and the Archbishop of York and it’s the KJV and I am a Methodist. Some people have a problem with faith being a motivator to an artist. I say they should just get over it, and realize that people are motivated by all sorts of things, if you don't like the motivation too bad!
I write each chapter as I go along, laying out the pages individually like a Book of Hours. I write the chapters in different calligraphic hands, to make it interesting and to learn how it was done in the old days by doing it. Oh I have my own way about it, I am motivated by the old masters but the work is all my own. Calligraphers can’t stand this as I am self taught, I did not take their courses, I have an Art degree instead.
I decided early on in the Gospels to divide the books into general styles, Luke is a Celtic Insular manuscript, while John is a collection of French manuscripts styles, and Matthew is mostly Saxon, Norman, English and northern European Styles. Mark just spans 1700 years of manuscript illumination. Of course there is a lot of iconography in this. Most of the verse initials of Luke are inhabited.
I start with an historical style and then wing it, writing the page and then decorating it as I see fit, based on my motivations at the moment the pen touches the page. It is a spontaneous effort.
You can see bits of it on my web site "The Pepper Bible" which you can Google. There are videos from CBS and ABC and UMTV.
And yes I have heard of the Saint Johns Bible and they have heard of me, the Dallas Morning News interviewed them in 2001 so they know about my Bible and others, since then. Funny how Mr. Jackson says he is the first to do this in 500 years is he running for a knighthood? There is a Bible in London that was made in the 1970's, made of vellum, illuminated by one man. Funny the V&A; is not showing it, it was made without computers. I don’t use computers; I do it the old fashioned way.
Fran Rankine of the V&A; told me that if she had known about my Bible two years ago it would have been in the V&A; Saint Johns exhibition.
One of my best chapters is Luke chapter 23, which starts ”and the whole multitude arose,” which I put into the lower floors of the World Trade Center. The text of the Passion is written with the next line above the previous and across the page in two columns going up the building, 110 lines of text for 100 floors. It is written on watercolor and has a mosaic of the polychrome tiles of Babylon running up between the buildings. I made this before the war started. The places where the planes impact the buildings have crosses and there is a large Greek cross at the top where 4 of my friends died. This was mounted in the museum vertically. It’s in the video from ABC. The three crosses of Calvary.

James G. Pepper
Antiquarius Domini

4/07/2006 11:37:00 PM  

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