Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Religion as Subject, Part II

Sort of crazy busy today, getting ready for Pulse, so this will be a short one...(also, just wanted an excuse to post the Jesus in the Toast photo anonymous linked to). In Part I of this discussion a few folks noted the following idea, summarized nicely by Franklin:

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.
My question about this, if it's true, is why then do we see plenty of art in galleries and museums that takes a critical view of religion, but not art that takes a supportive view? If art has moved past supporting religion, why hasn't it moved past criticizing it?


Anonymous ck said...

Because for many people religion is a perverted source of oppression, at a very personal level. If you grow up believing the scar on your arm was from God, in anger, scratching you...well, it's fairly likely your art may reflect badly on religion. Most art addresses religious issues at more of a political level, which never really gets at the heart of it....personal oppression.

3/08/2006 09:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My close friend is a Buddhist. Actually most of the people around me on their passport are Buddhists. They are not Buddhist, per say, but Buddhist all the same. In the country where I live Buddhism is not so much a religion for the people, my friends, it has something to do with unity and individuality. It’s a club or sorts, regional, though the club is very disparate in its order.

How can someone call him or herself a Buddhist and not adhere to the doctrine? Perhaps because the doctrine is a historical thing, and they, by happenstance, were born Buddhist. And if that doctrine, in place, didn't demand that they spend each day tied to it, then there is some kind of freedom, and the term Buddhist is nothing necessary to reach, or form from, but a repository after all.

There are different degrees in Buddhism in the place I choose to live. There are ties of commonality represented in the passport, which has each person’s religion stamped.
A passport is something we use to hand to show at the airport, where the holder might likely move away from, and come back to. It’s interesting, apart from the registry, that the greatest frequency of visualization of Buddhist is at the gates of this airport. If that makes sense. But of course it is not true. I have reduced the idea of a religion as a passport for agreements or sake!
I think some sense is to be found in that religion is of the place, and of a personal predilection. That this predilection has a slide--which you can move from place to place and keep it intact, or let slide, is a development, is quite marvelous. Those who are able to move from place to place, religion to region, reflects, for me, a freedom--almost pass portable. An art that transits this ideology of the passport, too, is magnificent.

3/08/2006 09:28:00 AM  
Anonymous onesock said...

Buddhism and art is such a natural fit. I have seen many recent works that can be considered expressing buddhist philosphy. I looked into zen years ago and it helped me become freer in my expression.
Its interesting that the religous works we revere from a christian,muslim, jewish perspective are all ancient, so it is not that these are naturally at odds with art. I think art is more of an expression of society and has evolved in step (or ahead)with society, western religions have been dragged along kicking and screaming, thus the disconnect.

This is an interesting topic for me since just yesterday I netflixed a documentary called "The God Who Wasnt There" -very interesting.

3/08/2006 09:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If art has moved past supporting religion, why hasn't it moved past criticizing it?

I think the issue is separating religious belief from the religion as politics. Religious belief touches on the transcendental, a fitting aspiration for art. Religion as politics, as we saw with the cartoon debacle, it is more about politics and less about religion, a fitting target for criticism.

3/08/2006 10:31:00 AM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

...why then do we see plenty of art in galleries and museums that takes a critical view of religion, but not art that takes a supportive view?

I think you're looking in the wrong spots for the supportive view, Edward. The holy houses of the Art World proper, the museums and galleries, are not welcoming for religious artists. On the other hand, when I visit rural Virginia, where I was raised, I see heavy Christian influence in many of the popular artists' work.

Furthermore, the local artists who don't explore their religiosity in the work - decoy carvers, wildlife painters and others - are, more often than not, believers and church goers all the same. Many of these folks have achieved local/regional success - a few are even financially comfortable and show nationally - but haven't any interest in attaching themselves to the, as they see it, morally bankrupt world you and I are a part of.

I alluded to this in my comment yesterday (to Part I), but the thought became more concrete over dinner with an artist friend - yes, people sit in restaurants discussing's horrifying. ;)

3/08/2006 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger GIERSCHICK said...

"My question about this, if it's true, is why then do we see plenty of art in galleries and museums that takes a critical view of religion, but not art that takes a supportive view?"

Criticism is sexier than support. And sex sells.

3/08/2006 11:17:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

...why then do we see plenty of art in galleries and museums that takes a critical view of religion, but not art that takes a supportive view?

I think there are a number of reasons for this. For one thing, (Western) religion is an easy target. And as gierschick notes above, it sells. Certainly the level of attention generated by certain works in the Sensation show, as well as Piss Christ, etc., are encouragement for artists who want to succeed to work in the same vein. If you can offend enough rightwing politicians, your career will get a much bigger boost than you could ever achieve by taking out full-page ads in ArtForum.

Anonymous above talks about Buddhism being about freedom. I don't consider myself a member of any religion, but I have to say that Buddhist thought makes much more sense to me than any of the western Big Three (which I grew up with). There was a lot of discussion in the preceeding thread about religious faith. It made me recall something I read a long time ago by Alan Watts, where he distinguishes between faith and belief. I'm paraphrasing badly (sorry Alan), but basically he defines belief as a fearful clinging to a world view, and faith as a willingness to embrace the unknown. In this context, faith seems like a good thing for an artist to have, and belief more of a detriment.

3/08/2006 11:52:00 AM  
Anonymous onesock said...

To say that critique is sexy and that artists use religion as a punching bag to get into Artforum is such a simplification and just plain wrong. There is so much within western religion to critique for anyone with an open mind and eye that it would be ludicrous to simply make art in praise of something with so many contradictions and problems and negative connotations for the future of the planet (when you meld religion into politics). At least it would be ludicrous to take such art seriously in the art world that we work in.
Serious art can embody a spiritual aspect but to specifically refer to a religion or a sect within that religion without a critical eye, I think, would be blindingly irresponsible.

3/08/2006 12:18:00 PM  
Anonymous jj said...

I saw Marina Abromovic last night at Reed College in Portland Oregon. Her entire career seems to assimilate various religious practices quite opnenly... partuicularly the ascetic aspects.

She also showed an interesting clip of Pop John Paul II at Madison Square Gardens. She seemed both taken with the man but the Reed crowd itself seemed very critical of the crowd on film.

My point is some artists have it both ways... in fact, it's a sign of a very strong artist that have it both ways.

So what is the mark of a strong religion ... the # of followers?

3/08/2006 01:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That toast photo reminded me of Ted Mineo's work:

3/08/2006 02:57:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

the artworld is pretty conservative in its way. one needs to carefully follow the unwritten rules to gain admission. One of the biggest requirements is adherence to the humanist tradition that demands a critical distance from subject matter. This seems a healthy thing to me, but it does push away people who don't share this value system. Religious people just would not be attracted to such a culture and if they tried to make inroads, would be rebuffed.

I want to say, I think Judaism is an exception because healthy skepticism is not only allowed but encouraged. Hence, Jews are disproportionately represented in the art world.

Now, I detect in this discussion a certain level of 'politeness' which seems to be preventing anyone from pointing out that religion is the weapon of choice for sleaze bag snake oil salesmen like Geo Bush. Now we are seeing Kincade exposed as one of these types.

If art somehow got it into the rules to be seriously suspicious of anyone parading as a prophet or spokesman for God then I say Hoo-freaking-Ray and lets make sure it doesn't slide back to being propaganda for corrupt creeps.

3/08/2006 03:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

I'm not sure what Franklin's comment was about. As I understood it, artists were religious only inasmuch as their rich patrons were. Then as now, art followed wealth. When it was allowed for Western art to portray mythology, it did that too. It was just looking for a good story. Christ on the cross is as good a story as any. Even Francis Bacon identified with that image, lapsed as his catholicism may have been.

3/08/2006 03:33:00 PM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

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.

I see nothing weird with this transition, unless you find it odd that secular Science replaced Christianity as the dominant mode of thought in Western civilization as a result of the Enlightenment. Pre-Enlightenment religious art wasn't for or against religion, it was religion. With the Christian church displaced as the key societal structure, the concepts of individual freedom and institutional critique were allowed to flourish; art was only one form of many that proceeded to investigate this new creative territory.

So the break with religion was complete as an explanation for art's existence, but it could still exist as subject matter in the individual's autonomous (that is, apart from the church) artistic endeavor to question institutions and ideology (which art has never stopped doing, even in so-called Postmodern times). Mythology and narrative have never left us, but their popularity has ebbed and flowed with the tides of fickle tastes and an ever-changing stylistic zeitgeist.

3/08/2006 03:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

...if it's true, is why then do we see plenty of art in galleries and museums that takes a critical view of religion, but not art that takes a supportive view?

Edward_, if it is true, and I appreciate your confidence that it might be, then we're looking at a natural expression of humanism's skepticism about religion in general. It may be as simple as that.

I find Henry's Follow the Money angle rather barren. What caused those rich people to develop interest in those topics in the first place? Certain movements in the intellectual, religious, and creative spheres were blowing around and they expressed their purchasing power accordingly. The artists very well may have shared those interests apart from the commissions.

Art Soldier could be right though that religion's ceding the field may not be so strange. It just looks disproportionate if you add up all the years of people making religious art and the years of people making non- or anti-religious art. But, hey, things change.

I self-identify as a Buddhist. Zen painting has been a huge influence on my work (especially lately) and I find that a religion that emphasizes attention is enormously informative to art-making. I think it would be good to find some strong contemporary religious art and put on a show of it. There must be some out there somewhere, yes?

3/08/2006 04:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "follow the money" idea has merit. It don't think it encompasses artists like Fra Angelico

3/08/2006 04:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Franklin, I'd think what caused those rich people to develop interest in those topics may have been the fact that they were popes. Or they didn't live far from papal authority.

Something in my gut tells me Leonardo, Buonarroti and Caravaggio would not have depicted Christian themes spontaneously were they not hired to do so. The fact that you say with not-much conviction that "the artists very well may have shared those interests" suggest you have doubts yourself on this matter.

I'm curious tho to hear your thoughts on my "it's just a good story" angle, i.e., that an artist will pick up on any dramatic story of human interest, regardless of its ideological origin, and that Christianity's stories were basically as good as any.

I once met Jerry Saltz and spoke with him at length while walking together around a museum. When he saw a Rothko he told me about its embedded Christian allegory. When he saw some Byzantine work he decribed to me its Christian background, and asked me (a Christian by birth) about some of the details. I asked him how he could talk in such details about Christian art, and why he attributed Christian themes to Rothko. He didn't miss a beat: "Christianity has the best stories." He said it as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

PS: Agree completely w/anonymous in re Fra Angelico. There are as many motives as artists.

3/08/2006 04:31:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I'd like to see this discussion make a distinction between religion and the spiritual (for lack of a better term)

For example, Zen Buddhism is generally understood to not be a religion, almost zero trappings, no God, no hell, good and evil are part of life and unavoidable. Desire leads to pain.

Compare to 'religion' which comes from the latin root for 'to bind tightly'
and is generally understood to include an object of devotion and an ethical code set down as a set of rules.

Sometimes religion and spirituality are together in the same place, but it is usually religion preying on the desire for a spiritual life.

Religion is a human institution with deep roots in the manipulation of insecurity for worldly gain. It uses the spirit to gain access to these areas of the mind.

Buddhism aint that.

I am not Buddhist or even particularly spiritual.

3/08/2006 04:34:00 PM  
Anonymous onesock markie said...

Rev. Ethan Acres is a close example of christianity in a contemporary art practice.

3/08/2006 04:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Something in my gut tells me Leonardo, Buonarroti and Caravaggio would not have depicted Christian themes spontaneously were they not hired to do so.

Henry, Michelangelo penned sonnets, purely at his own behest, and he wrote lovingly about God and ascending towards him. I think he would have. As for the other two, who knows? It's an interesting thing to wonder about.

The Good Story angle is totally workable. I don't think just any story would have done - obviously there was a lot of energy behind the Christian one - but that aside, I've lamented to students how much easier the artists of the Renaissance had it when it came to selecting subject matter. You want to paint a mother and child? Mary and the infant Jesus coming right up. A male nude? St. Sebastion. Animals? Daniel in the lion's den. Seascape? Noah, or Christ on the Galilee. Interior scene with food? Feast at the house of Levi or Simon, the Last Supper, Belshazzar seeing the writing on the wall, all good. Female nude? Ah, that's why we keep the Greeks around: Europa, Danae, Venus...

Totally agree with "there are as many motives as artists."

Tim, strictly speaking, Zen Buddhism is a religion, particularly using the Walk Like a Duck test. There's no God, but there are gods, and there is a hell, but most Zen Buddhists I know see the six realms as aspects of mind in this world. Religion, as opposed to spirituality, addresses legitimate needs for ceremonial responses to birth, death, and important stuff in between. Religion and spirituality are the exoteric and esoteric sides of the same phenomenon, and while you often see the former without the latter, you see the latter without the former infrequently. Religion can go to pot - Buddhism is not as much of an exception as you might think - but so can spirituality.

3/08/2006 05:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Art follows patronage around by the nose

3/08/2006 05:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Franklin, I'm afraid we're in violent agreement.

There are gods in Buddhism? And hell? Did not know.

Greco-Roman Mythology also fits your "got subject?" criterion. Very interesting. Also relevant to western art in particular, both it and the Christian stories have actors who are all white [never mind for the moment that mediterranean guy who looks like a tall redhead in his pictures], so the european artist and the viewing audience would of course be able to identify personally with the illustrated drama. Each physically-distinct culture would have its own encyclopedia of dramatis personnae.

3/08/2006 05:54:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

...strictly speaking, Zen Buddhism is a religion, particularly using the Walk Like a Duck test.

I never thought of Groucho's famous question as a Zen koan, but now I see it :)

3/08/2006 06:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Groucho-Roshi is one of my favorite masters.

3/08/2006 06:26:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Mine too. I'm a total Groucho Marxist.

3/08/2006 06:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The history of rooms from the humble to the grandiose, to the stupendous.
For wind to pass through a room there has to be at least two windows open. The more windows necessitate a bigger room. The bigger the room the possibility arises for more windows. And bigger the room yet, wind creates within the room from things moving around in it. Then arise all sort of strange choices!
A room with no windows has the dweller spending most of their time outside, in a healthy situation.
My Buddhist friend when I pointed them to this post pointed to me and said, “ New York is kind of a Buddhism, it does not tolerate peddling, and there is no short room for personal belief. The last part had me thinking its meaning.

3/09/2006 09:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My question about this, if it's true, is why then do we see plenty of art in galleries and museums that takes a critical view of religion, but not art that takes a supportive view?"

It seems to me that, in art, there is no such thing as a critical or supportive view of religion: only a constant discussion of the unknown/unknowable. Criticism of religion implies a continuation of the arguments, rather than a complete disregard.
I think that both art and religion are the unconscious mind’s attempt to order things that it can’t articulate or can’t know.
I’m not religious at all, but I certainly acknowledge that there are things in life that are greater than me: death, birth, war, ..etc. These are fitting subjects for art and (not) coincidentally fitting subjects for religion.
Constant discussion (and hilarity) ensue....nothing is ever, or can ever, be solved

3/09/2006 09:19:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I appreciate what you're saying about art and religion being well suited to address the big questions, Anonymous, but I'm not sure I'd agree that "in art, there is no such thing as a critical or supportive view of religion." There are works of art that sought to illustrate the glory of God or, to coin a phrase, the "passion" of the Christ or the terror of hell, or whatever, most definitely taking a pro- position on the teachings of the church, no?

3/09/2006 09:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Todd W. said...

I'm so sorry I don't have the time to read through this thread of comments and participate more fully right this minute as this is a topic near to my heart. Edward, thanks for opening such thoughtful conversations on the topic of art and religion, something that is unfortunately ignored - if not scorned - more generally in the arts community.

why then do we see plenty of art in galleries and museums that takes a critical view of religion, but not art that takes a supportive view?

Is the gallery the only appropriate place for art? ;-) The gallery is a relatively modern contsruct and perhaps it's no coincidence that it developed around the time the long symbiosis between art and religion ruptured. It seems more natural for art that supports religious sentiment to be viewed in a sympathetic setting, ie a church, temple, etc, no?

I did notice at least one major show last year that had an explictly Christian theme and was seemingly well received even celebrated, but the artist's name escapes me now. Argh! (It'll come to me eventually...)

3/09/2006 09:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are works of art that sought to illustrate the glory of God

True. I wasn't making myself clear.
I think that a painting illustrating the glory of God is most definitely taking a pro-church position. And you might say that the Piss Christ takes an anti-church position. However, in my opinion both pieces are ultimately about 'what happens when we die?'.
You can talk about specifics: this picture is about St Someone-or-other performing a miracle, and therefore supports the church, or this picture is about the conformity of organised religion, and is against the church. Really, they are both trying to organise our chaotic ideas about life or death or marriage or what-have-you and manifest them into something solid so that we can be entertained by the discussion of it.
The argument about whether or not this or that type of religious belief structure is true (or truer) can only be a subset of the argument concerning man's basic needs and fears.
For or against religion is immaterial. It's about 'how to live your life'.
Anti-church painting is really pro-church in the sense that 'church' is a cipher for the unknown, and the ‘anti-church’ is just offering a new variation on the ‘old church’.
We don’t see too many pro-church paintings any longer because that way of thinking about our life is in the process of being superseded, and those paintings are not so helpful (entertaining) anymore. As an extreme example, I might say that we can no longer look at cave paintings as having a spiritual resonance with modern man. They have a resonance to be sure, but they no longer work in the way they were created to work.

Confused? Me too. I don't normally write, so my explanation isn't too eloquent.
But (like Todd W above) this is an interesting discussion and writing this short explanation has helped crystallise my thoughts on the topic.


3/09/2006 01:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see the problem of critical art (painting in particular) as a deeper problem than specifically in regards to religion. Skepticism and ambiguousness seem to run rampant in contemporary art. Is it even possible for a contemporary artist to be sincere about something or to express something straightforward? It seems to me that the artist who takes responsibility for what they put down is often viewed with as naive. Are we in an age of critical doubt?

3/13/2006 01:03:00 AM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Anonymous is right in saying that the problem is belief in general, not religion in particular. Irony and critical distance have a strong hold on art production and discourse.

The Mark diSuvero/Rikrit/Iles talk at the Biennial was a really great example of this. When diSuvero was asked why he rebuilt the Peace Tower, he railed passionately and directly about his opposition to the war. Rikrit, on the other hand, was evasive and deftly played one huge institution (diSuvero) off the other (Iles, representing "The Whitney Family"). All Rikrit provided was a frame. diSuvero's sincerity, when paired with Iles' lame assertions that this really was 'about community' because she actually got to handle the 200 panels without white gloves (!) became shockingly naive. The point of the Peace Tower became how easily the Whitney swallowed it up. Literally.

This is art world business as usual, and it works because to some extent it is true. It is consistently satisfying to make something false and to disarm any Big Truth. In college we all learned that everything is relative.

The problem is that it's too easy to stand on the sidelines and throw banana peels. We actually need art to do things--we live in weird bad times. IMO, this "republican artist" revolution Feuer mentions is possible if "republican" is shorthand for "believes in things".

3/13/2006 10:30:00 AM  

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