Reports of the Death of Religious Art Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

By S. Brent PlateJanuary 24, 2017

Reports of the Death of Religious Art Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
WHEN WRITTEN in the same sentence, the terms “religion” and “art” tend to turn the contemporary secularized gaze back in time to Renaissance imagery. Those old, redolent, often pious pictures of Christ Child and Madonna are pleasing to look at, but these days their principal function is to confirm how religious art existed in ages past. Present-day artists can’t possibly be interested in that anymore.

To other eyes, religion and art co-exist just fine, as long as it’s a nebulous, personal “spirituality” that the artists are trying to express — nothing too public, political, or potentially threatening to anyone who looks at it. Others light on the scandals — Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly, John Latham’s God is Great — thinking the arts now only work against religion. And still others reduce “religious art” to some proselytizing message, like you might see in Thomas Kinkade’s kitschily-lit homes.

Which is all quite remarkable, considering modern and contemporary art is flooded with religious symbols, strivings, conceptions, and, yes, controversies. Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian broke with representational art a century ago and did it in explicitly religious and spiritual terms. Later in the century Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Agnes Martin, and Yves Klein reduced formal art to lines and colors, employing religious terminology in their manifestos. More recently, video artists Bill Viola, Gary Hill, Paweł Wojtasik, and Shirin Neshat have not only made use of religious imagery, but they have also provoked viewers to have religious experiences while contemplating their work. Similarly, avant-garde filmmakers from Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage to contemporaries Nina Danino and Nathaniel Dorsky have worked with myth, ritual, and the sacred elements of time. The nature-based art of Andy Goldsworthy’s sculptures and James Turrell’s Roden Crater are cosmic to their core, while outsider/self-taught artists like Howard Finster and James Hampton were zealous in their religiosity. And the book arts of Guy Laramée and Brian Dettmer, as well as the recreated textual works of Meg Hitchcock and Shahzia Sikander, challenge our concepts of sacred texts and their place within religious traditions.

Modern and contemporary art’s religious infusions have been the subject of multiple major exhibitions of the past two decades including The Third Mind at the Guggenheim in New York (2009), Traces du Sacré at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (2008), Heaven at Tate Liverpool (1999–2000), and Iconoclash at the ZKM in Karlsruhe (2002). When the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago had its grand reopening in 1996, the first big exhibition was Negotiating Rapture, for which curator Richard Francis brought together artists who are “making art in their studios in much the same way that monks meditate in their cells.” Even the notorious Chris Ofili, whose The Holy Virgin Mary became the touchstone for a deeply entrenched sociopolitical-religious firestorm in 1999, showed the depths of his religious influences and interests throughout his major retrospective, Night and Day, at New York’s New Museum in 2014–’15.


But while modern and contemporary artists have continued to embrace, or rail against, their spiritual inklings or their own religious pasts and presents, and while curators have responded by tapping into these sources, those writing about the arts — historians, critics, and journalists — have kept their secular gaze narrowly focused.

In 1979, in the journal October, prominent art historian Rosalind Krauss confessed to how “we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence.” By the turn of the millennium things hadn’t changed much, leading the prolific art theorist Jim Elkins to write the little book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (2004) in which he claimed that “ambitious, successful contemporary fine art is thoroughly non-religious. Most religious art — I’m saying this bluntly here, because it needs to be said — is just bad art.” He even has a clear-cut reason to support this claim: “because art that sets out to convey spiritual values goes against the grain of the history of modernism.” In 2009, he repeated much of the same in Re-Enchantment (co-edited with David Morgan, to which I was a contributor).

Sentiments like these led the scholar of religion and art Sally Promey to survey the literature in US art history and note the lack of attention to religious motifs and themes. In a widely regarded essay in The Art Bulletin from 2003, she called art historians’ reluctance to analyze anything religious as part of the “prevalent modernist intellectual assumptions concerning religion’s restriction of creative individuality.” Which is part of what Elkins means by going “against the grain of the history of modernism.”

Critics and journalists rarely diverge from the secular gaze when it comes to using art and spirit in the same sentence. Apart from Holland Cotter’s usually astute observations in The New York Times, and a handful of others such as David Van Biema and Menachem Wecker, few critics get the variety of ways artists engage religious traditions, or, what’s more, the ways art can become religious above and beyond its overt symbolism — in other words, the way people use art. Reviews of exhibitions and artists’ retrospectives often go out of their way to dismiss, willfully ignore, or downplay the clear religious dimensions.

The Kerry James Marshall retrospective Mastry (at the Met Breuer, New York, and then on to MOCA, Los Angeles) is a recent case in point. Critics noted how Marshall plays with the past and reimagines history, but they readily overlooked the religious dimensions of that history, the constant presence of African deities and Haitian vodou signs, as well as the iconography of Christian saints, halos, angels, and icons that flow through his work. Marshall himself has been explicit about his use of the Yoruban pantheon as heroic figures suitable for contemporary African-American life, as West African orishas are transformed into superheroes in his ongoing project Rythm Mastr. Such key influences escaped the notice of almost all major reviews of the show.


Art and religion co-evolved through human history in ways that have generally been impossible to detangle. From Homo neanderthalensis to Homo sapiens, from cave paintings to Baroque altarpieces, the ritualistic uses of art were never difficult to see, as the symbolic dimensions of objects pointed transcendentally beyond their immediate use value.

The dominant myth of modernity (and modernism) is that we have finally freed ourselves (and our art) from a parasitic dependence on religion and its symbols, rituals, and myths. In other words, in Max Weber’s famous phrase, modernity is characterized by the “disenchantment of the world.” That’s clearly the credo of contemporary writers on art. Elkins’s “history of modernism” is a story we tell ourselves about art, the artist, and her or his seemingly “creative individuality,” not constrained by outside forces.

But, to use a well-worn modernist trope, the repressed eventually returns. Contra Freud, we never really did outgrow religion, we just choose to ignore it.

With this mythology of the modern as a backdrop, publications in the last few years indicate a significant shift in religion-art relations. A number of art historians and religious historians have supplied fresh perspectives for those of us interested in the full parameters of human life, the ways religion and art have continued to be embedded in each other’s work, and the ways they both permeate human strivings. And I’m not talking about more pictures of Jesus and his mother.

Two books, from decidedly differing perspectives, take on the very myth of the modernism itself, and the idea that religion and art necessarily became separated in the midst of it. Donald Preziosi’s Art, Religion, Amnesia: The Enchantments of Credulity (2013) uses a sometimes overwrought reliance on poststructuralism to dissolve the religion-art binary, coming to the verdict that “[a]rt and religion are variant yet mutually defining and co­determined answers or approaches to the same questions of the ethics of the practice of the self.” This is a postmodernist, Foucauldian self, lacking stability, though it’s not difficult to see this as a modification of the modernist myth of the artist, free from encumbrance, at the root of both the artistic and religious contemporary project. In Modern Art and the Life of a Culture (2016), Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness also rewrite modernist history, but from a Protestant theological perspective, arguing “that the crises and labors of modernist art were, among other things, theological crises and labors.” Dig around in art, and we find religion. Dig around in religion, and we find art.

Getting to analyses of specific artists and artworks, Mark C. Taylor’s Refiguring the Spiritual (2012) and Jeffrey Kosky’s Arts of Wonder (2012) offer philosophical- and theological-minded forays into the spiritual dimensions of contemporary artists. Taylor has been peering into the theologies lying just under the painted surfaces of modern art at least since his 1992 Disfiguring, and here he turns to bemoan the art world’s “financialization of art,” holding up instead the transformative art experiences that Joseph Beuys, Matthew Barney, James Turrell, and Andy Goldsworthy provide. Kosky picks up on Weber’s disenchantment thesis and posits that, at the end of modernity’s myth the arts continue to offer places for wonder, creation, and redemption, even in seemingly secular art like Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Blur building, and Goldsworthy’s driftwood sculptures. Taylor and Kosky write from within a similar narrative about the modern split between religion and art, and even overlap in attention to some of the artworks (e.g., Turrell’s Roden Crater), while collectively they provide strong argument that “secular art,” if it remains in the realm of disenchantment, leaves much to be desired.

Like Kosky, whose examinations are often tinged with personal, subjective responses to the artworks, noted scholar of Chinese religions Norman Girardot had his own epiphany along the academic way when he confronted the “self-taught” art of Howard Finster. Girardot’s encounters and analyses are summed up in Envisioning Howard Finster: The Religion and Art of a Stranger from Another World (2015). He finds something sacred in the midst of what Elkins would clearly label “bad art.” Yet, rather than dismiss the lack of formal training, for Girardot “Finster’s shamanistic form of visionary and evangelical outsiderism points toward the complex interconnections of religious ecstasy, artistic creation, mental abnormality, cultural deprivation, social marginality, and obsessive behavior.”

Another striking recent work is more of an exhibition in book form than a sustained verbal argument, though there’s some of that too. Aaron Rosen’s coffee-table-sized Art + Religion in the 21st Century (2015) is filled with hundreds of full-color images that are grouped together in sections that cut across cultural and religious lines. Themes of creation, memory, embodiment, ritual, mourning, afterlives, and cultural difference, among others, converge through images that when juxtaposed accentuate new relations across times and places. With carefully chosen categories to structure the work, it is ultimately in the amassing of imagery — from reformed pietàs to abstract crucifixions, de- and reritualized masks to architectural cubes, sacred texts to spectral ghosts — that makes clear how much, at the very least, art borrows from religious traditions. At another deeper level, art is transformed by its religious dimensions.

Art historian Karen Gonzalez Rice’s Long Suffering: American Endurance Art as Prophetic Witness (2016) is an important addition to this growing bibliography. Gonzalez Rice examines the relations between the artistic and religious lives of performance artists Ron Athey, Linda Montano, and John Duncan, finding that their backgrounds in Pentecostalism, Catholicism, and Calvinism, respectively, shaped their approaches to endurance, the body, and ultimately suffering and potentially healing. Gonzalez Rice’s work is especially key as she shifts interest in religion away from what the artists believed, pointing instead toward the practices of art, the bodily-based disciplines, sufferings, and desires.

Lest we get the sense that many of these studies grow from a Christian and/or post-Christian environment, other religious traditions are also seeing strong reverberations in contemporary art.

The relation of Islam to modern and contemporary art is increasingly well documented, from Wijdan Ali’s art-historical Modern Islamic Art: Development and Continuity (1997) to Visual Cultures in the Modern Middle East (2013), edited by Christiane Gruber and Sune Haugbolle. Meanwhile, LACMA’s 2015–’16 exhibition Islamic Art Now brought together two dozen artists working in one way or other with Islamic tradition, and the V&A in London has sponsored the Jameel Prize “for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition,” since 2009. Museums throughout the Middle East — including the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar — are strongly promoting contemporary arts. All of this activity bespeaks a vibrant ongoing relation between Islam and the arts.

A project that could have raised more eyebrows than it did is Sandow Birk’s American Qur’an, a series of large paintings incorporating the 114 surahs of the Qu’ran. Having discovered Islamic calligraphy at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin while on a surfing trip, Birk plunged into research on Qu’rans, creating his own painted versions of the surahs. The project is a usually brilliant mix of Islam’s sacred text in English translation, with life in these United States, mixing the traditional and the contemporary. Selections of these were exhibited in various galleries over the past decade, and ultimately the entire collection was reproduced and bound into a book with accompanying texts by Reza Aslan and Zareena Grewal (2015). As Birk worked on the project for several years, showing pieces of it in various galleries, articles began to appear in major news outlets. Here critics paid attention to religion, although in most instances the writers worked from an all-too-common discourse about Muslims as reactionary, and spent much of their columns devoted to whether some controversy was going to ensue, some censorious protest from Muslim radicals. But nothing happened, and here again many critics missed a chance to engage with religious tradition in more useful ways.

Meanwhile, modern and contemporary art from the oft-labeled (however wrongly) “aniconic” Jewish tradition provides sources for rethinking the religion-art relation, as Samantha Baskind’s Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America demonstrates (2014). Baskind takes up the work of several Jewish artists, including Jack Levine, George Segal, Audrey Flack, Larry Rivers, R. B. Kitaj, Leonard Baskin, Allan Kaprow, Ben Shahn, and Nancy Spero, artists who, Baskind argues, work “to reconfigure traditional religious Judaism to make it meaningful in modern America.” She interprets them as performing a kind of midrash, bringing the Torah to light through contemporary issues of assimilation, feminism, violence, mourning, and the Holocaust.


At the end of her book, Baskind ponders why, with so much clear evidence that modern artists drew on religious history, have art historians and critics not discussed these elements of their work. Her answer is that they “were and still are at a loss about how to deal with this material.” The secular gaze is a myopic gaze, operating at a loss of vision, but this recent spate of books may go some way to rectify the situation.

Collectively, this cluster of publications indicates a return to religion in writing on modern and contemporary art. Even so, there is little nostalgia in play here: any “return” is only nominal. None of these writers, or the artists under discussion, is advocating an experience with a traditional god, or encouraging pews to be filled again in church and temple. Strictly speaking these are all secular accounts of secular arts — with the exception, I would say, of Finster. That is, most simply, the art is not created in the service of a religious institution. In loose terms, there is an advocacy for a kind of reenchantment of the art world and, by extension, a reenchantment of the secular world as a whole (something Suzi Gablik was already calling for in her 1991 book The Reenchantment of Art).

What is distinctive, however, are the ways these authors do not try to slip religion in through the backdoor by resorting to a foggy notion of “spirituality.” Instead they find what is deeply religious — bodily performance, symbolic gestures, narratives on the cusp of the truth, immersive and interactive spaces — in the midst of the seemingly secular, unembarrassed to use religion and art in the same sentence. They do not assume religion can be captured through “beliefs,” or art through a disinterested knowledge. Rather, if there is a connecting point between religion and art, it is to be found in the aesthetic, sense-based experiences and affects of the body.

Perhaps now, with religious literacy an increasing necessity for civic life in an age of globalization, voluntary and involuntary immigration, and new instances of diversity, the arts might help find the ways renewed connections can be made. And, perhaps ultimately, critics will start paying more attention.


S. Brent Plate is a writer, public speaker, and part-time professor at Hamilton College. His most recent books include A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects.

LARB Contributor

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief. His writings have been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Religion Dispatches. His books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World and Blasphemy: Art that Offends.


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