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Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Is the Art world anti-Christian?

Tyler Green's interesting and perceptive 'Art and Life' piece in the April edition of Modern Painters asked the question 'Is the Art World anti-Christian?' By doing so, Green followed the current trend in mainstream Art magazines to discuss the relationship between Art and Christianity without then taking the next step and giving significant examples of active modern or contemporary engagement between Christianity and the visual arts (see my post on the Art and Religion edition of frieze). Green ultimately presents only part of the story while arriving at the accurate conclusion that, while certainly not being anti-Christian, the art world seems ambivalent, conflicted or indifferent to Christian engagement with contemporary art:

"Given that the American people are conflicted about religion, it shouldn’t be a surprise that our artists and art institutions are too. As I worked on this column, I searched and searched for scholarly museum exhibitions that chronicle how today’s artists examine religion. I couldn’t find a single one. The only curator or critic I could find who has addressed religion in contemporary art in depth is James Elkins, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Elkins’s 2004 book "On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art" didn’t exactly kick off a flurry of discourse. Take that as another indicator of the art world’s indifference toward religion." 

Green's article focussed particularly on the way in which museums display their collections of Christian art making some astute observations along the way. The changing approaches to this issue that Scott Schafer speaks about in the article are not only a current phenomenon. For example, the latest edition of 'Art and Christianity' includes a review of A Place for Meaning: Art, Faith and Museum Culture which "reads like a thoughtful how-to: how to display, explain and make relevant religious art to a wide museum constituency." The book's reviewer Ena Heller writes of having had to address the same issues of how to educate a secular or multi-faith public without alienating the community of the faithful when she was, in the early 2000s, "struggling to articulate a vision and a realistic strategy" for the Museum of Biblical Art in New York. Heller wrote in 2004’s Reluctant Partners: Art and Religion in Dialogue that recent years had witnessed an increased dialogue, through both exhibitions and publications, and that "museums are ideally positioned to advance this dialogue, as they bridge the worlds of religion, art, and scholarship." Such work, however, is generally under-reported.

As we have noted Green writes of being unable to find scholarly museum exhibitions that chronicle how today’s artists examine religion and of James Elkins being the only curator or critic who has addressed religion in contemporary art in depth. Again, he is right in terms of what features on the radar of the mainstream art world but again there is much that is significant which goes under-reported. Periodic exhibitions chronicling how contemporary artists have examined religion have been held such as Beyond Belief: Modern Art and the Religious Imagination (Australia), Perceptions of the Spirit in 20th-Century American Art and The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985 (US), Prophecy and Vision (UK), and Traces du Sacré (France). While such exhibitions have been few and far between they indicate that there is a largely untold story of Christian engagement with the development of Modern Art which includes:

  • the work of Adams, Aitchison, Barlach, Bazaine, Bernard, Boyd, Camilleri, Chircop, Cingria, Cocteau, Collins, Congdon, Denis, Desvallieres, Dottori, Feibusch, Filla, Finster, French, Gill, Gleizes, Herbert, Hone, Jellett, Jones, Kalleya, Kurelek, Manessier, Mehoffer, Minne, Morgan, Nesterov, Nolde, Piper, Previati, Rohlfs, Rouault, Serusier, Servaes, Severini, Smith, Spencer, Souza, Sutherland, Toorop, van de Woestyne, Van Rees, Verkade, Vrubel, among others;
  • the writings of Christian philosophers and theologians who engaged specifically with the visual arts such as Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Jane and John Dillenberger, Jacques Maritain, Hans Rookmaaker, Calvin Seervald, Mark Taylor, Paul Tillich, and Nicholas Wolterstorff, among others;
  • the commissioning of contemporary artists to create work for churches that was initiated in France by Couturier and Regamy (Assy, Ronchamp, Vence), in Britain by Bell and Hussey (St Matthews Northampton and Chichester Cathedral) and by Bogucki during the Sacrum period in Poland; and
  • the building of modern churches - see, for example, Contemporary Church Architecture by Heathcote and Moffatt or Architectural Guide to Christian Sacred Buildings in Europe Since 1950: From Aalto to Zumthor by Stock.
Such engagement continues into the contemporary scene with:
  • the work of artists such as: Breninger, Cazalet, Fujimura, Hawkinson, Howson, Kenton Webb, Nowosielski, Rollins and KOS, Spackman and Westerfrölke;
  • exhibitions organised by the Wallspace Gallery which over its four year lifespan essentially surveyed the diversity of contemporary religious engagement with the arts including shows with Chapman Brothers, Douglas Camp, Hirst, Pacheco, Taylor-Wood, iconographers, visionary artists, and contemporary artists commissioned by churches;
  • exhibitions/events such as: Crucible, a review of British sculpture held at Gloucester Cathedral; Enrique Martínez Celaya's recent The Crossing project at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine; and the King James Bible Bash in the recent London Word festival; and
  • a continuing stream of church commissions for contemporary artists including Cox, Emin, Gormley, Houshiary and Plensa, among others.
There is then much Christian engagement with Art that mainstream Art magazines could cover, critique and debate. While there are undoubtedly significant issues with the forms of engagement through which Christians engage with the Arts, it does seem to be the case that the ambivalence, conflicts or indifference that Green notes in the mainstream Art world also contribute to this lack of coverage.

Following on from Green's article, could Modern Painters break the mould by featuring or surveying the kind of work noted above, demonstrating that there is actually more to the art world's engagement with Christianity than ambivalence, conflict or indifference?

The Innocence Mission - You Chase the Light.


Josh said...

I read that article, and the frieze issue. Definitely the missing ingredient was artwork bluntly addressing the topic in hand. You've pulled together quite a bit of info here. Maybe you should write to Modern Painters with your suggestions.

Jonathan Evens said...

I've made that point to Modern Painters but haven't had a reply as yet. I hope the info that I've pulled together here shows that there is a different story that could be told, from that which is commonly told, about the interaction between Christianity and Modern Art. The whole places that I'm aware of where that story has been told with reasonable comprehensiveness are Rosemary Crumlin's 'Beyond Belief' and Rowena Loverance's 'Christian Art.'

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