James Elkins: “On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art”

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>>So I’m just gonna dive right in ’cause this is a pretty full talk. I give this talk in a
number of different places and every time I give it I add things so it’s not out of control yet but it’s almost out of control. So four points of reference here. First of all, the book but most especially conversations that have
followed on from it, and most especially conversations
at Christian institutions. And I’m gonna come back to
this theme at the end but I have this growing conviction that Christian institutions are
much more open to this topic than secular institutions. And I think most of the problem here is from the secular
institutions’ point of view. And that particular heresy,
I’m gonna defend at the end. [audience laughs] And then there was a day-long event called Re-Enchantment
that we held April 17 last year in Chicago with these people. And we’re going to make that into a book in a series called The Art Seminar, which will be out actually
in a couple months I think. And that follows on from the book, The Strange Place of Religion, but basically it’s much more various it’s much, it’s a wild and
wooly book with opinions by about 40 people arguing with each other back and forth about this. And you may know some of the names there on that list of panelists but in addition to those
there are 30 people who weren’t at the event
who were asked to write whatever they wanted, and we exercised no editorial control of that book, so anything anyone wanted
to say is in the book. A third point of reference
is a fabulous essay by a really wonderful art
historian named Piotrowski who I met in Poland last year. And some of you may
know that people who do religious art in Poland are
still subject to prosecution. Artists are threatened with jail, galleries are shut down, and this guy has a wonderful essay in
English on that subject. And a fourth and last
point of reference here is a really odd and interesting trip that I took to Malta, also last year. Malta is really tiny, it’s 400,000 people. And it’s 99 point
something percent Catholic. The very tiny artists’ community there is split in an interesting way. The few people who are really
trying to be artists seriously have to have two completely
different personas. They have their persona
where they’re trying to do their fine art and
getting the international shows, and then they have the other persona, which is for the church. So I’ll come back to each one of these as we go along through and develop them. Okay, so the organization of this talk, first of all I want to
just outline the problem, to give a general introduction to it. And then I’m gonna give some examples of gulfs of misunderstanding. The gulf here being between in general, institutions of faith and institutions that present themselves
as secular, that gulf. And then five models of
the alienation of religion in contemporary art, and
this follows on from my book so those of you who
have seen it will know, but if you haven’t, it doesn’t matter. I’m gonna introduce them here. And then last, and I added
this at about midnight [laughs] three I think fairly
unlikely ways forward. But what I’m hoping for today
is that we’ll add to these. We’ll make them more than three and we’ll make them less unlikely, maybe. Okay, so first of all
to outline the problem. I have in the book some
preliminary definitions. And several readers,
including David Morgan, suggested that I do this. Because this topic, if
you don’t start out with some sort of heuristic definitions you end up arguing
forever about vocabulary. So in the book, and also in this talk for the purposes of this talk religion means any named,
non-cultic system of belief and this is the more important one, spirituality means any
partly private non-liturgical partly incommunicable system of belief. And it’s the partly modifiers
that are important here to make this distinction. If you do start out from
a distinction like this, and of course, I know
this is a very problematic kind of distinction,
and in the book there’s a bit more of a justification for it. But it’s for heuristic purposes, to start a certain kind of conversation. If you do start out
more or less from this, then I think you find
that talk of religion is almost completely
absent in the art world. And talk of spirituality
is present, but rare. So I want to give a list here
of three kinds of absence three ways that talk of religion is absent from the art world. First of all, it’s absent from
art magazines and journals, except when the art is
critical of religion. So if the art has
something critical to say about religion then it’s
immediately accepted. And by the way, I’m sure somebody here can tell me the name of the
artist who made a parody of, well not a parody, but he used this one to crush the Eastern Orthodox patriarch. Does that ring a bell for anyone? I’m trying to find that artist again because I saw it a little while ago. Anyway, if you know, tell me afterwards. Second, religion is absent
from the central texts of modernism and post-modernism. And I’ll just give two examples. This is Tim Clark’s book,
Farewell to an Idea, which I think is in many ways the best work of art history written in the last 25 years. It’s spectacular. He’s a tremendously thoughtful
person, this guy Clark. And he has absolutely nothing to say and nothing to do with religious interpretations of artworks. And I have that one sentence from just the middle of a passage in
which he’s really talking about something else, “I will have nothing to
do with the self-satisfied leftist claptrap about art
as substitute religion.” Absolutely no absolutely no ground is given
on this point in his book. Modern art, post-modern art for him have absolutely nothing to do with or are radically
misinterpreted as vehicles for the continuation of
spiritual or religious thinking. And the second example here
is this multiply-authored textbook, Art Since 1900. And this is more or less
the de facto textbook of 20th century art. It’s just by far the best thing out there for 20th-century art. The authors of it, the four authors are among the architects
of post-structuralism, starting in the sixties. And they have almost no time to devote to works which are openly religious, like Matisse’s Vence chapel
and things like that. There’s almost no space
in the book for them. I haven’t done a page count, but if I did, it would be maybe three, maybe four pages for work like that. So there in a kind of telegraphic way are two examples of that. And then third, religion is absent from the pedagogy of studio art. And what first got me into this subject was really not these big
questions of institution and discourse and all the rest of that, but really something much more direct and kind of down-home, and
that was that where I teach in Chicago, in the Art Institute school, I was constantly running across students who were doing religious work. And there’s a Christian
Students Association, and there’s a lot of
interesting things going on. But in general, and this
would be across the board for any art institution that’s
in a secular institution, that’s in a secular setting, if a student presents something
that has something in it that’s explicitly religious, the teacher will tiptoe around it. It’s almost as dangerous to mention that as it would be if the
student had something sexist or racist or pornographic or something. It’s just that the teachers feel that anything they say is gonna be wrong. So that was what first got me into this. I was interested in the fact that students couldn’t get critique
of the religious meaning of their work in these settings, they had to find other
ways, other settings. And then that also means
that students aren’t taught how religious ideas are expressed. There are many signs of
the depth of this gulf that intrigues me, and
just as a small one, but a typical one, I
had to add this morning that parenthesis in secular institutions. Whenever I go to an institution of faith, I have to add that because
it’s taken for granted everywhere else that what I
mean is the entire art world. No one even thinks that there
might be other settings. Okay, some examples of these and here I show you the probably, I think it’s pretty
much the only invitation that I got to speak
following on from the book from a secular institution. MIT did this conference last
year called Deus Ex Historia. Well, so the woman who
ran that is an expert on Clement Greenberg, Carolyn Jones, and she’s a very interesting
person in her own right and has many other
interests other than this. But she helped to organize
this conference last year. And when I was invited I
said, oh that’s interesting. Sure I’d like to come in theory, but tell me who do you
have there who’s gonna talk about from the point of
view of various religions? And she said, well well have Bruno LaTour. Now Bruno Latour is a French sociologist. And he is interested in
religion, but he’s a sociologist. And I said, well that doesn’t count. And she said well, for
us, that does, right? [laughter] And so I decided for that particular venue that I would add some
slides in to the beginning of this lecture to show
that their audience the kinds of things
that they were not going to be talking about. And I left those slides
in here because I think it’s very important in
this subject not to begin by actually drawing any
boundaries around anything. In a subject like this
you have to let everything in at first and then decide
what you’re gonna talk about. So here’s just a sequence of slides to make that general point. I wanted to show them
there’s more work out there then is dreamt of, et cetera. So these are random takes,
almost random from the internet. If you Google things like artist, faith, that kind of thing general Google terms you get things like this. Very, very sincere, but
because it’s sincere and because it’s open
about its religious content and even aside from its style, which I’ll come back to in a bit, this is not something that
would receive serious notice in the art world. Here’s a very entertaining website, I don’t know this person
but he runs this blog, a postmodern pentecostal,
which he spelled wrong, lectionary blog. And he does these paintings
that range in style from that’s Tamara de Lempicka
kind of style there and also sort of German expressionist. He’s a wonderful guy, I
hope someday to find out what you know in person what he’s like. But it has things like this,
The Empty Backward Hall or It’s My Party and I’ll
Cry if I Want To-Dash-God. [laughter] And then down at the bottom it says watercolor and espresso
prints, he’s mostly espresso. [laughter] I think if you were to,
if there was a way to do an internet search that basically that basically captured quantities as opposed to just random hits, most of the artwork out
there on the internet by artists who identify themselves
as in some way religious would be more or less like this. That is to say, in formal terms maybe not the strongest
painting in the world. There’s a lot of weak art out there. Obviously by the nature
of things not everyone is tremendously skilled. So this is if you were a sociologist, this would be what you would study. An analogy for natural history would be this is like the, what,
the bacteria or something. This is the organism that is
really all over the place. Not the rare things like mammals, right? This is what’s really out there. So if you were interested
in the sort of worldwide phenomenon of art, that is engaged deeply and
sincerely with religious issues this is the kind of thing
that would have to be studied. It would be difficult
for a person in a secular art-historical setting to study this not only because of the issues that we’re concerned with today, but also because of a lack of skill. And then of course there’s
art that’s in churches, that’s a more or less random example. I like it because it’s
a picture of the church from inside the church. That kind of thing is not often studied. Although, by the way, I can’t I’m gonna really try hard
not to ever go back [laughs] cause I know how annoying that is I know from the point of
view of like listening to lectures that are gonna be long anyway, when someone says oh, I’ll
just go back for a second [audience laughs] Right? But I can’t resist this
because I have a colleague in Chicago who is a great
counterexample of this, Kym Pinder, she’s studying representations of Jesus as a black man
in Chicago churches. There’s fabulous material
on that out there, so that’s a little plug for my colleague. And then of course, church
art that’s more or less official church art is
ignored, is not studied. And I will have more examples of this from other denominations
as I go on through. And just by way of saying that you can’t draw boundaries before you start, there’s equine-assisted psychotherapy. [laughter] It’s a faith-base site that
helps people and animals, I assume, although the horse
doesn’t look very happy. [laughter] So in the course of this
lecture I’m gonna be sometimes moving from things
that are way out there to things that are closer and closer, that is things that
potentially could give people art historians in the major universities more pause for thought and
that’s what I’m gonna do here just to finish up this list. So here’s something by
someone named Steve Brugnac who I don’t otherwise
know called Black Mandala, which he describes as, he says “the translucent black
field acts as a catalyst for meditation as
inspired by the paintings of Mark Rothko.” And so now if he had just presented that black part of the center part, that would be okay, but the antiqued bronzed
frame would be construed by a lot of people as a
misunderstanding of Rothko. And then in addition to that, when he says when he uses the expression
catalyst for meditation that’s problematic. So this would be a step
closer to something that would compel attention. And my last one in the sequence is this. Karen Arm does really interesting work which if she didn’t make
statements about spirituality would be pretty much
acceptable as post-minimalist pattern painting after
Sol LeWitt and so on. A number of different
influences converge there. So it’s here where you
get incrementally small distances between the two discourses that you run into the
most interesting problems. Okay, so most of this is going to be about these five models. And I’m going to just recap these briefly. First of all, there’s
avowedly religious art, art in which the artist
says through a statement or the symbols say for the artist that the work has to do with a religion, a religious practice. And then there’s art that you can assign to new religious movements. I found out when I was researching this that New Age is not a PC thing to say, because New Age comprises
too many different things. You should say NRMs,
New Religious Movements. Art that is critical of religion, which I was saying that’s
one of the starting points for this text, the way that
you can get immediately if you’re a young artist and you’re dying to get in the newspaper all you have to do is
do something critical of religion and you’re in. And then the fourth, and to me the fifth and the fifth are the two
most important categories. This one, the fourth, is I use
this metaphor burning away. Art that burns away liturgy
defying viable belief. I use that metaphor as just as example of any number of other
metaphors you could use. But I’m thinking there of Anselm Kiefer, who has had a practice of burning books and then putting them on
pedestals and alter-like shapes and the assumption is they’re Bibles, he doesn’t actually burn Bibles, but the assumption is then
that’s kind of a holy text but you can’t read it anymore, it becomes more holy paradoxically by being rendered illegible. So there’s an entire vast and I think very not coherent, but a vast
collection of practices in contemporary art in which the artist mistrusts something about the religion that they were brought up in. And they feel that they
can get at what counts if they can just get out,
just get beyond the crust just get out and just get
into the center of it. I’m gonna come back to each
one of these, of course. And then the last, which I
think is equally important, is art that could be said to
be unconsciously religious. I’ve had a number of
students and seen a number of young artists over the years who claim that they have
nothing to do with religion or spirituality, they don’t
like the word religion. They won’t talk at all if I start to talk in those terms. Because they honestly
don’t think that their work has anything to do with it. But honestly, it does. And that’s a big critical problem. Okay, first of all,
avowedly religious art. I want to touch on four themes here. First, that art world
venues for this are rare and or idiosyncratic. I’m gonna come back to each one of these. That native styles are widely accepted. If you do something that
represents a religious practice with which most people are unfamiliar in the place that you’re showing the work, that can be acceptable. Art commissioned by churches and temples is usually watered-down modernism. I have more to say about this is the book and we may come back to it, but it’s a problem from the
point of view of people for whom modernism and
postmodernism have to be full of high-water marks
of avant garde complexity. And then religious art
can be too sentimental or un-ironic for the art world. So I’ll come back to each one of these. So, first theme there is that venues for contemporary religious
art are uncommon. There is a museum in St
Louis, which I’m sure most of you know, and in the Vatican, which I’m sure some of you know. The Vatican museum of modern
religious art is one of the world’s most bizarre museums. Last time I checked it’s
not on the Vatican website. I have this feeling they’re
slightly embarrassed about it. [laughter] That may be an illegitimate conclusion, but in the people that I’ve run across who’ve been there have
often been there by mistake. They just find themselves there. Anyway, there’s much more
to be said about that. But in most cases, these
exhibitions are temporary. And I’ll give you a couple of examples. One called Five Artists, Five
Faiths that was in Chapel Hill I guess about two years ago now. And this is their website. This was unusual in that the
website was very systematic, organized systematically. So you’d have a page for each faith, and then a page for each artist. You can see the artist on the left. And then a page for each faith. You can see the link on the right. So if you click on that link, you go to the Greek Orthodox page. This was unusual, very systematic. And I would be interested
to know, I don’t know how the curator got the artists to agree to represent an entire
religion all by themselves. [laughter] It’s an interesting example
of this guy Ahmed Mustafa who represents Islam on the site. And there he is. So I think what’s problematic
about this kind of art is often that it is as I say at the top it’s unnecessary and it
tends to be extra-liturgical, it tends to be outside
the liturgical practices of the faith in question. So that it doesn’t actually
enter into an important engaged dialogue but acts more
as an ornament to the faith. And if you’re close enough you can see some of the text there in
which he’s talking about the Kaba and Arabic script
on his letters and so on. It would be unobjectionable to a person, to an Islamic viewer
and therefore in a sense the stakes are lower than they might be. It’s not art at full force encountering religion at full force. This is more typical, it’s an exhibition that I contributed
something to called Faith, held in Hartford. And it’s a kind of a miscellany. There’s the cover of it. And I’ll just show you a couple things. This is a still from a
video by Matt Collishaw who does video works. In this case there’s a
very physically shown, physically enacted
crucifixion, which reminds me of like the Mel Gibson
you know physicality and of that theme. And then he uses kind of kitschy
colors like Salvador Dali. But no two works in this
exhibition are alike. So this is Walid Raad,
who’s a very central fixture in the international art world. And this is something that is
presented as having been made by a security agent who
asked to monitor people on a boardwalk and then
turned his video camera on the sunset. It has, it sees its
religion through politics. Which is another theme
that we could get into as we go along. Arlene Sachet or Saw-shay,
who I don’t otherwise know, does a whole number of different
kinds of styles of work, but this one I put in
because it has resonance with my fourth theme. It’s a Buddha-like figure,
but it’s kind of messed up. It doesn’t have any of the
iconographic attributes that would be required if this were to be in a Buddhist temple. But on the other hand,
that would then create something, an opportunity of expression that she would presumably not find in the conventional forms. And another example here,
an exhibition called Faith, which has essays by Eleanor
Heartney and some others. And Eleanor Heartney who’s a newspaper art critic and journalist. She says the contemporary
art world tends to see art and religion as enemies,
that’s her starting point. Fairly typical, so I’ve
put it in there as a little as a brief allusion to that. So they’re pretty indicative, I think, these kinds of things
of a lack of theorizing on this subject. And that’s basically simply because the choices in these kinds of exhibitions can often be expanded arbitrarily. The assumption is that it’s a big field, it’s a natural assumption, it’s accurate enough as far as it goes. But then what’s lacking is a sense of what the boundaries of the field are, what it looks like, what the
shape of the whole thing is. Second theme here is that Native styles are often very widely
accepted in the art world. And by Native here, I mean
regional, local, Native tribal, provincial indigenous vernacular. They can be taken as authentic
provided most of the people who are looking at them
don’t know what they are. So way back in I think
1990 or 1991, we had an exhibition in Chicago
called something like Contemporary Religion, and
I was one of three jurors. We had all the major suspects there, the big-name artists, and
we had it was three days worth of slides to look
at, two or three days. And every time we had an artist of faith, we would reject them. That is to say, the other
two jurors would outvote me. So we would have, we had one was a picture of kind of Georgia
O’Keefe leaves and flowers and it was on the point of
being accepted for the show cause it was a lovely painting. And then one of the other
jurors read the artist statement and he said, I am a monk, and the person just
said, oh, okay [laughs]. And then they rejected it. The only person in that show who who said that he was actually
a member of a religion was a Native American who
gave us a kind of a round abstract kind of circular
mandala kind of a drawing. That was okay, because he
didn’t identify what tribe he was from and what the piece meant. So it was taken by the
other two jurors as sincere. And therefore acceptable
for the exhibition. And by the way, the most
popular piece in that show was a little plastic crucifix
and underneath it had a sign that said Beam Me Up, Scotty. So there you have a very good example of that kind of what is it,
one-liner of anti-religious sentiment that’s an absolute
passkey to the art world. It also ensures that
your fame is very brief. But if you want that
brief fame, you’ve got it. So my just example, there
could be many examples of this, but just to give one example,
this is Felix Espinoza who’s a Peruvian artist and his website. He works in a number of
different styles, as you can see. But the kind I’m talking about
here is the one on the right, which is a generally
speaking Andean contemporary vernacular religious
image, which would be taken as faithful to that tradition and faithful in general
and therefore would be acceptable if you were to show it. Whereas the thing like
the piece on the left which belongs to a school
of Paris mid-20th century expressionism, wouldn’t
generally be acceptable even aside from any other
issues having to do with the religion of the artist. So there’s a wide range of
artworks that can function as outsider religious art,
and therefore authentic. But I think generally
there’s a line that’s drawn before things that are
realistic and Western style that represent established religions. That amazing book I found
in the south of India in a Hare Krishna temple. And because it’s Hare Krishna it exists in like 80 [laughs] languages. And so there’s the
English-language one, too. But because it represents a
large, established religion a painting like that also
wouldn’t be acceptable and also because it uses Western realism for both of those reasons. And some of you may know about this. It’s a very interesting case. This guy Arnold Friberg is the official artist in contemporary
editions of the Book of Mormon. If you pick up any edition in
the last 10, maybe 15 years it will have these illustrations in it. And David Morgan, who is my co-editor on the book Re-enchantment,
told me that he once wanted to reproduce one of these
because there’s a museum of Friberg’s things in Salt Lake City and the LDS church denied him permission, they really want to keep
tight control on these images. It might be that that’s because they know that the general public
perception of these would be that they’re kitsch. And this looks like a
scene out of, I don’t know, it’s like Charlton Heston
from The Ten Commandments plus Arnold Schwarzenegger plus [audience laughter] you know, plus some Viking
fantasy or something. It’s really it would be very very difficult
to take this seriously unless you were seeing
it from the point of view of that faith and those worshipers. Third theme, art commissioned
by churches and temples is usually watered-down modernism. I showed in my first example
the and rule painting a typical example of that would often be mixtures of expressionism and cubism and we can get into this maybe today but it’s a huge issue in the sense that there are any number of churches all across the United States and the world that have a number of varieties of art that’s not quite cutting edge,
avant garde for its time. I give you one example,
though, from Judaism. This is an artist who I don’t know, it’s another one that a student
of mine found his website. Yoram Raanan, he’s
Orthodox and he does very it’s a very sincere, very pious website. Most of his pieces are about Biblical stories,
Melchizedek in this case, and he identifies them and
he tells you the story. And you see he writes
G-d in the Orthodox way. And by the way, some advice for any of you who are young artists and
are setting up your websites, don’t ever put sold in capital
red letters on your website. The reason is, if you go to
these websites a lot, like I do, you see a lot of this, and
if I go back in two years I bet it’s going to be the same thing, it’s going to say sold. In other words, it’s not
really believable [laughs] they’re actually sold. It’s better just to have them up there. So I want to show you a little
bit in detail about this one. There is a tendency among
contemporary Jewish artists, young Jewish artists, to work
in a kind of expressionist mode that’s close to abstraction. That has various virtues
from the point of view of someone who’s coming out of an Orthodox or maybe conservative background. And that is first of all, it fits better with the prohibition
against images, obviously. It also makes contact
with the kabbalistic, the mystical heritage. And it provides an affinity
with a kind of tried and true international modernism,
that is, in this case more or less Kandinsky. First generation
international abstraction. I find this kind of thing very common. And you could enlist this as an example of my fourth category, because in a sense what he’s doing is burning
away or in this case melting away most of
the figurative elements although you can see the
thing is called Prayer, you can see that there
are still sort of hands and shawls and so on. But it melts away most of
what would be the trappings in that case to get at
something underneath. Oh yeah, I forgot I had this one in here. Paul Myhill, petroglyphic
paintings, which he spells wrong. And he’s thinking of something
ancient, but this is another kind of expressionism that
is more or less acceptable in commissioned church work,
but by art world standards, this would be more or less
derivative of Van Gogh. And if you were to look at this and do a serious critical analysis of it I think you would end up
in a strange place because the assumption would have to be the crucifixion was such a powerful event that it couldn’t be represented
with straight crucifixes or ordinary colors, but it had
to have really strong colors. And that’s really odd. As if that would be an adequate
answer to that, anyway. We can come back to that. And the fourth theme,
religious art can be perceived as too sentimental, or too unambiguous, or too unreflective, or too sweet. A couple of examples of
that, this is John Bell who does a big internet
business on e-cards and he’ll also sell posters
and things like that. Each one of these has
a verse from the Bible. [audience laughter] Yeah, so [laughs]. [audience laughter] I have a little story to
tell you about this one. [laughter] I’ve shown this in a
number of different places and I get two completely
different kinds of reactions. One of them is more or less silence, and it is kind of a
delicate point, so I won’t tell you where I’ve gotten
the reaction of silence, but in other places people
have laughed immediately and in one place, which was an art school, which I suppose I also shouldn’t name, someone just yelled out from the audience, oh I see, that’s child abuse. So there are very, very
different reactions to extremely sentimental
and heartfelt work. Anyway, this guy John Bell,
most of his stuff is like this. And he uses a program, a software program which is similar to one called Bright that some of you may know. What you do here is that
you build your landscape out of sort of triangles,
you build a mountain, you wrap a text around it,
you flood it with an ocean, you drop down some clouds,
you add some lighting [laughs] and you play God and you make a landscape more beautiful than any
landscape than anyone could have actually made
with oil paint and so on. There’s another one. And it’s just a short step
from there to fantasy art and science fiction, and
this is a guy whose web site does, he says he uses
Bright and he also mentions Kinkade, who I’m gonna
be talking about later. So I’m gonna return to this
question of the sentimental and so on, also. So then the second of these
five is NRMs, new faiths. One of the characteristics
of NRM art is that it’s often syncretic in its symbolism. And here I give you an example from Malta, the first of my examples from Malta. Pierre Portelli’s piece
called Magical, Mystical. And you can see these are Mass cards, in between Tarot cards. And the guy, he’s a very nice fellow, he doesn’t really have much
to say about this piece. He just says yeah, I was
just trying to mix it up to make something that seemed,
you know, more interesting than just the church, I guess. Another characteristic of NRM work is that it’s very
inventive in its symbolism. And here my example is
Rose, Rose’s Spiritual Art. And there’s Rose [laughs]. She has a great bio on here,
at the bottom there she says “I’ve worked as a professional
spirit guide, artist, and psychic for the last 15 years.” All capitalized. It’s very, it’s a wonderful website. This is the kind of thing she does. She’s trying to illustrate
what are for her central virtues and
expressions using a very syncretic and personal kind of symbolism, which she gets mostly from Hinduism. So on the left you see a
Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god. And on the right, one of
her, they’re both her pieces but on the right one of
her pieces that illustrates a concept she’s interested in. Now the symbolism even
on the Ganesha is not quite accurate, not proper. And I know this because those of you who’ve been
to India will know that you in shops, you get these
little cards about this big which have little decals on them, with all these little things,
the hearts and the moons and the stars and all the rest of that, and they’re to stick on your forehead to make the Rishi dot. And they’re beautiful
little things, these cards. And when I discovered them,
I bought a bunch of them. And a friend of mine who
was in India for a month, and really liked these things, told me this story that she
was at a bus stop one time and she had put a lot
of these things over her just like the Ganesha
has them over his crown, and this woman walked up
to her and pushed them all together into one dot [laughs] and then walked away [laughs]. [audience laughs] So obviously this is
not quite right [laughs] but presumably close. And then going a little bit
closer to the art world, Shahzia Sikander is a well-known artist on the international scene. And she starts out from
Persian miniature painting and then she uses these
kinds of syncretic, synthetic amalgams of images to
make her own collections. You see the Venus de
Milo there on the left. And if anybody can tell
me where she got the idea for that head with the stripey horn hat, I’d like to know, but
anyway, most of this stuff comes from mixtures of West and East. Those of you who are art
history students will recognize Bronzino, nude on the right. And it shows my relative
ignorance of Indian art that I can’t place the
sculpture, but at any rate, she’s putting an Indian
sculpture next to a religious piece from the Renaissance. And more recently she’s
been doing animations and paintings that she calls land escapes where she takes Persian
miniature paintings and she simplifies them a bit, again, to my fourth subject here. So those aren’t quite
figures in case you can’t make them out, they’re kind of abstract, but they use most of the forms of Persian miniature painting. So this would be more
acceptable to the art world because the allusions are very sharp. That helps. She was a 2006 MacArthur
Fellow, and she was also designated Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. I don’t know what that is,
but it’s very impressive. She has a great career. Okay my third theme here,
art that criticizes religion. So here are the two most famous
examples, the Andres Serrano Piss-Christ and the Chris
Offili Holy Virgin Mary, about whom a huge amount
of ink has been spilled, continues to be. The interesting thing about
both of these is that their half-life in the art
world, I’m not going to say their eternal fame, but their half-life comes from the fact that
these are both artists who are very deeply immersed
and conflicted about religion. They’re not just anti-religious artists. And there is an attempt at an extreme
high level of beauty in Andres Serrano, whose
apartment by the way is full of French, I mean Spanish
baroque wooden sculptures. He’s very pious in his own way. And Chris Offili also, very
very sincere in his own way. But I don’t want to hold up this talk by going into the virtues
of those except to say that the higher degree of complexity your anti-religious art has the longer-lasting it
will be in the art world. And another example here, less famous, this artist Atul Doldiya
who does these metal shades that you see in some parts of
the world, including India. When the shade is down, you see some you see some motif that
would be, looks like a standard religious motif
but when the shade is up in this case you’re looking at suicides, which is of course suicides
of brides, a huge issue in India. And she’s been, Atul Dodiya has been internationally exhibited. So generally, the art world
accommodates more or less ambiguous criticisms. But rejects the work when
it’s too straightforward. This next example is one
that I added to this lecture when I went to Westmont in Santa Barbara. Cause I was interested
in seeing what the limits of tolerance for discussion
of anti-religious art were. This is the most offensive
person I managed to find at that point [laughs]. I have others, which I’m
not going to show here. But this is pretty offensive. Paul Booth is, he does heavy metal CD CD covers and tattoos. And this is his website. If you visit his website you
need a broadband connection because what happens
is it takes a long time for it to load and then
this heavy metal music starts blaring out and
the whole screen shakes at there’s these candles and skulls and you have to move
your mouse really quickly to even get to anything. Because it’s so, it’s
that cool, all right? [audience laughs] And he does evil pumpkin tattoos, and his website’s also his blog. So down at the bottom someone’s written “that’s fucking nice, fits
the shoulder perfectly. I hope someday to have
something this impressive.” With a little devil
emoticon up at the top. [audience laughs] But so the reason he’s in this
lecture is that he also does Photoshop versions of the life of Jesus. Down at the bottom someone’s written “beautiful dark suffering.” And this one in particular,
where he has Jesus chewing off one of his fingers. And it was pointed out
to me that this is making the rap music gesture,
the gesture of the devil. But this guy Paul, and by
the way, this is almost too much even for his
fans, down at the bottom the guy writes “is Jesus
eating his own finger” question mark, and then he
puts a laughing emoticon to show that it’s okay and he’s with it. [audience laughs] But the but the sentiment here
is actually very sincere. And it’s in line with the Mel Gibson idea of the physicality of
suffering representing the spirituality of suffering. And the notion here is
that the crucifixion was was this astonishing
event that can’t quite be rendered in normal, naturalistic means unless you just do something else. Unless you go further. And that’s why beautiful dark
suffering and the other one is appropriate for this guy, Paul Booth. It’s very sincere, and therefore presents serious problems as far as I’m concerned in taking it seriously. And I should say, by the way, before I go off of this screen, that one of the most interesting
things about this whole subject to me is trying
to take things seriously but you think, for various
reasons, you can’t. So if it’s very sentimental and kitschy maybe that’s one kind
of problem that’s fun, this would be a little less fun but the whole idea of trying to see how the artist is thinking, it’s quite much more challenging in this field than it is in academic
modernism and postmodernism. So that work wasn’t especially
offensive to anybody but in a minute I’ll show
you an unexpected thing that people were complaining
to me about at Westmont and at Lipscomb. But first, I wanted to
show a less extreme example that I just ran across. As I said, I always change this lecture. I was last week at George
Mason University in Virginia, and there’s this astonishing artist there named Chawky Frenn, he’s a
Lebanese Christian artist. This is possibly the
most energetic, sincere and devoted artist that I have ever met. This guy lives, drinks,
eats and breathes his art. When he first met me, I did
a day of studio critiques. And he took me out of the studio critique, he took me into his office
and he sat down next to me, so close that our knees were like between each other’s knees,
and his nose was like this far away, and he said
I hope that we can become deep, deep friends. [audience laughs] We will correspond, he said [laughs]. And I said, okay. [audience laughs] And I thought he had known something maybe that he had read the
religion book or something, but later in the day it
turned out he had no idea who I was, he just does this to everybody. [audience laughs] And he has he has produced work
from his undergraduates and this is like for John, this would be this guy he’s like Olympic high, the high, you know, something to emulate. He had three or four upper-level
undergraduate students there who produced paintings 25 feet long, each one of them. Multiple-figure landscape
paintings with allegorical figures, and it’s just amazing
what he gets students to do. So, very very committed,
and you can see the kind of way that his art works is by
very very strong oppositions. He has a priapic figure
next to a Catholic doll, and then he has, one of those
dolls has a skull on its, a fetal skull and the other one has a doll and on the left he has a John the Baptist and on the right he has a Pierrot. This is the way he helps, this
is the way he uses his art to think through his work. He has big problems, this is not a secret. And he was, you know, telling
me all about a big problem was getting exhibitions. Because the stuff is just
very very strong and simple. Very strong and overdetermined. Very strong and overly clear. As you can see from these kind of things. He puts a lot of
self-portraits in, that’s him, worrying about the distance
between spirit and flesh, I guess. Okay, but so what really
did concern audiences at least at Westmont and Lipscomb [audience laughs] was Thomas Kinkade. And this surprised me, because I thought that if anyone was concerned about him, it would just be concern
about, I don’t know, influence of kitsch or
something like that. But what I was hearing was that and there’s an example not that there’s anyone
living on the planet who hasn’t seen Thomas
Kinkade, but anyway. [audience laughs] These, what the concern
was, and I don’t know if this is generalizable or
not but in two conversations the concern was that, this
was the way it was put to me, we’re concerned that
all of you, that’s me, representing secularism
would think that all of quote unquote us representing
Christianity are like this. That was the problem. That was much more disturbing
than any of the ones of Jesus chewing his finger
off or anything like that. [audience laughs] And the fourth category,
then, art that burns away liturgy to find viable belief. I think this is by far the
most important category, and I’m just gonna name
a couple themes here to get into it. So all the things that you
can name about your faith are things that would be
suspect in this way of thinking. The liturgy, the credenda,
ritual, holy text, hierarchy, vestments,
narratives, calendars, any number of things can be mistrusted so long as they can be named,
they can be mistrusted. There are, the artists
are after something that in general terms is thought
to be somehow within those trappings of the church. And there’s a fabulous book on this if you’re interested in it. Rudolph Otto wrote a book
called The Idea of the Holy. He’s a Kantian philosopher
and he was trying to reconcile faith with Kantianism. He’s the guy who coined the word numinous. Numinous in this spectacular word if you look it up in like Webster’s you get weird definitions
for it, like something like the immediate, overwhelming
presence of the godhead. The numinous to Otto was the
thing which is absolutely pure religious experience without any words. Without any liturgy, without anything that you can say about it,
just the experience itself. The raw, absolute presence
of the experience itself. So that’s a good theory text for this. And then there are these common themes, especially the sublime. And I’m gonna show you some
slides that get into that because the sublime is I think the sublime is in danger of becoming the the most popular term for what
secular artists want to do when they want their
discourse to remain secular, but when it has parallels to religion. So it’s an extremely important and grotesquely overused term. I’ll give you some
examples as we go along. And then this work doesn’t
actually cohere into a style, but there are a large
number of texts of people who are used by artists
who are interested in this, and they are usually what’s
called post-theology. John Caputo’s a very thoughtful
person along these lines, if you haven’t run across his work. And Derrida, who I’m sure some of you have suffered through in seminars and others. There’s a wide range of
literature about this. So, unlike all the other
things I’ve been talking about today this already has a literature. Here’s an example from Malta. This is Mario Abela,
and he has these little crucifix pendants that he’s put into a big splop of black paint that’s
meant to look like tar. And I asked him why he
did this, and he said oh just, you know, because
this seems more interesting. He didn’t really have
an articulate answer, but this belongs in this
kind of work because something has to be done
to ruin symbolic meanings before they can find their voice. And Raphael Vella, who
was my host in Malta, is a very interesting artist. That’s something that he
did in the Netherlands. It’s the names of God
in different languages punched through a stenciled metal sheet, and then hung up on a clotheshorse. And here is a wonderful little fact which I think should be broadcast on CNN and should be known by
everybody in the world, given the way the world is now. The Maltese language, spoken
by only 400,000 people there is a very interesting language. Now as I said, that country
is almost completely Catholic, but the word in Maltese for God is Aloa. And there it is on the second
row from the top on the left spelled in Maltese, A-l-o-a. So Makoto Fujimura I know is a a fixture in Christian communities and
I’ve seen several things by him and about him out in the lobby. And I was talking about him in Westmont. He would be an example of
someone who’s approaching these ideas by use of the sublime. Because his works are large, serious, largely
empty, almost abstract these are all characteristics
of the sublime. The vast, the dark, the
powerful, the awe-inspiring. Very serious, he’s using T.S.
Eliot there, Four Quartets. And also has, of course,
the work is widely disseminated in churches. Now I want to tell a
little slightly naughty story about this. When I was at Westmont
after I gave this talk they said oh, he was just
here and we’re having an exhibition of him soon. Would you like to write a catalog? And I said, sure. I wrote the essay, and it was rejected. And I got a letter back from someone there who obviously I’m not going
to fill in names for you, but the people in the administration felt that they couldn’t accept my essay because in the course of the essay I said that although he’s important
in Christian communities, he’s not a major artist. And one of the administrators
wrote back and said but he is! And I wrote her back and said I’m sorry, but there’s another
sense in which he’s not. So, I wouldn’t change it. They rejected the essay. DoDo Jin Ming is lesser
known, but I want to use him to introduce another example
of a well-known photographer. He does gelatin silver prints he’s best known, DoDo
Jin Ming is best known for pictures like this,
which are of the ocean in a storm, often a negative. And so here I want to use this
to introduce the idea that with the sublime, the more
acceptable it is to the art, it will be more acceptable
to the art world if it is more seriously
and purely sublime. What’s quote-unquote wrong with this is that it’s too much theatricality in it. What you need to do is calm things down. And have them empty and almost abstract, like Suki Moto, who’s a
fixture in the art world. And I think you could
also make parallels with Tacita Dean’s videos, there’s
a bit in my book about that. And you could say the same
thing about Gerhard Richter. His very few religious
works, this one about St. Francis of Asissi, and this one these, where he paints candles. It’s not at all irrelevant. I know what time it is, thanks. It’s not at all irrelevant that his this would be completely unacceptable if it’s all he painted. It needs the contrast
of the rest of his work. And then there are examples where artists go directly at the sublime. And I’m gonna go through
these with minimal comment because they’re fairly self-explanatory. James Terrell is another one. When I say the sublime is
over-used, over-interpreted is I mean, the amount of work that it does as a surrogate religious discourse and that’s by the way, exactly
the way Kant understood it and Kant is the one who
formalized, formulated it for most of modernity. It is it’s overworked in that
sense that it’s overburdened with religious significance
in contemporary art. Cami Suge is another and Cai Guo-Qiang has right now
a big piece in the Guggenheim and he also is interested in spirituality but in a way that’s, what
should I say, gentle enough so it does not perturb the art world. This is the cover of my book
which is relevant because we couldn’t think of what to put on it. We didn’t want it to be
an obviously religious or anti-religious work,
and the editors thought that he would contract Christo, the editor of this press knows Christo, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude
looked through the book and approved the use of their
photographs for no charge. To me this is very
interesting because it shows they’re willing to be
associated with religion but they’re not willing to
make a statement about it. Okay, so I didn’t do
this justice in the book. I think this there’s a lot
more to be said about it. And here’s Dayton Castleman who’s a student of mine, I
was advising him last semester and something that he
did two years ago now. Really working hard on this
question of how you can use all the resources of
contemporary installation art and make something which is
also seriously religious, making contact with religious themes. This I’m thinking will be
a theme a lot of the time through the day so I’m not
going to elaborate it here. But there is this issue about, for me, of the discourses of installation art and the discourses of religion and things that happen in churches and
how you fit them together. And I have other examples
here of exhibitions that are, tried to solve the problem by re-situating the art in a church. There are many of them. This is just one more
screen if you wanted to, I can give it to you later if
you wanted to go back to that. Okay, so I think whether or
not the work is displayed in a church or not, all this kind of work operates in this way by
trying to find some core. Okay, on to my last. This is a very important
theme but I’m just gonna illustrate it with one
artist, a very strange a very strange artist
named Jeffrey Vallance. So that’s the head of
the Virgin of Guadalupe, which I visited this last spring. And those of you who’ve been there know it’s a pretty amazing pilgrimage site. There are people movers
underneath the altar so you can go around behind
and be moved back and forth and look up at the miraculous image because so many people go there. So at some point in the
20s someone in the church looked into the eyes
of the miraculous image of the Virgin and saw reflected there the people who were in the
original scene of the miracle. And then Jeffrey Vallance
looked at that literature and took out his microscope
and looked into the eyes and found 70 ape-like creatures lurking in the eyes of the Virgin. Now, on his website this
comes across at first as absolutely tongue in
cheek, smart alec, postmodern. But Jeffrey Vallance is
really, really interested in this stuff, he’s very compelled by it. He wrote a whole essay on the symbolism of simian symbolism in Catholicism. In other words, there’s
something kind of gnawing at him, something is there and this is the kind of thing I mean
by unconscious religion. He wouldn’t ever think of it as religious. That’s another Maltese
example where you get you put in a coin, get some bubble gum and add to the picture of the Virgin until it’s all done. And [laughs] the last one I can’t resist. Bruce Duncan’s amazing
Pieta with Hindenburg. Which has, he’s really an NRM artist cause he has a cave with Saturn
and all the rest of that. Okay and just to give
this a normative example to help our discussions later on, a more usual kind of example
would be someone like this, Jerry Bleem who does figures like this which are organic and
he’s fascinated by them and does them over and over and over again in many different ways
that don’t have any real symbolism but they’re clearly
ritual objects for him, clearly religion is the discursive field for this kind of work,
even though he wouldn’t think of it that way. And that’s one last Maltese example. Now, I want to go on to my oh, sorry [laughs] I forgot this. All right, so [laughs] I want to make the point
before I go to the conclusions I need to make the point
that you can expand this out into popular culture. If you read about The Matrix
in academic literature, it’s all very serious Marxist criticism but of course The Matrix is
also an allegory of redemption. Of course Neo is The One, right? It’s obviously also a religious allegory. And so you can go as far as
you want into popular culture finding these things. In this case, you know, the
President is the spiritual one who knows how to guide and
Edward James Olmos’s character is the hard-bitten,
pragmatic, non-religious general or whatever. When I showed this a couple of months ago somebody told me I was
dead wrong about this. I haven’t watched it enough,
it’s more complex [laughs]. So okay, maybe I’m wrong about that. But here’s another obvious example. Something that is clearly
also a religious allegory. So it’s an infinite subject. This is where I normally end this lecture, and I’m gonna take my
last, whatever it is, negative one and a half minutes. [audience laughs] Something like that, four
minutes, yeah I thought you know to tell you the stuff that
I put in late at night and early this morning. So I don’t think this problem
of immiscible, un-mixable discourses can be solved. What I think is possible
is to change conversations, the kinds of conversations
that can be had. So this is a very very it’s unlikely in a sense
that I am not so sure this can happen. I’m hoping to find out
much more about this today. But here are three examples
just to get us started. First of all, religious discourse can help secular, historical,
and critical discourse to become more self-reflexive. Art historians for
example are usually very un-self-reflexive about what
they do with their lives. If you ask them, why are
you spending your whole life studying Mondrian, they’re apt to come up with a really dumb story like I went to Amsterdam when I
was 10 and [laughs] you know. I mean a very superficial story. Not like what we were hearing last night. And I want to mention this
really interesting thing that John raised at the
beginning of the panel discussion about the difference between
occupation and vocation. You were talking, he was
talking about art practice and religion but you
could apply this question to art historians. I think almost no art
historians talk or write about the purposes of their field. So the very capaciousness
of religious discourse could be applied with
very interesting effects, I think in theory to discourses that think they don’t need it. So you see what I mean
by saying these kind of quote-unquote solutions
are really changing the terms of conversations. Second, religious scholarship
could be considered in art history. When I taught at Berkeley for a year and the students in the theological union were pretty much shunned
because they were thought of as using art history for
themselves or to do something in the world and that’s not kosher. You can’t do that. I’m a judge in the
Woodrow Wilson Fellowships that some of you may know about. They give an annual award to dissertations of outstanding religious
or ethical importance. And I’ve been doing this about 10 years. And I write to them every year and say, here are my choices but I want you to know that there are no art
history dissertations in this pile that are
of outstanding religious significance because art history is always about other people’s ideas about religion, not about the religion itself
and how it could be used. And Dan’s concern about
the reception of his book, this came up yesterday, is very interesting
and very, very telling. There are any number of serious scholars who teach in art history departments and are trained as art historians whose work is considered
to be more or less tainted because it’s utilitarian. Serves a purpose, serves a vocation. Okay, and my last of
these unlikely is that religions could actually be
invited to secular conferences. In our event in Chicago,
I sent invitations to some very famous art
historians including Tim Clark, but others that I won’t name, and I got a letter back
from one of them said, it would be too painful to sit at a table with people talking
about art and religion. And when he wrote that, this person had no idea who I was inviting. He just didn’t want to sit at a table and even talk about it. And the conference at MIT
did have one religious person whom I didn’t mention, Rirkrit Tiravanija, who’s a, he’s a Buddhist. That was okay under my rule
of exceptions [laughs] right? Cause no one knew about
Buddhism, so it counted as okay and authentic. And then the last example
here is a conference called Fundamentalisms Observed
that was held in Chicago and resulted in a three-volume
conference proceedings, edited by Martin Marty. And at one point in the
introduction to Volume One, he says in passing, by the way there were no practicing
fundamentalists at our conference. Because in order to come to the conference they would have had to be lapsed and be willing to consider
other fundamentals. So you see what I mean by saying
these things are unlikely. But I do think they’re very important. In order for them to
happen, secular institutions would have to lose some of
their phobia about religion. And that’s it, thank you. I hope I have like two seconds left. [audience applause]

 

6 Responses

  1. BiolaUniversity

    March 15, 2010 7:22 pm

    Sorry….we don't have the powerpoint presentation that he used. The video is the best we can do.

    Reply
  2. James Elkins

    June 10, 2011 7:20 pm

    @romanyj Wow, harsh! I update the lecture all the time — the idea is to air problems and themes that still aren't resolved.

    Reply
  3. Jayadev Yoga

    March 2, 2012 11:53 pm

    Fascinating presentation. I was always attracted/repulsed by the kitsch factor in mass-produced Hindu art. I started painting abstract designs based on the Om symbol as an extension of meditation. Have been to many major museums in the world and have studied some art history but am mostly ignorant of current trends in art theory. This lecture was enlightening. The ISKCON "Bull Slaughters Man" image has always fascinated me — as have ISKCON artists' depictions of deities and their avatars.

    Reply
  4. Jayadev Yoga

    March 3, 2012 12:03 am

    Also, I never thought of Andreas Serrano's "Piss Christ" or Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary" as anti-religious at all, but profoundly spiritual.

    Reply

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