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oh god

June 15, 2009

The art historian James Elkins tells of his experience as one of four jurors for the 1990 exhibition “Revelations: Artists Look at Religions.” It was a big show with several famous artists in it, including Andres Serrano, the maker of Piss Christ. But the jurors also had to slog through hundreds of submissions, looking at slides, reading statements, and scanning résumés. It was a daunting, numbing job. One submission caught their attention, and they were ready to accept it until they learned the artist was a nun, and her work, which the jurors had found quirky, was her vision of heaven. “Oh God,” moaned one of the jurors, and they voted it down. Elkins was the only one to vote for it: “I wanted to accept it because it was religious, and religion was supposedly our theme.”[…]

Anyone familiar with modern and contemporary art knows of its dearth of historic religious subjects and themes. Christianity, one of the great incubators of imagery in Western art, is notably but not entirely absent. When Christian subjects do appear, they are often treated—as with Piss Christ—in a transgressive and sensationalist manner. In On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, Elkins gives an account of the decline of religious art, which by the beginning of the 20th century was effectively gone. Any art with religious imagery found in canonical modernity, Elkins insists, isn’t really religious. So Salvador Dali’s popular St. John of the Cross is not as much religious as it is “a matter of Dali’s ‘paranoiac-critical’ surrealist method.” By Elkins’ account, religious subjects must be presented in a mode that is ironic, ambiguous, skeptical, or critical to qualify as art today. He acknowledges that outside the art world “there is a tremendous amount of religious art,” but concludes his brief history of religion and art on this note: “As a rule 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.”

To understand Elkins’ judgments, it is important to know his definitions and purposes. The purposes were to “see if it is possible to adjust the existing discourses enough to make it possible to address both secular theorists and religionists,” and to help students who are unaware of the religious resonances in their work. He characterizes the art world as a place “that is at once thronged with strong beliefs and nearly silent.”  (read)

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