Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Religion in Contemporary Art: A Guest Article by Willem Hart

This week I'm excited to share a guest article by Willem Hart, written in response to our post reviewing a lecture by Dr. James Elkins. Willem attended the May 23, 2013 lecture at the Art Gallery of Ontario and, as an artist himself, was fascinated by the topic. In this article he provides some helpful insights in response to the work of James Elkins as well as to Ground Motive's discussion of contemporary art.

by Willem Hart

Rembrandt van Rijn, Supper at Emmaus, oil on
panel, 1648 (Louvre, Paris)
James Elkins’ view that “…committed, engaged, ambitious, informed art does not mix with dedicated, serious, thoughtful, heartfelt religion. Whenever the two meet, one wrecks the other” suggests that this is true for our time. The key work in his title is “contemporary”. I doubt that Elkins would apply this to the work of Giotto, Michaelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Caravaggio or Rembrandt, etc. Clearly their religious convictions motivated them to produce what we consider great art. That means committed, engaged, ambitious, informed art can mix with dedicated, serious, thoughtful, heartfelt religion. And whenever the two have met in the past, great and important art happened.

Ever since the Enlightenment we have marginalized religion, but that does not mean that we have abandoned either religion or spirituality.

LEFT: Carravaggio, The incredability of St Thomas, 1601/02  RIGHT: Michelangelo, The Sistine Chapel ceiling, (painted between 1508 and 1512) showing Adam and the hand of God.
In the end all art is religious and spiritual and expresses the deepest thoughts of its creators. Just because the church has stopped sponsoring artistic expression does not mean that art has no religious content or that one wrecks the other. The ongoing construction of Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Famîlia, is an interesting example of the church’s continuing interest in honoring God through art.

LEFT: Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), Sagrada Família,
Roman Catholic church under construction
in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.
RIGHT: Graham Sutherland tapestry,
Christ in Glory, Coventry Cathedral, 1962.
Elkins, in his book, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (2004, Routledge) makes a distinction between fine art and religious art. He does this in a seemingly disarming fashion by claiming that his own beliefs are not part of his writing. How can they not be? Surely it is impossible to divorce one’s spiritual commitment from one’s work. In the Preface Dr. Elkins suggests that, “There is no monolithic art any more than there is a property called religious.” Yet in the same book he asserts that “Religious art will be one type of art and fine art another and there will be no particular problem in the fact that one excludes the other. They will be separate but equal.” That is a bit facile for me, a straw man argument in fact. It’s an artificial construct that does not hold up to reasonable examination. To say that one does not exclude the other is strange to say the least.

LEFT: Claes Oldenburg, Giant Hamburger, (1962), Art Gallery of Ontario.
RIGHT: Andy Warhol, one of the many versions of Marilyn, ca 1962.

LEFT: Roy Lichtenstein, print, ca. 1960.
 RIGHT: Jasper Johns, one of the many iterations
 of his American Flag series, ca 1958/60.

William Holmar Hunt,
The Light of the World,  1853
Fine art is of course distinct from graphic/commercial art, decorative art, scenic art, as well as the cloying depictions of nature represented by the likes of Thomas Kinkade, or the romanticized Christian vision of William Holmar Hunt. Fine art is unmistakable whether its content is religious or secular.

And religion still influences fine art. Graham Sutherland’s “Christ in Glory” at Coventry Cathedral is a case in point. Is this work, ten years in the making, any less worthy than a Van Eyck altar piece?

A Claes Oldenburg “Giant Hamburger” is as religious or spiritual as Michelangelo’s “Pieta”. Calvin Seerveld (Professor emeritus at the Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto) suggests that “art tell-tales in whose service a [person] stands.” While I don’t like the work of Andy Warhol, there is no mistaking its religious content. In fact he was a committed Catholic Christian who attended mass regularly. Contemporary artists hold up our icons to us and suggest that this is our religion, this is our faith. That can be said of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Willem de Koning, to name just a few.

William H. Johnson, Mount Calvary, (ca 1939)

What does one make of the work of African-American artist William H. Johnson whose religiously oriented work is honored in major institutions? There are of course numerous examples of religiously influenced art in major institutions and venues.

Jackson Pollock,  Crucifixion, 1962.
While contemporary religious art is nothing like the expressions of faith and religion in and before the Renaissance, they are no less religious or spiritual. Even a cursory examination of 20th century artists reveals a deeply religious (spiritual) direction. As John Donne put it, “No man is an island unto himself.” I take that to mean that we are all spiritually, if not religiously connected.

The late Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 2008), and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006), whose atheist opinions attack views that are mostly no longer held by mainstream religion, contend that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that religious faith is a delusion, a fixed false belief. They are of course entitled to their beliefs, but to me committed, engaged, ambitious, informed art cannot be produced without dedicated, serious, thoughtful, heartfelt spirituality. The two are inseparable.

The blog Ground Motive discusses religion and art without ever showing something visual. You cannot possibly discuss the impact of religion, faith, and spirituality on art without showing images. Where in this discussion do you fit the work of African American artist William H. Johnson, and a crucifixion painting by Jackson Pollock, both from the mid-20th century period?

On June 29, 2013, the important and influential Gallery Maeght in Southern France will open an exhibition of art “Les Adventures de la Vérité” curated by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévi. The gallery does not normally invite “outsiders” to organize its exhibitions. One notable exception was the exhibition curated by André Malraux, “Musée Imaginaire”, in 1973. It is remarkable that Bernard-Henri Lévi, an important thinker, is in charge of an exhibition of visual art that explores the eternal struggle for truth. Not only that, but his choices are decidedly religious. Not just spiritual, but religious.

A comparison between Jean Michel Basquiat's Crisis X, 1982 (LEFT) and Crucifixion by Bronzino (ca 1340) (RIGHT) at Gallery Maeght, 2013.

He considers a conversation between Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Crisis X” (1982) and “Crucifiction” (ca 1540) by Bronzini. Lévi shows Jackson Pollock’s “Crucifiction” (1939/40), and compares “The veil of Saint Veronica” (17th c.) with Andy Warhol’s “Studies of Jackie” (1964). To me this shows that the influence of religion cannot be separated easily from the practice of art.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Willem. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I have a question about what you mean when, commenting on the preface to Dr. Elkins' book, you say "To say that one does not exclude the other is strange to say the least." That phrasing seems inconsistent with what I gather you mean. Is it possible that the word "exclude" should be "include"?