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Religious Art is Not Dead - S. Brent Plate

Reports of the Death of Religious Art Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

by S. Brent Plate

January 24, 2017

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, PaweÅ‚ 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.

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