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Symposium Explores Taboo Against Linking Art and Religion


Art and religion, intimate allies through most of human existence, have become estranged, even hostile, in the post-Enlightenment West. But artists, including some of the most secular, have not escaped the religious heritage and its grip on the Western imagination—a reality that artists, critics and scholars will explore in “Wrestling with the Angel,” a two-day symposium on art and religion in the last century sponsored by the Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture and the Museum of Biblical Art.


Unwillingness to examine the relationship between art and religion in recent times reflects “a great taboo of the twentieth century,” according to David Freedberg, Ph.D., who will deliver the conference’s keynote address.

Freedberg, a professor of art history at Columbia University and director of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, will speak on “Violence, the Sacred and the Hidden God,” at 6 p.m. on Jan. 26 at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus.

“We cannot understand the power of all art,” Freedberg said, “unless we also understand the presence of the divine, manifest or not, in the holy image.”

His lecture will be preceded by an interdisciplinary panel discussion, “Art and Religion: Why Can’t We All Get Along?” at 4 p.m. Both events, which are free and open to the public, will take place in the McNally Amphitheatre of the Fordham Law School, 140 W. 62nd St., in Manhattan.

The symposium—organized jointly by the Center on Religion and Culture and the Museum of Biblical Art (in conjunction with the museum’s current exhibit, “Biblical Art in a Secular Century”)—explores Christian and Jewish themes in works by influential 20th-century artists, including Marc Chagall, Giorgio de Chirico, Otto Dix, Kathe Kollwitz, Jeff Koons, Kiki Smith and Andy Warhol.

Patricia C. Pongracz, organizer of the exhibition, said despite the widespread impression that serious artists had abandoned such themes over the last century, “in fact, vanguard artists appropriated biblical subjects quite liberally, although often from complex motivations and conflicted intentions.”

The Museum, located at 61st St. and Broadway in Manhattan, was established in 2004 to bridge the worlds of art, scholarship and religion. The Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, also founded in 2004, organizes forums and other public discussions of issues arising at the intersection of religion and public life, whether in politics, bioethics, scholarship, art or literature. The center is located at the University’s Manhattan campus just south of Lincoln Center.

The Jan. 26 panel will feature artist Archie Rand, presidential professor of art at Brooklyn College, City University of New York; Stephen Schloesser, cultural historian at Boston College and author of Jazz Age Catholicism; and theologian and church historian Margaret Miles, former dean of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. The discussion will be moderated by Dennis O’Brien, philosopher and president emeritus of the University of Rochester.

On Saturday, Jan. 27, speaking at the nearby Museum of Biblical Art, four experts will focus on specific artists and on themes raised by the current exhibition. The program, running from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., will feature the art critic Eleanor Heartney; Xavier John Seubert, professor of art history at St. Bonaventure University; Laura Kruger, curator at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum; and William Dyrness, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena.

Because the canon of modern art generally excludes religion, “museums tend to steer clear of connecting artistic image and religious practice in their discourse,” said Ena Heller, executive director of the Museum of Biblical Art. “Often this results in an incomplete understanding of particular works, or even entire oeuvres.”

The symposium, Heller said, “will address some of the issues which led to, and in turn derive from, this imperfect dialogue.”

“Ever since Romanticism’s revolt against the Enlightenment’s form of rationality, science, art and religion have been engaged in a complicated dance of shifting alliances and bitter rivalries as distinct but overlapping ways of understanding reality,” said Peter Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture. “The symposium should help us understand the modern mind and imagination.”

More information about the symposium and the exhibition is available on the websites of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and the Museum of Biblical Art.


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