Disagreements between the world of art and religion are hardly new. The Hebrew Bible forbids the worship of graven images; Christians destroyed many icons in the Orthodox East (the destruction of such images is the root of the word iconoclast, or “image breaker”). In Islam’s Hadith, a collection of the sayings of the prophet Mohammed, painters are threatened with harsh punishment on judgment day.
Art and religion continue to cross swords. Most Americans are familiar with the 1989 controversy over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of Jesus Christ submerged in the artist’s urine. In 2004, the city council of Derby, England debated whether or not to repair a famous statue of the Florentine Boar, on the grounds that it might be offensive to Britain’s growing Muslim population.
So where do art and religion stand in relation to each other? Are they friends or foes?
Wrestling with the Angel: Religion and Art in the Twentieth Century, a symposium on Jan. 26 and 27, tackled those questions. At the opening panel discussion in Fordham University’s McNally Amphitheatre, Art and Religion: Why Can’t We All Get Along? Archie Rand, presidential professor of art at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, argued that there is actually a three-way split among art, religion and the secular authority. “I have to defend my work to the religious and secular authorities,” said the muralist. “Religious authorities are very afraid of art because it emanates a value system and who you are, twenty-four hours a day.” Rand’s work covers the inside of the B’nai Yosef Synagogue in Brooklyn, known now as “The Painted Shul,” and initially drew criticism from some rabbis, who called it idolatry.
Rand said that the most important artists of the twentieth century were, in fact, religious: he called Pablo Picasso “a profoundly religious and superstitious pagan,” commented on the highly spiritual text of Henri Mattisse’s volume Jazz, and noted that neither Paul Cezanne nor Andy Warhol ever missed a Sunday Mass. Andres Serrano, too, was raised a devout Catholic. “Art historians don’t like to deal with this,” said Rand. “People willfully distort the intent of artists.”
Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery gets short shrift by those same art historians, according to Rand, because its artists were actually modern mystics, influenced by the theosophists. “I don’t think that [religion and art]have ever gone separate ways,” Rand said. “But the microscope under which art is viewed is totally corrupt.”
Margaret Miles, Ph.D., former dean of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. said that the alleged antagonism between art and religion is a long-running cultural development begun in 15th-to-16th century Europe. “Before that, they were cozily intimate,” said Miles. “Religion needed images.”
In her forthcoming book, Complex Delight: Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750 (University of California Press, 2007), Miles notes a historical demarcation: until the 1700s, the breast, particularly that of Virgin Mary, was a religious symbol. In the post-Renaissance world, she says, the body became an “object of both erotic pleasure and medical use,” objectifying what was once holy. “The conflict is a quarrel over the interpretation of bodies,” Miles said.
Miles defined religious art as “art that offers the viewer orientation in the universe and a consonance with other living beings.” She said that there is a schism between religion and media culture, in which “bodies are a spectacle, a source of medical scrutiny or pleasure and pain.”
Miles offered a strong view about what religious art should stand against. Art that reinforces consumerism and capitalist values, she said, is certainly not religious, even if it uses religious imagery (as in television commercials, for example, that use images of Adam and Eve).
The panel discussion focused on the twentieth century, in which art came to be understood increasingly in secular terms. As Stephen Schloesser, S.J., the panel’s final speaker pointed out, the first Mellon lecturer at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953 was the French Catholic metaphysician, Jacques Maritain. Who could imagine such a speaker today, he asked. Schloesser, author of Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris 1919-1933 (University of Toronto Press, 2005) and a professor of history at Boston College, said that the question that needs asking is “what has happened between 1952, and now?”
Keynote speaker, David Freedberg, D.Phil., professor of art history at Columbia University, reiterated one of Rand’s points: many 20th-century artists were not divorced from spirituality at all. Freedberg cited the example of Barnett Newman’s and Mark Rothko’s abstract expressionism: these paintings “express the mystery of the sacred…what works in [these artists’ work]is that the sacred remains hidden in the picture.” As an example, he cited, the consistent “aura” effect in Rothko’s work, which compels the viewer into a meditative state.
The two-day symposium on Jan. 26 and 27, co-sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and New York’s Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), explored the relationship between art and religion in the 20th Century.
The symposium coincided with the exhibition, Biblical Art in a Secular Century, which runs through March 11 at MOBIA on 1865 Broadway.
By Brian Kluepfel