Perambulating the Bounds

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Sunday Sermon

From Ken Johnson’s review in Friday’s Times of a juried exhibit run by a group called Christians in the Visual Arts: “It is hard to think of many great contemporary visual artists who have made Christian faith central to their work.” I think he was hedging a bit, because by context I’d say he wanted to say “any” in place of “many.” Either way, the statement seems true. When you survey contemporary visual art, you just do not come up with major figures who explicitly trade in the Christian messages that characterized earlier eras in art. Sure, people use religious images, but it always seems to be to criticize and distance or to address more general psychological or historical insight and sensations. Bill Viola may portray angels, but it doesn’t seem married to Christianity. Johnson contrasts the visual arts with literature, where you have Flannery O’Connor (or Walker Percy) making Christian art.

I think this observation starts from a comparison with earlier eras, but one factor that differentiates the current period is that Christianity is no longer compulsory. In earlier eras, how much of the religious art came from someone working within conventions to explore realms of sensation? Would artists have painted so many religious paintings if that wasn’t where the commissions came from? In Michelangelo you appear to have had a true believer, but what about the flesh of those Raphael virgins? Sure, it’s just the expression of inner spiritual energy.

Today, religious groups in no way represent a significant source of funds for advanced expression in visual art. For the most part church organizations do not fling money around for art like a High Renaissance pope, and when they do it is in the spirit of restoring supposedly long-lost artistic values, turning back the clock as opposed to accepting that art builds upon itself and promoting art that integrates what has gone before.

An objection to Johnson’s statement might be that the Christian expression is there, but in the best cases it isn’t expressed so crudely as to be immediately pigeon-holed as Christian art. It’s more like U2 – these guys are understood to be Christian, but they express that through something subtler and more universal. I don’t know of major visual artists whose work reflects a Christian identity in a similar way, but that is not to say there aren’t some. Of course one of Johnson’s complaints about this show is that some of the work is not Christian enough, open to other interpretations that do not necessarily have to do with the religion.

Johnson’s main criticism is that most of the work is “bound up in outdated, illustrative and technical clichés.” I haven’t seen the show, but I would expect this to be right. I imagine the work just isn’t as stimulating and energetic as what you would find in a Chelsea or Brooklyn gallery.

He does like several pieces, and he credits them with stylistic invention and a Christian context that makes “the situation seem even more charged.” He ends by arguing that there is potential for combining faith and artistic ambition, but the implication is that it is mostly unrealized potential.

If artists are to realize this potential, for one thing they have to avoid relegating themselves to a Christian art ghetto. There is encouragement in that direction: criticisms that the art isn’t clearly enough Christian, as if it must carry a sign so unsuspecting viewers don’t stumble into it; a separatist culture of Christian bookstores, schools, and social networks that fosters a protective, insular environment and also holds some prospect for financial reward (the exhibit reviewed is at the Museum of Biblical Art). Visual artists mist look for ways to deal with Christianity in substance as it exists today, variegated, troubled, dangerous and healing, and enter into the fray of the mainstream of art. The work will be better and more interesting.

Once upon a time Christianity was part of the West’s intellectual life, even long after the religion lost its political, economic, and intellectual dominance. Now too many Christians see that intellectual world as being another land, even the enemy. They want to destroy it, not act as part of it. That’s a lost opportunity.


  • How is that Auden, that great Christian poet could change the game; and yet there seems no comprable Christian in the visual arts? Its almost as if the artists were joined to make "no graven image" and having accepted the creed, they are left with no deed to perform.
    But hasn't the nature of Christianity changed too? Your review seems to sugget that it has. We live midst the most Christian country in the world--;but the down town gallerys and New York critics et. al. don't seem to pay much attention to that fact. Hey, its a utopian religion, romantic, and it concerns a radical thinker who got offed for the trouble he made for the imperialists..... run with this oh art dudes and dudettes, just now they need you here...

    By Blogger Agit Spam, at 3:53 PM  

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