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Art and the Resurgent Spiritual

By Osmond, Susan Fegley | The World and I, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Art and the Resurgent Spiritual


Osmond, Susan Fegley, The World and I


Artists' treatment of religion and Spiritually varies greatly today Running the gamut from severe criticism To reverent belief to revolutionary visions.

The topic of this special feature is how religion has been treated in contemporary arts, especially during the past few decades; but when we come to discuss this in relation to painting and sculpture, a bewildering variety of approaches present themselves. One can examine art that attempts to comment on religion and its role in contemporary society. One can focus on "religious art," which is usually commissioned by religious institutions for use in contemplating seminal figures, events, and ideas in the relevant religion. Another tack is to discuss the more general topic of the religious impulse and striving for the spiritual--something that has been a continuing theme in certain strands of twentieth century art but that during the past fifteen years has become increasingly widespread and may well become the prime focus of the next era in art.

Almost a decade ago, great public furor was raised over what was perceived as obscenity and blasphemy in art, especially that funded with the support of public moneys. Into this milieu came Andres Serrano's Piss Christ. This is an example of the appropriation of religious imagery to make a social statement, our first area of study. In this large, technically polished Cibachrome print, a cheap plastic crucifix is shown close up, submerged in the fluid that, backlit, becomes a bubbly golden halo.

As critic Robert Hughes wrote, Serrano, a "highly conflicted lapsed Catholic," wanted to make "a sharp, jolting point about two things: first, the degradation of mass religious imagery into kitsch ... and second, his resentment of the coercive morality of his own Hispanic-Catholic roots." Conservative Christians were outraged at the denigration of the dying Savior, and of religion itself.

Art of this kind, however, remains basically a one-liner--a quick dead end--so it doesn't deserve prolonged discussion.

Controversial presentation of religious imagery persists in art that attempts to comment on society, religion, and religious experience, not necessarily in simplistic statements. A recent example was an untitled temporary installation by Robert Gober mounted at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles late last year. The work occupies an entire room. In the center, standing atop a larger-than-life gutter grate in the floor, is a gray concrete statue of the Madonna. She is violently impaled through the belly, front to back, by a hollow steel culvert that transforms her into a grandly tragic human crucifix. About twenty-five feet behind her, cut into the back wall of the installation, is a homey wooden staircase down which cascades a steady stream of water. At the base is another grate in the floor.

On either side of the Madonna, at about fifteen feet's remove, are identical open, old-fashioned suitcases. The bottom of each is a sewer grate, through which the viewer can see, in contrast to the gray world above, a sun-dappled tidal pool replete with mussel shells, starfish, and undulating seaweed--a heaven below. One can also just make out the bare feet and calves of a man standing in the tidal pool and, dangling between these, the small bare feet of an infant.

The installation set off an avalanche of protest letters from the city's Roman Catholics, after a positive review appeared in the Los Angeles Times. However, Roberta Smith, writing in the New York Times, said the installation is "profoundly experiential and even interactive, a journey that must be traveled before an informed opinion can be arrived at. Its possible meanings play in the mind, but its narrative subject matter is continually upstaged by its content, which concerns the transformative powers of love, forgiveness, and revelation."

What is it that gives a work genuine spiritual power? It's difficult to fit into words, but a work of art either strikes to the root of things or misses the mark.

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