On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art

On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art

On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art

On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art


James Elkins explores the curious disconnect between contemporary art & spirituality: a dilemma that faces every modern artist, but that has until now not been the subject of a serious discussion.


Sooner or later, if you love art, you will come across a strange fact: there is almost no modern religious art in museums or in books of art history. It is a state of affairs that is at once obvious and odd, known to everyone and yet hardly whispered about. I can't think of a subject that is harder to get right, more challenging to speak about in a way that will be acceptable to the many viewpoints people bring to bear.

For some people, art simply is religious, whether the artists admit it or not. Jackson Pollock, in that view, is a religious painter even though he apparently never thought of his work that way and despite the fact that no serious criticism of his work has perceived it to be religious. Art is inescapably religious, so it is said, because it expresses such things as the hope of transcendence or the possibilities of the human spirit. From that viewpoint, the absence of openly religious art from modern art museums would seem to be due to the prejudices of a coterie of academic writers who have become unable to acknowledge what has always been apparent: art and religion are entwined.

For others, modern art like Pollock's cannot be religious because that would undo the project of modernism by going against its own sense of itself. Modernism was predicated on a series of rejections and refusals, among them the 19th-century sense that art-that is, academic art, and mainly painting-is an appropriate vehicle for religious stories. From this point of view a contemporary painting of the Assumption of the Virgin would be in a sense misguided, because it would carry on a moribund tradition of narrative painting last practiced at the end of the 19th century. It would involve a misunderstanding of what painting has become.

For still others, Pollock's paintings might well be religious, but there is no way to construct an acceptable sentence describing how his works express religious feelings. the word religion, it would be said, can no

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