Thursday, 21 July 2011

Frieze Art and Spirituality

In the October editorial for Frieze magazine, senior editor, Dan Fox asked, “When was the last time you saw an explicitly religious work of contemporary art? Odds are you can’t remember. If you can, it’s because it stood out like the Pope in a brothel. Religious art, when it’s not kept safely confined within gilt frames in the medieval departments of major museums, is taboo. Of course, if we’re talking art about religion that’s totally kosher.”

It’s not that art about religion is taboo at the moment and far from it. In the last five years we’ve seen Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo (a life sized statue of a Chrost-like figure in Trafalgar Square), Sarah Lucas’ Marlborough Christ, Damien Hirst’s apostles series at White Cube Gallery and Keith Coventry recently won the coveted John Moores painting prize for his spectrum blue portrait of Jesus.

So what is Dan Fox’s question really about? The question seems less about approaching aspects of faith and spirituality in art per say. The taboo seems more for those who approach the subject of faith without scepticism or irony. In other words art made by sincere practitioners of faith. As eminent art historian, James Elkins puts it, ‘aside from the rare exceptions, religion is seldom mentioned in the art world unless it is linked to criticism, ironic distance, or scandal. An observer of the art world might well come to the conclusion that religious practice and religious ideas are not relevant to art unless they are treated with scepticism.”

I believe Fox and Elkins are demonstrative of a recent corpus of academic and journalistic enquiry into the absence of religion in contemporary art. They join the ranks of Boris Groys (Art Power 2009) and Terry Eagelton (Faith and Belief, as part of the published seminar Now Is the Time, 2010) who seem to asking similar questions of the lack of spirituality in the latter day throws of Modernity.

Are they right? Are the ideas of the sincerely religious irrelevant to art or even society today? As a sincere Christian believer I want to cry hope from the roof of my studio. I affirm their questions and want to wrestle for answers. In the Morphē Arts network we have sincere Christian believers wrestling with these exact questions on a daily basis.

In recent years the National Gallery has hosted a series of exhibitions that explore the legacy of Christian art through the centuries with sincere motives, not least through the Seeing Salvation exhibition, Sacred Made Real and the current Devotion by Design. Looking to the contemporary art fairs and contemporary art scene of London, however, I find it more difficult to identify any artist whose work is explicitly or devoutly religious and has shown in the East End galleries or around Deptford and Peckham. So maybe Elkins was right when he wrote, “Contemporary art, I think, is as far from organised religion as Western art has ever been, and that may even be its most singular achievement or its cardinal failure, depending on your point of view” (From the introduction to On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art)

Of course all this depends on your definition of contemporary art but I think Elkins is talking about the institutions and practices that constitute the main corpus of art being made by recent graduates of Western art colleges today that is exhibited and bought by gallerists and curators under 40 (not to be too crass). If that’s the case, personally I believe him to be right but that doesn’t mean there can’t be anything done about it. We’re certainly trying our best here and praying for cultural renewal as we navigate our way through the difficult waters of contemporary cultural theory and its influence on contemporary creative practice.

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