Monday, 9 January 2012

Beyond Belief at the Holy Land Theme Park

A few days ago I watched Bill Maher's film 'Religulous' where he visits a Christian theme park in Orlando. Every afternoon at three o’clock, in the suburbs of Orlando, Jesus Christ is crucified and rises from the dead. Tickets are available for the spectacle and souvenirs mass produced for the gift shop.

Most visitors to the Holy Land Experience theme park appear deeply sincere in their religious devotion despite the openly commercial intent of the park management which advertises its tourist attraction with the slogan, ‘Experience Hope, Experience Joy, Experience Peace. $13.99’.

To those outside this religious demographic, the Holy Land Experience may appear an oddity (perhaps the unlikely love-child of a medieval mystery play and a Disneyland park ride) yet to the religious devout the Holy Land Experience is sincerely regarded as a form of genuine religious experience, even pilgrimage. Such religious theme parks may be demonstrative of a growing market in religious experiences that emulate the familiarity of commercial and capitalistic values of the wider entertainment industries such as Bible World Texas, Bible Park and Heritage USA. They reflect a wider economic boom for Christian-themed products such as the landscape paintings of Thomas Kincade, What Would Jesus Do T-shirts, wrist bands and leisurewear, and even the recently dubbed ‘religious and family audience’ associated with Hollywood blockbusters such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and the Chronicles of Narnia.

Bill Maher interviews Jesus from the Holy Land Experience, asking ‘Why do you think people come here, because Disneyland’s too smutty? I mean you guys are just in business, right? You’re in the Jesus business’.

The cynicism expressed by Maher towards the Holy Land Experience could be allegorical of a wider tension experienced and documented between those who profess sincere religious belief (and the systems and institutions they represent) with those who practice contemporary art (and the systems and institutions they represent).

1,142 miles north of the Holy Land Experience, James Elkins is eminent professor of art history at the Chicago Institute of Art. In the introduction to his book, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, Professor Elkins articulates the growing divide between religious organisations and the main corpus of contemporary art: ‘Contemporary art… 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’. In his follow-up book; ‘Re-Enchantment’ Elkins continues to highlight what he sees as the exclusion of religion from arts discourse since modernism. Elkins points out a divide that has occurred between the institutions of art making and the institutions of religion. Speaking mostly of the Roman Catholic Church, Elkins traces the entrenchment back to the art of the European Renaissance suggesting:

something happened in the Renaissance. The meaning of art changed, and for the first time it became possible to make visual objects that glorified the artist and even provoked viewers to think more of the artist’s skills than the subject of the artwork.

Elkins’ concern lies not just with those who practice art as religious believers but those who would describe themselves as devout or ‘sincere’ in their religious belief. We could say there's a distinction between those who practice religious belief as a nominal or occasional event from those who regularly attend religious events such as weekly bible studies, prayer breakfasts, Sunday Mass, pilgrimage, or make life decisions based on their religious worldview. It is the later that particularly occupies Elkins’ argument. The artists he identifies as being sincerely religious are those who integrate or express a religious worldview through their creative practice without irony, scepticism or cynicism but with genuine affection towards the liturgies and underlying belief systems they subscribe to. that would be artists like me.

Im going to be thinking on these things over the next week. Perhaps there's room here for a Morphē event of some kind.

All the best.

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