In my last blog entry I wrote about Professor James Elkins comments about sincere religious belief in contemporary art. I've been thinking more about this since. 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 propose 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.
By example, we could examine Rembrandt van Rijns 'The Raising of the Cross' (c.1633) with 'You Know It Aint Easy' (2003) - a contemporary sculpture of a similar subject matter by contemporary British artist Sarah Lucas. In The Raising of the Cross Rembrandt paints himself at the foot of the cross, his own raising the cross as if to identify himself with those responsible for Christ’s suffering. The painting demonstrates the real-life belief expressed by Rembrandt himself and illustrates a sense of penitent conviction. Rembrandt was commissioned to paint the crucifixion many times throughout his career but never with such personal religious conviction. In contrast, Sarah Lucas’ You Know It Aint Easy, first exhibited as part of a curatorial collaboraton with fellow Young British Artists, Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst, in their 2003 show, In a Gadda Da Vida. Here, Lucas intentionally subverts the visual language of the crucifix as a religious icon by replacing the traditional sculptors materials of wood and stone with the ready –made material of Marlboro cigarettes. You Know It Aint Easy is a curious juxtaposition of religious iconography with commercial branding. Her careful manipulation of the materials echoes the devoutly religious craftsmen of old but this is not a religious icon intended to aid the penitent in their devotions of God. Instead, Lucas presents us with an icon for our times – a religious symbol that has lost its poignancy and relevance, an image of Christ that is subverted by the commercial products of modernism. One spark of light (or revelation?) and Christ is ignited on his cross, burnt up in a cloud of nicotine infused smoke. Whilst the subject matter may be religious and her convictions towards the function of art deeply sincere, I would argue You Know It Aint Easy is not a sincerely religious work of art.
The crux of Elkins’ argument falls on an understanding of what it means to be sincerely religious. Sincere religious belief, however, is not always clearly expressed in a work of art. An artist might be a sincere Christian believer but choose not to make art about his faith. Likewise, an artists does not have to be a sincere believer in order to render liturgical art. Carravagio is well known for his religious paintings yet also famed for his tumultouse relationship with the Roman Catholic church.
In his recent editorial for Frieze magazine, 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.'
Fox poses a provocative question to which there may be several responses. At first, we must examine what is meant by ‘an explicitly religious work of contemporary art’. In 1999 Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo sculpture of a Christ-like figure quietly dominated the fourth plinth of London’s Trafalgar Square. The quiet presence of a Christ-like figure seemed to offer a prophetic antidote to the hustle and bustle of the city surrounding it. In a similar way, Antony Gormley’s figurative interventions seem to propose spiritual questions concerning the human being in the landscape which may be regarded as religious. What of the Chapman Brothers Hell, or Hirst, Lucas and Fairhurst’s recent exhibition In A Gadda Da Vida at Tate Britain. Perhaps their work is too sceptical to be considered religious. What of Peter Howson, David Mach or church altar painter, Charlie Mackesy? Perhaps their work is too sincere to be considered contemporary. Howson and Mackesy in particular express a sincere Christian belief. As such, their work may be criticised for lacking the objective rigor afforded to those who approach the same subject but without sincere religious belief.
The words ‘sincerely religious’ need more work. Being religious is like being in love – it speaks to our emotions and sentimentality as well as to our reason. As John D. Caputo, Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University, writes,
Religion is for lovers, for men and woman of passion, for real people… who believe in something, who hope like mad in something, who love something with a love that surpasses understanding
It is impossible for a lover to be ironic about his loved one without betraying what he holds dear and causing hurt. In the same way, a sincerely religious artist would not poke fun at his God or cause others to question their belief. When we look at religious art from the Judeo-Christian tradition it was intended for nurturing a love for God. Even if the artist intended us to fear God it was a righteous fear that would be coupled with a love for the divine.