One may safely assume from general experience that the majority of works exhibited in a modern art gallery would not have overtly religious themes. Of the few that could, it would seem highly unexpected for them to treat religion in a positive light. Those, unlike me, who are well-versed in art might recall famous examples that helped institutionalise a certain negative attitude towards religion: Chris Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary, exhibited in 1999, was famously criticised by the then-New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani as “sick”. As the effect of these so-called “shock doctrines” towards religion have started to wear off, it seems that nowadays attitudes are changing. Articles from the BBC and the Huffington Post by art critics and academics alike point out how “religion is alive and well in contemporary art”, citing examples of commercially successful religious artists and artworks such as Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo. So what could account for this seemingly sudden change in today’s artistic climate?
Some defend religious art positively, such as the cultural critic and ‘feminist provocateur’ Camille Paglia, who labels herself as a “libertarian-minded atheist”. She says that to sneer at religion is a “cynical posture that has become de rigeur in the art world” and is also a contributing factor to contemporary art’s lack of “big ideas”. However, it seems there is more behind this liberal change of attitude than first thought. For Smith, and others in the art world, ‘religion’ essentially acts as a synonym for ‘Christianity’. No doubt the art world is sufficiently multi-cultural to warrant a discussion beyond Christianity as religion (Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism), but Christianity still remains the primary example.
What is art’s relationship to some of these other religions? Following some research, it became clear that, after heavy restriction, depictions of the Divine in human form proliferated side by side in both Christianity and Buddhism. Since depictions of Allah or Muhammad in Islam are forbidden there are abstract expressions of the divine in Arabesque textile patterns or Arabic calligraphy which acts as both literature and visual art.
However, information from popular Western media on how modern art specifically engages with these religions is minimal. Though it’s precisely the absence of this discussion that is changing Western art’s relationship to Christianity. From my perspective, the growing positive influence of religion on art can be explained by a growing multi-religious tolerance. For example, liberal atheists, like myself, are often more than willing to accommodate and take for granted non-Christian religions but are, at the same time, sour towards Christianity itself. I think, to some extent, this is what is happening in the art world now: we can’t be hypocrites and despise Christianity in art without also despising other religions as well – we can’t be selectively tolerant. Of course, it could also simply be that artists have run out of original ways to shockingly criticise religion in order to arouse the public’s interest. Nowadays, contemporary artwork which explores spiritual themes more broadly are more popular amongst audiences who tend to represent a variety of beliefs, backgrounds and lifestyles.
Since Cathedrals were once the main places where the public could go to see visual works of art, it is often said that museums and galleries have become the new cathedrals, where people come to “replenish their spirit in the secular age.” We have to still bear in mind that it’s quite a recent concept to go to museums to appreciate art that is not created for specifically social or religious purposes. Unlike religiously themed art, modern art has been particularly suited to museums and galleries. However, cathedrals and religious spaces today, such as St. Paul’s in London, are also starting to put on their own art exhibitions. Although art doesn’t need to be religious, as it was centuries ago, neither does it need to be aggressive towards religions, as it had been particularly towards Christianity. While there may still be some kicking and punching, it seems from now on the two are more intent on shaking hands.