Can religious art be taken seriously again? A Q&A with Aaron Rosen

Religious News Service Graphic by TJ Thomson

(RNS) Being a respected member of the art world’s intelligentsia and taking religion seriously is not easy.

“Religion and modern art continue to be labeled as mortal enemies,” writes Aaron Rosen.

But the very context in which he makes this statement suggests that a truce may be underway. Rosen is the author of the profusely illustrated book “Art + Religion in the 21st Century ”, which illustrates his belief that there is“ enormous potential for reciprocity ”between the two.

"Art and religion in the 21st century" by Aaron Rosen.  Book cover photo courtesy of Thames & Hudson

“Art + Religion in the 21st Century” by Aaron Rosen. Book cover photo courtesy of Thames & Hudson

And it can be the voice of the future.

Most currents in 20e– The culture of the century made it difficult to imagine the expression “great contemporary religious art”.

Most artists keep religion at bay. The heroic images of the Holy Family and Catholic saints which were staples of the art of faith have fallen into disuse; Meanwhile, institutional Catholicism, anxious to stir up controversy within its ranks, moved away from museum-quality art, and evangelical Protestant art had an aspect not ready for prime time.


READ: Can the greatest religious painter of the 20th century make a comeback?


But Rosen, a native of Maine and lecturer on sacred traditions and the arts at King’s College London, is at the forefront of a small but growing group of academics who believe it’s time to reassess.

His book is a fiery exploration of how contemporary art and religion harness what he calls “enormous potential for reciprocity.” The 200 images in “Art + Religion” range from designer R. Crumb’s version of Genesis to painter Makoto Fujimura’s abstract illustrations for the King James Bible.

Aaron Rosen in front of the sculpture Stations (2016) by G. Roland Biermann, produced for the exhibition Stations of the Cross by Rosen.  Image courtesy of Anne Schwarz Photography

Aaron Rosen in front of the sculpture “Stations” (2016) by G. Roland Biermann, produced for the exhibition “Stations of the Cross” by Rosen. Image courtesy of Anne Schwarz Photography

Rosen recently organized an ambitious “Way of the Cross: Art and Passion” exhibition that features artwork by Christian, Jewish, Muslim and atheist artists across London. It also celebrates the publication of a scholarly book on St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan, which houses the famous sculptures by Louise Nevelson. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Your cover image is a super realistic 2 foot tall sculpture of a black teenage boy watching blindly as blood seep through his T-shirt from a side wound, reminiscent of Christ. If Black Lives Matter was looking for a faith-based emblem, it could be this one.

A: It refers to Caravaggio’s “The unbelief of St. Thomas”. It is the work of an Australian artist, Ron Mueck, who was in London in 2009 when there was extensive coverage of the stabbings. I was concerned that we would be seen as taking ownership of the very different tragedies in the United States. But now I think it’s appropriate. The boy’s disbelief, like the original Doubting Thomas story, asks, “What does it take to make us believe?” We have seen numerous visual testimonies of shootings and abuse by the authorities. Perhaps this work helps to highlight the true martyrdom of black people in America.

Of "Religion & Art in the 21st century," by Aaron Rosen - ADI NES, Untitled, 1999. Color photographic print.  Photo courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, NY and Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel ‐ Aviv

From “Art + Religion in the 21st Century”, by Aaron Rosen – Adi Nes, Untitled, 1999. Color photographic print. Photo courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, and Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel ‐ Aviv

Q: You write: “When you enter the world of art, you enter, whether you like it or not, into the realm of religion.”

A: Enter most western museums and you will feel the presence of Christian cultural history. But religion of some sort is present in a lot of art. In Australian Aboriginal art, you can’t tell where it ends and where the art begins. In the West, borders are often erected, but it is more vague than we admit. Theologian Paul Tillich said artists want to ask questions of ultimate meaning, just like religious people.

Q: How did you come to write the book?

A: I teach a class on art and religion, and the available books seemed stuck in the culture wars of the 1980s, that religion-for-art cartoon where the winners were politicians and publicity-hungry art dealers. . The real losers were religion and art.

Q: Did we get past that?

A: Well, maybe not. And we are in an electoral cycle. But it is a moment of tremendous opportunity. The artists in the field approach religion in ways that are both more sophisticated and more subtle than we would expect.

Of "Religion & Art in the 21st century," by Aaron Rosen - MARK WALLINGER, Ecce Homo, 1999. Sculpture, white marbled resin and gold plated, barbed wire, life size.  Photo courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.  © Mark Wallinger

From “Art + Religion in the 21st Century” by Aaron Rosen – “Ecce Homo” by Mark Wallinger, 1999. Sculpture, white marbled resin and gold-plated barbed wire, life size. Photo courtesy of Hauser & Wirth. © Mark Wallinger

Q: Museums have historically perpetuated the distortion either / or by refusing to recognize the religious power of religious art, beyond its historical significance of art.

A: I think that can change. In the UK, there have been three successful exhibitions at the National Gallery with altarpieces and other religious works arranged in such a way that curators hoped to reclaim some of their ritual and devotional power – without implying that viewers needed to convert. They were huge successes.

Q: You also describe artists using places of worship as showcases, from Bill Viola’s video altarpiece, “Martyrs,” in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, to a German graffiti artist who spray-painted the interior of a church in the town of Goldscheuer.

A: It is as much a mutual need as it is a shared theology. Many churches cannot afford to decorate themselves properly, and many artists are desperate for a place to show their work where people will spend a lot of time viewing it. In a few instances, however, the art has actually revived declining congregations and drawn in different eras, which has happened with the “graffiti church”. St. Paul’s has a lot of viewers, but Viola’s main role was to attract young people.

Q: Yet many artists fear being “ghettoized” as Christian, Jewish, or Muslim artists.

A: Museums, and galleries in particular, are much more comfortable talking about postmodern theory than Jesus or Abraham. Artists can be religious in private, draw on art from the religious past, create work for churches, and do many seemingly religious things. But I have to say that from a career point of view, anyone who expects success in the art world who describes themselves as a “Christian artist” is usually either very brave or very stupid.

Of "Religion & Art in the 21st century," by Aaron Rosen - NAZIF TOPÇUOGLU, Is it for Real?, 2006C-print.  Photo courtesy of Green Art Gallery, Dubai.  © Nazif Topçuoglu

From “Art + Religion in the 21st Century” by Aaron Rosen – “Is It for Real? ”By Nazif Topcuoglu? 2006 C-print. Photo courtesy of Green Art Gallery, Dubai. © Nazif Topçuoglu

Q: On the other hand, you include images where a religious image is appropriate for ambiguous purposes, such as when Adi Nes fills Leonardo’s “Last Supper” with a table of Israeli soldiers; or luxury photographer David LaChapelle creates a “Pieta” with an actor made up to resemble Christ rocking a Michael Jackson lookalike, blurring gender and identity. Should it be bothering us when we can’t determine whether the art offers a prayer or a smirk?

A: I think mixed messages can actually be a good thing. LaChapelle did a whole series called “American Jesus” which I think has religious significance under what you might call the veil of irony. When some people dismiss the idea that work involves real feeling, and others dismiss it outright as blasphemous, both miss it. My advice is this: Assume that a piece of art could have meaning and meaning in your life, and go from there. Then if you still choose to condemn it or ignore it, fine. But start by assuming it’s meaningful. Have faith in art.

(David Van Biema is correspondent for RNS)