“There is something in our humanity that resists accounts of life that are merely mechanical or material”
The 20th century citadel known as the “art world” has been insistent that religion would not be allowed through the gates. This cultural breach between art and religion has been getting considerable attention recently. Much of the discussion has been generated by art historian James Elkins who teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago. His 2004 book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art has been a catalyst for new conversations that explore the relationship between art and religion. In the concluding chapter of the book Elkins articulates a view that should spark conversation not to say controversy among artists of faith.
“I have tried to show why committed, engaged, ambitious, informed art does not mix with dedicated, serious, thoughtful, heartfelt religion. Whenever the two meet one wrecks the other.” (p.115)
Elkins’ contention invites response and certainly raises all sorts of questions. It is important to know that Elkins is speaking about a limited range of art. He holds to an account of art that is “institutional’. This means that art is that which shows up in museums and galleries and is the subject of publications whose focus is contemporary art. This way of understanding art emerged when artists began to do work that would not fit traditional forms of art or comply with accepted philosophical definitions.
It is common for those who hold this view to take a further step and affirm such art as the standard by which all other work is to be judged. Religious art becomes unacceptable because it is indebted to another tradition, an earlier time, and fails to fit with the prevailing ideas of today’s “art world”. Given this perspective reconciliation between religion and the art world seems unlikely – though perhaps not impossible. What about this idea of “the art world”?
“I am not a religious man, but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view”