Contemporary Art and Religion

Contemporary Art and Religion — Do They Mix?

Imago is pleased to present a lecture on the theme “Contemporary Art and Religion” by James Elkins, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Author of “Place of Religion in Contemporary Art”

and response by John Franklin, Executive Director of Imago

7:00pm — Thursday, May 23, 2013


Art Gallery of Ontario – Jackman Hall – Entrance of McCaul Street

In the summer 2009 issue of the Imago newsletter I did a brief piece about James Elkins and his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. At the end of that article, these words: “I find the recent conversations on religion and art an encouraging sign. …My hope is that we might find ways to further the conversation in the Canadian context on this important theme of religion and art.”

The special lecture with James Elkins (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) will we hope be a catalyst to generate engagement on the issues around the relationship between art and religion: for some of us the connections are obvious, for many – especially those in the “art world” – it is a link that is to be avoided at all costs. Below is an excerpt from the article that appeared in the newsletter in 2009.

“In the concluding chapter of the book Elkins articulates a view that should spark conversation, not to say controversy among artists of faith. He writes;

‘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 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 art seems unlikely – though perhaps not impossible. …It has been suggested that Elkins’ art world is one in which we discern the absence of God – humanity treading an apophatic path – unable to discern or accept a divine presence – but longing just the same. …One of the signs that the push to keep religion at bay is weakening is the so-called ‘return of beauty’ in discussions about art.”