David Wojnarowicz
Image via Wikipedia

Last week, Matthew Milliner, a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Princeton University, wrote a piece for The Huffington Post’s Religion vertical entitled “The Return of the Religious in Contemporary Art.” I bring this to your attention primarily because the phenomenon that the title suggests is truly happening and I’m very excited about it. I have seen this first hand as my wife completed her MFA at an art school in NYC. Among her fellow students, and represented in their work, was an acknowledgment of the importance of religion in their lives and in culture. This is a very good thing.

Milliner’s article brings attention to a controversy involving a deceased artist named David Wojnarowicz and an excerpt from a video he made called “A Fire in My Belly.” The contentious excerpt portrays an image of a crucifix with ants crawling all over it. This is not what I’m mostly interested in, but more on it in a moment. What’s really valuable about the piece is that Milliner quotes other art historians, from Yale and Harvard who also recognize this phenomenon, thus lending gravitas to it, and offering a great jumping off point for further research. Additionally, Milliner reports briefly on two recent shows in NYC featuring the work of Enrique Martínez Celaya and Makoto Fujimura as evidence of this return.

In light of all this, I’m happy to know about Milliner and even happier to know of a believer who is also a serious art critic. As I mentioned, my wife is an artist – a painter – and so we are both very aware of and concerned about how religious influence is received in the art world. Not that her work is always overtly Christian, but at any rate, a less hostile environment is a welcome change.

I do, however, have one minor point of contention with Milliner’s piece. His essay sails along splendidly up until the last paragraph where he almost undoes all the good work he’d done to that point. Almost. There he launches into a brief explanation of why he thinks the Wojnarowicz conflict is silly as it “betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Christianity.”

Wait, what! I thought I was reading an essay on art, but he ends with a sermon. This may seem like a minor point but I think it underscores a serious problem that Christians have when it comes to art. Even Milliner, a PhD candidate in art history, seems to feel that it is necessary to turn his essay into an object lesson. The article would have been better served with a critical perspective on the Wojnarowicz piece, which is where I thought he was going based on a line from the quote he includes from Harvard’s Camille Paglia. Speaking of many instances of religion addressed in modern art, she says, “Profaning the iconography of other people’s faiths is boring and adolescent.”

Exactly. There’s no need to try to Christianize Wojnarowicz’s piece. Even though it is possible to read into the piece, as Milliner did, a symbol for the offensiveness of the cross, this afterthought is indicative of a flaw in contemporary Christianity’s (particularly evangelical’s) approach to art. It seems that art is acceptable as long as it can be made to prove a theological point. This, I suggest, is a disservice to both the work and the Bible.

I want, desperately, for there to be more art critics who are – at the very least – respectful of Christianity, if not Christians themselves. To this end I am reading, researching and studying to become more qualified to comment on art, myself. I am very happy to know of Milliner and eager to catch up on his blog and to continue to follow his career as an art critic. My greatest hope, however, is that he and others of us who consider art will resist the temptation to use it to sermonize, choosing rather to consider art on its own merit. If there is in fact a resurgence of interest in religion in the art world, let’s not stand in its way by attempting to coopt it for Sunday school lessons.

About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

Editor | Follow him on Twitter.

0 Responses to When Art Critics Go to Sunday School

  1. stephy says:

    Word. The Christian culture tendency seems to be to categorize every beautiful thing that comes our way and get it in black and white, so that the true beauty and pain in the gray is explained away. Rather tragic.

  2. I think you misread that last paragraph. I take him to be pointing out precisely “a flaw in contemporary Christianity’s (particularly evangelical’s) approach to art” rather than offering a Christianization of Wojnarowicz’s piece. In other words, I understand him to be saying that there’s no reason for Christians to be offended by ants on a cross, because the cross is already a scandal. This is not a Christian meaning grafted onto the piece so much as it is a call for us to consider our reactions in light of our own professed beliefs.

    Even if I’m wrong, though, I resist your contention that theological reflection has no place in art criticism, or that it somehow hurts the cause of religion in art criticism. Wojnarowicz is working with a theological symbol; while it’s only responsible to try to understand how he is using/reinterpreting that symbol, the original meanings still remain part of the total meaning of the piece. As such, it’s perfectly justifiable to offer a theological reading of the piece. In my field (literary criticism) at least, which is also undergoing a turn to the religious, this sort of theological reflection on works which contain religious themes is becoming more and more mainstream.

    • Fitz says:

      Aha! A fellow literary guy. Thanks for commenting. I am not suggesting that “theological reflection has no place in art criticism,” or in literary criticism for that matter. What I am contending is that Milliner seems to be reinforcing — not necessarily purposefully — the misguided idea that in order for Christians to interact with art it has to be made safe and clean and a neat theological implication must be reached. I did say, “Even though it is possible to read into the piece, as Milliner did, a symbol for the offensiveness of the cross,” I am by no means denying the theological lens and I think it will necessarily be a large part of a Christian’s critique. Something about the presentation in Milliner’s piece, however, seemed a bit to tidy, a bit too much like an object lesson to carry the weight of a theological reflection or critique.

      • Guest says:

        Curious, what is the sufficient “weight” for a theological reflection or critique?

        Further, is Milliner really “Christianizing” Wojnarowica’s art by criticizing it? Would all artistic critiques made by Christians constitute “Christianizing”?

        • Fitz says:

          Good questions. And I’m sorry I haven’t been sufficiently clear. My point about Milliner’s essay is that by excusing Wojnarowica’s piece in the last paragraph, almost as an afterthought, made what could have been a critique more like an object lesson, a tidy wrap-up so that Christians could access the piece. I don’t see what he was doing there as criticism, and I think it was a missed opportunity to criticize.

          And no, I don’t think that all critiques made by Christians would constitute Christianizing, nor do I think this a difficult concept to grasp. The fact is Christian scholars have been the leading voices in criticism (as Christian artists have been prominent artists) before modernism and before contemporary evangelicalism. As I have suggested elsewhere, I am advocating a return to a time when a Christian’s critique was not a Christian critique (or a Christian artist didn’t make Christian art).

          • “My point about Milliner’s essay is that by excusing Wojnarowica’s piece in the last paragraph, almost as an afterthought, made what could have been a critique more like an object lesson, a tidy wrap-up so that Christians could access the piece.”

            Ah. Now that makes more sense. I’ll grant you that Milliner’s last para. might be a missed opportunity to criticize. Given the purpose of the piece as a whole, though–commenting on declining antagonism between art and religion–isn’t an irenic conclusion appropriate? A concluding critique might leave you with the thought, “Yeah, this religious guy says art and religion can be friends, but look: he’s still griping about art, just in more sophisticated language.”

  3. Joshua Keel says:

    Thanks, Fitz. I’m looking forward to more pieces like this.

  4. Courtney says:

    Milliners last paragraph was certainly packed. I took his final words as ironic as well. But the choice of quoting scripture and making points obvious to a believer, often have a the result of sounding ‘christian’ rather than scholarly and critical on the surface.

    Maybe the art world is finally starting to acknowledge that themes of the human condition need to be discussed and in artwork and religious thought is a powerful vehicle for it.

  5. lv outlet says:

    The actual Alexander McQueen purse attributes comfortable environment friendly quilted household leather lv outlet having brownish household leather structure. The color as well as quilted style and design found us a well used experiencing, that would possibly pull off an announcement creating overall appeal on your totality while keeping all things elegance.

Leave a Reply

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.