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.
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