Sunday Devotionals

Run for your life besieged secular humanists, there's only two positions: my utter religious faithlessness or Pat Robertson, and you must choose! (United Church ladies have no standing, and Buddhists no longer get a free pass if they want to be artists, unless of course they stick with the Tibetan sand mandelas. But then they still don't get to be part of the discouse) Interesting interview with James Elkins about the Re-Enchantment Roundtable (thanks to simpleposie for pointing this out) Not enough discussions of this kind, but I found at times a smarmy tone of defensive pompousness and a narrowness that was enough to send me rushing into the arms of Charles Taylor.

This conversation with myself is going nowhere fast. So take an ecstasy break and listen to the art of The Barrett Sisters. (footage from the stellar 1982 documentary "Say Amen Somebody")

Below is the original trailer for the film that was set at a gospel conference in Houston:

- L.M. 4-15-2007 10:32 pm

I saw this movie with Julie Voyce when we were puppies, and I was dazzled by the the camera work on the performances. The framing on the first clip is even better than I remember it, there's a gorgeous second or two near the end where the sisters are looking at each other with sheer joy and mutual admiration for each other's singing.
- L.M. 4-16-2007 8:35 am

Thanks for the gospel! I found that Bad at Sports episode very interesting. I liked that they, James Elkins and David Morgan, are probing at the church/contemporary art divide. It made me want to read Elkins' book, "On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art." I've just been searching for reviews, and I can't find any online. From the discussion, maybe that's not surprising. Elkins and Morgan were relaying that many art critics would not touch their roundtable with a ten foot pole, afraid to go any where near the topic. They talked about how the spiritual motivations of modernist artists such as Kandinsky, Rothco and Barnett Newman are acknowledged, but seen as incidental to the historical significance of the work. I was very interested in the dynamic they described in which it is okay to investigate the theological implications of art from the past, to "parse our cultural artifacts", but it is much more loaded to address religion in contemporary art (using Bill Viola as an example), because "we're actually fighting for what will be our canonized culture now."

I completely agree with L.M., however, there was quite a lot of cringey, smarmy "we're in here, and they're out there" crap. Here's a bit I excerpted that gave me the shivers and furthered my mouting sense of anxiety about so called critcality (cross-posted from simpleposie). I lost track of who was speaking, but I think this exchange was between one of the BAS hosts and David Morgan:

A -"We [secularist intellectuals] are very much the white settlers in the fort, completely surrounded the raging hordes of the spiritual outside."

B- "That's precisely the point. Well put. That is exactly what's behind the anxiety...about all this relgion stuff and what does it have to do with the avant-guard, with contemporary art, real important art. There is an anxiety that we are indeed outnumbered. Jesse Helms attacked the NEA and had great success. We're under seige."

A-"But luckily we're the ones that write the textbooks."

- sally mckay 4-16-2007 7:31 pm

Also noteworthy, in the context of worrying that art criticism loses its capacity for relevance by staying inside a self-reflexive discourse bubble, was the fact that Richard Dawkins, and the currently raging scientism vs. religion debates, never once came up in the discussion.
- sally mckay 4-16-2007 7:54 pm

Cringeworthy for sure. "But luckily we're the ones that write the textbooks": not for long, dude.
- tom moody 4-16-2007 8:10 pm

Funny you should mention Dawkins, Charles Taylor responds to an accusation Dawkins makes with such simple elegance in that interview I linked to:

JTF: What do you make of the Richard Dawkins/Sam Harris argument that religious moderates of all faiths empower, and in some cases allow, religious extremists to exist by dint of their tolerance? In a sense the moderate broad-mindedness enables the extremist's narrow-mindedness.

This doesn't make an awful lot of sense to me. I know my Muslim friends are not tolerating extremists. They say, "This is awful, a distortion, a travesty of what I consider my faith." Now, if they aren't saying that, then it is a political criticism to make to them very severely, "Why are you shutting up?" But what Dawkins means is that by propounding the core doctrines of Islam or Christianity we are somehow empowering Pat Robertson's or what have you. That seems to me to be absurd. Particularly if you think these doctrines are correct, and that these doctrines are the only antidote to this kind of rage. I would also throw back to Dawkins, 'Are you empowering Stalin? Are you empowering Pol Pot?' These people took their violence out in destroying religious institutions. So is Dawkins empowering them by saying that religion is a terrible curse, a virus that has to be stamped out? I'm sure he would say "no, Joseph Stalin, don't shoot those priests. Be a nice guy!" But that's exactly what we're trying to say to religious extremists! So if we're supposed to stop promoting these doctrines because people carry them to extremes, then he is surely guilty of doing the same thing.

- L.M. 4-16-2007 10:11 pm

i have uploaded an essay response to the re-enchantment panel here:
- anonymous (guest) 4-28-2007 8:44 pm

That was very interesting, thank you.

Did I misread you or are you asserting that work that is based on religious faith and proclaimation must be judged on those terms?
- L.M. 4-28-2007 9:23 pm

L.M. I wouldn't say that it MUST be judged within those terms, but I do believe there is a sense in which it is somewhat outside the range of secular art theory. However, my statements on this matter could be seen as more of a query: many faiths are circumscribed and make claims that, ostensibly, an unbeliever cannot fathom. If this is so, can an artwork made from within that faith-tradition or perspective be properly understood from without? I think there are many reasons to go ahead and try. And there is something to be said for the idea that the internal motivations and inspirations of each individual artist, regardless of faith or the lack thereof, are multivalently complex and - in some ways - impossible for a theorist to really comprehend. In this I think the solution is to consider all things as "in relation." That is, we're all humans, we all share some commonalities. Even the most hardened skeptic believes some things and can thus relate, in some small way, to a work of faith. For me, it's really just about encouraging identification, a state where we try to foster understanding. I think this human identification is where the distanced art theorists may some day approach a truer understanding of faith-motivated work. So, to answer your question, yes - in some ways the faith-work us beyond the ability of the unbeliever to understand. But in another way, since we're all human, there is a point of connection that is open to us if we wish to take it.
- Matt Ballou - www.eikonktizo.c (guest) 5-03-2007 10:09 pm

I have made a "front-page" post linking to Matt Ballou's essay. I've also transposed the last two comments to that thread.
- sally mckay 5-04-2007 4:42 am

The exchange quoted from the podcast misses the context and the ironic, self-parodying tone of the comments. The conversation was not praising the art world for sequestering itself from the world of lived religion, but quite the opposite: lamenting the hands-off attitude, really, the taboo of religion in the world of avant-garde artists. This is a strange dynamic that needs explanation: why do art historians studying art before the modern era give attention to religion, but those writing on fine art since the 19th century often very confidently consider religion irrelevant, even improper to examine? And contemporary art critics are even worse: religion is nothing but reactionary, ideologically neanderthal, completely out of bounds for artists no less than critics and theorists. The fear seems to be that giving it any attention implies that one endorses or promotes it.

- David Morgan (guest) 5-15-2007 5:18 am

Thanks David, I'm glad to hear that there was some irony expressed with that exchange. Check out the thread that Sally links to in the comment above. It was a lively discussion there as well.

- L.M. 5-15-2007 6:20 am

Thanks for posting David. I realise that Bad At Sports likes to adopt a bad boy tone. I think the irony comes through, but that kind of jocular club talk sometimes makes my hackles rise (imagine if the discussion was about racial exclusion, for instance). That quote aside, I've been saying here and there that I think the symposium was a great idea, and that I'm very intrigued by the questions you raise. I hope you have seen the essay that Matt Ballou wrote in response to the event. As L.M. points out, it all sparked a long thread here with some great discussion. Thank you for that!
- sally mckay 5-15-2007 5:48 pm

"why do art historians studying art before the modern era give attention to religion, but those writing on fine art since the 19th century often very confidently consider religion irrelevant, even improper to examine?"

How about: Because art before the modern era is safely in the past, its practitioners long dead, and religion's contribution can be approached analytically without getting some living religious person's knickers in a twist. It's not that religion is irrelevant but let's just say certain zealots have made the topic literally lethal.
- tom moody 5-15-2007 6:55 pm

This past/present difference was explored in the Bad At Sports discussion. The suggestion was that when we are talking about the past we don't necessarily feel that it is "our" culture we are analysing. Contemporary art is much more loaded in this respect, and in some ways there's a lot more at stake for those of us who may see ourselves as, say, writing the history books.

To your point Tom, it's not just zealots that can be nerve-wracking, but regular religious folk who take their faith seriously are often on a mission to convert others. So the fear of endorsement that David talks about is magnified. Promotion in this context brushes up too close to prosthelytization.
- sally mckay 5-15-2007 8:31 pm

As an artist I'm fascinated by fringe religions because the idea of the deity seems to come from the same place as art ideas--as in, some murky, ecstatic place. I like to read and think about those religions but I don't necessarily want to meet these people. As for religions with more established dogma many of those practitioners are reading from a script. Either way, I hate it when someone tries to convert me because a lot of sleazy mind control tricks are used. The practitioner is looking for people who seem depressed and unhappy** because they're more subject to "love bombing" and all that other shite. Ugh. I'm proud to be from a country where the founders steered clear of the various mystery cults in creating our civic charter.

**Or in my case because they mistake irony for misery. Thinking of one specific instance where I was sitting drawing a skeleton playing bongos and a woman saw it and tried to get me come to come to her megachurch on the freeway.
- tom moody 5-15-2007 8:46 pm

Thanks for your replies, everyone. To Tom's post about the past: it certainly is much easier to write about religion/art that is buried in the past. I once published an essay on a popular religious artist, arguing that he lifted his image from a predecessor's work, and providing clear evidence (textul and visual) to document the fact. Though the artist himself was long dead, his family remained alive and took considerable displeasure in my essay, calling and writing me to vent their rage. I realized then how writing about contemporary imagery is much more charged than material from generations back.

But as a scholar of visual culture who spends far more time writing about popular visual material than fine art, I have to remind myself that the issues are not the same. Popular culture is not often about pushing the envelope; it's about securing the order of everyday life. This makes popular religious art conservative and static. It's not about change, but stasis, which is certainly a necessary part of everyday life. Fine art, or at least avant-garde art, by contrast, is much more inclined toward subverting conventions and seeking out change, challenging authority of any kind. That means it has a very different relationship with and attitude toward things like religion, where authority and tradition and power are deeply vested in institutions, language, architecture, and so forth.

So, for art historians or artists to take religion serious in the contemporary setting is counter-intuitive, at least from the prevailing point of view, that is, the working definition and practice of avant-gardism (as old and defunct as it may be, its ideology seems very much in force).
- David Morgan (guest) 5-15-2007 9:34 pm

It's not just avant gardism but empirical, Enlightenment principles of rational argument. One who questions whether the Earth really started 6000 years ago is in actual, physical danger.
- tom moody 5-15-2007 10:05 pm

However, re-reading the comments above I don't think contemporary art has any duty to defend Enlightenment principles against the fanatic hordes--just to be aware that talking about current religion (critically or not) involves real risks so it's better to be guarded, or coded, or steer the f*ck clear of it.
- tom moody 5-15-2007 10:41 pm

I think we have a different context for religious discussion here. The marketing of religion doesn't have the same toehold politically and culturally in Canada. Although Harper does have close ties to American evangelist movements, he's keeping a lid on it since he is running a minority government. Historically, much of our social reform was based on Christian participation. The great Tommy Douglas, who we owe for our Medicare system, was a Baptist minister. As a friend of mine who once produced a documentary on him said, our so-called lefty social reforms were initiated by various Christians who believed that they were supposed to make the world better than they had found it.

That said, the cultural discourse here still takes issue with religion, but that issue has a greater connection to the discussions on colonialism and multiculturalism.

- L.M. 5-16-2007 12:02 am

Elkins is American and that panel dialogue Sally quoted could have been American academics. We used to have a liberal Christian tradition here, too (I was connected to it growing up Episcopalian in Texas), but those voices became silent sometime in the Reagan era--I think because they threw in their lot with the power structure. (Episcopalianism is about class as much as good deeds.) In their silence the glossolalian crazies became ascendant. Liberal Christians have that on their conscience, or should.
- tom moody 5-16-2007 1:21 am

By "here", I didn't mean this thread, I meant that among Canadians, this sort of discussion extends into colonialism & multiculturalism.

- L.M. 5-16-2007 2:03 am

I knew you meant in Canada. We don't discuss colonialism and multiculturalism here in the US except some very nervous academics waiting to be shot or have their funding pulled.
- tom moody 5-16-2007 2:11 am

Since this thread may be a spam closing candidate just want to note I added a footnote to a comment I made above.
- tom moody 5-18-2007 12:04 am

I'm closing this thread since it's turned into a spam magnet, to continue this discussion, go to this thread.
- L.M. 5-18-2007 1:46 am