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A couple of threads on art and religion over at Sally McKay's and L.M.'s blog: here and here. Seems it started with a panel with some art critics saying really stupid stuff like
"A -"We [secularist intellectuals] are very much the white settlers in the fort, completely surrounded ...by the raging hordes of the spiritual outside."...followed by some of McKay's/LM's commenters decrying the art world's hypocritical bias against current religious art when it is only too happy to talk about past religious motivation (Kandinsky, etc.) To David Morgan's question "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?" I responded (cramming together several answers):
B- "That's precisely the point. Well put. That is exactly what's behind the anxiety...about all this religion stuff and what does it have to do with the avant-garde, 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 siege."
A-"But luckily we're the ones that write the textbooks."
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.(image above--possibly the greatest painting ever made--by jonathan borofsky)
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.
The art world's "bias" against religion isn't just reflex avant gardism. Empirical, Enlightenment principles of rational argument are also at stake. (One who questions whether the Earth really started 6000 years ago is in actual, physical danger today.) But I don't think contemporary art has any duty to defend such 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.
*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.