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Deutsche Bank Opening New KunstHalle in Berlin
Violence and Creation: Imran Qureshi in the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
Why drawing? Three questions for Victoria Noorthoorn
Question of Faith: Is There a Return of the Religious in Contemporary Art?
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"These are not Sunday painters" - Sophie von Olfers on MACHT KUNST
Make Art - The KunstHalle invites all Berlin artists to take part in a 24-hour exhibition
Barometer of the Art Scene - Preview of Frieze New York and Art Basel Hong Kong

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Question of Faith:
Is There a Return of the Religious in Contemporary Art?


For a very long time it seemed the decline of religion’s importance in society, was a trend as unstoppable as individualism or globalization. Yet, in a world transformed by the effects of globalization, and since September 11 at the very latest, religion and spirituality have taken on new relevance in all areas of society. But does this apply to contemporary art as well? We’ve asked the experts.



Illustration: Sarah Illenberger

Controversial debates about the Catholic Church, Middle East policy, and Islam indicate that religion is seen, now more than ever, as an integral part of cultural identity. But religious art has long been taboo in the white cube. Artists have only reluctantly spoken about their own beliefs. Faith is considered private. At the same time an increasing number of major exhibitions have been dedicated to the theme of art and religion, including the 2006 Singapore Biennial entitled Belief, the 2008 show Traces du sacré at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Medium Religion in 2009 at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, and “Animismus” at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, in 2012. Is there a return of the religious in contemporary art?



Thomas Bayrle. Photo: Wolfgang Günzel
Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin

Thomas Bayrle
From my perspective, yes, there is a renaissance—because new insights and connections are being made. Where things used to be separate, this is no longer always the case! This really doesn’t have anything to do with New Age—but it is also not a retrogressive step. It has more to do with the fact that things, which are in principle antithetical, may not turn out to be so after all…
Thomas Bayrle is an artist. In his installation for the last documenta, he combined mechanical worlds with a soundtrack of rosaries and rogations.




Anselm Franke. Photo: Jakob Hoff. © HKW














Anselm Franke
There is an important movement of engaging with religious topics, but there is not a wave of religious or sacral art in contemporary art. That is an important difference. An invisible background condition of contemporary art still valid today is that it stands outside of faith-based practices, only citing them at most. The historical break with religion continues. We would not think of hanging something that someone prays to in a museum. Still, mystical experiences are very important to artists today, both as a theme and in their own experience. But this is not new. One need only think of the Surrealists, or Sol LeWitt, who declared the conceptual artist a mystic. Mystical experience is something like a counterpart to reality, and this, of course, is a reference point and resource for almost every artist. The best artists manage to map and destabilize the difference between mystical experience and everyday experience, but without, say, making mysticism the more real principle—that would be faith. Faith is incompatible with art end even destroys the sovereignty of art and the kinds of experiences we are looking for when we frequent art spaces. It is worthwhile thinking about Bruno Latour’s hypothesis. He says that “faith,” as it is known today in secular societies, is an invention of modernism, precisely because it is perceived to be detached from another reality.
Anselm Franke is a curator at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, where he has shown the project "Animism" in 2012. The exhibition "The Whole Earth", which Franke co-curated with Diedrich Diedrichsen, opens at the HKW on April 26.



Jörg Heiser. Photo: Stefan Maria Rother

Jörg Heiser
Modern art has engendered countless representational forms bearing resemblance to religious tropes—the reverent glance heavenwards, the gaze deep into another’s eyes and beyond, ecstatic communal experiences, and solitary mystical realizations given visual expression. The same goes for pop music. Some DJs work from a pulpit; then there is ecstatic dance, avowals of humility from the edge of the stage, verses of adoration in choral form, and the worshipping of saints. But it would be a mistake to speak of consubstantiality rather than a formal similarity. Art and religion are the antithesis of one another, like water and oil (although emulsions are possible). This is the case, at least, if we do not entirely forget history, and thus sweep away the last 224 to 900 years, from the French Revolution and its consequences to the Toledo School of Translators with their relativization of Christian claims of absolute truth, and the Eurocentrism that stemmed from their readings of Ancient Greek and Arabic philosophical, astronomical, and mathematical knowledge. It was during this period that art gradually loosed itself from the all-encompassing power of religion, as did politics and scientific endeavor. Or, if we want to attach a condensed label to the well-known events that followed— the “dialectics of the Enlightenment.” Scientific knowledge and art are as one in societies dominated by religion. The thirst for knowledge is constrained by belief and its claims to power, and art is instrumentalized in the service of religious incarnations. To the degree to which (institutional) religion recognizes art, it tends towards the secular. Where mysticism and spirituality feature in art today, however, it does not mean conversely that art inclines towards the religious. On the contrary, it subsumes the same spiritual needs into a radically different system, dominated less by faith than doubt. This does not exclude the possibility that there are artists who consider themselves to be prophets and saviors. As the art critic Dan Fox says (following Claes Oldenburg), “I am for an art that knows where it ends and where life begins. I am for an art that does not just see Jesus in a slice of toast.”
Jörg Heiser is joint editor-in-chief of frieze magazine and publisher of frieze d/e.



Silvia Henke. Photo: © Marvin Zilm (Das Magazin)

Silvia Henke
1. Religious art is taboo! Religious art exists in churches, in historical museums, at most in museums for non-European art, or in the vicinity of mentally confused artists, but not in the white cubes of major art temples. When it gets to close to pure art, the latter feels “threatened”— like documenta 13 director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev did when confronted with artist Stephan Balkenhol's wooden figure on the steeple of St. Elizabeth’s Church in Kassel.
2. While individual artists are eager to lay claim to a certain subjective “religiosity” (which however, they are loath to explain), contemporary art exhibitions full of religious symbols, themes and staging see themselves as events of culture rather than religion, culture which has usurped the molten core of religion, namely questions of belief and denomination.
3. Replacing belief in God with belief in art is only a trick, a way to evade the social and moral questions of religion. According to the art historian Wolfgang Ullrich, to believe in art means that the obligatory questions of religion have been done away with under the guise of art. The notion of “high art” always implies the intellectual, the inarticulable, the hidden; it is about aura, spiritual moods, and the transcendence of art in absolute terms.
4. It would be more useful for contemporary art to accept the long-standing diagnosis of Western society put forth by philosophers and sociologists of religion, namely: That it finds itself in a “post-secular” phase, a term which allows for critical self-reflection through religious thought, while considering the ubiquity of the religious in its various manifestations within the secularization process, through secular thought (Jürgen Habermas).
5. One could and should have certain expectations regarding the concurrence of art and religion today. Artistic works which precisely deal with religious form and meaning have the ability to mediate between blind faith and rational knowledge; they belong neither to a dogmatic religiosity that confuses belief with conviction, nor to a totally individualized “who cares how or what” religiousness, in which faith is an utterly private thing. When artistic works successfully translate sacred symbols into the language of secular art (masterfully done by Mark Wallinger), it happens not as blasphemy or a deconstruction of the religious but rather, in Jean-Luc Nancy’s sense, as “redeeming deconstruction.”
6. In terms of inter-cultural understanding, it might be opportune if Western artists came to realize that secularization is a uniquely European project. Understanding other cultures means understanding their religions, in which instance it is also helpful to consider the religious foundations of our own culture, for which Christianity developed an iconographic program which retains its magnificence to this day.
Silvia Henke is a professor of cultural theory at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts and co-editor of the reader "Kunst und Religion im Zeitalter des Postsäkularen" (Art and Religion in the Post-Secular Era).



Christian Jankowski. Photo: Joerg Reichardt
Courtesy Galerie Klosterfelde, Berlin

Christian Jankowski
I hope not. I am more interested in art about religion than religious art, in the same way that I find art about commerce more interesting than commercial art.
Christian Jankowski is an artist and professor of sculpture at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart. In 2011, he realized the video installation "Casting Jesus".



Brigitte Werneburg
Photo: Christina Roth/Stefan Heidenreich

Brigitte Werneburg
If I take the rather nebulous term, religious, to mean religion, then I don’t see any renaissance of belief or religion in contemporary art. How could gender politics be playing such an important role in contemporary art if there were such a renaissance? None of the religions that I know about would, for instance, ever accept homosexuality. Religion and belief recognize only the one revealed truth. And, as we all know, arguments are not much help against the truth. To expect that enlightened thought and independent art could be combined with belief in a kind of “having your cake and eating it, too” manner, would be intellectually cheap. In this sense, I appreciate Pope Benedikt XVI’s intellectual acuity.
At the same time, it is eye-opening to read the following about the Arab-looking youths depicted by Nobert Bisky, urinating in half-timbered German towns, his semen dripping on bound and abused bodies of boys: “His violent and sexually explicit paintings astound the public, in much the same way as depictions of Biblical scenes in churches once did.” It really is true that religions with their cultural and artistic heritage are being widely instrumentalized for the purpose of communication within our culture and society. Confessions of faith are employed in the foppish self-styling of someone like Martin Mosebach, in the masquerade tradition taken up by Bisky, for instance, or simply as a means of dissociation or provocation. I think it would be a mistake to see a renaissance in the endlessly recurring vogue for themes relating to religion or belief, whether one sees them as typical of Modernism or even Post-Modernism.
Brigitte Werneburg is art editor at taz, Berlin.



Beat Wyss. Photo: Veronika Wyss, February 2013, Bennington Museum, MA

Beat Wyss
Contrary to ahistorical conceptions of “world art,” artistic activity depends on the achievements of society, which I term the “four virtues of the art system”: 1) respect for the individual; 2) a valuing of work within society; 3) open practices in relation to exchange and trade; and 4) freedom of speech in the public realm.
If only one of these aspects is missing, then art is endangered or even rendered completely impossible. These societal achievements have evolved over centuries as the philosophy of Humanism developed into bourgeois economic ethics, the politics of legally constituted forms of democracy and onwards to colonial liberation movements. As Michel Foucault would have it, these four virtues make up the “historical apriori” of art. The globalized art market is the only system that permits the layperson to speak about God and the secular. Contemporary cosmopolitan art is in the process of becoming an international religion. Conventional testimonies of faith no longer have majority appeal, since the traditions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism all comprise cultural limitations due to their regional mind-sets and the ethos of their ruling elites. 
The religion that is cosmopolitan art conversely transcends these boundaries, because it was not founded until societies had become globalized. The post-colonial definitions of center and periphery have now been reconfigured as a new internationalism. Geocentrism has become a culturally universal category, following which any given place in the periphery is considered equidistant from the center of the world. Art draws its auratic power from its autonomy vis-a-vis categories of practical usage. Its elevated status within society permits it to adopt a critical position toward global structures from on high. Its practical purpose is not to be found in political activity, but instead in the empowering of political consciousness through aesthetic means. Art does not provide society with an instruction manual. Its offerings penetrate the darker realms, descending into that which is difficult to convey, into the inadequate position of the powerless subject. Art stands up for the right of the individual, the “in-dividual,” to be an indivisible person. The position of the artist represents the figure of the Other, the indivisible entity beyond public and published opinion. Artworks give voice to “dissent”, not “common sense.” The politics of art consist of exercising the ability to say “no” and to publicly promulgate tolerance thereof. The ablility to say “no” is the basis of an open society, and art exhibitions are sites where this basis can be practically applied.
Beat Wyss is an art historian and a professor of art studies and media philosophy at the Academy of Design Karlsruhe.






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