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.
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?
Illustration: Sarah Illenberger
Thomas Bayrle. Photo: Wolfgang Günzel
Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin
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…
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
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.
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
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)
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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".
Photo: Christina Roth/Stefan Heidenreich
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
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
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
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.
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
is an art historian and a professor of art studies and media philosophy at the
Academy of Design Karlsruhe.