Religion still invisible in contemporary art galleries, though gaining admission to museums

While religious concepts and imagery remains off-limits in many contemporary art galleries, religious artifacts are beginning to find more of a reception in the world’s museums. In the Catholic magazine Commonweal (March 10), Daniel Grant writes, “Sincere expressions of spirituality or religious faith are largely absent from art galleries, except the ones that various churches and synagogues around the United States maintain or the museums of religiously affiliated colleges and universities. Instead, religion appears—when it does appear—as an object of scorn and suspicion.” Grant cites exhibitions at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, which included a painting by Mark Ryden showing a little girl in a Communion dress sawing into a piece of ham that bears the Latin inscription that translates into the “Mystical Body of Christ.” In 2015 the Milwaukee Art Museum acquired the controversial portrait by Niki Johnson of Pope Benedict XVI, “Eggs Benedict,” which was created with 17,000 multi-colored condoms. Grant traces much of the disdain and dismissal of religion to the art school and Master of Fine Arts programs, where students are actively discouraged from creating work that addresses spirituality, ritual, and faith, especially if it concerns Christianity. Art historian and critic James Elkins says that student artists are trained to concentrate on “criticality in relation to existing power structures,” be they received ideas, capitalism, or the church.

While much contemporary art focuses on identity, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation, and religion is one element of identity, those other identity markers are more fluid and open to interpretation, whereas religion is “more set in time and less open to reconsideration, certainly less tolerant of difference,” Grant writes. By the time these artists reach the commercial art world, “they know to keep their beliefs quiet or face rejection.” Grant concludes, “What does seem unnerving is the fear that many art-gallery and museum directors have about offending visitors, even when many of those museum officials bravely defend—on grounds of free expression—artwork that might force parents to cover their young children’s eyes.” The new book Religion in Museums (Bloomsbury, $26.96), edited by Gretchen Buggein, Crispin Paine, and S. Brent Plate, makes a similar critique, though some of the contributors see signs of greater openness to religious themes surrounding art and artifacts. In the Foreword, Sally Promey of Yale University notes that the new interest in religion “roughly coincides with the dismantling of secularization theory,” which had led museums to see religion as a “vestigial organ or appendage, a relic of the past, or a token of presumably less advanced civilizations. …That Sister Corita Kent can be resurrected in 2015–16 as a Pop artist, with art historians paying scant attention, beyond the merely descriptive, to the substance of her religious convictions and practice, however, provides a recent example that demonstrates how tough it is to shake fundamental ingrained cultural hierarchies and biases.”

But Promley adds, “Sometimes objects resist the sort of cultural elevations so-called secular museums seek to enforce. …Slippage between museum exhibition and religious practice occurs fairly often.” This conflation happens when exhibits become actual sites of devotion, as when the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s showcase of Tibetan Buddhism had monks demonstrating the making of a mandela and an observant follower left an offering and engaged in Buddhist devotions. In fact, “Wherever religious objects are displayed, in both sacred and secular museum spaces, people pray, make offerings, and devotionally touch objects,” the editors write in the Introduction. Art journalist Tom Freudenheim writes that even with the growth of museums run by various religions, they may not represent themselves accurately. The various Jewish museums move between pride and victimhood, “while artifacts associated with Jewish rituals (individual, family, and communal) are as disassociated from belief, spirituality and ritual validation in a Jewish museum as are the Christian objects in most art museums, buried in their cleansed generic narratives.” In the book’s Afterword, the editors conclude that much of the progress that has been made by religion in museums has been the achievement of learning staff. These professionals guide and explain the background and meanings of religious objects, often with the help of interactive and digital media. They add, “One of the huge challenges museums face is to help people who have never had any contact with religion understand what it is that motivates religious people: what ‘devout’ feels like inside.”