The Return of Religion in Contemporary Art

Annemieke Punt’s leadlight in the New Church in Delft (picture E. Tabak)
Annemieke Punt’s leadlight in the New Church in Delft (picture E. Tabak)

Religion has been out of fashion in many areas of public life, including the arts. However, this has not always been the case and indeed, with exhibitions such as Makoto Fujimura’s “The Four Holy Gospels” and Enrique Martinez Celaya’s exhibitions “The Wanderer” and “The Crossing”, it seems as though religion is returning as a prominent theme in contemporary art. In this post, Eline Tabak considers the function and meaning of religion in modern art as a whole and the significance of religion’s return.

An instigator of social reform, a brutal critique of politics, or an aesthetically pleasing contemplation on ethics, art has always been a reflection of what is happening in society.[1] The social significance of art is not just limited to museums and other art institutions: one look at Banksy’s street art reveals a lot about the artist’s anti-authoritarian views on society. Between all the quirky new tendencies, the newly found love for food as both a subject and a medium, neon lights, graffiti, and clean-cut industrial designs, it might come as a surprise to some that religion, too, is returning to the realm of the arts. Defining art as not just an expression of, but also a reflection on human culture and civilisation, this religious tendency may very well say more than one initially expects.

Numerous scholars and social commentators concur that religion is making something of a comeback in the public sphere, with some suggesting that it never truly went away in the first place. Art, as a medium to reflect on societal trends, provides us with a reflection of these intangible trends in visual form. The critical and oftentimes destructive character of postmodernism was in no field as evident as in the arts. The philosopher Jean-François Lyotard declared this era to be the end of all ‘grand narratives,’ and religion, like all grand narratives, was considered a story, a mere tale.[2] According to its philosophers and spokespeople, there was no place for religion in the postmodern society and therefore in the life of the postmodern artist.

 

For some, however, the rejection of religion in the arts was never an issue in the first place. Years after writing his legendarium[3], J.R.R. Tolkien stated that The Lord of the Rings was heavily influenced by Christianity. In 2006, the New Church (also known as ‘the royal vault’) in Delft unveiled the leadlight made by Dutch artist Annemiek Punt, depicting a multifaceted image of Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus. The reconstruction of the Reichstag in Berlin included a prayer room, designed by sculptor Günther Uecker, for people of all faiths and no faith as a space for reflection and prayer. For these people, the theme and importance of religion in literature, the fine arts, and architecture has never been an issue or questioned. It was simply there in a time where religion was supposedly banished to the private sphere. Religious art has always been at home in the public sphere, open for the public to experience and enjoy.

 

For others, postmodern philosophy and its convictions were influential for their view on religion. But postmodernism is not as dominant as it once was, and this can be seen in the arts as well.[4] Its unrelenting regime has made way for new possibilities and a neoromantic turn in the arts which some call metamodernism.[5] With newfound hope and optimism, perhaps even desperation, the artist no longer regards religion and spirituality as subjects to be frowned upon. The search for ‘something more’ is back and this time it can be found in the art galleries, too, amongst other places. For example, religion has returned to the cinema with popular films like Luther (2003), Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), and Kingdom of Heaven (2007). One of Margaret Atwood’s latest novels, The Year of the Flood, conveys a much more ambivalent attitude towards religion than her previous works. J.M. Coetzee’s novel The Childhood of Jesus approaches the subject of religion in a world without it. In The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Philip Pullman, a self-described atheist, retells the story of Jesus Christ as if he were two people. In literature, it appears as if the return of the religious is confirmed and widely reflected upon.

 

In 2008, the New Church in Amsterdam housed an exhibition for the Municipal Museum Amsterdam: Holy Fire, Religion and Spirituality in Modern Art. Many artworks in the exhibition had not been on display for years, but it appeared the right time had come for these religious pieces to return to the public. This exhibition confirms that art institutes are certainly aware of the return of religion in society and the audience’s need to experience it once again in a public setting. The forthcoming exhibition at the Tate Modern Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, provides further evidence of this trend.[6] In the fine arts, there are artists such as Mark Lawrence and Makoto Fujimura, who both draw inspiration directly from the Bible and combine its verses and lessons with their work. In other words, religion is no longer a dirty word and a more positive attitude towards it is once again accepted. Perhaps most significantly, the return of religion in the arts is contributing to making religion visible again in the public sphere.

 

The return of religion in the arts has not gone unnoticed. A mere two years ago, Matthew Milliner recognised the recent return of the religious in the art world (despite its “secular hangover”) and compared it to the ‘elephant in the gallery, waiting to be more fully addressed.’[7] Here Milliner likely refers not only to critics and art historians, but also the media in general. Nevertheless, two years later it remains to be seen when exactly this will be. One thing is certain: religion is slowly but surely coming back and reclaiming its position as a significant and meaningful subject for the arts. The only question that remains is what does this all mean? Is it a call for hope, as some metamodernistic movements suggest? Perhaps it is the beginning of a search for something more, now that it has become clear that postmodernism was not the end of all ‘grand narratives’. Coetzee’s new novel certainly seems to hint at this. It may also be a reminder of the transcendental aspects in life, a wake-up call telling us that it was never lost in the first place, as shown by the Municipal Museum’s exhibition in 2008. Or could it be a mere observation, an acknowledgement of the fact that the role of religion in our society is far from over? Perhaps it is all of the above – and more.

Eline Tabak is an undergraduate student of English literature at the University of Groningen. She recently completed the Honours College broadening module “Religion and the Public Domain and is currently finishing her bachelor’s degree at the University of York, England.


[1] Dutton, Denis. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure & Human Evolution. Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

[2] Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Ed. Brian Massumi. University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

[3] Tolkien himself referred to his works on the fictional world of Arda as his legendarium.

[4] Kirby, Alan. ‘The Death of Postmodernism And Beyond.’ PhilosophyNow, 2006, <http://philosophynow.org/issues/58/The_Death_of_Postmodernism_And_Beyond&gt;.

[5] Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker. ‘Notes on Metamodernism.’ Aesthetics and Culture. Vol. 2, 2010.

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