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Art, Religion and the Culture War Eleanor Heartney Art controversies are triggered by specific works and circumstances, but they are always symptoms of larger conflicts. In 1989, a controversy over Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc" which lead to the removal of the work - an 84 foot long curtain of steel cutting across a federal plaza - was really about frustrations felt by local residents over their lack of control over the disposition of public space. Similarly, in 2002, a statue of a tumbling woman created by Eric Fischl to commemorate the victims of September 11 caused an uproar because it touched on viewers' unresolved feelings about how the dead should be remembered and depicted. Over the last 25 years, public disputes over art and religion have periodically emerged in the United States as symptoms of larger conflicts over questions of the separation of church and state, the place of religion in political life, and the difficulties experienced by groups and individuals in reconciling belief and freedom of expression. in such controversies, the quality of the art is often of less importance than the nerves it touches. The fatwa issued in 1989 against Salman Rushdie for his comical treatment of the prophet Mohammed in his novel "The Satanic Verses" was remembered twenty seven years later when riots broke out throughout the Islamic world over a series of cartoons ridiculing the prophet as a war monger and hypocrite. In both cases, the controversy turned on believers' anger at disrespect shown for Mohammed, but the reactions took no account of the fact that one representation was far more artistically defensible than the other. In the United States, skirmishes between art and religion have become a major theme of the so-called Culture War. The Culture War is frequently framed as a confrontation between social and religious conservatives who valorize family values, Christian faith and stalwart patriotism and the "liberal establishment" which tends to be secular, cosmopolitan and uncomfortable with absolutist standards of morality. This conflict, which has been brewing since the founding of the republic, has erupted in recent years into pitched battles over issues like abortion, gay marriage, school prayer, evolution, and stem cell research and has, according to political commentators, divided the country into warring and apparently irreconcilable "red" and "blue" zones. As we shall see, those neat distinctions become blurry as we get closer to actual cases. Nevertheless, they have helped to define public perceptions of our political landscape in ways that often make it difficult for embattled factions to find common ground. As a result, a closer look at the underlying meaning of some of the more notorious controversies involving art and religion may help open up some new channels of communication. CULTURE WAR CIRCA 1989 Art became a key element in the Culture War in 1989 when controversy broke out in connection with the use of government money to support exhibitions of work described by conservative critics as pornographic, blasphemous or sacrilegious. One of the most publicized cases turned on the purported desecration of an important Christian symbol by photographer Andres Serrano. His "Piss Christ" was included in a traveling group exhibition for fellowship winners from a program called Awards in the Visual Arts. "Piss Christ" depicts a white crucifix enveloped in a golden glow, an effect created, as the title suggests, by photographing the crucifix through a veil of urine. "Piss Christ" is part of a series of photographs in which the artist put articles, some religious, some not, in different body fluids to equally dramatic effect. A portion of Serrano's $15,000 fellowship came from the National Endowment for the Arts, and this fact triggered a high profile campaign against the NEA. Conservative politicians looking for a visible target in their war against big government orchestrated letter writing campaigns from Christian organizations to members of Congress demanding the defunding of the NEA. Meanwhile news reports played up the controversy over "the crucifix dipped in urine". Buoyed by their success in raising public ire over objectionable art, politicians like Jesse Helms began to target other NEA funded exhibitions and artists whose work could also be presented as an affront to American taste and morality. Although framed around issues of public funding and censorship, the "Piss Christ" controversy offered a preview of the current stalement between blue and red states of mind. It did this by reinforcing beliefs on both sides of the divide about the natural antipathy between religion and contemporary art. From inside the art world the view went like this: Religion and creativity are essentially antithetical, because religion necessarily limits the imagination by imposing a set of rigid received beliefs. As a result, so the reasoning went, art's once powerful ties to religion had been irrevocably severed by the onset of Modernity. Some argued that science had replaced religion, while others felt that the human need for transcendence and sublimity could now be achieved without reference to God. A number of artists and writers contended that art was the Modern era's religion. Running through all these alternatives was the conviction that the demotion of religion need not spell the end of spirituality or mysticism in art. In fact these continued to flourish, especially in the context of abstract art. What had become unthinkable was any suggestion that art could or should be influenced by established religion. As a result, when the "Piss Christ" controversy erupted, art critics rushed to defend Serrano and his work in terms which reinforced this standoff between art and religion. Defenses of Serrano's work generally turned on issues of free speech and the artist's right to follow his creative imagination without deference to religious or political authorities. In general art critics approved of what they perceived as his attack on Christianity, because they shared that opinion. The view from the other side was equally angry and accusatory, but it shared the art insiders' conviction about Serrano's anti-religion stance. Conservative politicians and commentators decried the artist's "anti-Christian bias and bigotry" Senator Jesse Helms offered his opinion of Serrano to the Congressional record ". . . he is not an artist. He is a jerk. And he is taunting the American people, just as others are, in terms of Christianity". Others extrapolated from this controversy to a more widespread threat. Conservative columnist and sometime political candidate Patrick Buchanan declared: "American's art and culture are, more and more, openly anti-Christian, anti-American and nihilistic". (It is interesting, in light of later developments, to note the equation Buchanan makes between faith and patriotism. This was to become a central issue in controversies to come.) William Dannemayer, the Representative from California who lead the attack against the NEA, was equally incendiary. He proclaimed "My good friends, Christianity is under attack in America. . . The object of hate for these moral eunuchs is anyone who believes that right and wrong or good and evil transcend any code of standards which the feeble mind of man can fabricate." In the Culture War of the early 90s, artists served conservatives as useful symbols of the decadent liberal establishment. Their evident disrespect of religion and especially Christianity marked them as godless atheists intent on undermining the moral underpinnings of the nation. Art insiders essentially shared this assessment of artist's relationship to religion, but they argued that this rejection was an inevitable step in the nation's progress toward enlightenment. The problem is that no one seemed very interested in finding out what Serrano himself had intended to say. Serrano, of mixed Hispanic heritage, was raised Catholic, though as an adult he ceased to practice the religion. However his work before and since "Piss Christ" is suffused with his love of the beauty of Catholic imagery. What rarely came out in discussions of "Piss Christ" at the height of the controversy was the sheer beauty of the work. The golden glow around the crucifix partially dematerializes it, giving it a luminosity not so different from that strived for in images of divine light painted by the Old Masters. Also unmentioned was the Catholic basis for his interest in body fluids. These appear in devotional art and literature in many forms, including the blood of Christ, the milk of Mary and the sweat wiped from Christ's brow by Veronica during his long walk to Gethsemane. Representations of these substances serve as metaphors for grace and act as symbols of the connection between God and man. Even semen (also used on occasion by Serrano) had its place in medieval thought as the human equivalent of the divine force which injected the fetus with life and spirit. Hence, Serrano's use of urine was not the simple act of desecration assumed by critics. Instead, the artist had this to say about his medium: “I’ve completely aestheticized this very base material and in my pictures, piss is not something repugnant, its something very beautiful, its a beautiful glowing light. . . It’s waste, and I think it's seen as something repugnant, but I think this aversion to piss probably has more to do with the aversion we have to our own bodies than it actually has to do with piss. . ." For those who continued to pay attention, Serrano's subsequent work revealed that he was far from hostile to religion. It was filled with images drawn from devotional art, and was marked by a preoccupation with the spiritualizing and transfiguration of lowly substances, materials and categories of individuals. PISS CHRIST REDUX Serrano was by no means the only artist to wander into the cross-hairs between art and religion and become embroiled in controversy. In 1999, ten years after the battle of "Piss Christ", a remarkably similar uproar was touched off by the inclusion of a work titled "The Holy Virgin Mary" in an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum devoted to the work of young British artists. The show was titled "Sensation" because the work of these artists touched on taboos encompassing incest, pedophilia and promiscuity. Prior to its opening the show was marketed to emphasize its outrageous elements. This brought it to the attention of advisors to then New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani who was considering a run for Senate against Hillary Clinton. Giuliani, not yet sainted by September 11 and embroiled in a number of controversies himself, was looking for an opportunity to shore up his support among conservative Catholics. "The Holy Virgin Mary" was reproduced in the exhibition catalogue given to Giuliani. This painting was the creation of Chris Ofili, a young British artist of Nigerian heritage, and was accompanied by a label which noted that one of the materials used in its creation was elephant dung. Giuliani seized on the opportunity to replay the "Piss Christ" controversy, this time substituting elephant dung for urine. He publicly decried the work as "sick stuff" which defiled an important icon of the Catholic faith and declared his intention to close down the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which receives substantial city funding. He was joined in his outrage by a predictable chorus of conservative voices. These included William Donohue, director of the conservative Catholic League, who later confessed that his real motivation in spearheading the protest was to continue the campaign to eliminate all government funding for the arts. Despite Giuliani's efforts, the exhibition opened to record crowds attracted by the controversy and after a long and costly legal battle the city was ordered to restore canceled funding and to refrain from "punishing" the museum financially at a later date. As with "Piss Christ", the actual art work belied the descriptions bandied about in the press. While it was widely characterized as a painting of the Virgin Mary "smeared" or "splattered" with dung, in fact Ofili's painting presented the Virgin in a stylized African manner which was based on his interest in African heritage and his Catholic faith. Ofili depicted the black skinned madonna using vibrant layers of dots inspired by his trip to the ancient caves of Zimbabwe. Affixed to the painting were several balls of a rhinestone studded black dung. Two such balls propped up the base of the painting. A third was attached like an enlarged nipple to the stylized figure’s bare breast, bringing to mind Renaissance depictions of the Virgin offering her breast milk to the Christ child. As a number of commentators noted at the time, dung carries positive significances in African cultures as a building material, fuel and symbol of fertility. Also significant in this controversy is the fact that Ofili, far from being a godless atheist, is a practicing Catholic. Meanwhile, perhaps because he was only viewing the work as a catalogue reproduction, Giuliani passed over what might have been expected to be the most offensive feature of the painting. Floating over the Virgin’s blue robe and gold background in a manner which clearly referenced the ubiquitous putti of traditional Madonna paintings were small photographic images collaged on the canvas. On closer inspection, these were revealed to be representations of splayed buttocks cut from porn magazines. This addition moves Ofili's image beyond the celebration of fecundity which have become standard features of representations of the Virgin Mother. The floating buttocks make witty reference to the more thorny question of her virginity and the nature of her possible sexual experiences. A year later Giuliani renewed the attack on the Brooklyn Museum for including, in a show of Black photography, a photograph by artist Renee Cox which recreated da Vinci’s Last Supper with a bare breasted black woman standing in for the central Christ figure. Cox is a striking African American woman of Jamaican descent who uses her own body in photographic tableaux which celebrate female power and eroticism. She has also created a number of works which rework traditional religious themes in ways that question society’s commitment to gender and racial equality. Her Brooklyn Museum work, "Yo Mama's Last Supper" is a five panel photographic work which recreates Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper with an all black cast. In the center is Cox herself, taking Christ’s position and holding her arms out in a benedictory gesture as she stands facing us in the nude. For Cox, (who was raised Catholic) the work was meant to challenge the way that women and people of color have been written out of the visual representations and the power structure of the Catholic Church. More so than either "Piss Christ" or "The Holy Virgin Mary", this is a work of protest against what Cox sees as the gap between Catholicism's message of love and the actual policies of the church establishment. Again, the work became a magnet for criticism, as the Mayor’s office, William Donohue’s Catholic League and local officials of the Catholic Church joined forces in condemning the work as "a vulgar display of anti-Christian sentiment." And again, the courts refused to close the museum down. As these three examples suggest, religion/art controversies are generally framed in terms of godless artists' hostility to faith. However actual cases reveal a far more nuanced view of religion on the part of the artists themselves. While they do not operate as proselytizers for Church dogma, artists take the issue of religion very seriously. Their works deal with issues like the diffusion of grace, the melding of Christianity with other spiritual traditions and the need for a restoration of Christian values of love, justice and mercy. But this fact rarely gets out to the larger public, whose outrage is being carefully orchestrated for larger political ends. THE CULTURE WAR TODAY While the Culture War rages on unabated today, the role of art within it has shifted. Funding issues are less likely to appear as a pretext for vilifying "anti-Christian" art, in part because government funding for the arts has greatly diminished. Though the National Endowment for the Arts still exists, the campaigns against it in the 1990s had their effect and it no longer offers money to individual artists or even to shows likely to spark controversy. The abating of "Piss Christ" style controversies has another source as well. Changes in the political landscape have afforded religion a new respectability both inside and outside the art world. The election in 2000 of George W Bush, the most overtly religious man to occupy the office of the Presidency, the national reaction to the attacks of September 11, the framing of conflicts in the Middle East as consequences of "the clash of civilizations", the use of specifically religious rhetoric to justify the "war on terror" and the assertions by pollsters that the Republican victory in the 2004 elections was due to voter's concerns with values, have all created an environment in which religion now seems to be in the foreground of every discussion of politics and culture. Within the art world, recent exhibitions with names like "Faith: The Impact of Judeo-Christian Religion on Art at the Millennium", "100 artists See God," "Belief", and "Reverence" as well as growing numbers of books, symposia and conferences on religion and art attest to a new willingness to accept faith as a legitimate subject for art. Meanwhile, in the culture at large, once unthinkable questions are now commonplace: Is America a Christian nation? To what extent are Christian values embedded in the American Constitution? Is moral behavior possible outside religion? Does religion (and specifically an evangelical, fundamentalist version of Christianity) define the ethical basis of American society? In this environment, the role of contemporary art in societal debates about religion takes a different form. Just as the earlier debate left out the complexities of individual responses to belief, instead painting all controversial works as evidence of the artist's implacable hostility to Christianity, so today the apparent triumph of religion in the cultural arena disregards the diversity of religious expression in America. As increasing numbers of Americans describe themselves as "born again" and adhere to evangelical , fundamentalist and Pentecostal versions of Christianity, there seems less tolerance in the public arena for other forms of expression. The supposed "war on Christmas", incited by the commercial use of the phrase "happy holidays", was a big issue on the talk radio circuit during the 2005 Christmas season. In recent years, court cases have been joined over whether government representatives may mandate the display of the ten commandments in a state judicial building or require the invocation of God by children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school. Across the country support for amendments against gay marriage are based on a supposed biblical sanction of the nuclear family. Such events have created a climate in which conflict is generated less by hostility to religion by non-believers than by hostility within various traditions to other forms of religious and spiritual expression. In keeping with these changes, current art-related controversies tend to revolve around the power and ownership of religious symbols. Of course, the earlier controversies also centered around symbols -the representation of the crucifix, for instance, or the image of the Virgin Mary. What seems to be changing, however, is that controversies now revolve less around the equation of artists and atheism, and more around internecine battles within and between different religious belief systems. They erupt around questions like Who owns religion? Who speaks for God? Who defines good and evil? Exemplary of this atmosphere is a controversy which erupted in the spring of 2001 in connection with an exhibition at the Museum of International Folk Art in Sante Fe New Mexico. A young Chicana artist named Alma Lopez contributed a work titled "Our Lady" which consisted of a computerized photo-collage depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe as an exuberant modern woman wearing a bathing suit of roses and held aloft by a buxom, bare-breasted angel. Controversy soon enveloped the work, which was condemned by the Catholic League's William Donohue as "repulsive, insulting and even sacrilegious" and by New Mexico's Archbishop Michael Sheehan as "insult to the religious beliefs of a very large number of people that look at the Virgin Mary as being very holy." There were the usual demands for funding cuts to the museum, calls for the director's resignation, and a public hearing in which both sides were aired. In the end the work was not removed from the show, though its duration was shortened and the director did not resign. The interesting point about this controversy was that it involved questions about who could properly claim possession of the image of the Virgin Mary. The Archbishop saw himself as the defender of traditional representations of the Virgin Mary. By contrast, Lopez argued that she, as a Chicana, had a higher claim to the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose image first appeared miraculously imprinted onto the cloak of a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego in 1531 and has since evolved into a symbol of Chicano identity and political resistance. In response to the Irish archbishop’s complaint that "I wish those who want to paint controversial art would find their own symbols to trash," Lopez pointed out that, as a Chicana, she had every right to depict the Virgin. As she told a reporter, "I have a relationship with the Virgin of Guadalupe since I was born in Mexico, baptized Catholic and grew up in East L.A. with the Virgin in my home and community." From this perspective, the effort by an Irish archbishop to restrict Lopez' access to this symbol was an appropriation of her cultural heritage The ownership of symbols also featured in the controversy which surrounded "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art", an exhibition of work dealing with representations of Hitler and the Holocaust by contemporary artists. The show, curated by curator Norman Kleeblatt, appeared at the Jewish Museum in 2002, Like "Sensation", controversy erupted even before the show opened to the public when an article in "The Wall Street Journal" predicted “An art exhibition headed for New York could become the next art-world “Sensation”. At issue here was the use of holocaust imagery by young, and in many cases, non-jewish artists to explore that catastrophe's ongoing impact on popular culture. The show included works which became known in the press as the “Lego concentration camp”, the “designer gas canisters”, and the ”Buchenwald Diet coke commercial.” These and other works were presented to suggest how contemporary films, fashion and consumer culture toy with the dark glamour of Nazi imagery. As the storm gathered force, Kleeblatt attempted to explain that "Mirroring Evil" was not meant to be a historical exhibition. Rather, it was about how history is processed, absorbed and recapitulated fifty years after the fact. Critics of the show denounced it as a denigration of holocaust survivors, a trivialization of ultimate evil and an effort to equate consumerism and nazism. Supporters praised its willingness to examine the way that noxious ideas are transmitted and normalized within a supposedly civilized culture as well as its suggestion that we all bear some complicity with the perpetrators of heinous crimes. In the end, the controversy turned on the power of symbols associated with Nazism. The show raised such issues as: Who owns the holocaust? Are camp survivors the only ones with the moral credibility to serve as keepers of the flame, or is there room now for the voices of others more removed from historical events? Do non Jews have a right to conjure the horrors of the holocaust? When does exploration slide into exploitation, and who decides when that line has been crossed? While not strictly about religion per se, this controversy also touched on questions about the place of Jews in a society which increasingly characterizes itself, at least in certain political forums, as a "Christian country." This issue came up again in 2004 when Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" became a blockbuster hit among evangelical Christians. Gibson is a practicing Catholic. His film offers a very graphic version of the last hours of Christ and adheres to the version of events set out in the Gospel of Matthew. The rather cursory references in that text to the flagellation and crucifixion have been fleshed out with extended scenes of torture drawn from the visions of nineteenth century German mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich. The result is a film which dwells almost without exclusion on the excruciating physical degradations enacted upon Christ's body during the last twenty four hours of his life. The film has generated controversy, not among religious and political conservatives (who in fact are delighted with it as a testament to Christian faith) but among Jews and liberal Christians who decry its gospel based focus on the guilt of the Jews in Christ's death. Critics pointed out that the representation of the Jewish high priests in the film conformed all too well to historical caricatures of hook nosed semites, and that a pivotal moment focuses on the High Priest Caiphus's statement to a surprisingly urbane and sympathetic Pontius Pilate that "His (Christ's) blood will be on us and on our children," a biblical passage which was used as justification for centuries of anti-semitism. In this controversy, interestingly, the usual battle lines were reversed. Here, the crowds who in the past boycotted and even picketed shows of Andres Serrano and Chris Ofili went happily inside the theater, while the group identified with secularism, ecumenism, and avantgardism remained outside. That a popular movie directed by a certified movie star and based an extremely faithful transcription of biblical sources could become a hit offers a powerful demonstration that the supposed barriers between art and religion have tumbled down. On the other hand, the presentation of the "Passion's" Jews as instruments of Satan reinforces already tense sectarian divisions between Jews and Christians. This makes the film's success a less happy circumstance, particularly in a world where sectarian violence is on the rise. The war of symbols is heating up in other parts of the world as well. Cartoon caricatures of Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper sparked riots world wide last year, while in France school girls have been denied the right to wear Islamic scarfs to class. In Afghanistan, the discovery of a bible in the possession of an Islamic man who converted to Christianity was seen by many as cause for execution. Symbol based controversies are tied to the rise of orthodoxy, as fundamentalist interpretations of religion, whether Christianity, Islam or Judaism, generate deep divisions in heterogenous populations. Back in America, changes in the nation's perception of itself and in the way it frames its problems have made the issue of religion not only more prominent, but also more potentially treacherous. In ways that often seem incomprehensible to those outside the United States, religion and religious symbols increasingly provide the political and social language for talking about the nation's goals, aspirations and identity. Today, the flag itself has become a quasi religious symbol, identified with certain specific "Christian values" rather than with the beliefs and principles of the population at large. Any close study of the major religions leave one deeply impressed by the complexities of religion and religious belief. But the politics of religion are another matter. Ominously, they lie at the heart of the current battle for America's future. BEYOND THE CULTURE WAR Can artists soften the acrimony of the Culture War by widening the terms of our understanding of religion? Here we turn to a more hopeful prospect. In diverse cultures and across the centuries, art has drawn on metaphors and images to give form to invisible forces and has served to articulate the ultimate questions. The increasing acceptance of religion as a legitimate subject for art in the United States means that religious and spiritually inclined artists can make explicit what has long been implicit in their work. Because they are not dependent, as their medieval and renaissance forebears were, on religious patronage, artists today are free to explore the personal aspects of religious belief without fear of falling into apostasy or heresy. As a result, they may be able to offer a model for a more inclusive vision of how religion and belief operate in individual lives. This is a realization which came home to me about twelve years ago when I began work on a book about Catholicism and contemporary art. I was intrigued by the realization that almost all of the artist under attack by religious and political right came from Catholic backgrounds. As one also raised in that tradition, I began to wonder whether there was some link between Catholic teaching and the more carnal and sexual approach to spiritual matters to be found in work by artists like Serrano, Ofili and Cox. I analyzed the Culture War which had made demons of these and other artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley, Robert Gober and David Wojnarowicz and began to see the problem as a clash of world views based on very different visions of religion, body and spirituality. I began to explore the idea that there is a distinctively Catholic imagination which is very different than say, a Protestant or Jewish Imagination, and which is based on an incarnational way of thinking. in my book, "Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art", I tried to make clear that I was interested, not in Catholicism's specific practices, but in the powerful effects that this religion has on the creative imagination. Some of the artists I dealt with were in fact active Catholics, while others were more skeptical or even deeply critical of current Church policies and practices. But whatever their stance on the Church itself, their work was suffused with a sense of beauty and spirituality based on their early exposure to the rituals, literature, and visual symbolism of Catholicism. The notion of a religious imagination separates creativity from orthodoxy. To understand what impact religion has on contemporary art, dogma and theological correctness are less important than the way religion infiltrates the deeper structures of an artists thinking. Writer Andrew Greeley, who is both a sociologist and a Catholic priest, makes a distinction between Catholic prose and Catholic poetry. The former encompasses formal religious doctrines on issues like infallibility, abortion, sin and redemption, while the latter embraces the stories, folk traditions, rituals, art and literature which has sprung up around religious practices. Greeley suggests that it is often the poetry, more than the prose, which keeps people loyal to their religion. I found this a very useful distinction for thinking about what makes an art work "religious" or "spiritual". The Catholic Imagination, like its counterparts in other religions, partakes of the sense of mystery and metaphor which suffuses all great religions and which speaks directly to the heart. It celebrates Catholic poetry, and remakes it into works of art. Looking at the relationship of art and religion from this perspective opens up a new world of possibilities. No longer confined to the articulation of received truths, contemporary artists' can explore spirituality and religion from a wide variety of perspectives. They can be sincere or ironic. They can draw on long established religions or hybrid minglings of esoteric beliefs. They can reference religion to explicate scripture, celebrate suppressed identities, announce resistance to political oppression, and point to highly personal searches for sublimity and transcendence. And most important, they can remind us that no single group owns God or has an exclusive lock on truth. This way of looking at art and religion takes us far from modernism's interdiction against the embrace of established religion. It also opens up a space within belief systems for questions, experiments and explorations. At a moment when communication too often seems to be shutting down, art might provide a safe haven for real dialogue and understanding. Having evolved from its supposed role as instigator of the culture war, it may now be agent for bringing about a truce.
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