Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Church of Art

by Drew Martin

I have just started reading Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World. In the introduction, she touches on the popular idea that art fills a void for atheists in the absence of religion (inferring here Christianity):

One theme that runs through the narratives of Seven Days in the Art World is that contemporary art has become a kind of alternative religion for atheists...For many art world insiders and art aficionados of other kinds, concept-driven art is a kind of existential channel through which they bring meaning to their lives. It demands leaps of faith, but it rewards the believer with a sense of consequence. Moreover, just as churches and other ritualistic meeting places serve a social function, so art events generate a sense of community around shared interests.

I have heard this often and I have some problems with it. The argument that art is a substitute for religion denies art not only its evolution from religion but even more importantly, its contribution to religion. In many ways art, architecture, music and literature (or at least the book medium) defined religion. All of these things existed well before Christianity. Likewise, the communal nature of a church fellowship is simply a function of human socializing that embedded itself in religion, which has regrouped within the art world, as it has in sports and every other common interest group, not to mention that it is simply a continuum of most other living creatures - even trees.

The art part of the art has been the constant but religious narrative has ended and the belief in that narrative has atrophied. This is true of architecture and literature as well. Visual expressions, edifices and forms of communication naturally predate theology and will always be essential to human development.

I would argue that religion itself created the current art world. I say this because The Protestant leaders Martin Luther and Jan Hus sought a purer form of Christianity, which also meant parting with the invented gestures and props. The split from Catholicism was also a split from the gilded art of Catholics. This was the true dawn of minimalism and conceptual art in the Western world.

A bare cross and unadorned churches exposed underlying forms and the literal interpretations of the Bible became more figurative and abstract. Taking the bloody body of Christ off the cross was as profound as introducing 0 into the European numbering system. It was an unthinkable void that allowed for so much more potential and expression.

To understand American art is to understand the influence of Protestant thinking in America. It is remarkable that John F. Kennedy was not only the first but is thus far the only Catholic president of the United States. No other religion has held the office. This retained power is now much more about a national psyche than command. The fact is: a Protestant society is less hierarchical than a Catholic one, which is most obvious in the internal organizational structures of the respective churches. I am not saying that is good or bad, only that the success of today's artist and the freedom of expression has something to do with the original spirit of the Protestant movement.

If the museum is the new church for the art world then the artist and his or her object is not the priest and a symbol of Christ: monstrance, chalice, altar etc...but is more akin to the minister and the sermon; a common and pragmatic man or woman with something to say that will expand our minds and make us think differently about our existence. Art is not the substitution of religion but the transformation and resurrection of that which comprised it.