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Theodore Prescott, Bruce Herman, James Romaine, Bruce Ellis Benson, and James Elkins


The Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art

The art historian James Elkins tells of his experience as one of four jurors for the 1990 exhibition "Revelations: Artists Look at Religions." It was a big show with several famous artists in it, including Andres Serrano, the maker of Piss Christ. But the jurors also had to slog through hundreds of submissions, looking at slides, reading statements, and scanning résumés. It was a daunting, numbing job. One submission caught their attention, and they were ready to accept it until they learned the artist was a nun, and her work, which the jurors had found quirky, was her vision of heaven. "Oh God," moaned one of the jurors, and they voted it down. Elkins was the only one to vote for it: "I wanted to accept it because it was religious, and religion was supposedly our theme."

This experience started Elkins thinking about "the exclusion of religious meaning in contemporary art," the subject of his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, published in 2004 by Routledge. Elkins, who holds the E. C. Chadbourne Chair in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, is a prolific—one is tempted to say profligate—scholar (see JamesElkins.com).

Anyone familiar with modern and contemporary art knows of its dearth of historic religious subjects and themes. Christianity, one of the great incubators of imagery in Western art, is notably but not entirely absent. When Christian subjects do appear, they are often treated—as with Piss Christ—in a transgressive and sensationalist manner. In On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, Elkins gives an account of the decline of religious art, which by the beginning of the 20th century was effectively gone. Any art with religious imagery found in canonical modernity, Elkins insists, isn't really religious. So Salvador Dali's popular St. John of the Cross is not as much religious as it is "a matter of Dali's 'paranoiac-critical' ...

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