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Daniel A. Siedell


The Visibility of the Invisible: The Artworld's Memento Mori

Vanitas: Meditations on Life and Death in Contemporary Art, by John B. Ravenal, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts/University of Washington Press, 68 pp.; $18.95, paper

Most historical narratives of twentieth century art have, in various ways, accepted as a truism some version of the secularization theory advanced by sociologists, which regards modernity as incompatible with religious belief or spirituality. If, as Ezra Pound insisted, artists are "the antennae of the race," it follows that this incompatibility will be expressed with particular clarity in modern art—and so the common wisdom assures us.[1] Whether or not this perspective is an accurate portrait of modernity (and the recent retreat from secularization theory by some of its principal advocates raises that question pretty forcefully), there is no doubt that spirituality and religious belief are alive and well in our "postmodern" culture—and so also in the contemporary artworld. But while contemporary artists have been exploring spirituality and religious belief aesthetically, art historians, art critics, and curators have paid little attention, so one must look a bit closer to find the evidence.

One place to look is a modest exhibition catalogue that accompanied an exhibition organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Entitled Vanitas: Meditations on Life and Death in Contemporary Art, this exhibition was on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from April 4-June 28, 2000 and featured the work of 14 artists. Far from being reactionary or rear-guard figures working on the margins, these are some of the most important con temporary artists, including Christian Boltanski, Robert Gober, the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Anish Kapoor, Zoe Leonard, and Gabriel Orozco.

The exhibition's curator and author of the catalogue essay, John B. Ravenal, ex presses his own surprise at the intensity with which many contemporary artists are pursuing spiritual issues in their art. Ravenal quotes Robert Gober, who ...

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