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Contemporary art refuses any set form, content, or medium—but it does, nonetheless, insist on one sure commandment: Religion has to go. The Art Institute of Chicago’s James Elkins lays down this law in his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. The art world, he says, “can accept a wide range of ‘religious’ art by people who hate religion, by people who are deeply uncertain about it, by the disgruntled and the disaffected and the skeptical, but there is no place for artists who express straightforward, ordinarily religious faith.”

Indeed, Elkins writes: “To fit in the art world, work with a religious theme has to fulfill several criteria. It has to demonstrate the artist has second thoughts about religion . . . . Ambiguity and self-critique have to be integral to the work. And it follows that irony must pervade the art, must be the air it breathes.” It is a given, of course, that such irony cannot extend to the rejection-of-religion rule: “Committed, engaged, ambitious, informed art does not mix with dedicated, serious, thoughtful, heartfelt religion.”

Along the way, Elkins tells a story about one of his students who had been privately creating artwork with sincere religious themes. When she dared show her teacher, Elkins insisted she keep this work to herself, referring her back to Roland Barthes, Clement Greenberg, and Michel Foucault, all of whom she had dutifully read. The message, unfortunately, didn’t get through. “Kim’s work might be considered perfectly good as printmaking, but it belongs to a moribund strain of visual art that is cut off from what is interesting about current practice. It is a simpler and less challenging activity than what is now called painting or printmaking.” He ends by invoking Hegel: “It is no help to adopt again . . . past world-views.”

But what one might call the art world’s last rule has a loophole. According to Elkins, the auspices under which religious content in contemporary art becomes permissible are “NRMs”—new religious movements. Attachment to an NRM can get even incorrigibly religious paintings past the faith detectors of Manhattan galleries, where Chelsea’s Chapel of Sacred Mirrors boasts moon ceremonies, a bookstore lined with psychedelic drug manuals, and a year-round display of the New Age icons of Alex Grey.

German expressionist Franz Marc called for “symbols that belong on the altars of some future religion,” and with Grey—whose self-chosen name combines black-and-white binaries—the art of some future religion may have arrived. Grey’s work combines meticulous medical illustrations with spiritual insights from all religious paths, making for what could fairly be called “The Gnostic Gospels (Illustrated Version).”

So, for instance, after ascending the stairs to the spacious, multiroomed loft in the Chelsea gallery, visitors to Grey’s work can explore the meandering crannies of a colorful gallery displaying dozens of paintings with genuinely fresh insights into the nature of caring and the miracle of the human body, including a painstakingly accurate chronicle of the stages of womb development worthy of a pro-life publication. How to paint a family praying together without descending into sentimentality is no minor artistic quandary—but Grey might have succeeded. Though the crop circles and alien abductions in Grey’s ambitious tableau The Cosmic Christ might raise a theological eyebrow, it nevertheless invokes a universal range of subject matter to which no Christian could object.

And yet actual adherents to the traditional religions that Grey happily distills might have difficulty laying down an actual offering to the androgynous sculpture of “worldsoul,” consecrated by the entire Grey family. “The sculpture forced itself upon me, demanding to be created,” Grey explains. The result is, in his words, a “four-faced hermaphroditic self-copulating dwarf with wings, claws, and a fish’s tail.” It is, he insists, a “divine mutant” that “symbolically encompasses all realms of consciousness.” Except, we might add, the normal one.

And then there is the sacred precinct of the chapel itself, adjacent to the gallery. Here one finds Christ again, this time in a life-size icon. Though the eyes are somewhat unsettling, the wounds in the feet, hands, and side—out of which Trinitarian symbols pour—would make for a perfectly orthodox painting were the context to be ignored. To Christ’s right is another life-size icon, this one of Sophia, who is flanked by a nursing mother along with Kali, the Hindu mother of time and black goddess of death, busying herself by raping the corpse of Shiva. To Christ’s left is another equally sized icon, the poly-handed Avalokitesvara, a major archetype of Tibetan Buddhism, flanked by the copulating Vajrabhairava , whose “rage is so complete he destroys even himself.”

Christ consciousness, Sophia, or Buddha nature—the choice is yours, because the key to the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors is the word mirrors . Stand in the proper place at the final life-size mirror icon and inscribed over where your head would be are the letters G-O-D . Fortunately, for my visit, the assurance that I was already GOD relieved me of the need to become an “angel” ($25 donation), “principality” ($75), “dominion” ($500), or “seraphim” ($5,000). 

Despite the art world’s proscriptions, art is the theological topic du jour in Christian circles. The Lilly Endowment and Henry Luce Foundation have backed publications, programs, and permanent positions in Theology & Art. So much is being written on the subject that significant portions of two of the more recent volumes are given over to bibliographical strategy alone.

Art is the rock in the fist of the liberation theologian eyeing oppression’s window, the liberal’s excuse for skirting the rigor of doctrine, the orthodox Christian’s necessary corollary of the Incarnation, and the evangelical’s tool for winning a visual generation. There’s CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts), CARE (Center for the Arts, Religion and Education), ACE (Art and Christianity Enquiry), ITIA?(Institute for Theology, Imagination & the Arts), SARTS (Society for the Arts in Religious and Theological Studies), and MOBIA (Museum of Biblical Art). It’s enough to make you wonder if perhaps the art world might be listening. But Elkins has already told us they’re not—though some of these new Christian art movements are so eager to be noticed that their concessions verge on the pathetic.

So, for example, at a recent conference in Manhattan, a newly appointed professor for art and theology at a Catholic university took to the podium. After proudly declaring his priestly orders, he summoned with delight the recent work of Robert Gober at Manhattan’s Matthew Marks Gallery. Gober’s installation was arranged like a church, but with a trashcan for a baptismal font. Wax fruit, diaper bags, and other household objects were carefully arranged throughout the gallery, along with lithographed copies of the September 12, 2001, editions of the New York Times. At the “altar” was a headless Christ from whose nipples spewed two streams of water into a cistern. The water made its way into two tubs located in rooms behind the crucifix. The left tub showed two male legs; the right tub two female legs. In contrast to these were two androgynous wax torsos in the corners of the main gallery, part tree branch, part human, each sporting one male and one female breast. Clearly the sculptures were calculated to disturb, but our priest found them thrilling. It was all, we were told, a rightful protest of the premature circumference of Catholic sexual ­propriety.

Gober’s work is art-world standard, fulfilling Elkin’s rule of ironic distance when handling a religious theme. What was less than standard was our priest’s commentary: “If I was in charge of a congregation,” he announced with buoyant grin, “this is the very art I would install in my church.” Never mind that Gober’s art would be apt church decor for a priest openly at war with the Magisterium—the headless Christ, unable to instruct. Our concern in this case should be for Gober. He is an artist frustrated enough with Christianity to decapitate Christ—yet the priest as art scholar declares him perfectly orthodox. How far does one have to go to get actual blasphemy?

This Relax, Ye Faithful school of interpretation is not uncommon. Serrano’s Piss Christ shows, it is claimed, how Christ redeems even our least-pleasant offerings; Ofili’s dung-spackled Virgin Mary is in fact respectful, as elephant dung in African cultures is a sign of respect (never mind the porn-magazine clippings that also deck the canvas); any objection to Cavallaro’s six-foot chocolate Jesus can be countered with “taste and see that the Lord is good”; Christa, Sandys’ sculpture of a crucified female, is a mere meditation on Paul’s words that in Christ “there is neither male nor female”; and Gober’s headless Christ illustrates that the work of the cross is incomplete until death is conquered in toto. All quite generous, but what, one wonders, is an honest blasphemer to do?

After the session, one of the few younger members of the audience rose and asked the pointed question if there were any faithful Catholic artists whom the speaker might commend. The priest appeared perplexed that a younger generation would question his cavalier squandering of Christian distinctives, his selling a birthright for the wine and brie of a gallery opening.

Between the twin pretensions of claiming to be God and decapitating God—between the poles of Grey and Gober—there may be an artistic path of service to God. But the way is narrow and few will find it.

Those artists who do will discover in traditional faith a stockpile of symbols that need not be invented and an aesthetics that easily outstrips contemporary semiotics. Such artists could exchange postmodern ennui for an impressive spectrum of possibilities, from the Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani of the crucified God to the noli me tangere of the resurrected Lord. For that matter, artists of faith are perhaps the only ones who can still enjoy the thrill of transgression—violating by their existence one of the art world’s last nonnegotiable ­ordinances.

But such consolations aside, artists of faith cannot expect to be admired. “A painter with real gifts,” Clement Greenberg wrote of the twentieth-century Catholic artist Georges Rouault, “he fails to fulfill them because, among other things, he goes precisely to religion to find a pretext and justification for venting his abhorrence, not only of the epoch, but of humanity and himself.” And yet it was Rouault, a man serious in both faith and art, who understood the way forward. “We can do something else,” he wrote, “but we cannot re-create what the collective, spontaneous effort of generations built with the faith that was theirs.”

Matthew J. Milliner is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Princeton University.

Image by Dan Sloan licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.