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3. Between Critical Displacements and Spiritual Affirmations
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66 The first half of the twentieth century was characterized by a major shift in the mutual positioning of art and religion, both institutionally and aesthetically . When artists were commissioned to create works for church interiors, in many cases they completed them in a manner similar to the way they completed commissions from other public institutions. The personal religious beliefs of the artists in many cases were considered to be of little importance.1 On another level, however, religious iconography has had a continued presence within the work of numerous artists in the various historical avant-gardes. These religious motifs have a very different status, however, from those in artworks that are officially commissioned and produced for church interiors. Although the ways artists used and reinterpreted religious motifs varied to a great extent, a general tendency can be discerned. Religious motifs embedded in avant-garde works became the medium of posing critical questions with regard to organized religion, and with regard to art as an institution. In this appropriation of religion by art, the reference to or reinterpretation of religious motifs within the historical avant-gardes took noncanonical forms. On the one hand, avant-garde artists strongly modified or c h a p t e r 3 Between Critical Displacements and Spiritual Affirmations Critical Displacements and Spiritual Affirmations 67 distorted these motifs, and the Church saw such artistic interpretations in many cases as scandalous. On the other hand, the artists had a tendency to mix together references to Christian and other religious traditions. Symbolist and Expressionist artists were particularly inspired by the encounter with indigenous religions, while the Surrealists created a mixture of symbols from various religious and esoteric traditions. While in most cases the figurative references to religion appeared quite critical in tone (whether this was intended by the artist or not), nonfigurative art could be placed in the category of spiritually inspired art. A reinvention of religion through art can be clearly discerned in abstract painting, which became a medium for the positive expression of spirituality that is detached from a particular religious tradition. Robert Rosenblum sees early abstract painting as a successor to tendencies within Romanticism, in particular in the desire to discover the divine in nature and to define art as a spiritual or quasi-religious practice. On another level, those artists who created abstract images were particularly prone to choosing vocabulary associated with higher or transcendent ideas, as a means to stabilize or justify their art’s apparent lack of representational meaning. In the second half of the century, religious motifs embedded in artworks lost their more direct iconoclastic resonances, and were used increasingly as a critical tool directed toward the institution of art itself. In addition, they were used on many levels, not all of which were necessarily directed at religion. Some artists were directly critical of Catholic culture, such as the Viennese Actionists, whose performances in the 1960s involved the debasing of Christian symbols. The work of others used Christian references to criticize the modes of spectatorship, as would later performance art, such as Chris Burden’s Transfixed, 1974. Iconoclasm itself becomes an artistic motif, and by mid-century it was no longer solely an effect of artistic interpretations of religious images. In the second half of the century, religious motifs are present in art insofar as they are citations or references to other artworks. In these cases religious iconography is quoted precisely because it was interpreted by the old masters. Later art became much “cooler” in its mode of reference; it did not directly address itself to religion , but rather to religious art. Such references pose many more issues related to the medium of art than to religion as such. Abstract Icons: Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian While figurative references to religious subjects in avant-garde twentiethcentury art acquired critical overtones, regardless of whether they were 68 Critical Displacements and Spiritual Affirmations intended, abstract art could not be read as having a critical edge towards religion. On a primarily visual level, the consequence of the absence of a figurative image was to eliminate any iconoclastic connotation. The reasons that early abstract art became strongly associated with spirituality, however, are much deeper. This art is a successor to the Romantic redefinition of art as a spiritual practice. Around 1900, transcendental ambitions and dreams of spiritual and mystical realms prompted the development of art that could be free from depicting the empirical world, and...