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date: 27 February 2024

Visual Arts: Modern Artlocked

Visual Arts: Modern Artlocked

  • Jonathan A. AndersonJonathan A. AndersonDuke University, Divinity School

Summary

The dominant histories of 19th- and 20th-century art in the West have tended to depict modernism as making deep and decisive breaks from religious thought, practices, and institutions. There are good reasons for scholars seeing the history this way. On the one hand, the development of modern art coincided with major sociocultural shifts that deeply reshaped not only religion (as established religious traditions became increasingly contested and pluralized) but also the functions of art itself, which thrived in forms and spaces that seemed significantly detached from religious subjects, patronage, and purposes. On the other hand, there were also significant theoretical factors shaping the ways that religion was presented—or often conspicuously not presented—in the writing of modern art history. An especially strong secularization theory (a sociological thesis positing that a society’s modernization necessarily entails its secularization) has tended to dominate the scholarship of modernism, coupled with a heavy reliance on critical models that privilege highly suspicious hermeneutics (in the lineages of Marxian, Nietzschean, and Freudian critical theory), which tend to dismantle whatever “religious” content persists in modern art into questions of social power, ressentiment, sublimated desire, and so on. In all these ways, religious traditions became largely invisible and unreadable in the history of modernism, even in cases where they were important factors.

Since the 1990s, however, several of the key historical and theoretical underpinnings of this depiction of modernism have been increasingly called into question, and a more complicated, ambiguous picture is emerging—one in which modern art and religion remain deeply entangled in fascinating and confusing ways. There are various ways of identifying and understanding these entanglements, which require not only careful reexamination of the particularities of the histories involved but also reconsideration of the interpretive assumptions and priorities through which those histories are construed. There are at least five focal points where the nexuses of art and religion are being reexamined and brought more clearly into view in the histories of modernism—namely, through object-oriented, practice-oriented, artist-oriented, context-oriented, and/or concept-oriented studies of particular instances in those histories. These focal points provide concrete loci for perceiving and exploring the functions, formations, and effects of “religion in modern art”—an inquiry which also can be reversed to explore examples of “modern art in religion,” including instances where major artworks are situated in churches, cathedrals, synagogues, and other religious contexts. There are, however, varying ways that scholars interpret what they find at these focal points and how they discern the larger implications of these particular entanglements of art and religion in the history of modern and contemporary art. These differences are clarified by recognizing at least four interpretive horizons—anthropological, political, spiritual, and theological—within which scholars are understanding these focal points and rereading these histories. Though often diverging in the accounts they produce, these four horizons (and the potential interplay between them) are vital for a continued rethinking of the relations between modern art and religion.

Subjects

  • Religion and Art

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