The art of transgression.

Author:Milliner, Matthew J.

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 serf-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...

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