Review: Art and Religion in the 21st Century

Aaron Rosen. Art and Religion in the 21st Century. London: Thames and Hudson, 2015, 256 pp., £32.00 hardcover.

In his latest publication, Aaron Rosen, Professor of Religious Studies & Director of International and Cultural Projects at Rocky Mountain College, approaches contemporary art in five different manners, each forming a section of Art and Religion in the 21st Century. Rosen begins theologically, underscoring the visual tradition of faith and asking what it means to create. He then approaches art philosophically, where he deals with the sublime and investigates large earthworks. In his cultural approach, Rosen analyzes art in terms of migration, conflict, and religious identity. The fourth section approaches art anthropologically, teasing out the relationship between art and ritual. Lastly, Rosen approaches art phenomenologically, considering art in light of embodiment and space.

There is commonality and, at times, cross-reference in these sections; what Rosen means to show is that the overlap between religion and art and these differing fields is strong.

The chapters are minimal, each progressively shorter in length as Rosen opts to show instead of tell. The written portions, then, serve as brief meditations with occasional scholarly references while the artwork, which intersperses but mainly follows these meditations, fosters Rosen’s main, albeit simple, goal: to ‘indicate … the sheer multiplicity of ways in which artists are’ grappling with religious themes.

Now by ‘religious,’ Rosen takes an all-encompassing, wide definition of the term (p.19); likewise with ‘art.’ It is by steering clear of giving conclusive definitions of religion and art—treating these subjects as inherently indefinable—that Rosen captures the truly variegated manner in which artists interact with religion. And this is one of the book’s greatest strengths: preconceived notions are not forced upon any artwork.

The true meat of Rosen’s book, then, is the artwork he has chosen to include. The criteria for the art is that it is good, and good art, according to Rosen, is identifiable by its sine qua non: ambiguity.

The very greatness of art lies in its indeterminacy; its ability to flirt with and in fact blur the lines between sacredness and profanity, mockery and piety.

So Rosen asks the reader to ask more of art, not to dismiss it because of an apparent affront to religion or belief. To use a familiar example, Rosen, in his introduction, takes Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, responsible for inciting outrage, political response, and, unsurprisingly, increased museum traffic. While it is simple to read Piss Christ negatively, Rosen (echoing many before him) also suggests a positive reading: its heralding of an incarnated Christ whom we have rejected and scorned. While Rosen’s book is in no way an amalgamation of ‘offensive’ art, the work he chooses is often open-ended and meant to be grappled with.

Now for those readers who are already comfortably familiar with this reality—that artists continue to thoughtfully engage with religion—Rosen’s arguments and references may seem obvious. The book serves much more as an introduction to the field of art and religion, teaching newcomers ways in which to think about art. For instance, his section on memorial art excellently provokes thought on art’s relation to collective memory, ritual, and the viewer’s role in experiencing an artwork. Rosen accomplishes all of this by beautifully gathering different yet related works of art.

The book reads and feels much like a curatorial endeavor which perfectly allows the reader to thoughtfully engage with the pieces. Rosen’s structure underscores an implicit idea running throughout the text: art is, at its core, participatory. Each work of art is meant to be encountered (as much as it can be in a reproduction). Rosen also provides paragraph-length captions with each image that help guide the reader’s interpretation. Art and Religion in the 21st Century serves as an extremely helpful introduction to the intersection of art and religion, providing a beautifully curated selection of contemporary art.

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