Monday, January 9, 2012

On Iconography of the Religious Variety

I have a confession:  I don't respect religion that much.  But I really like the pictures.

"Pulling the Heartstrings", 2004

Religious iconography is appealing for a lot of reasons:  it's dense with symbolism, highly recognizable, and it taps into a lot of abstract things that are otherwise hard to express.  I'm not an anthropologist or anything, but from what I understand, the very earliest examples of art (such as at Lascaux) were associated with the kind of magic and mysticism that eventually became religion as we understand it.  So there is a long history of using art as a spiritual tool.  And I can dig that, while being bothered by, too.

Art taps into our capacity for experiencing that which we don't really understand; and while it can be used as a device for exploration and discovery, it has far more often been one for propaganda.  Over the years, artists have created a rich visual language to reference many important social and philosophical concepts.  Much of that language is religious.  And I have typically had no problem co-opting that language in my work when I wanted to reference concepts such as guilt, transcendence, or sacrifice.  As a result, I actually have a lot of works with religious references in them, such that it's kind of a big theme in my work.  I didn't plan that, and was actually quite unsettled about it when I realized it for the first time.

"Good News From the Swamp", 2007

I mentioned that religious imagery is dense.  One side effect of using it is that it has a lot of baggage.  I was using it in nonreligious contexts, but not overtly critical ones.  I realized that, looking back on my work as a body, it would be possible to interpret the religious elements as much more, er, earnest, than I ever intended them to be.  I've been guilty of postmodern-style appropriation, which I always assumed would be seen as lightly ironic, but I'm not sure if that's how it really comes off.  So now I am conflicted.  I will have to deal with the issue head-on in my future work.

I'm interested in what other people think about this topic.  How do you feel about using religious symbols in nonreligous contexts?  Is it a form of reclaiming?  Is it a short cut?  Should I, as an atheist, worry about the way this comes up in my own work?

1 comment:

  1. Religion is mythology so powerful that it has been mistaken as as history, so it is no surprise that its images have a powerful hold on the imagination, even of atheists. I think it is because mytho-religious iconography points to the truth that it can never contain, and somehow we sense this, the way we know a good story. Using it in non-religious art probably makes the most sense if it is clear that it is not about beliefs, because most viewers will interpret it literally.