Aug 6, 2013

Religious art's religious (?) evocations

When is art religious? When is art religious art?

According to some recent reviews, the religiousness of art resides in its ability to put an audience in a particular emotional state, a state similar to that of a church service. Art is deemed religious, by these critics, because it has the power to move people in ways similar to how people are moved in a church.

One example of this: Morgan Meis, writing on the recent art installation "Aten Reign" at the Guggenheim in New York City, finds a link between art and church in the way the art turns observers into practitioners. Meis writes:
The direct connection between [James] Turrell’s art and the practices of Quaker worship are obvious.

So obvious, that I’d like to suggest that the best way to approach and interpret Turrell’s installation at the Guggenheim is to say it is a Quaker meeting. Observe, if you will, what happens when people enter the ground floor of the museum. They stop and look up. They see that the spirals of the Guggenheim have been transformed into a glowing light installation. They roam around for a minute or so looking up. Then they find a space to lie down on the floor. Generally, they stop talking. They watch the glowing lights and the luminescent egg. This silent watching goes on for many minutes. More than ten minutes. More than fifteen minutes for many people, and more than that for others.

In other words, James Turrell has managed to get people in New York City to lie on the floor silently meditating.
For his part, Turrell has been more hesitant on the "obvious" connection between his faith and his art. I share that hesitancy. It seems to me to be too easy to make too much of the connection.

In a 2003 interview Turrell said, "I’m not sure whether that has impacted my art-making, because my work is not about specific issues -- perhaps being a Quaker influences how I live my life and what I value. People tend to relate any work in light to the spiritual. I don’t think this is actually correct."

Meis persists, though. It's not the issues that make this art religious, it's the effect:
It doesn’t matter, in the end, whether the people who view 'Aten Reign' believe in Turrell's Quaker God. It is not even clear exactly what are Turrell's beliefs regarding this God. The point is to sit or lie down and submit to the light. If you allow yourself to stare at that light for a few minutes you will inevitably have some experience of meditation. You will enter a quieter, more contemplative space. The light will do its work.
Emotional efficacy is also cited as key to the religiousness of Robert Randolph's "sacred steel" music. This is another example. Randolph is quoted as saying in the Pittsuburgh Tribune-Review last week, that his music has an energy "that's kind of from my background, growing up in church, where music was like this big rock 'n' roll show. We were all singing and dancing. Everybody singing together and interacting and having the music bring about this joyous feeling."

The New York Times went to Randolph's church, a black Pentecostal church, in 2001. The reporter, Neil Strauss, also made note of the evocation of joy:
The loud, unmistakable sound of vintage rock 'n' roll blared one recent Sunday afternoon from the open windows of an unlikely location, the House of God, Which Is the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth Without Controversy Inc., in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.  
Inside, parishioners banged tambourines against their palms and hit drumsticks against church pews in perfect rhythm. Even the children joined in on toy tambourines and plastic drumsticks. In front of the long, narrow, wooden-floor room, just to the right of the pulpit, Robert Randolph sat alongside a large purple pedal steel guitar, fingers flying across the strings to tease out lead lines that sounded like John Lee Hooker and rickety rhythms reminiscent of Bo Diddley, two musicians whom he claims never to have heard.
According to Strauss, Randolph's music also had the effect outside of church of bringing people into a church-like experience, even if there were differences. The "churchgoers made noise to praise the Lord, the clubgoers to express their individuality and enthusiasm."

Are those experiences so radically different?

In a review of the latest album from Randolph and The Family, PopMatters critic Neil Kelly says this steel guitar music only makes sense as "the fury of true black gospel music," and that it's success is its ability to induce religious states in the not-church-going crowd.

"I've seen them live," Kelly writes.
The gospel-infused funky rock roots band that commandingly whips a crowd of drug-laced earth muffins and hopheads into some sort of a revivalist frenzy ... that’s the Family Band I’ve seen. If you haven’t witnessed the fury of true black gospel music (from ANY denomination) in the church house on any given Sunday morning in the South, then think of the effect James Brown had on Joliet Jake in The Blues Brothers .... This ability to move the crowd to that level of excitement is why Randolph’s name is frequently in huge font on the posters of the festivals he and the Family Band play. This is the bread and butter of what makes him a superstar.
The "frenzy" of the crowd, for Kelly, is religious, or religious-like, and that response makes the music religious, not in and of itself, but in its effect. In its evocation.

The emotional state of Randolph's audience is pretty markedly different than that of Turrell's. One wouldn't mistake the one audience for the other. Contemplation and meditation wouldn't easily exist in the same space as concert enthusiasm and a whipped-up crowd. But both of these responses are seen as "religious," for producing responses similar to those of their creators' respective religious traditions.

That biographical info might be key to these interpretations, though.

Unless all art, any art, is going to be judged religious for evoking emotions and moving audiences, it's hard to see how these emotions thus moved are specifically religious.

Interpreting Turrell via reference to Quaker practice makes sense because he's Quaker. But there are many art exhibits by many non-Quaker artists that cause similar reactions in the museum-going public. Randolph's music is certainly Pentecostal, and it's useful to think about it and talk about it in that context -- but that's a historical fact one couldn't deduce just from watching the audience. Many other concert crowds could be described in the same way as the crowds dancing and singing with Randolph, and if all of them are thought of as religious, then that's not really a meaningful description anymore.

People tend to relate certain works that evoke emotions to religion, but that doesn't seem right. They use the creator's biographical information to make claims that, while they're not wrong, seem to be too strong.

Visual art produces a response that's analogous to the response one gets at a Quaker meeting. Music in a secular space produces a response that's pretty similar to the response that the same music gets in a dedicated religious space. It's possible to make too much out of these similarities.