By now, you must have come across media coverage of the 2018 Met Gala, held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. On a usual day, I glaze over these articles and posts of red carpet images as nothing more than today’s fashion news, forgotten tomorrow. This time, however, many of the headlines caught my eye about the event’s theme - ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’.
The theme, and how the guests responded to it, was offensive to many commentators.
Some members of the Catholic faith saw it as as disrespectful, despite the Vatican both approving of and loaning pieces for the museum’s exhibition of the same title. Celebrities came under fire for not sticking to the theme of the night. The Art Newspaper’s founding editor and chairman Anna Somers Cocks called for the Met Museum to apologise for involving the Vatican while misrepresenting the whole endeavour. A Vogue article defends the theme by explaining how cultural appropriation and disrespect look decidedly different from what happened at the Met Gala. Phew!
So when I read all of this (albeit begrudgingly because most of the material is poorly written and many headlines were great clickbait) I suddenly got reminded of all the times in art world settings I have been offended for reasons pertaining to culture or religion. [Shout out to Richard and the time we investigated a 2nd Century Vietnamese Dong Son, welded onto a plinth-like structure, with the unqualified gallery assistant telling me it is a basket. A 1-inch thick illustrious basket made of cast Bronze, because 2nd century Vietnam could not figure out a better way to do baskets. #hate]
Yes, when this happens I get on my very high horse and ride it all around the room chattering obnoxiously to my friends about my grievances about misrepresentation. In one line - 'No representation is better than misrepresentation, ugh!’
What is religious art? Is it art created in a religious context, like a fresco for a prestigious church? What if it is instead an oil painting gifted to the church, but it does not have any religious figures or references in it? What about the Elgin Marbles, reminiscent of ancient Greek temples? Those carvings of human rulers of yesteryear who were revered as nothing less than Gods? What about an ephemeral mixed media work made of flowers collected from Hindu temple sites? Or a Qur’an with an exquisite cover that is a family heirloom somewhere in a quiet place far away from seeking eyes, never designed to be exchanged in the modern art market?
I can go on forever, but you get the idea. There are many objects of fine art or collectibles that originally had religious purposes or context, but have been removed from those and valued only for their artistic worth.
Religious art is not an -ism in art history, nor a medium. And thankfully is it also not a market category!
Alright, that is slightly misleading. To be fair, until recent years the most visible parts of the art market (auctions and large art fairs) had been divided quite neatly into the following segments - Old Masters, 19th century art, impressionist and modern art and post-war and contemporary art. Nowadays, a boom in the art market has lead to many more instances of art sales and auctions with categories such as ‘Asian art’, ‘African art’ and other perceptibly marketable labels.
You will, also, find many descriptions of ‘Christian art’, ‘Buddhist art’, and perhaps most popularly ‘Islamic art’. [My favourite art market label is still the most vague ‘Asian art’. Do they have no clue about the cultural vastness of Asia?! In my mind, labelling a work ‘Asian art' is like if I wanted to refer to a healthy adult male blue whale, and used the phrase ‘ocean creature’ hoping it is adequately specific.]
There are many questions the art market can tackle regarding religious art. Do objects found in or purposed for religious practice qualify as religious art, or even art in the first place? Should religious sensitivities play into whether the art can be sold or not? How does the question of looted art get answered in the private art sector, if at all?
This last question peeves me, because unfortunately there are no stakeholders for whom the question holds any gravity - only the shared cultural collective. The buyer wants ownership, the seller or dealers want a strong sale, and authority figures and lowly looters get roped in with the promise of remuneration. In 2016 and 2017, there seemed to be a rise in the number of antiques available in the market that had questionable provenance. In other words, it was not clear if they had arrived in the galleries for sale by determinedly legal means.
India’s struggle with looted religious art is undeniable. Even the arrest of New York based art dealer Subhash Kapoor, a key figure in the criminal network of looted Indian religious art, has not abated the steady outflow of these creations from Indian temples. This is why at many temples the priests keep the idols under lock and key, a common site at common temples across the South Asian subcontinent.
The label ‘religious art’ can therefore only sensibly pertain to the subject of an art work for now. Such a multitude of artworks made in art history can find room under the umbrella of ‘religious art’, that it becomes ineffective as an indicator of what the work stands for.
So anything from a once-functional object in an abandoned church in Eastern Europe, all the way to a contemporary mixed media work (which legitimately could be made of any multitude of things. Think plastic, human hair, metal, found objects, natural pigments, ANYTHING) that has any religious motif, reference or meaning could qualify as religious art.
But hey…if we can have ‘Asian art’…I’m just waiting for the dark days of religious art fairs to begin.