Art and religion: The great divide

Ben Tyner, Shepard Fairey, and your art

Abner Campos

For all the art doers,
for all the art appreciators,
for all the religious boys,
for all the religious girls,
this is for you.

As I have begun to immerse myself into art, I have seen a terrible disconnect between art and religion. I have seen the absence of art in religion or church, and also the absence of religion in art. Art, in ancient times and most times, is packed with religious connotations, background, and meaning. When did that end?

I sat down with Ben Tyner, assistant professor of history, and soaked in his explanation of why art was predominantly religious throughout history. It all boils down to the fact that art was produced as demanded by patrons. It was produced because it was commissioned by Christian patrons. Unfortunately, the Church became oppressive, and that oppression resulted in rebellion. In the process of revolutions rising, religious art (along with the need and want for it) was lost.

So why is God absent in popular art today? According to Tyner, “To be new, to be novel, and to be original, which is the demand for artists after about 1900, is to move away from religious art. And even to be blasphemous. … There is a desire to separate art from religion because of the feeling that religion had used art in the past to support oppression.”

And on the side of the spectrum, religion has, in some way, distanced itself from art today. “In Protestantism, there is this attack on idolatry, iconoclasm,” Tyner states planely. Traditional, conservative-protestant Christianity removed itself from art in churches because they saw it as idolatrous, so art was pushed away. Modern Christianity, for the most part, has not necessarily pushed art away, but it definitely has not immersed itself into art’s culture.

My biggest worry is that modern art, in general, lacks meaning. If God isn’t in art, where is its meaning? Tyner reacted stating, “I wouldn’t put contemporary meaninglessness all on modern art, I would say that modern art is a reflection of contemporary meaninglessness.”

Shepard Fairey is a popular artist who is known for both street art and his Obey clothing line. Like Banksy, an infamous street artist portraying social issues, Fairey has used his art to “focus on themes like peace, social justice, and sustainability.” For him, “its about showing what art, and messages of social change, are really capable of.” For further information on Fairey, there is an article in Issue 72 of Relevant Magazine (pg. 66-67).

Fairey has encompassed the purpose of art. Whether its “religious” or not, art needs to be a voice for someone else who doesn’t have one. Art needs to be filled with meaning. Art needs to be filled with the heart of the artist.

Tyner’s words to artists on campus are, “Be you, be bold”. . .“don’t be afraid to bridge the gap between what’s outside and what you have to offer.”

“The best art has made it its goal to intimately connect the concerns of the world with the concerns of our religious tradition … and I think that’s something that Adventists have really struggled with,” said Tyner.

Art communicates. Religious art needs to weave itself into modern culture and issues. Not walls, but bridges must be built to fuse current concerns with our religious beliefs. The challenge is for every artist at Union College to go against the grain of popularity and be courageous with his or her art.

Abner is a sophomore studying theology.