A religious revival in a city of secular art

The Museum of Biblical Art treats works by artists of faith with respect and credibility, reflecting a change in the art world.

To an art world deeply skeptical of religious sentiment, the paintings displayed at the Museum of Biblical Art here must seem startling. The fact that this newly opened museum exists in New York at all signifies a change in the compass that orients how art is viewed.

"We're witnessing a worldwide religious revival in response to 9/11," says Norman Girardot, a folk-art specialist and professor of religious studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. Since the terrorist attacks, "We've all woken up and realized we have to take religion seriously."

The current climate has sparked an upsurge in apocalyptic art, according to Rebecca Hoffberger, director of Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum. "These are unusually tumultuous times. We're witnessing epic biblical scenarios like the tsunami and wars - which media coverage look at as faith against faith."

Religion has become more visible in both culture and politics, and the cultural trend toward secularization is showing signs of reversing direction. In the United States, "With the rise of the religious right and the current administration, there's been a reorientation between cultural and religious forces," says Brent Plate, assistant professor of religion and visual arts at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. "A new era is opening up to visual art on the conservative end of things."

Evangelical fervor isn't exactly new. One-quarter of Americans consider themselves evangelical Christians. In the South, "evangelicalism has been strong all along, although it's been demeaned by the liberal press and looked at as something to be put down," says Ann Oppenhimer, president of the Folk Art Society of America in Richmond, Va.

The inaugural exhibition, "Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South," explores the influence of evangelical Christianity on 73 folk artists. By posting biblical texts beside paintings and sculptures that function as visual sermons, the artists "are proclaiming the word of God as found in the Bible," says curator Carol Crown, associate professor of art history at the University of Memphis, where the exhibition originated.

Ms. Crown objects to the term "outsider," as the art world applies it to folk artists. For her, they're very much "inside" the nexus of contemporary concerns. They've invested a great deal of meaning in the art but their voices aren't heard, she says.

That's about to change. The museum is "catching a wave that's going to grow," says Helen Evans, curator of Byzantine art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art history in general is reconsidering the canon. We're all shifting and seeking to diversify our audience."

A shift toward highlighting religion would indeed be seismic in today's art world. Even though most Western art in the medieval period and in the Renaissance illustrated Christian doctrine to teach and touch the illiterate masses, the discipline of art history that originated in the 19th century "put traditional religion off in a corner," Mr. Girardot says. "Art," he notes, "was a form of higher truth that replaced religion." Critics and art historians applied formalist criteria such as line, color, and composition in assessing aesthetic quality. Museums emphasized the object, not how it was used in a religious context.

Since the Enlightenment, "museums promoted the idea that aesthetic contemplation is a kind of substitute for religious spirituality," says Robert Nelson, professor of art history at the University of Chicago. The mission of museums was to uplift by introducing the masses to art. "The notion was, there was something almost 'salvational' about being exposed to art."

Modernism's rebellion against authority included disparaging traditional religion. Now the pendulum is swinging back. "We've gone through the period of separating art from religion," Professor Plate says. "Now we're thinking, 'Wait, we're missing something.' "

Hence, the new model offered by the Museum of Biblical Art. "We have this odd entity lodged in the heart of secular New York City, which gives us not just an aesthetic approach but also a contextual approach," Girardot says.

To David Morgan, professor of Christianity and the arts at Valparaiso University in Indiana, "museums in the American cultural landscape have a power and opportunity they never historically had. The museum was a place of privilege to go to get high culture and escape low culture. The value of this museum is that it brings religion into a neutral cultural space where people of faith or of no faith can talk about religion in a civil way."

Mr. Nelson sees the museum's foray into uncharted territory as important. He observes that museums are increasingly taking on difficult, emotionally fraught subjects. If a museum wants to be engaged with the world, it has to tackle controversial issues.

But alarm bells are ringing. "There's still a lot of worry in the art world. If art is about faith, it's scary," says Erika Doss, director of American studies and professor of art history at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

If the museum focuses on a particular religion, that could cause problems. Like most museums, it relies on public funding and has tax-exempt status.

The museum is committed to a nonsectarian approach, according to Ena Heller, its executive director. But some perceive potential dangers.

"It could foster an exclusivist notion that we have privileged access to the real truth," Girardot warns. By focusing on the Bible, it "could play into the worst instincts of certain forms of Christianity." He adds, "We live in an extremely polarized climate. Folks in positions of political power believe there's only one way. If we've learned anything, it's that separation of church and state is truly healthy for our American experiment."

Girardot advocates casting the museum's net wider to encompass more cross-cultural, comparative studies, including art inspired by scriptures from other faiths.

Another approach would be to look at biblical art not as dogma but as inspirational roots for all humankind. "If museums are only repositories to enshrine objects, they're mausoleums," says Ms. Hoffberger. "Looking at the source of inspiration is the most valid path."

Professor Morgan, an authority on the intersection of religion and art, is convinced the museum is not interested in forcing religion on visitors and will not be co-opted by the religious right. "But it's not saying religion is insignificant," he adds. "They're committed to the prospect of making religious images as something New Yorkers feel safe taking seriously. That's the uniqueness and the promise of this institution."

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