…but I do know something about “religion”, and for some time, I have wondered about “The Blake Prize for Religious Art”. Now, at last, someone has dared to state the obvious: the Emperor has no clothes!, or, more to the point, “The Blake Prize” has no religion!
Rachel Kohn, ABC Radio’s The Spirit of Things has done a devastating expose of Australia’s most well known religious art exhibition/prize. She doesn’t set it up that way – oh no, she is far to clever for that. She has called this episode “Both Sides Now” – and indeed that is what she does: she allows “both sides” to have their say. How much more balanced can you get than that?
Well… The Rev. Dr Rob Patterson – described as “an artist, art historian, and educational facilitator” (and in his spare time a minister of the Uniting Church – a “trendy vicar” as McDonald calls him) is given what we would call “enough rope” to present the case “pro” The Blake, and then, after the rope has been tossed over a nearby tree-branch, John McDonald (art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald) is given the other end and a licence to pull with all his might.
The verdict? The bulk of the entries – and certainly the winners – in The Blake are either not “art” or, more devastatingly, do not contain any element that could authentically be described as “religious”. McDonald says that the judges would run a mile from anything that was truly “religious”, truly “devotional”, and prefer images of vague “spirituality” and avante garde iconoclasm. He wonders whether, in this secular day and age, it is even possible to have a truly “religious” art exhibition.
One interesting aspect McDonald and Kohn do pick up on is the fact that the winning piece is a video of a domestic sufi prayer ritual. Very reverent – “but not art” according to McDonald. Why such a reverent piece about Islam while only irreverent treatments of Christianity are allowed, ponders McDonald. Kohn puts this question to Patterson – who masterfully evades the question. (There is some evidence, I think, that Kohn actually interviewed McDonald first and then very cleverly worked McDonald’s critique into her questions to Patterson – although to give her credit, Kohn herself would have been very aware of the disparity between the way The Blake treats Islam and Christianity).
Originally, The Blake was designed to foster a truly Australian religious artistic expression and to produce works that could be placed within churches and synagogues and temples. No one in their right mind would include any of the entries in a true house of worship.
There isn’t a transcript for me to point you too, so you will just have to listen to it yourself to gain the full rhetorical impact of McDonald’s critique.
UPDATE: The transcript is now available at the link above. I will give just a few snippets:
Rachael Kohn: Is there something of a disconnect between the way the ironic and critical way in which Western traditions are represented and evaluated by comparison to the acceptance of this much more reverential expression of the Islamic faith?
Rod Pattenden: Certainly with the winning work you really are invited in to sit on the ground on a small Persian mat and to watch a three channel video of a Sufi ceremony. So it is very hospitable. …There are other works from a Western tradition that try to do the same thing. As a person who looks at a lot of art and looks at the way artists deal with religious subject matter, I realise for myself as a complex human being engaging between traditions, trying to put it all together, that I in fact do desperately need a sense of humour. I think irony is actually such a gift, it allows you to participate but also participate in a critical manner. I think if one is only pious you become very quickly like a fundamentalist, everything around you becomes just a sign of affirmation. I think to believe in this post-modern situation, in a complex world of competing demands, you really need a sense of humour. The only way to have sacred cows is to kick them.
Rachael Kohn: Has the Blake Prize perhaps turned into its opposite? Is it actually fearful of explicitly devotional religious art?
John McDonald: I think the Blake Prize has an absolute, shall we say, unholy dread of devotional art. I think if somebody were to put in a series of works that were genuinely religious or genuinely seemed to profess some kind of religious faith that the judges each year would run a mile. I’d say just give the whole thing a revamp. It’s in a terrible double-bind, because in order to be a fashionable, of-the-moment, cutting-edge art prize, it has to more or less dispense with all of the things that it was originally intended to do, which is to look at the role of religion in life and to actually celebrate religion, to make people think seriously about religion by bringing it to an art exhibition.