It is funny that, quite an atheist myself, maybe an agnostic on a bad day, I have ended up falling for some sort of surrogate form of religion: contemporary art.
Art lovers from all over the world don’t have to go to church. Our social gatherings, where we mingle and meet fellow members of our cult, are the private views. As in a Sunday mass, the sermons (the works) are probably the least important element of it all. Much more crucial is to see and be seen and gossip the latest news. Private views are where the community comes together, where individuals gather a sense of belonging, but of course, like in any group, there are impenetrable elites (those of artists, gallerists, writers and curators) that remind us of the classical religious hierarchies.
Galleries and museums are our temples, and not in a metaphorical way. The “white cube” has sacred connotations: spaces with high ceilings (spiritual) and white walls (purity) where we must remain silent and respectful, because these are domains where we can meditate, find some time to reflect on key issues and take in the new information provided to us.
Big art spaces, like the Tate Modern or the Guggenheims, are often deemed as cathedrals, as it is like true cathedrals that they function: they attract millions of long-distance travellers each year that pilgrim from all over the globe with fervent passion to visit this famous places a la Lourdes, the Vatican or Florence’s Duomo. Insiders feel like they have arrived to the long-awaited Promised Land. Outsiders can either remain untouched or feel intimidated (commercial galleries are especially prone to provoke this) or completely out of place by these highly charged spaces, a bit like I felt when as a teenager I travelled to Italy with my school mates and had to see all the most notorious Italian cathedrals in the space of a week. Had I gone a few years later, being a bit older and more artistically oriented, I would have been able to appreciate, if still not their catholic prowess, indeed their architectural or painterly qualities. But cathedrals were not exactly my cup of tea back then, and I remember not feeling the overwhelming emotion I was told I was supposed to.
But art, and its artworks, are sustained on a matter of faith just as much as any religious belief. Art lovers bestow art works with sometimes magical and emotional, sometimes economical, powers. Let’s take –using an example everyone can relate to– Duchamp’s urinal, “Fountain” (1917). To me (and to many millions more), it stands as one of the most important masterpieces in the History of Art. It gave birth to conceptual art itself, it changed the expectations of the discipline, prioritising an idea rather than a manual skill. To many, it is just bullshit. And those probably are the same people who claim that they could do a Pollock painting on a regular Saturday morning. Those are the people that argue that the true masters were Goya, Velazquez, Rubens, Gioto, Cranach, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, even Picasso if they are feeling a bit bold. And who couldn’t agree with that? Contemporary art lovers don’t reject classical, figurative art. We just vindicate the attributes and qualities of other forms of artistic expression. We vindicate them because we believe they are art, as opposed to others who think they are bullshit. If it is a system sustained in belief, well then we could call it religion, couldn’t we?
True art lovers, like true religious people, accommodate to a lifestyle based on art events and rituals. Art organises your schedule. You have all these private views to attend, those shows to visit (leisure controlled) those museums and biennales to travel to (holidays sorted), all these books, magazines –pieces if you can afford them– to buy (consumer goods allocated). We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, religion and art have historically been always intertwined. Art, in the beginning of the days, was religious (or magical, mystical) art. But societies back then were tremendously religious themselves. In contemporary western society, characterised by an increasing and non-stopping secularity, contemporary art has become one of the replacements for religion itself. In the end, from the perspective of one of these contemporary art cult followers, I would say that art offers a freer, less regulated and constrictive, intellectual space and tools to think about life and death. Minus the salvation promises, I guess.
Written in September 2009