If you drive into Palmyra, New York, today you’ll come upon a site not unlike what the Mormon founder Joseph Smith saw two hundred years ago: a cluster of four tall steeples rising from four Protestant churches. Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and Episcopalians confront each other at adjacent corners of the town’s crossroads. Though they aren’t the same steeples as in Smith’s day, the inter-denominational face off was already in force, leading Smith to reflect: “There was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. . . . Priest contended against priest, and convert against convert so that all their good feelings one for another were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.”
In a newly settled land rife with new religious movements in direct competition for people’s souls, Smith was able to work within the discord to form something fresh and novel. As is well known through contemporary caricature and acclaim alike, he forged one of the most powerful religious traditions operating in the world today.
What isn’t so well known is that the origins of Mormonism, like the origins of many American religious practices and beliefs, are deeply bound up with the birth of the Erie Canal, on whose banks the town of Palmyra grew. The early lives of both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were nourished by canal-based social and economic developments, and ultimately the printing and distribution of the Book of Mormon would not have had an impact without the canalway.
In 2015, Montreal-based artist Guy Laramée placed a large-format Bible from the 19th century upright with the spine open. Then, using a power grinder, he carved a landscape into the pages and painted along the curvatures, evoking the space of a cave whittled into a sheer mountainside.
It is a beautiful summoning of desert spaces, conjuring the place of the biblical prophets. It is, however, an unusual treatment of the Good Book.
Laramée, along with a number of contemporary artists, has been working with books not as muse, but as medium. You could call these artists book lovers, but only in the way that you could call Michelangelo a marble lover or Edward Scissorhands a tree lover.
Aug 20, 2017
Austin Steward was born into slavery in 1793 in Virginia, where he worked as an errand boy on the plantation of a cruel master. Whippings were common, and meager food and clothing were all he was given for his excruciating labor. Yet he was a person of remarkable energy and spirit. He managed to teach himself to read in secret, an act for which he was beaten.
Steward eventually escaped after his master sold the plantation and moved his household and slaves to New York state. Steward gained his final freedom with legal help from the New York Manumission Society, an abolitionist group, and made his way to Rochester. In short order he opened a butcher shop and then a general store on Main Street, creating a thriving business. He was just 24. He saw his success as a reason to help others and found time to teach Sunday School, host black reform meetings and distribute abolitionist newspapers. Freedom was not simply the release from a former state of being. For Steward it was a call to action and responsibility.
Aug 1, 2017
Among the millions of travelers heading out for the summer holidays, some are choosing an unlikely destination: a rusted bus on the edge of the Alaskan wilderness.
Fairbanks Bus 142 (aka the “magic bus”) is where the 24-year old Chris McCandless died in 1992. Well-educated and economically secure, McCandless rejected the materialism he saw in contemporary U.S. society. He set out to explore with only what he could carry, and ended up living off the Alaskan land for a few months before dying of starvation. His story was first told by writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer in the book “Into the Wild,” and later made into a film directed by Sean Penn.
Since then, dozens of people every year seek to follow in McCandless’ footsteps. Finding inspiration in his mode of self-sufficiency, many head out to Alaska like secular pilgrims seeking to imitate a great saint from long ago, and to live more simply.
The first great social space in the United States was not Boston Common, William Penn’s Philadelphia squares or L’Enfant’s great avenues of Washington, D.C. It was an artificial river, 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, cutting across New York state.
Like the Silk Road in Asia, the Erie Canal not only established physical links across geographic regions, it also remade the social and religious lives of everyone it touched. Albany newspapers, Genesee flour, Syracuse salt and Western timber traveled on the canal alongside theater groups, former slaves, tourists, industrialists and religious revivalists.
Jun 17, 2017
A few minutes into the third episode of Netflix’s serial comedy One Day at a Time, a heated family discussion takes place on the importance of religion for the three generations of the Alvarez family. The central character, Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), wants to go for a hike on Sunday and thinks it would be a good family bonding event. But that would mean skipping church. Her Cuban-born, fervently Catholic mother, Lydia (Rita Moreno), insists they go to church. She underscores the importance of church by telling a story about her Great Uncle Recito, who once skipped church and on the same day was crushed by a runaway tractor.
Meanwhile, 12-year-old Alex (Marcel Ruiz), the darling of his grandmother’s affections, likes church because there “I see my friends. I eat some donuts.” Fourteen-year-old Elena (Isabella Gomez) intellectually pokes at her grandmother’s faith, asking if she really believes she’s eating the flesh and blood of Jesus during communion. Lydia responds, “Ay! No, it’s a symbol. Don’t be gross!” When Penelope claims that that makes her a Protestant, Lydia retorts, “There is no need for name calling!”
Jun 3, 2017
There are over 850 million visits every year to museums in the United States, a count higher than that for sporting events and amusement parks combined. Hundreds of millions more visit collections online. Museums are go-to spaces for educational field trips, must-see destinations for tourists to new cities, sites for contemplation, for hands-on scientific exploration, and flint stones of socio-political controversy. They are also filled with religious objects.
Among all the media and means through which a broad swath of the public comes to understand religious lives and traditions, museums have emerged as some of the most prominent social institutions influencing the popular conceptions and imaginaries of religion. From history to natural history, art to archaeology, local to national, museums actively shape how people come to know about beliefs and practices other than their own, just as they challenge conceptions of one’s own cultural, religious, and national histories.
May 7, 2017
The bombing of Guernica, and Picasso’s response, 80 years on
Today is the 80th anniversary of the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by fascist air forces from Spain, Italy, and Germany. It was a joint deal, with fascists sticking together across national lines. They bombed civilians, women, dogs, men, children, their churches and shops, their sheep and goats. Well over 1,000 people died. Many more lives and livelihoods were destroyed. Thousands of Basque children traveled to Britain as refugees.*
The aftershocks were great, not least of which was the waking of Pablo Picasso from his interior slumbers, his fetishes of bowls, breasts, and bottles. He stirred and sketched and painted, and then stirred some more, ultimately culminating in perhaps one of the 20th century’s greatest works of art, the massive oil-on-canvas mural simply known as Guernica. It was finished just in time for the World’s Fair in Paris that July, after which it toured across northern Scandinavia, the UK, and then on to the U.S., not returning to Spain until 1981, after Franco died and the fascists had packed up their political shops.
At 3.5 meters (10 feet) high, and nearly 8 meters (25 feet) in width, the work not only fills a room, it creates its own room. Rather, it creates its own world.
Mar 22, 2017
If America is currently being “taken back” and made “great again” we seem to be landing somewhere in the late 19th century. It’s easy to say that great strides have been made toward racial and gender equality in the last 150 years, yet one can’t help being struck by the parallel discourse surrounding human rights between then and now. Nowhere is this more evident than in the battles between women’s rights and the religious right. And nowhere is it more clear than in reviewing the works of Matilda Joslyn Gage.
From her first public speech, at age 26, in front of the 1852 National Woman’s Rights Convention in Syracuse, to her culminating thoughts in the 1893 book Woman, Church, and State, Gage used philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and science to rewrite the place of women in socio-political life throughout history. Today, her colleagues Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are better remembered—invoked in recent marches, and even a Saturday Night Live skit—but Gage offers helpful lessons for examining the gender inequalities of religion.
When written in the same sentence, the terms “religion” and “art” tend to turn the contemporary secularized gaze back in time to Renaissance imagery. Those old, redolent, often pious pictures of Christ Child and Madonna are pleasing to look at, but these days their principal function is to confirm how religious art existed in ages past. Present-day artists can’t possibly be interested in that anymore.
To other eyes, religion and art co-exist just fine, as long as it’s a nebulous, personal “spirituality” that the artists are trying to express — nothing too public, political, or potentially threatening to anyone who looks at it. Others light on the scandals — Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly, John Latham’s God is Great — thinking the arts now only work against religion. And still others reduce “religious art” to some proselytizing message, like you might see in Thomas Kinkade’s kitschily-lit homes.
Which is all quite remarkable, considering modern and contemporary art is flooded with religious symbols, strivings, conceptions, and, yes, controversies.