The Art of Old Time Religion
To say the least, the use of Christian religious iconography in a sincere manner has not been the stuff of contemporary artists or art collectors. On the contrary, and in the last few decades in particular, artists have taken delight in lampooning the depiction of all things bible. You can probably name a few of them without thinking, as opportunistic politicians frequently use their work to raise funds. Whether their motivations were born of genuine artistic skill and talent, or merely a way to appear clever and attract attention is up to the viewer and critic. For my collection plate donation, the most appealing and interesting "contemporary religious art" came from studio Warhol. Sincere or not, his last supper paintings which I saw beautifully installed in NYC were striking, modern and beautiful. All the more "controversial" pieces from the era appeared lame, obvious and contrived by comparison. They do even more so today.
As I discuss in the introduction to Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Photography and Music 1890-1950 (Dust-to-Digital) there is a notion that sincere religious artists, regardless of medium, often work harder when they are depicting renditions of their faith. The gospel singer strains to reach a higher note, the mural painter uses precision when attempting to achieve God's perfection and the glazier never leaves loose leaded panes in a piece behind the pulpit. Whether these practitioners of religious craft use iconography to preach or to make a living is moot... it could be both.
The most prolific "religious" artist of this century is certainly Howard Finster, the late folk artist from Georgia, who created nearly 50,000 individually numbered works before having the brush (and Sharpie) pried from his cold fingers. It has been a common understanding that despite his seemingly sincere attempts to convert heathens though his work, a collector of his eccentric paintings who has actually been saved has not yet come forth to testify. Rather, his work has been appreciated for the most part by smug non-believers who found his work quaint rather than convincing.
I started collecting religious ephemera as an outgrowth of folk art and vernacular photography. My own beliefs don't exist beyond a rudimentary trust in the scientific method, but I do believe OTHERS believe, and that makes the material fascinating. Elaborate obsessive doodles of outsider art, shaking and sweating evangelists and tax-dodging street corner churches have always seemed a sort of performance art to me. Who determines what is saved, sacred or sane? It's all fine with me even if not fine art...and when it isn't any good, it is at the least still interesting because it was a good try. I may lean solidly towards the smug side of art appreciation, but there is always a story with each work I find. Faith or fraud, the fevered brow produces some pretty interesting product.
Running the gamut from silly to sacred, eccentric to evangelical (I could go on) there is a wealth of spiritual flotsam sitting in the shoe boxes of history, and I will present it one day at a time on old time religion. Objective reporting seems to be a disappearing along with newspapers, but I aim to be journalistic. If a preacher sullied the farmer's daughter and left town with a sack of money, so be it. Just like Jesus said, no one is perfect, and it seems particularly true in this milieu. One thing we CAN give thanks for is federal prosecution of mail fraud. Whether the material presented is pathetic or profound, it exists in great big abundance. One doesn't look far for a message of faith in this country. From rear bumper fish to door-knocking Jehovah's, we are looking at one big industry here...and big industry makes lots of things that take up space. I certainly do not need to prosthelytize. All manner of bible salesman, radio preachers and lobbyists have beat me to it. But I can dig up some cool things and probably dig up a few things folks would rather have buried too. Let's see!
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