Idols and Taboos: Modern & Contemporary Art and Theology Today

Thursday, May 23, 2019 6 – 7:30 pm

On Misunderstandings between Religious Art Practices and Art History: Prof. James Elkins 

No Idols: Prof. Thomas Crow

Chaired by Prof. Ben Quash

Ballroom, MacLean Center, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 112 S. Michigan Ave

King’s College London and Duke University are pleased to announce an evening of discussion, ‘testing the temperature’ of the relationship between modern and contemporary visual art and Christian tradition today. 

This exceptional programme brings together contributions from Professor James Elkins (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and Professor Thomas Crow (New York University), chaired by Professor Ben Quash (King’s College London).  The event is free and open to all.  No registration or tickets are required and seating will be first come, first served on the evening.

James Elkins: On Misunderstandings between Religious Art Practices and Art History
This is a report on the distance between avowedly religious art (as it is practised and taught in art schools, academies, and theological unions) and the disciplines of art history, art criticism, art theory, and studio pedagogy. It has been said that the ongoing lack of communication between openly religious art practice and disciplines such as art history is a matter of modernism’s distance from faith, or of scholarship’s distance from advocacy; James Elkins proposes that one of the most fruitful ways of thinking about it is as a matter of the forms of conversation that take place in conferences, lectures, and other venues. In particular the distance between religious values and historical values can be seen as a question of the relative places of empathy, biography, and community.

Thomas Crow: No Idols

The theme of this talk will be the generally inverse relationship between grandiosity in a work of art and its intrinsic theological import, the latter term being understood apart from visualizing points of doctrine or events of sacred import.   From miracle-working ‘true images’ to the hyper-valuation placed on museum masterpieces severed from their original religious contexts, art is continually susceptible to the idolatrous regard that invests inert matter with living properties.  To approach the sacred, an artist aware of this trap must defeat the normal enticements of idolatry, whether of self-righteous display or aesthetic delectation, while providing some compensating richness of experience.   Thomas Crow encountered his own point of departure toward this insight in the shape of one painting, the White Tablecloth by J.B.S. Chardin, housed in the Chicago Art Institute.


Theology, Modernity, and the Visual Arts project


This free, public event is part of a four-year research project on the topic of Theology, Modernity, and the Visual Arts, led by Professor Ben Quash at King’s College London, in collaboration with Duke University, and generously sponsored by the McDonald Agape Foundation.[i]  Its purpose is to enquire into a theological reading of modernity in the company of visual artists, asking how the visual arts can help us to understand the theological (or even anti-theological) currents of modernity more deeply. Theology, Modernity, and the Visual Arts is part of a larger enterprise (Theology, Modernity, and the Arts) established by Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, which is undertaking research in three main areas: music, the visual arts, and literature. 

The programme for Theology, Modernity, and the Visual Arts consists of a series of academic symposia hosted by major international art galleries in the UK, USA, and Europe. It began in 2018 at the Royal Academy of Arts, London and will move to Berlin in 2020.  Attended by a core group of international scholars in theology and art history, these meetings provide an opportunity for a sustained discussion of how the visual arts can help in interpreting the theological dimensions of modernity, and how theology can reflect on and inform interpretations of modernity in and through the visual arts.

 The group is exploring what theology can learn from the insights and suggestions of modern and contemporary art, even when that art seems deliberately to provoke or repel.  Given the abiding power of Christian motifs, ideas, and styles in a host of modern works that superficially look un- or anti-Christian, the group is also considering these indications that visual art and Christian tradition have not become complete strangers, and asking how contemporary viewers (Christian and non-Christian) interact with historical Christian art, and how modern sensibilities affect our viewing of earlier Christian artworks and artistic traditions. 

The symposia are accompanied by public events with high-profile artists, theologians, and critics.  These are opportunities to reflect on the visual arts as an arena in which some of the deepest questions of life and death, meaning and purpose, continue to be raised, and on the relationship of visual art with Christianity, both as cultural heritage and as contemporary lived faith. 


Image: Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin, The White Tablecloth (1731-2). Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago