The Institutional Theory of Religious Art

12 Jun

By Ben Schachter

On-the-Strange-Place-of-Religion-in-Contemporary-Art-Elkins-James-EB9780203324868I recently read On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art by James Elkins. In it he defines Art using the institutional theory of art made famous by Dickie. The Institutional Theory of art holds that the art market contributes not only to the notion of what is good or valuable art but also to what art is. Those who buy it, sell it, advocate for it, invest in it, admire it, study it and promote it comprise the body of people who influence what it is.

There are several limitations and objections to this theory. I’ll only mention a few that are related to my main idea. First, artists bristle at the idea that someone else encroaches on their sensibilities and vision. Second, the theory delimits a certain kind of art. Other forms of art such as outsider art, ethnic arts, etc. sometimes garner the attention of institutions but they are not the primary form of art circulated within the system otherwise known as high art. That’s fine, and in fact, the institutional theory purports to define art but it also defines a particular audience.

And that audience, in this case, rejects religious art. And therefore it is not surprising that Elkins writes:

As a rule: ambitious, successful contemporary fine art is thoroughly non-religious. Most religious art – I’m saying this bluntly here, because it needs to be said – is just bad art.

So here we are. Art is defined by the institutions that support it. Those institutions reject religious art because they do not need it. By their rejection religious art partially, or totally, loses its art status. I don’t suppose that Elkins could summarily reject religious art, he is an art historian after all, so perhaps that influenced how he wrote his blunt assessment . It is preposterous to say that religious paintings, sculptures, etc. are not art, isn’t it? Instead these objects become kitsch, visual culture and “just bad art.”

Is there an alternative to the Institutional theory? And if so, what are its benefits? Can we formulate another theory that includes religious art?

Imagine this: a religious art market filled with people who buy it, sell it, advocate for it, invest in it, admire it, study it and promote it. Sounds a bit like the Renaissance where art served as a way to broadcast power, communicate religious belief, demonstrate synthetic thinking, explore philosophical and scientific developments, etc. Religious iconography communicated faith but often intersected with other themes.

Today, a religious art market would be entirely different. Temples, churches, mosques in America are in much closer proximity to each other than in other countries or at other times. Christianity in particular has gone through numerable changes that have greatly altered the visual experience of prayer. Donations to religious causes do not take the form of commissions as they once did but rather support social services, outreach, etc. More importantly, morality and ethics are communicated for reasons beyond edification. Commercials often suggest that by buying a product or service one is becoming a better person.

Some people, particularly in contemporary Jewish Art, support something else. They are looking for ways in which religious content is shared, taught, interpreted, expressed, lived and communicated within contemporary society. And perhaps most importantly they are looking to see what connections emerge between religion and art today. Jewish Art is not devotional in the sense that it is used as a visual focus. And for that reason it is perhaps the best test case to actually see what contemporary Jewish Art does to and with Art.

The market for religious art or art with religious subject matter will never displace the institutions that support high art as it is often called. Nor will such a market truly compete with it either. But what such a market will do is inform religious art in ways similar to the ways the Institutional theory influences the art it accepts. How its market would influence religious art is the topic for another post.

to The Institutional Theory of Religious Art



June 18th, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Great article!
So what is the place of contemporary religious art?
can we build a market for religious art?
will the religious community support it?

I would love to try, and then fin d out

Artists, who’s with me?


Bob Fields

June 24th, 2013 at 12:38 pm

Thank you Ben.
We might also want to ask ourselves: What effect does the creation of artwork with a religious reference have on the artist? The artist’s process? And in later discussing our ‘religious’ work(s) within the context of all the rest of our art making? Are bridges created between our religious and secular work? Safe or not safe to do?


Joel Siverstein

June 24th, 2013 at 6:41 pm

The notion of “Institutional Art” shares much with traditional Marxist notions of art in many ways. Of course under Marxism, religion is seen as an invalid or tainted source of art as it is essentially “an opiate of the masses”. So the idea of ” Institutional Art” is another way of saying that the conventional market place determines the definitions and parameters of art. The authority of religion as a body of knowledge is not recognized by the liberal secular society that informs, defines and addresses the secular Art World of Chelsea and beyond. According to this secular art world, Art addressing religion or spirituality doesn’t exist or as the author stated, exists only as kitsch. Jewish Art in particular suffers from a double bind. Religious Jews are often uncomfortable around art that addresses real Jewish content or religious thought. They often dislike the romantic notion of an artist as the avatar of spiritual images . They reserve this respect for their own religious leaders, such as Rabbis. On the other hand, the Chelsea Art World is filled with Arts professionals who belittle or ignore religious ideas. There are times when ethnicity will win out, such as the spate of Muslim women artists often shown in Chelsea, but in general silence is the rule. Jewish Arts professionals are the worst because they are often nervous about proclaiming their own Judaism, or fulfill the current liberal dictum as proclaimed by Christopher Hitchens, (himself a Jew by maternal lineage) that after 9/11 any religion is fanaticism and by definition, bad. There are scores of the new Jewish artists who are doing fascinating art work as aesthetics and as a branch of religious , ethnic and philosophical Jewish enquiry. In short it is more than possible to do good art and make statements about Jewish culture. The goal is to increase Jewish institutional interest, but more importantly to increase the interests of the secular art world. The work is being created. The goal then is to take this work and find Museums, galleries and institutions to display it.


aaron ari

July 11th, 2013 at 8:45 am

I read the first part of this book (i don’t like reading stories). Elkins makes some good points but what he does is ignore artists who’ve had spiritual influence in their work (like bill viola, marina abramovic, james turrell, barnett newman &etc). I’ve struggled with this notion of religion in contemporary through my art school years and what I learned is that the key is context. The market does want religion it wants spirituality. Historically and generally speaking, art was in the service of religion, and it’s institutions served as the gallery. Times have changed and art serves the institution it’s built for itself. art is informed by culture and culture is informed by it. so ‘religious’ artists have to recognize that. Know your audience; judaic art is going to be bought most of the time by Jews.

As you said, Jewish art is less devotional and more cultural. With any subject matter in art, if it is “too jewish, too racial, to political….” it prevents the viewers from getting past that one liner. If we want to get into the high end galleries, we need to recognize context and talk about our culture/religion in a round about way so an uninformed viewer can access it and take what they need from it.

Also religious art is to timid, it’s constrained by the moral regulations imposed by it, follow what you want but a G-rated movie is gunna be found in a kids room, not Criterion collection. This is what makes religious art kitsch. Make what you want but don’t stop halfway. Im talking about “Piss christ” by Andres Serrano who’s intention wasn’t to offend (he was interesting in the elements that makes us human) but Im sure you wont find that in a church. This is a marketing problem, we want our work to appreciated by our secular and religious spheres at the same time and they usually dont agree.

I found that its best to make works that talk about religion within the context of culture as it is really about of our culture. We have to step out subjective Judaism and be objective for a moment, that way we can see as the secular audience sees.


Ben Schachter

July 26th, 2013 at 10:46 am

Thank you everyone for your comments. Several questions come to mind. Making work that is of interest to distinct audiences at the same time; making work that is of interest to institutional missions; stepping back and considering religion more broadly as part of culture. Great thoughts. – Ben

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