CROSSROADS: Art and Religion in American Life
Attempting to get beyond overheated rhetoric, this collection of seven essays combines surveys and interviews with cogent historical contextualizations. Following a brief foreword by Garry Wills (Reagan's America), University of Chicago historian Neil Harris offers a compressed but lucid overview of the spasmodically uncomfortable relationship between art and religion in American life, emphasizing its many shifts from Thomas Cole's Course of Empire to Richard Serra's Tilted Arc. Three essays here are the fruits of large research projects, the most elegant being a carefully documented study of public opinion during controversies generated in Philadelphia from 1965 to 1997 by Andres Serrano's Piss Christ and other works. University of California professor David Halle surveys public reaction to the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" brouhaha, finding the public better informed and more levelheaded than media (and mayoral) hysterics. The book's best essay by far is by the University of Maryland's Sally Promey; no one who reads her "Pictorial Ambivalence and American Protestantism" will look at Emanuel Lutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware the same way again. The book ends with Amei Wallach's reasonably lively discussion with a number of arts administrators and artists, including Betya and Alison Saar, Meredith Monk, Andrew Greeley and Shirin Neshat on art, religion and spirituality. Monk thinks art should be about "breaking down expectations, breaking down habitual patterns of behavior." Many readers will agree. (June)
Forecast:While an aura of academic gentility here sometimes drains the subject of its inherent contentiousness and drama, and the many graphs, tables and lists (but not the seven color plates) will be skipped by most readers, this mostly pundit-directed book will help generate the climate wherein art and spirit can meet with less fear and loathing.