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The close relationship that art and religion maintained for several millennia has in recent decades eroded so drastically that it’s difficult to imagine fine arts and contemporary religion having anything in common. Art is, on the whole, a secular enterprise, and religion is frequently more anesthetic than aesthetic in character. The two worlds happily foster vulgar understandings of each other almost to a point of pride. Some might even suggest that adherence to one entails a rejection of, or at least critical distance from, the other. But not everyone is content with this scenario.
When artist AA Bronson enrolled in Union Theological Seminary, a historically Protestant Christian seminary that is interreligious in scope, he discovered a place where the world of religion and the world of art dovetail: the activity of social justice. Encouraged by members of the art world including Marina Abramović and Jeffrey Deitch and eminent theologians, Bronson went to work exploring this area of overlap, and soon founded the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice.
My knowledge of the Institute came early on by way of theologian Kathryn Reklis, who has co-directed it with Bronson since its inception. Over dinners with Reklis and her husband, I learned of the programming and people involved, which struck me as hardly believable given the well-known tension between art and religion. This summer I reached out to Bronson to talk with him about not only the Institute, but also his broader ideas on the issues it tackles. What follows is an edited version of the wide-ranging discussion we had in his Chelsea apartment not too long ago.
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Rob Colvin: What led you to enroll in a liberal Christian seminary?
AA Bronson: As opposed to a conservative one, you mean?
RC: [laughs] OK, sure.
AA: It was an accident. General Theological Seminary is just a couple blocks from here. One day I saw online that they were having an open house: you could pay $50, you could bring your partner — which I thought was a good sign — and you could spend a day there, sitting in on the classes, meeting the professors, and so on. So I thought I’d like to do that.
I went, and of course General is very conservative. It’s the national Episcopalian seminary; their language is not inclusive. But it was still very interesting. I love the place. And for years, I’d always felt a hook around my neck every time I walked by on the sidewalk, as if somebody was dragging me in the door.
At the end of the day, after sitting in on a church history class, eating lunch with the gay student caucus, and attending a reception with a group of professors, they had arranged a series of entry interviews — they assumed that anybody who’d come to the open house wanted to apply. I thought, okay, since they set up the meetings, I guess I’ll go. They were a little put off by me, I think. First of all, I have a long history with Tibetan Buddhism, which probably didn’t help. And I’m not exactly their model of an ideal student. But at the same time, there was nothing they could say against me, without seeming discriminatory.
When I got home, I emailed Serene Jones, who at that time was at the Yale Divinity School. I was a senior visiting critic at the Yale School of Art, and Serene was good friends with the head of sculpture, Jessica Stockholder. I’d met Serene a few times. I said, “Serene, guess what, I just applied to be at General Theological Seminary.” She emailed back and said, “Well, I’ve just been hired as President of Union Theological Seminary, and I think you should come to Union.”
Union sent me their applications, I filled them out, and they accepted me. In the meantime, General kept stalling and stalling and stalling, asking for more information, etc. Eventually they said: “You can apply again next semester since you’ve missed the deadline.” I hadn’t missed the deadline, but they were determined to keep me out.
RC: They didn’t have the guts to send you a rejection letter.
AA: Yeah, they didn’t have the grounds to reject me. But they felt that I would be trouble.
RC: And would you have been?
AA: Yes. For example, I would have been lobbying for inclusive language from day one.
RC: How did you become acquainted with Kathryn Reklis?
AA: Once at Union, I immediately saw that it had a very dense history of involvement with social justice issues. And I thought, gee, this is weird, because there’s such a schism between the contemporary art world and the world of Christianity. At the same time, there’s all this overlap of interests and involvements. So I suggested to Serene that I could put on a lecture series with contemporary artists. She liked the idea and said we’d need funding. I talked to the Warhol Foundation, and they said I’d have a lot of trouble raising money for an educational institution. But if you set up an institute, they said, you could apply for funding in many places.
Serene and I decided to form an institute; we called it the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice. Serene appointed Kathryn to be the point person on staff, and we became co-directors.
RC: Tell me a little more about how the Institute was conceived. Kathryn said Marina Abramović was a collaborator.
AA: We started by having a series of dinners that Serene organized in her apartment. We invited people in the world of theology and the world of art to come together to talk about the Institute and whether they thought it was feasible. Marina Abramović was one of the early participants, as was Jeffrey Deitch. Everybody was very enthusiastic so we decided to go ahead. We knew we had to do something before we could apply for any funds, so we did an exhibition called compassion, which was spread throughout the institution. There was no available space we could use as a gallery really, so we put a piece here and a piece there throughout the complex. It was Kathryn’s idea to call it a pilgrimage; we made it a pilgrimage throughout the building.
So many people have never been at Union and don’t know about the architectural richness, so we used the exhibition as an opportunity to show off the building and to educate people who came about Union itself. And that went really well: we were reviewed in the New York Times, and a lot of outside people came to see compassion. We had a real mix of artists, from extremely well-known people such as Marina Abramović to emerging artists, people of various racial backgrounds, men and women, different generations. We made it an intense mix of different kinds of people. That got us going, and we were able to start fishing around for some funding.
RC: So it became easier to find support?
AA: It became possible. But even now we don’t have substantial funding. We have enough to do the projects, enough to pay the artists.
RC: Is the funding mostly from the art world?
AA: No, actually, it’s not. In the second year we had an exhibition titled social justice, and it was timed to open during Union Days, which is a weekend when alumni are invited back to visit. We presented a panel discussion about the exhibition for the alumni. The people who came were old enough to be able to afford to take the time off and young enough to be mobile, primarily the “God is dead” generation.
The panelists were mostly younger artists of various persuasions, including an atheist, and they spoke simply and passionately about social justice. One of the alumni gave a gift of $25,000 and challenged his classmates to match it. He saw what we were doing as being similar to what Judson Memorial Church was doing in the 1960s. Judson had an amazing arts program. That jump-started us.
Our big moment came when the Warhol Foundation gave us two years of funding, a really strong vote of confidence given that we had almost no history. We presented two exhibitions, two series of artist lectures, a performance series, and three residencies. The first series of lectures probably brought Warhol around because, within the art context, we had extremely well-known names, not people you would expect to be talking in a seminary.
RC: Who were some of those artists?
AA: The first series included Gregg Bordowitz, the Guerrilla Girls, Paul Chan, Alfredo Jaar, and me. Gregg Bordowitz is an artist, filmmaker, and AIDS activist. He took the opportunity to talk about his work from a theological perspective, which he was able to do quite well: in his youth he had been groomed as a future rabbi. The majority of his audience were from the art world, and they said “Gregg, we’ve never heard you talk like this!”
What many artists find refreshing about Union is that they find themselves talking about their work in a different way than they normally do — it opens up the language.
RC: That’s something Kathryn said. Are the artists trying to get a sense of who they’re talking to, an audience of either artists or seminary students?
AA: I think it’s more the building.
RC: So it’s the setting, the chapel.
AA: Yeah, I don’t think it’s the audience because in most cases the audience has been dominated by art world people. To begin with we had trouble getting the religious community interested. Last season that changed, but before that there would often be only two or three people from Union there. It took time to gather momentum and for people to trust that our program wasn’t something totally from outside.
AA: One of the students who was working with us had the idea of pairing Kara Walker with Professor Cone. I thought it was a pretty brilliant idea because Professor Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree had just come out, and Kara Walker’s work involves so much of that imagery — not so much the cross as the lynching tree.
Professor Cone was unsure. He knew about Kara Walker, but he was worried that she was playing the part of the black person entertaining white folk, kind of a minstrel. He insisted that he meet her privately and talk to her frankly, very frankly I’m sure, before he was willing to go ahead with the public dialogue.
RC: Wasn’t Kara resistant at first?
AA: Kara said no at first. She said no altogether. And Professor Cone said maybe. I didn’t tell Kara that Professor Cone had said maybe. [laughs]
RC: How did you talk her into it?
AA: I said to her, “You know, Professor Cone is one of the founding voices of Black Liberation Theology, and he’s getting on, and I think you’re going to be really sorry if you pass the opportunity by, of spending some time with him. You’re going to look back, and you are going to regret it.” So she changed her mind and said yes. But then we had to talk Professor Cone into the talk.
When we put the two of them together, they became very close very fast. They bonded in a very special way.
As for Marina, I’ve always been interested in Marina’s Serbian background. Her work, often talked about in relation to Tibetan Buddhism, is grounded in her Serbian roots. Her great uncle was the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church and was made a saint after his death. And I’ve always had this feeling that Marina was in competition with her great uncle … although she wants to become a saint while she’s alive! [laughs]
We paired her with John McGuckin, who’s first of all an entertaining and informative speaker, very easy on the stage, but secondly the foremost expert on the Eastern Orthodox Church in this country, I believe, and knows all about Marina’s great uncle. So that’s why we put them together. Marina is extremely strong, you know; she has such a strong personality.
RC: She wanted everyone to come close to her, moving in their chairs, turning the chapel into a fire hazard …
AA: Yes, yes. She completely took over in a kind of performative way. She was the star. She was the celebrity.
RC: So Professor McGuckin was the perfect person to talk with her.
AA: Yeah, anybody else probably couldn’t have handled her, frankly.
Both of those lectures, the Kara Walker and the Marina Abramović lectures, pulled in a full house. There were about 300 people for each. And they had an extremely enthusiastic reception from both the art audience and the theological audience.
RC: It was more of mix.
AA: About 50/50, yeah. Much more of a mix. We’d never had so many students and faculty and alumni there, as we did for those two lectures.
One of the things I think about artists and theologians is that they both come to a “calling.” That was something that Kara was willing to talk about. It’s not cool to talk about oneself as an artist that way these days. Artists don’t do it that much. The preferred word at the moment is “career” — but being an artist is not foremost a career.
Of those who study art in a university or an art school, maybe 5 percent of those who graduate will end up in the art world. Maybe less. If you studied dentistry knowing only 5% would end up being dentists, you wouldn’t even bother, right? It’s very unusual in that way. Art schools talk about career paths and so on, but art is not a career; it’s a calling. And only the artists who experience it that way end up continuing, whether they do well or do badly.
RC: Sure. I get that as an artist, or even in terms of religion. You feel compelled towards it, and then sometimes you even resent it.
RC: This isn’t something I’m necessarily happy with. I might be happier if I didn’t have to worry about all these existential pulls.
AA: Yes, it’s not a choice. It just is there. Who would make that choice?
RC: [laughs] Right. And the lectures at Union were framed in terms of how the art world and especially MFA programs have been gearing students towards the career path instead of a calling.
AA: Yeah, that’s kind of how we framed it. But what we really focused on was the social justice dimension of the artists’ work. All of those artists — Bordowitz, Chan, the Guerrilla Girls, Jaar, and myself — have a very strong social justice dimension. We were allowing the artists to explore their relationship with social justice but also spirituality. I’d have to use the more general term [spirituality]; not all of them are Christian.
RC: The art world, generally speaking, sees religion as regressive …
AA: Christianity — and yet they’re all taking yoga classes. And Tibetan Buddhism has an extremely good reputation.
RC: OK, that brings me to a question that I’m told interests you: why is it permissible to be a Buddhist in the art world, for example, but not a Christian?
AA: Yeah, I don’t know the answer. But it’s true.
Artists became involved with the Tibetan Buddhists from the moment the Tibetans started to reach out to the West. It started in the late ’70s. People like myself and Marina Abramović and Philip Glass — there’s a long list of the avant-garde of my generation who got involved with Tibetan Buddhism, mostly in the early ’80s.
Not Christianity. The world of organized Christianity is problematic. It has, on the whole, positioned itself in opposition to contemporary art — the so-called culture wars of the ’80s and so on. And that continues today in relationship to gender and sexuality, as in the controversy around the Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. There was a move from the Christian right to close that exhibition down. I got involved in that fight.
There was some point — and I don’t know the history — in the ’50s in which the art world and organized religion split.
RC: I’ve been reading about an organization that is actually still in existence called the Society for the Arts, Religion, and Contemporary Culture. It was started by people such as Alfred Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, and Union theologian Paul Tillich. They were doing these things that might be taboo now, for example, Tillich speaking at MoMA. They were pushing this aesthetic, through abstraction, and partly purifying Christianity of its sentimental or sappy art.
Today, is religion, or Christianity, a taboo subject in the art world?
AA: It’s not exactly taboo; it’s just not there. It’s just absent.
There are a few exceptions, and increasingly so. I go to a lot of art schools doing studio visits, especially with graduate students, and I’m finding that these days in every grad school there’s usually one student who is dealing with something that’s related to Christianity, or at least spirituality. And they are usually people who are very concerned about this move towards careerism because it’s not why they’re an artist. It’s not what they want for themselves.
I proposed to Union that there should be an MA course for visual artists, half their time doing studio work and half their time doing the normal academic work that the other people at Union do. It would be very, very easy to interject such a program into the current system without any big changes at all. But there was a big resistance to that, not from the administration but from the faculty.
RC: Why would they be resistant to that?
AA: Well, I think a lot of religious people think of artists as demons.
RC: I’m interested in these students you’re meeting in these schools. Their situation reminds me of a book that James Elkins wrote on art and religion, followed by a seminar in 2007. And Gregg Bordowitz was a part of that seminar. This was all at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), where I went. Christianity is very much taboo there.
AA: I’ve found it particularly taboo in Chicago, actually. Really taboo in Chicago.
RC: Yeah, that’s actually where I became a Christian. I was raised in this liberal Baptist church in the South, and I didn’t find much of it interesting. I wasn’t necessarily a skeptic, but I did wonder if I really believed all this. Did I really need to believe this? I didn’t feel like I was old enough to make that decision.
My freshman year at SAIC, I saw all this hostility towards Christianity. I don’t know where it came from. So I started to re-examine these theological questions. I later realized much of it was philosophy, these ideas that I was trafficking in. But I felt that pull. And I realized, I believe this is true!
So I left. I didn’t think I could make art anymore, at least not there, because I didn’t think art could be made admissibly about these questions that Tillich would have posed. I left to study philosophy, theology, and religion, and got a degree, but eventually I did come back to SAIC.
AA: One woman in Chicago — she was one of the professors — told me you can’t be a Christian and an artist at the same time. It’s just not possible.
RC: That’s the picture I got in SAIC’s environment.
AA: Serene Jones says that the largest population of the US declares themselves to be spiritual but nondenominational. And she says that’s the horse she wants to be riding on; that’s the audience she wants to be able to harness at Union. Because, for the most part those people — a very large number of people — have nothing to feed them spiritually.
I see the art world much the same way, because there are many, many artists who would declare themselves as spiritual but don’t really know what to do with that. As a result of being at Union, I wanted to create some kind of conversation between the two: not only could the art world learn from the theological world but vice versa. It seemed just crazy to me to have this division between the two.
RC: In terms of your work, you have a residency in Berlin coming up, from February to February, and there’s no programming for the Institute this fall. Is this the demise of the Institute?
AA: We are planning projects that are more like research projects and less about programming.
RC: What would those look like?
AA: I’ve been invited to undertake two projects in Ireland. One is to develop an exhibition around the subject of Ireland’s holy wells. They are most likely prehistoric sites, all of them. The one that I know is in the far northwest of Ireland. It’s in an area that has the biggest concentration of Neolithic sites in Europe — standing stones and grave sites. Within twenty miles of this tiny little town called Sligo there are over three thousand Neolithic sites. Really amazing. You just see them in the fields everywhere you go.
Sligo’s holy well is situated in a grove of trees on a hillside with a natural spring just popping straight out of the ground. When you walk into the grove, you feel an intense rush of spiritual energy. It’s been claimed by the Roman Catholic Church, and there is a series of shrines set up in and around it. It’s kind of folksy, very odd. People make wishes there, and when they make a wish, they tie something into one of the trees. So the trees are full of little girl’s barrettes and bits of ribbon and key chains and teddy bears. You walk into this copse of trees, and it’s just hanging with stuff. And a wave of spirit energy animates the copse. It’s an extraordinarily strong physical sensation when you go in there — certain churches are like that — and artists always respond to it.
The director of Sligo’s public gallery, The Model, wants me to work with him to put together an exhibition inspired by that holy well, and to bring it somehow to Union.
I’ve also been invited to do a project on an island called Skellig Michael. There are two islands called Skellig on the southwest coast of Ireland. They’re very tiny, and they rise straight out of the ocean. They’re just pinnacles of rock. And on top of one of them is a monastery founded in the 7th century and closed in the 12th century, very, very early. The monks thought that their prayers would go straight to heaven without interference, no white noise from any other activity going on. It was an extremely harsh climate, and the monks abandoned it after a few hundred years. But the monastery is still there, and it’s still possible to go and see it. It’s not exactly a tourist destination, but it’s a world heritage site run by UNESCO.
I’ve been invited to go there and make a performance, or a movie, or just whatever I want, in relation to that site. And again, I hope that the Institute will be involved with that.
RC: What kind of conversations would you like to see generated from your work at the Institute, either in the art world or in religious communities?
AA: [long pause] Well, frankly, I don’t really have any particular goal of any particular kind of conversation. It’s more that I would like to see what happens. It’s like throwing a good party: you have the food and the chairs, you try to create the right atmosphere, and then you wait, cross your fingers, and see what happens. I’d like to see what happens, because nothing’s happening for the most part, at the moment, or what is happening is not very positive.
RC: I like that. I’ll be there.
AA: Yeah, Marina’s and Kara’s talks were good examples. There was some deep conversation. Something happened. People were touched. Something deep happened.
In Kara’s case, it took her to a new place, I think.