Faith of Our Artists

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The once-strong relationship between art and religion–a relationship that inspired stunning works of art from ancient history through the Renaissance and beyond–has been strained in recent years. Art critic and historian Rosalind Krauss made note of an “absolute rift” between art and religion back in 1979. But one only has to consider the furious reaction of the religious public to the most well-known art-world images that reference religion since then–Andres Serrano’s photograph “Piss Christ” (1987), Chris Ofili’s mixed-media painting “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996), Renee Cox’s “Yo Mama’s Last Supper” (1996), and David Wojnarowicz’s video “A Fire in My Belly” (1987)–to know how great the schism between the two has grown.

At issue between artists and religionists in America is a central conflict. Artists, who since the arrival of modernism have placed concerns about the self at the core of artistic practice, today tend to examine religion through heavily tinted lenses. Instead of expressing a sense of general worship of life’s wonders or a pious appreciation of God and religion, contemporary artists more often explore their own personal doubts about, or qualms with, religion. Or else they look at religion in relation to their own troubled sense of themselves and their place in the world. To religious folk, this sort of inquiry is seen as, at best, a sacrilegious questioning of their faith or, at worst, a deep attack on their personal religious values. And the resulting intractable impasse is made all the more intense because it brings into play several core American values. In modern religious art, our belief in the freedom of expression clashes with our deep national religious roots, and our support for freedom of speech comes into conflict with our belief in freedom of worship.

It would take a brave and visionary artist to successfully traverse the current national divide over religion in art, and this is even more true when the artist in question uses an Islamic text as the basis for his work. Yet, this is exactly what Los Angeles-based artist Sandow Birk has done. For the past five years, Birk has worked to create an updated version of the Qu’ran by creating a series of small gouache and ink images on paper.

The Holy Qu’ran, the chief religious text of Islam, is said to be the direct, verbatim word of God, as communicated to the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. Unlike much of the Christian Bible, the text of the Qu’ran is not a chronological narrative. Instead, it is comprised of 114 sermon-like chapters called “Suras.” Birk is currently working to make illustrations for each. Birk’s Qu’ran project is notable because it renders the holy text as it was intended–as a universal message to humankind from a divine source. He does not seek to grapple with self-doubt about religion or express his personal view of faith; instead, Birk’s intention is to honor the religion and to elucidate the text for modern audiences by updating the imagery to suit modern tastes. This means, even as Birk hand-transcribes text from each Sura in ways that honor traditional illustrated calligraphic guidelines that artists have followed for centuries in Islamic countries–including the colors of inks, the page format, margin size, and so on–he also employs an American tradition of writing, urban graffiti, to inspire his calligraphy. It also means Birk illuminates each text with appealing and lively (and textually appropriate) scenes from everyday contemporary American life–duffers on a golf course, a family shoveling snow from a winter driveway, people shopping at Wal-mart, stock cars on a NASCAR raceway, a Piggly Wiggly store in the aftermath of a hurricane, and so on. 

“If the Qur’an is indeed a divine message to all peoples,” Birk wrote of his intentions for the project, “what does it mean to an individual American in the 21st Century?” In answer to his own question, Birk composes his images in a way similar to illuminated manuscripts or Persian miniature paintings. This means, as a rule, they are almost cartoon-like in their flat, colorful precision, a choice that seems purposefully designed to attract the largest possible audience and to appeal to the widest possible range of American sensibilities. Even though the images in the works cover the gamut of modern American experience, there is nothing threatening about any one of them, nothing that would provoke anyone’s ire or indignation. These images are safe enough that even parents would approve of their children seeing them. And certainly if a work of art is safe enough to show a child, it’s likely safe enough for even the most strident religious people.

The final project will consist of nearly 250 different pages that illustrate all 114 Suras of the Qur’an. At present, a selection of the Suras from Birk’s “American Qu’ran” project will be on view at the Andy Warhol Museum from February 26 through May 1, 2011. In sum, considering the scope of Birk’s efforts, and the bridge across the art-religion divide he’s managed to construct with his work, a special Hajj to Pittsburgh may be what every American–religious or not–needs.

Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.  

Michael Fallon is a guest blogger at The views expressed by this guest blogger belong to him and do not necessarily reflect the mission or editorial voice of or the Utne Reader.  

Image at top by Sandow Birk, “American Qur’an Sura 49 (a),” 2010, Courtesy of P.P.O.W Gallery, NY and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco. 

Image above right by Sandow Birk, American Qur’an Sura 67, 2010, Courtesy of P.P.O.W Gallery, NY and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco. 

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