Friends or foes? Art's long, complicated relationship with religion

Aaron Rosen is a Professor of Religious Thought at Rocky Mountain College, and a Visiting Professor at King's College London. This is an edited excerpt from his book "Art & Religion in the 21st Century," published by Thames & Hudson.

(CNN)When you enter the world of art, you are, like it or not, entering the realm of religion. Consider some of the world's most famous works of art -- the Parthenon Marbles, the Buddhas of Bamiyan, The Last Supper, the Blue Mosque -- and it becomes clear just how deeply the history of art has been colored by the history of religion.

But these are all examples from earlier epochs. What about more recent times?
No longer beholden to religious institutions for commissions, and free to explore subjects drawn from various faiths or none at all, it is certainly true that modern art has not been the same faithful handmaiden of religion as it often was in the past.
And yet, since its birth in the nineteenth century, modern art has continued to draw extensively upon religious themes and images.
Despite being an avowed atheist, Pablo Picasso subtly incorporated religious iconography in masterpieces such as "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907) and "Guernica" (1937).
"Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907) by Pablo Picasso
Mark Rothko, who came from a Jewish background, considered his abstract chapel paintings his crowning achievement.
Meanwhile, Andy Warhol was a regular churchgoer who created a powerful series of "Last Supper" paintings in his final years.
Despite this rich history of mutual engagement, however, religion and modern art continue to be typecast as mortal enemies. Misperceptions are particularly rampant when it comes to contemporary art. To judge simply by the headlines, it would seem that art and religion are headed for an apocalyptic showdown.
In the winter of 2000 to 2001 a modern art museum in Warsaw exhibited Maurizio Cattelan's sculpture of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite. Two outraged members of the Polish Parliament marched into the gallery, rolled away the boulder, and left a letter defaming the "Jewish origin" of the director, who was forced to resign.
In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI called for the removal of Martin Kippenberger's "Zuerst die Füsse" (1990), a sculpture of a crucified frog, from a gallery in northern Italy, while an elected official held a hunger strike in protest.
"La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour)" (1999) by Maurizio Cattelan
And under Vladimir Putin an increasing number of Russian artists have been charged with inciting religious hatred, including Avdey Ter-Oganyan and Oleg Mavromatti, who fled the country to escape prison.
The notion of contemporary artists as godless marauders on a quest to offend is compelling stuff. Scintillating as it may be, however, it tells only a small part of the story.
We need to take a moment to unpack the stereotype of the iconoclastic artist, and just whom it benefits.
The stakes of various parties are perhaps clearest in the case of two works that have ignited widespread controversy in America over the past two dozen years: Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" (1987) and Chris Ofili's dung-bedecked "The Holy Virgin Mary" (1996).
In both cases, the culture battles over these works proved an immensely profitable business. Jesse Helms' denunciation of "Piss Christ" did more for Serrano's career than any endorsement from an art critic ever could.
Not only did it dramatically increase the financial value of "Piss Christ," it instantly enshrined it as a symbol of artistic freedom, a status burnished recently when Republican lawmakers and Fox News pundits demanded that President Barack Obama denounce the work upon its return to New York City for a 2012 exhibition.
"Piss Christ" (1987) by Andres Serrano
Likewise, while Ofili's work was somewhat overshadowed by that of Marcus Harvey, Damien Hirst, and the Chapman brothers when "Sensation" opened at London's Royal Academy in 1997, in New York it took center stage thanks to castigations from Giuliani, Cardinal John O'Connor, and William Donohue of the Catholic League. Despite being placed behind a Plexiglas shield, an elderly man managed to reach behind and smear it with white paint, hoping -- in his words -- to make the besmirched Virgin "pure and clean."
Recognizing the marketing coup they had on their hands with Ofili and other artists, the museum displayed a health warning for visitors, doubling down on the succès de scandale. Predictably tantalized, New Yorkers flocked to the exhibition, lining the coffers not only of the museum but of Charles Saatchi, who owned many of the works and had partly bankrolled the exhibition, causing a controversy in its own right.
With politicians, media, museums, and artists all benefiting to a greater or lesser extent, it is no surprise that the stereotype of the blaspheming modern artist has had such staying power.
Ironically, the only real losers in this equation may be the principal parties themselves: art and religion. While controversy attracts attention and inflates prices, it seldom helps us understand works of art any better.
"The Holy Virgin Mary" (1996) by Chris Ofili
Individual pieces quickly get lost in the combative rhetoric that swirls around them, becoming signposts for warring ideologies rather than retaining the indeterminacy that is the sine qua non of good art.
Take "Piss Christ," for instance. It may indeed have an element of iconoclasm. And yet it can be read, just as easily, as a devotional image by an artist born and bred in a Brooklyn neighborhood steeped in Catholicism. What better way to meditate on the torments and degradation of Christ -- both in his time and ours -- than to see his form submerged in urine?
At the same time, the resplendence of the image, suffused in hazy, golden light like an icon, seems to signal Christ's capacity to triumph over ignominy.
Not only, then, are such works more complicated than they first appear, they have the potential to summon powerful religious meanings, responses, and questions.
What is the difference, they ask, between the sacred and the profane? Is it possible to believe in the symbols of the past in the same ways? And perhaps most of all, what is the difference between challenging tradition and rejecting it?
These are crucial questions, especially today. And good art can often do a better job of asking them than any other medium.
"Art & Religion in the 21st Century" by Aaron Rosen, published by Thames & Hudson, is out now.