In the weeks before I returned home to Aotearoa, Spong and I visited some of the places we shared together: the Victoria and Albert Museum, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, and Brompton Oratory—a collection of Victorian civic and religious architecture that forms part of the pseudo-ruins of London. Within cavernous interiors, we learned about one another through a shared inclination for devotional space. Spong was brought up in the Pentecostal Church, while I was baptised a Christian before being receiving a Jewish education—separate ends of doctrine reaching back to ancient Palestine. It was hard to ascertain where our respective faiths lay now, but the art of Christianity formed common ground.
I’m back in Aotearoa now, and religious themes in art are once again ascendant. I find myself troubled by all the young artists wielding the Cross in gallery contexts. Cruel Optimism, the 2021 new artists exhibition at Artspace Aotearoa, exemplifies this emergent trend . The exhibition—structured as a response to Lauren Berlant’s 2011 book by the same title—rode heavily on a Christian noir. Artists donned their figures with halos, spoke of the Lamb, and detailed apocalyptic visions of an Auckland riddled with demons. I wanted to know more about the personal theologies and beliefs of the artists involved, if these works were expressions of faith or ironic appropriations of its symbology reduced to playful posture and affect.
I suspect some of the participating artists lead religious lives. Despite being one of the most irreligious societies in the world (49.3% of non-believers according to the 2018 Census), Aotearoa is home to many communities of faith. Cruel Optimism revealed my own discomfort at the employment of religious iconography within the ironic postures of contemporary art. During a lengthy absence from the art world, I spent time in England’s Unitarian and Quaker communities, whose traditions are rooted in working-class and emancipatory politics. These spaces helped articulate my own relationship to faith, one orientated towards the metaphorical value of Judeo-Christian texts, and the traditions of Christian Socialism, recently exemplified in 'Cornel West on Why the Left Needs Jesus', an Atlantic interview with the activist and intellectual.
The image of Jesus I hold is different to the one propagated by the Christian Right. This Jesus alleviates poverty and condemns the sin of greed, is gentle until forced to drive the money changers from temple grounds. This is the Jesus who is martyred at the hands of an imperial occupation, all the while proffering non-violent resistance (minus the occasional whipping of financiers).
It was in the gap between this vision of religiosity and the one summoned by Cruel Optimism that my discomfort lay. A personal discomfort, sure, but one informed by the centuries of use and misuse of these signs and representations. There are histories at play in these forms, whether the image of the Cross or the weight of a monastic text, that demand care and attention.