Religion’s Understated Influence on Modern Art

Religion influenced modern art’s development far more than most accounts let on, and some of today’s most iconic artists mined their spiritual practices as sources, including Andy Warhol and Joseph Cornell. Contrary to popular belief, God is not dead. Alas, art historians and art critics have buried the lead, glossed it over, or outright ignored this influence. Erika Doss’s new book Spiritual Moderns bravely retells the story of modern art, fraught as it may be, with a more honest look at how religion shaped it.

The book takes place amid a tectonic shift: The mainstream art world is becoming more open to spirituality and religion. In 2019, before the pandemic, Swedish mystic artist Hilma af Klint shattered the Guggenheim’s all-time attendance record, bringing in around 600,000 visitors. In 2018, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute presented a show on the Catholic imagination in fashion. In 2019 and 2021, the Brooklyn Museum and the Andy Warhol Museum jointly put on the first institutional show on Andy Warhol’s religious beliefs. The late modern art critic Clement Greenberg must be rolling in his grave. A certain anti-religious bias — once de rigeur in the art world — is fading but not yet entirely gone. It still distorts how we retell many important stories in modern art history. Erika Doss now attempts to correct the record.

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