As a religiously literate culture-watcher, I often keep an eye out for religious phrases as they are bandied about in titles and reviews in order to see just how they are being used in contemporary culture. It isn’t that I am either defensive or offensive, that is, waiting to pounce on someone for an incorrect or sacrilegious usage, like those self-appointed religious police we often see at work. I’m just interested in what the culture makes of religion, especially Christianity, whether for good or for ill. Take, for instance, a current set of wordplays now being tossed in the air of Manhattan art circles. The effect of it is almost dialogic or conversational, perhaps even musical. I’d like to hear how others interpret it.
Young artists only are on exhibit at the New Museum (until June 14), a show meant to compete with the longstanding Whitney biennial. To convey the youthfulness of this show in one stroke, the organizers named it: “The Generational: Younger Than Jesus.” The assumption is that our culture at large—or at least the devotees of the New York art scene—know how old Jesus lived to be. It is a steeped-in-Western-culture way of informing the public that all the artists in the show are 33 years of age or younger. Calling it an international youth fest or emphasizing the stars of tomorrow’s art scene were apparently deemed to have less appeal than evoking the name of Jesus, however obliquely, or, as one reviewer put it, flippantly. That bit of Christian trivia is assumed. If someone didn’t actually know the fact, however, the title (and the explanation) transmits it to the uninformed.
Not only that. Since the works on view at the New Museum are not expressly religious or Christian in content or style, the insertion of Jesus’ name in the title must have been considered a draw. Recall the contentious history of contemporary art and religious protesters, who have, for all their scorn, ensured that enormous crowds saw the works on show. From the organizers’ viewpoint, the name of Jesus may be used as an attraction.
The story doesn’t end there, however. An exhibition across the street from the New Museum at the BLT Gallery, running concurrently, has also come up with a religious allusion and a reference to the generation of the artists on view. “Wiser than God,” features octogenarian artists like Lucian Freud, Ellsworth Kelly and Louise Bourgeois (all born before 1927) in a show organized by Adrian Dannatt. The weighty reputations almost cast an aspersion on the whippersnappers—none a household name—being shown across the street.
The witticisms haven’t stopped. Just the other day, I saw that the National Academy Museum, which with Artcritical.com hosts regular public forums on contemporary art exhibitions in the city, has called its May 22 Review Panel, “Younger Than Pontius Pilate.” The panelists will discuss the “Younger than Jesus” exhibit—which explains the allusion—but only somewhat. For who knows, exactly, how old Pontius Pilate was? Here the expectation of precise knowledge on the viewer’s part has changed, though the title does assume that one understands the association of Pilate with Jesus at the end of his life. Without that, one would completely miss the humor.
I think that none of these titles is intended to make fun of Jesus, of Christianity, or even of the Roman bureaucrat who washed his hands of responsibility for Jesus’ fate. But all evince that Christianity is part of the warp and woof of our culture—and for that reason—can be cited even in jest.
Note: An emphasis on age marks two other current exhibitions in Manhattan—the Metropolitan Art Museum’s “The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984,” which includes U.S. artists from the Baby Boom generation, and the “Mosqueteros,” which feature the works of Picasso as an octagenerian on view at the Gagosian. If the curator has wanted to continue the biblical allusion, he might have called it, “Older than Methuselah.”
Karen Sue Smith