Why Cardinal Pell was wrong about the Blake Prize

Rapture, by Angelica MesitiOnce again the judges of the Blake Prize for Religious Art have been innovative and courted controversy. In announcing the 2009 winner last Thursday evening, they steered away from traditional art and, for the first time, awarded the prize to a new media work, a piece of video art.

Entitled Rapture (silent anthem), the ten minute video is by Sydney artist Angelica Mesiti. It depicts in slow motion, and without sound, the ecstatic faces of youth enraptured by music and the experience of a big concert (click image to view fill video). It was shot at the Big Day Out earlier this year in Sydney, with the camera placed beneath the stage looking back into the crowd.

In the judges' comments about the video, they 'praised it for its beauty, emotional intensity and technical virtuousity. An enigmatic work that operates on many levels, Rapture depicts the joy of being alive while also hinting at the darker aspects of religious emotion.'

At the opening of this year's Blake exhibition, I was thrilled to hear that this luminous, thoughtful, and highly accomplished work had won. But I have to confess to some biases. First, I am a member of the Blake Society, which makes me an enthusiastic supporter of the Blake Prize.

Second, for many years I made documentaries for television. While my works were never in the realm of high art, they gave me a love of video as a medium, and an awareness of its possibilities for artistic expression. For some years I have been hoping that a video artwork would win the Blake, and now it's happened.

And third, one of the documentaries I made a few years ago for the Compass strand, called Chasing the Blake, took me behind the scenes of the Blake Prize. (The documentary and a transcript are available on the Compass website.) It followed four artists through preparation and execution of their works, entry into the prize, judging, and the tension of the big night announcing the winner.

Also it looked at the history of the Blake Prize, and the passion, controversy and questions that have always swirled around it. Just what is religion, and what is religious art anyway? Is art that challenges religious orthodoxies, that is 'blasphemous', appropriate for the prize?

Once again this year, in the lead-up to the announcement of the prize, some church leaders weighed in on these questions. Catholic Cardinal George Pell and Anglican Bishop Rob Forsythe were quoted as criticising some of this year's finalist works as 'gross', 'anti-religious', 'lacking in depth', and reflecting 'our confusion about what is religious or spiritual'.

For those administering the prize, these questions came to a head, and were resolved way back in the early 1960s. There was an outcry over the winner of the prize in 1961, Stanislaus Rapotec's abstract work entitled Meditating on Good Friday.

After the fracas, some members of the Blake Society wanted to make a criterion of the prize that entries had to contain traditional religious iconography. This led to heated debate over the next few years and, thankfully, by 1963 it was decided it would be left to the artist to determine whether their work was religious.

This has allowed the Blake Prize to be very broad, embracing works that are traditional, comforting and devotional, as well as art that is prickly, cheeky, and iconoclastic.

Chair of the Blake Society, Rod Pattenden, argued in the Compass documentary that good art is often disturbing: 'Artists have a role in a culture perhaps to alarm us, to frighten us, to make us aware of things which we've become too comfortable with, and put aside into safe boxes.'

Also, spiritual and religious experience is not confined within the walls of churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. This year's winner of the Blake Prize attests to this.

The artist explained the inspiration for her work in last Friday's Australian: 'I was just interested in these notions of worship and ecstasy and transcendence and where they're actually found in a contemporary setting. I guess the work is just suggesting that extreme experiences, where one is lost in the moment, can happen outside of sanctioned religious spaces. It can happen anywhere, like a rock concert.'

Amen to that, and long may the Blake Prize allow exploration, questioning and expression of the religious impulse wherever it occurs.

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Blake Prize for Religious Art, Rapture, Angelica Mesiti



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Existing comments

The sculptor of the great work of art and religious icon we know as The Pieta was, in his day, dubbed "the inventor of obscenity". It is part and parcel of the artist's gift to see and be being ahead of her or his time.
Michele Madigan Somerville | 11 September 2009

"by 1963 it was decided it would be left to the artist to determine whether their (sic) work was religious."

What a cop out!

Pope Benedict as a religious and a spiritual leader has warned against moral, philosophical and theological relativism. Cardinal Pell has followed him.

Yet William Blake has written "I know that this world is a world of Imagination and Vision. I see everything I paint in this world but everybody does not see alike. To the eye of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun."

So Cardinal Pell is quite entitled to say that the Blake judges are Misers.
Uncle Pat | 11 September 2009

As an entrant in the Blake Prize I can see that the Blake Prize has evolved into a forum that embraces the secular and spiritual but is it in danger of losing its way? To paraphrase John Carroll, author of the existential Christ - the west has entered into a post church era - and we seek our answers in the everyday. Its new altars are - at home, at work, in sport - and in nature and (dare I say, rock concerts). He claims that we are in all the more need of a teacher. He claims that the churches have failed at "midrash" - the art of reworking stories so to bring them up to date.

Carroll says that Jesus is at the core of "Western Dreaming" and that his presence is vital to our civilisation and its individuals. If we don't have forums that encourage religious art and in particular, "Christian Art", where will the "artistic midrash" take place and will the decline of western culture be a foregone conclusion? We need to have high profile "Christian Art" competitions/exhibitions if the Blake fails to separate the "religious" and "spiritual".
Roslyn Beer | 11 September 2009

For me the problem would lie in the definition of religion. For me that definition is 'drawing myself closer to God.' Given that intention and from the very small section of the clip I have seen, this piece fits, and one would not need to be Christian for that to happen. The medium and the place it was filmed is beside the point.
Margaret McDonald | 11 September 2009

I note with interest the continuing collocation of spiritual/religious in this dialogue, everywhere it takes place. Whilst the spiritual ought always a part of the religious, the reverse may not be the case. Beautiful, rapt teenagers in a collective, uplifting, numinous, adolescent experience is spiritual. But religious? Is there not something more - and I don't mean a building or a book!!
Michelle O'Connor | 16 September 2009


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