Since the mid-19th century increasing numbers of North Americans have had access to new technologies of display that feature religious artifacts. Missionaries and museum curators played an especially important role as cultural brokers in this regard. They often worked together to set up ethnographic collections, although their respective goals differed in terms of spiritual uplift and public education. In the same period, the mediation of religious objects took place in other arenas too, such as recreations of sacred sites and spirit photography. In the 20th century, religious objects were mediated through cinema and television. In each case, the materialization and mediation of religion raises a number of significant questions, including those related to the aestheticization of sacred objects in public museums and the display of things and rituals associated with religious “others.” Since the 1980s, North Americans have engaged in debates about whether to repatriate indigenous objects and human bones to their communities of origin. There have also been significant protests related to the provocative use of Christian imagery in contemporary art. Increasingly, scholars have also begun to recognize and study how museum spaces are more malleable than previously assumed, especially as new publics access them and may even (re)use the sacred objects they house.
Craig R. Prentiss
With the slow realization that race was not a category in nature, but rather the fruit of social imagination emerging from colonialism, scholars in the late 20th century shifted their focus to the cultural elements feeding that imagination, including religion and the arts. Although most studies in the field address fairly conventional constructions of religion and the arts (two categories that, like race, have also been destabilized), some studies reveal the potential for these three categories to be co-constituting. Studies addressing religiously themed music, including spirituals, gospel, hip-hop, and a significant portion of country music, have shed light on the ways in which these genres encode and inform racial paradigms. Portraits in theater, dance, and film of ideas and practices associated with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and other social groupings have proven active sites for the production of influential, and often competing, conceptions of race. Stereotypes linking religious and racial classifications are perpetuated as well as challenged in these artistic media. Given that the racial imagination in the United States is articulated using the language of color, painting and sculpture have been instrumental in conveying vivid connections between race and religion. For instance, many paintings celebrating Christianity’s triumph over America’s indigenous people concurrently depicted white dominance over them as well. A theological system rooting skin color in divine decree, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did in its Book of Mormon, helped assure a fair-skinned and fair-haired Jesus would populate its art. The politics of Jesus’ color continued to be played out in painting and sculpture in the United States to the present day, and exemplifies the interaction of racial, religious, and artistic categories.