Jesus, Marilyn, and Britney: Relationships between Religion and Celebrity CultureNina Yuchi (BFA GD 2021)
“We live in a world that is profoundly affected by the concept of God.”
—John Baldessari and Meg Cranston, from exhibition catalogue 100 Artists See God
Kian Motamed-Zaman (BFA GD 2021), Designer Jesus, 2016, digital photograph.
The canon of beautiful art has been ingrained in my mind as that of Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael, and the other so-called masters of the High Renaissance. Undoubtedly, their work is the product of unimaginable talent, and few can parallel their technique. I always told myself their works were masterpieces because of the intensely high-contrast lighting or other evidence of great technical skill. I remained blissfully ignorant of the historical context that played an important role in how these artists were received and revered. In short, as I’ve come to learn, the church, which commissioned their work, and the broader religious society revered these artists for depicting biblical subjects, and even saw them as having a heightened connection with God.
The “masters” work typically emphasized the aesthetic beauty of religious figures. Michelangelo sculpted his David’s physique like that of a runway model, and almost every Madonna painting depicted her with lovely, soft, and feminine facial features. Beyond physical ideals, religious art during the High Renaissance also portrayed subjective beauty as representing justice, kindness, and other honorable values. Art was a channel, a translation device, through which followers worshipped their icons.
Recently, I couldn’t shake a feeling of discomfort whenever I thought about religious art, despite my personal history with Christianity and my interest in religious art. Isn’t it odd that these artists spent basically their entire lives dedicating their artistic practice to painting the same religious icons and the same Bible stories over and over again? Today, according to contemporary art’s values, it seems strange and unnecessary to dedicate oneself to being an artistic vessel for someone else’s story—especially someone the artist doesn’t even know—instead of making work about the self.
While scrolling through my Instagram Explore page, I began to feel a similar discomfort while looking at images of celebrity-fueled pop culture. I don’t know why Ariana Grande fan art keeps showing up on my feed lately, but the never-ending feed of her drawn over and over again makes me wonder the exact same thing: How could these people dedicate hours of their time to just drawing Ari when they don’t even know her? Why is she considered important enough to immortalize through art and social media? (This isn’t an attack; don’t @ me, Arianators.) The similarities between religious art and celebrity/pop/fan art—whatever you decide to call it—are uncanny. Followers of a religion look to their deity for affirmation, inspiration, or empowerment just as the public looks to celebrities, brands, and other icons. Remember when velvet chokers started trending again a few years ago because all the stars on the red carpet wore them, or when the Nike Air Vapormax sold out in one minute because G-Dragon promoted it on his social media? Honestly, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that, to some, a Vogue article titled “Kendall Jenner’s 10-Step Nightly Beauty Routine” is as divine as the Ten Commandments. Even the vocabulary of consumerist pop culture—phrases such as “holy grail products” or “cult classics”—suggests a religious experience. Labeling Cosmopolitan magazine “the Bible” (as Elle Woods does in Legally Blonde) elevates the status of this everyday item and its pages endorse products by signalling a closeness to the celebrities who promote them. Consumers think, reverentially, if my favorite actor uses this shampoo, I can be as attractive as them by also using the shampoo.
Clearly, today’s celebrities are placed on a pedestal and idolized in the same way that religious icons are. But this isn’t a new concept. Celebrities, then and now, are not exactly unwitting about this perception. They are acutely aware of how they function in a consumerist pop culture. Last year, the Met Gala’s exhibition theme was “Heavenly Bodies.” Attending celebrities dressed up accordingly, though some took it to such an extreme that religious spectators spoke up in outrage. Rihanna wore a mitre, which is traditionally worn by the pope, and Lana Del Ray looked strikingly similar to Our Lady of Sorrows—complete with seven daggers piercing a heart brooch.
During the 1960s, American and British Pop Art explicitly demonstrated the intense nature of celebrity worship and consumerism in pop culture by appropriating images of the biggest celebrities. Andy Warhol depicted real celebrities—Marilyn Monroe and Jackie O—but he also said, famously, “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes, ”a statement that now holds true, given the sometimes arbitrary importance the public places onto ordinary people, raising them to the level of a god. Later, John Waters, heavily influenced by mass media, anointed well-known figures Ann-Margret and Charles Manson in his photo stills. His work perhaps remanufactured the celebrities’ personalities, either consecrating their role in society or degrading them as objects. Today, Kehinde Wiley’s paintings travel around the world for viewers to see marginalized identities portrayed with the same status as noble religious icons. Further afield, images of “Godney” (God Britney Spears) float around the web, being framed for exhibitions (such as the Pop Art! exhibit in the 21c Museum Hotel chain) and the internet makes it easy to perpetuate the absurdity of a group of old men falling to their knees at Britney’s ~holy~ feet.
Anneliz Reveles (BFA Industrial Design 2021), La Santísima, 2017, wax, collage, and acrylic paint on Bristol (mixed media), 3 ½ x 7 x 3 inches.
Even RISD students are exploring these themes in their work, whether satirizing religion or exalting their own role models. In Designer Jesus Kian Motamed-Zaman (BFA GD 2021) compares the holy portrayal of designer brands to Christianity by dressing Jesus in Gucci and Hermès while his followers can only gape in admiration at his expensive taste. In La Santísima Anneliz Reveles (BFA ID 2021) examines her personal connection with Bratz Dolls through her ofrenda (Mexican shrine). The Bratz doll bridged the gap between her American heritage and her Catholic, Mexican upbringing. Elevating the doll’s status to that of a goddess worthy of an ofrenda led Anneliz to better appreciate her culture.
Kian Motamed-Zaman (BFA Graphic Design 2021), Designer Jesus, 2016, digital photograph.
Though I haven’t made celebrity or religious art, I’m a consumer of mass media like most people. I keep up with the Kardashians as a guilty pleasure, go on way too many Netflix binges, and listen to playlists loaded with repetitive bubblegum pop. Through simple social media interactions or television viewership, my consumerist habits automatically contribute to celebrity worship culture and give attention to ordinary people placed on a pedestal. So, my personal connection with this mass media culture may not be from an artist or creator’s perspective, but by observing these overlaps across art’s history I’ve become acutely aware of all the connections between religious icons and today’s celebrities—and my own place in perpetuating celebrity-worshipping behavior.
Nina Yuchi is trying to wear more hats.