Making God: Incarnation and Somatic Piety in the Art of Kiki Smith

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Wilkerson, Margaret Randolph
Withers, Josephine
This dissertation examines the ways in which the art of Kiki Smith (b. 1954) implements traditional Catholic material culture and ritual through its propensity, in both subject and materiality, to incarnate spiritual ideas and encourage somatic responses to it. It also considers the ways in which Smith's ambivalent attitudes towards Catholicism inform her work. Born and raised a Catholic, but no longer practicing, Smith values the material imaging of spiritual conditions, and her myriad assessments of the human form affirm her commitment to expressing sacred experience through physical means. However, while embracing Catholicism's incarnational imagination, as particularly manifest in medieval art, Smith also disputes the present-day Church's marked opposition to art that mingles the sacred and profane. The majority of scholarship has positioned Smith's body-based art within the context of the heightening politicization of the American art scene during the late twentieth-century, when arguments over the body and its ideological boundaries dominated political, social, and cultural discourses. While critical to understanding Smith's work and its influences, viewing it from a vantage of body politics and/or feminism alone drastically limits the scope of her work, obscuring the nuanced findings that can be realized when viewing such issues and their dynamic intersections within a framework of spiritual inquiry. Furthermore, this examination of the spiritual significance of Smith's art addresses a significant lacuna in American art scholarship, as scholars recognize the need for further study in the field of the visual culture of American religions. While Smith's work has caught the attention of a wide and far-reaching audience of art critics and scholars, few have thoroughly examined its spiritual dimensions, nor does the literature seriously consider how Smith's work constitutes American religious practice and experience. In articulating the interrelations between a selection of works from Smith's oeuvre and a series of historical and ideological frames, all of which negotiate the recent burgeoning of interest in contemporary art and religion in America and the ensuing debate over art's ownership and public funding, this study develops a fuller, more critical, and more theoretically-driven account of Smith's art production than has previously been assessed.