Reviewed by Mark Coppenger
As a new faculty member at Wheaton College in the 1970s, I was called upon, along with my colleagues in philosophy, to lead church discussions of the Francis Schaeffer film series, How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. And so, Sunday evenings at College Church and Bethany Chapel, I offered commentary on Schaeffer’s observations on a host of intellectual, political, scientific, and artistic figures. The three of us profs who were engaged in this exercise were pleased that the films (and yes, they were reel-to-reel films) offered a Christian take on the humanities – a Christ-and-Culture course – to the laity. But each of us had some bones to pick. For instance, Arthur Holmes and Steve Evans thought, respectively, that Schaeffer didn’t give a fair shake to Thomas Aquinas and Soren Kierkegaard, and I thought he shortchanged aesthetics.
My main concern was that he was turning art into philosophy, fixing on the ideology behind or within a painting or sculpture to the exclusion of the sensory features that made it arresting and compelling, whatever the message. In this connection, he resonated with H.R. Rookmaaker’s contemporaneous book, Modern Art and the Death of Culture, whose cover featured one of Francis Bacon’s 45 “screaming pope” paintings (Bacon’s point of departure being Velazquez’s painting of Pope Innocent X). By all accounts, Bacon (the 20th-century painter, not the 17th-century intellectual and statesman) was a terrible person, and his work both reflected and advanced an unholy worldview.
Of course, anyone who frequents museums of modern art, browses the commercial galleries, or reads the biographies of artists in the last century will find much cause for dismay. Many have lived bad lives, said dumb things, and produced lame or toxic work. Consequently, there are plenty of evangelicals who, with the encouragement of Rookmaaker and Schaeffer, have had little or no patience with or interest in modern art. And that’s where Anderson (an artist who teaches at Biola) and Dyrness (who teaches theology and culture at Fuller) come in. They enjoy modern art, and they want their fellow evangelicals to join them in appreciation.
Though their strategy is Rookmaakerish, they come to a contrasting conclusion. They too focus on the souls of the artists and the messages in their productions, but where Rookmaaker found dross, they find gold.
Theirs is an important new work. As distinguished philosopher of art (and other topics) Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it: “This is a book we have needed for a long time. The standard story of modern art is that it is the art of secularism and pervaded by nihilism. Anderson and Dyrness tell a very different story. Only those who refuse to read it can ever again think of modern art in the old way.”
Those of us in the aesthetics subgroup of the Evangelical Theological Society decided to devote our entire, three-hour, 2016 session to the book, fielding a panel of six, including both Anderson and Dyrness. The two authors played off James Elkins’ On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (Routledge, 2004), a book that dwells on the “spirituality” implicit on various works, and Dyness brought out Vatican II’s amiable treatment of modern art.
Pastor-scholar Robert Covolo expressed appreciation for Dyrness’s missionary perspective (wherewith one might build bridges to secular society through spiritual conversation over modern art) and lamented both the way in which Rookmaaker’s Art Needs No Justification got less play than Modern Art and the Death of Culture and the way in which beauty became an unnecessarily limiting standard for the appreciation of art. Criswell College’s Joseph Wooddell commended the book, saying, “I was stunned to find so many more rich and specific theological, religious themes and influences running through the personal biographies and works of modern artists than I had ever known” and calling it “a joy to read, extremely well-written, enormously informative.” But he was not as enthusiastic over their reading and critique of Rookmaaker, arguing that their “hermeneutic of charity” was less promising than what we might call the “hermeneutic of wariness and discernment” urged by Rookmaaker. Wooddell said that Rookmaaker was perfectly aware of the spiritual aspects of modern art, some of which he appreciated, but that he was right to say that much of it was baleful or gaseous.
My own comments ran along the following lines:
- We should give Rookmaaker his due, for secularists such a Peter Gay (Modernism: The Lure of Heresy) agree that modernism has a strong transgressive streak, designed to shock sensibilities.
- Anderson and Dyrness are right to push back against the insistence that beauty is the touchstone of all goodness in art. For example, Ivan Albright’s painting of Dorian Gray is magnificently ugly, which is the point of that strong work.
- All three, Rookmaaker, Anderson, and Dyrness, are reading too much theology/ideology into the matter, short-changing aesthetics, falling prey to Tom Wolfe’s critique in The Painted Word. What would we make of the spectator who turned to his friend after seeing a one-handed, circus catch by the New York Giant receiver, Odell Beckham, Jr., and asked, “What did he mean by that?” Similarly, some of this ideological rush to judgment, whether positive or negative, can miss the delight of artistic athleticism, a gift of God’s creation.
- The book is a treasure chest of information about the spiritual contexts and lives of artists in the modern period, e.g., Gaugin’s attendance at the parish church in the day when he painted The Vision; Maurice Denis’s devout Catholicism; Mondrian’s shift from Kuyperian Reformed faith to Theosophy; the Second Great Awakening’s influence on Frederick Law Olmstead’s park design (he, the designer of Louisville’s Cherokee Park ); the patronage that Methodist bishop Joseph Harztzell provided Henry Ossawa Tanner. (I do wish they’d picked up on one of my favorites, Edward Hopper, who enjoyed strong Baptist roots and stayed in a Baptist hostel in his Paris days.)
- I’m fascinated with the backgrounds of a range of artists across the fields of endeavor in culture, much as I’m gratified to hear the Christian witness of our Titans quarterback, Marcus Mariotta, and World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (another Nashville area resident); sad over the atheism of Orioles iron man, Cal Ripken; and impressed by the Jewish seriousness of Sandy Koufax, who delayed a World Series appearance to observe Yom Kippur. And I look for ways that their faith shows up in their manner and speech.
On the other hand, I cringe when celebrities identify with Christ and then dishonor him. As the Notre Dame priest told the basketball player, “Don’t cross yourself if you’re going to miss the free throw.” Besides, background notes can be right distracting. If I learn before seeing Chariots of Fire and Lord of the Rings that Ian Charleson (Eric Liddell) and Ian McKellen (Gandolf) are gay, it might undermine my appreciation of their excellent performances.
I think it’s good to uncover (or rehearse) competing ideologies. Certainly, Picasso was up to no good with Demoiselles D’Avignon. And it’s nice to see that Paul Gaugin was up to some good in Vision After the Sermon. But I’m more inclined to prize or dismiss what’s on the canvas, not what the artist makes of it. Manifestos are tiring and pretentious and plentiful, but I can look past a dumb one if the painting is arresting/charming. Similarly, even if it’s a great one, I won’t sign on to advance the artist’s cause just because I like the back story. (I remember when I edited the SBC LIFE and Christian film makers wanted us to promote Christy (which I found too precious) and Gordy (“The Talking Pig Who Made It Big”), which was cute. I did it, but not zealously. On the other hand, even though Jeffry Katzenberg was gay, I was pleased to commend a viewing of his DreamWorks animated film, Prince of Egypt (though it had its flaws).
- It’s interesting to see how the Judeo-Christian heritage is so much at play in Western Art. But I’m reluctant to baptize something because we can find Christian connections. I think of Mardi Gras, in which I once marched as part of military unit. Immersed in the debauchery of Bourbon Street, with drunks vomiting and relieving themselves in the side alleys, girls flashing for beads, and hawkers urging us to come inside to view ecdysiasts and drink “Hurricanes,” I would have been unimpressed by an apologist pointing out the religious roots “Fat Tuesday.”
- While I’m pleased to see that some of the painters had spiritual and even somewhat Christian interests, I think the book offers material for another work we might call “Modern Art and the Death of Orthodoxy.” For Anderson and Dyrness invite us to take heart at the fact that a range of manifestly lost men with cockeyed convictions let religious culture insinuate itself into their art. (Of course, I can appreciate these artists’ plight, in that the religion against which they played was often apostate, counterfeit, dead, and toxic. How would they have known what the real thing was, say in 18th-century France?)
Anderson and Dyrness [picking up on Charles Taylor’s work] say, “Modern art is not principally an art of unbelief; it is an art of fragilized belief. It is an art of doubt and searching and, above all, of heightened sensitivity to the contingencies of modern secularity.” This in generous, for it seems to mean you could say the same about the “work” of Judas, Demas, Simon Magus, and the rich young ruler?
Elsewhere we read, “The wager of this book is that ‘what is taken to be worth saying’ about modern art includes discussion of its religious influences and its theological content and implications.” So it’s fair to ask what evangelical influences issued positively in modern art. We know that Rauschenberg ran away from church upbringing? Did anyone run by means of theirs? If not, why not?
We read appreciatively of artists who “often displayed the persistent influence of . . . sacramental imagination” and were “haunted by the sacred,” but wouldn’t that also be true of a Moloch muralist?
- Indeed, our culture is in a mess, but Rookmaaker’s (and through warm citation, Anderson’s and Dyrness’s) critique of the “bourgeois” character of “North Atlantic Christianity” leaves something to be desired. They fault our culture’s “general preoccupations with money, social status, security, technology, sentimentality, rationalism, moralism and sexuality” as if other peoples of the world are relatively indifferent to these interests. And what about us ETS conferees? Are we shameful for appreciating our travel budgets, professorships, airport police protection, smart phones, MacBooks, scrapbooks, learned discourse, norms of decency, and gendered vitality? Or does he mean we should mourn our failure to be sacrificial Nate Saints and Jim Elliots? If the latter, I agree, but even those heroes were right keen on their airplane and radios.
And how shall we take their celebration of Dada’s “motif of the vulnerable human person threatened by (and protesting against) the cool violence of mechanical modernity?” Are we to understand that ox-carts are better than cars? What lies behind this clichéd observation?
In other words, I’m not so impressed with the moral critique that modern art has raised and thus less inclined to deem Picasso a prophet and theologian against “Ba’al,” when he worships an “Ashterah” of his own. And I’m impatient with the artistes of Chelsea and Montmartre who are all too ready to slam industrialists and prudes, while giving a pass (if not outright accolades) to murderous Palestinians and a sexually-abusive Roman Polanski. Indeed, these “prophetic” and “courageous” voices knew that they’d gain far more caché and cash ridiculing an honorable Jerry Falwell than a dishonorable Larry Flynt.
I recall Oscar Wilde’s quote, regarding Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” I’ve gotten that same feeling when viewing, for instance, the highly-touted, heavily-remunerated, and reverentially-approached Minimalist installations of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, including strings of light bulbs, the artistry of which is surpassed in my neighborhood around Christmas.
The other day, I was reading a Rachael McCampbell article (“A Way to Look at Abstract Art”) in the January 2017 issue Nashville Arts magazine. She wrote,
I equate the difference between representational and abstract art to country versus classical music. With country, you can connect to a story and music, but with classical, it’s only the music. Without words, how do you know what the composer is trying to express? Notwithstanding research into the artist’s intentions, you simply take the music in on a visceral level and feel it. This is a good approach to abstract art as well – only later getting more analytical.
It reminded me of a choice scene in the movie Blues Brothers. It takes place in Bob’s Country Bunker, where Joliet Jake (John Belushi) asks the barmaid Claire what kind of music they play there. She assures him they have “both kinds,” i.e., “country and western.” Unfortunately, Evangelicals can fall into something of the same parochial trap, saying they like both kinds of representational art, portrait and landscape, with indifference or hostility to abstract modern art. I’m glad that Anderson and Dyrness sought to broaden our appreciation. But I wish they’d spent more time on the aesthetical and less on the biographical and metaphysical.
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Buy the books
Modern Art and the Life of Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism