Jonathan Anderson on the (in)visibility of theology in contemporary art criticism

Jonathan A. Anderson is an associate professor of art at Biola University, an interdenominational Christian university in southern California. In addition to being a practicing artist, he researches and writes on modern and contemporary art criticism, especially its relationship to theology. Along with William Dyrness, he has written the first book in InterVarsity Press’s new Studies in Theology and the Arts series: Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism.

Below is a video of Anderson presenting a paper titled “The (In)visibility of Theology in Contemporary Art Criticism” at the 2012 conference Christian Scholarship in the Twenty-First Century: Prospects and Perils, sponsored by Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought. In it he examines the problematic absence of theologically informed criticism from contemporary art discourse and posits what is (and is not) needed to redress the problem. He very clearly articulates some of my frustrations with the contemporary art world, giving lots of examples and helpful breakdowns as well as advice for Christians writing about art.

On this blog I write primarily for nonscholars, as well as for the church, not the art world (though I’m thrilled if the art world wants to listen in!). So while I do very much approach art theologically, I know I’m not exactly the voice Anderson is looking for; furthermore, I cover a limited range of art here, restricting myself, for the most part, to Anderson’s first category of “religious” art, below.

Still, I share Anderson’s desire to see a new method of criticism develop, one that takes religious belief seriously instead of sweeping it under the rug. And I try, from my own little corner, to model said method—to “work productively in the rift.”

Here’s the presentation, followed by some highlights.

His starting point is October founder Rosalind Krauss’s pronouncement, in 1979, of an “absolute rift” between art and religion. He elaborates:

The textbooks of twentieth-century art history, theory, and criticism, as well as major museum collections, readily testify to the fact that the institutional art world regards Christianity as having made negligible contributions to the fine arts during the twentieth century, and unfortunately that’s a judgment I largely agree with. But the reverse is also true: for the most part, the church has little regard for the canon of twentieth-century art as having made contributions to the development and deepening of Christian thought. For most of the last century, the worlds of contemporary art theory and Christian theology developed into distinct cultural configurations that have been remarkably disengaged from each other, often to the point of mutual unintelligibility.

The twenty-first century has seen a return of religion to art, Anderson says, but it has been a return riddled with problems. His agenda here is to (1) articulate where the primary problem in the rift lies, (2) offer an argument for how we might think of the return of religion to the art discourse, and (3) suggest ways in which Christians can work productively in the rift.

[03:13] Where does the rift between art and religion lie?

[04:28] In his landmark book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, James Elkins says the rift exists not in the art itself but in the academic writing about art.

[05:43] Art Since 1900 identifies and articulates the four primary critical methods that have framed the modern and contemporary art discourse: psychoanalysis, social art history, formalism and structuralism, and poststructuralism and deconstruction. (“Theology” is not one of them.)

[18:48] Summarizing Elkins: “Religious content is unable to survive the suspicious interpretative operations of avant-garde theory and criticism, which relentlessly reads behind and beneath the subject matter and pictorial composition of an artwork.”   Continue reading “Jonathan Anderson on the (in)visibility of theology in contemporary art criticism”

Roundup: Alabaster Gospels, the lone cathedral-builder, Pacheco at Chichester, lamenting racial injustice

Alabaster page spread

^^ New Gospel-book set promotes aesthetic reading experience: Photographer Bryan Chung and designer Brian Chung, both campus ministers (and no relation), believe that beauty is fundamental to understanding who God is. So they’ve teamed up for project Alabaster: a brand-new design of the holy Gospels, in four volumes, integrated with contemplative photographs. They’ve already well exceeded their funding goal on Kickstarter, which means there’s already a lot of interest in having Bible reading be a visual experience—and at a 7½ × 9½ trim, the books are definitely wieldy, meant to be regularly handled and read! If you want a guaranteed copy, be sure to back the project on Kickstarter, as the number of names in the system will determine the size of the print order. You have until October 7; the publication month is April 2017. This project aligns so well with my mission here at Art & Theology, and I’m thrilled to see it in the works.

^^ 90-year-old man spends lifetime building a cathedral by hand: From Great Big Story: “For 53 years, Justo Gallego has been building a cathedral by hand on the outskirts of Madrid almost entirely by himself. Gallego has no formal architecture or construction training, but that hasn’t stopped him from toiling on this herculean task. At 90 years old, Gallego knows that he will not be able to finish the project in his lifetime. But he keeps at it anyway, day after day, driven by his faith.”

Shadows of the Wanderer by Ana Maria Pacheco
Ana Maria Pacheco (Brazilian, 1943–), Shadows of the Wanderer, 2008. Polychromed wood sculpture, 260 × 390 × 605 cm. Installation view at Norwich Cathedral, 2010, via Pratt Contemporary Art.

^^ Art installation at Chichester Cathedral speaks to the refugee experience: Shadows of the Wanderer by Brazilian-born artist Ana Maria Pacheco is on display in the north transept of Chichester Cathedral through November 14. A multipiece figurative sculpture in polychromed wood, it has as its centerpiece a young man carrying an elderly man on his back—a reference to the Aeneid’s Aeneas carrying his lame father out of the ruins of Troy. The cathedral has organized events around the installation, including a lecture by Christopher Wintle on the representation of suffering in Pacheco’s art (audio here, transcript here); a series of workshops for schools and colleges exploring the refugee experience, developed in partnership with Amnesty International; a debate titled “Refugees: Problem or Gift?”; an interview with the artist; and a woodcarving workshop. The photo above is an installation view from 2010 inside Norwich Cathedral; to see photos of the work in its current location at Chichester, click here.

Addressing racial injustice as a church: Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship has compiled an excellent list of resources for churches looking for ways to address racial tensions in America with an eye toward healing, including a prayer service of lament by Paul Burkhart; two litanies by Fran Pratt; a list of relevant hymns, curated by the Hymn Society; an article by Sandra Van Opstal, “Reconciling Witness And Worship: Six Ways To Begin”; and materials from the 2016 Reconciliation and Justice Network conference. I’d like to add to it the lecture series “Race and the Church,” especially Jemar Tisby’s “Understanding the Heart Cry of #BlackLivesMatter,” which I live-streamed with my church back in July. (It definitely sparked fruitful conversation.) For common objections to the movement, like “What about black-on-black crime?” and “Don’t #AllLivesMatter?,” he refers listeners to the video below, produced by MTV.

SONG: “Light a Candle”: Also on Neeley’s website I found a video performance of the song “Light a Candle” by Mary Louise Bringle (words) and Lori True (music). It’s sung here, to a ukulele accompaniment, by Becky Gaunt, director of music and liturgy at St. Jude of the Lake Catholic Church in Mahtomedi, Montana.

She posted it on her Facebook page in July along with this note:

We cannot continue to let language divide us. We cannot continue to let language distract us from loving one another. We cannot continue to let words like “black lives matter” or “all lives matter” cause us to keep missing the point!

I’m sad and tired. And you probably are too. But now is NOT the time to be neutral! The Sun may be shining outside, but we need to come together and light a candle in this oppressive darkness. This beautiful song by Lori True (amazing text by Mary Louise Bringle) is my prayer right now. I invite you to pray this with me.

Boy with a Candle by Gerard Sekoto
Gerard Sekoto (South African, 1913–1993), Boy with a Candle, 1943. Oil on canvas, 46.2 × 36 cm.

“When the heart is hard and parched up . . .”

Thy Kingdom Come by Jyoti Sahi
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Thy Kingdom Come. Oil on canvas.

When the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a shower of mercy.

When grace is lost from life, come with a burst of song.

When tumultuous work raises its din on all sides, shutting me out from beyond, come to me, my lord of silence, with thy peace and rest.

When my beggarly heart sits crouched, shut up in a corner, break open the door, my king, and come with the ceremony of a king.

When desire blinds the mind with delusion and dust, O thou holy one, thou wakeful one, come with thy light and thy thunder.

This untitled poem is no. 39 from the collection Gitanjali (Song Offerings) by Rabindranath Tagore. Originally written and published in Bengali in 1910, it was translated into English by Tagore himself in 1912, along with other poems of his from various sources, and published by the India Society of London with an introduction by W. B. Yeats. For this volume he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—the first non-European to receive such a distinction.

Here the speaker entreats God to break into his life, bestowing divine gifts: mercy, like rainwater, to moisten his dry heart; grace, like a song, to lift his spirit; and peace and rest to counteract the overwhelm of daily work. He asks God to come like a king and lavish his riches on all us spiritually impoverished, and like thunder and lightning, to jolt us awake from our sin and delusion. Each line of the poem works by contrast: man in his neediness, and the need-meeting God.

Tagore’s poetry bears Hindu influence but has wide cross-religious appeal and has inspired numerous musical settings in his native India and abroad. The composition below (a setting of “When the heart is hard and parched up”) is by the famous Indian classical singer and composer Jagjit Singh.

In 2010 American composer Joan Szymko wrote A Burst of Song, a short three-movement choral cycle that sets three poems from the English Gitanjali. Movement 1, “A Shower of Mercy,” excerpts our familiar text. Listen to a performance below (the first movement goes through 1:56) by Portland University’s Man Choir and its female choir, Vox Femina:

(To follow along with the words or to purchase scores, go to http://www.joanszymko.com/works/ind/burst-song-3-mvts.)

Roundup: Bad-news blessing, the transfiguration of Marilyn Monroe, Christian speculative fiction anthology, European sacred art tour

BLESSING: “Blessing for Getting the News” by Jan L. Richardson: August brought two devastating pieces of news to me; I wasn’t in the line of direct impact, but I hurt for the two families who were. A blessing by artist-author Jan L. Richardson came at just the right time. Here’s an excerpt:

. . . when
the news comes,
may it be attended
by every grace,
including the ones
you will not be able
to see now.

When the news comes,
may there be hands
to enfold and bless,
even when
you cannot receive
their blessing now.

When the news comes,
may the humming
in your head
give way to song,
even if it will be
long and long
before you can
hear it,

before you can
comprehend the love
that latched onto you
in the rending—
the love that bound itself to you
even as it began its leaving
and has never
let you go.

Read more, and view original accompanying artwork, at http://paintedprayerbook.com.

ESSAY: “Transfiguring Gold: Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe” by James Romaine: In his latest visual meditation for ArtWay, art historian James Romaine writes on external versus essential beauty, and the Orthodox aesthetic, in one of Warhol’s most famous paintings. “A revelation of uncreated and transfiguring light” in the icon tradition, the use of gold, Romaine posits, was a theological choice on Warhol’s part, one influenced by his Byzantine Catholic faith. Warhol drew on celebrity imagery to encourage a transformation in viewers from material sight to metaphysical vision. This essay is adapted from a more extensive one titled “The Transfiguration of the Soup Can,” published in Beauty and the Beautiful in Eastern Christian Culture and linked to here with the author’s permission.

Gold Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987), Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962. Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 211.4 × 144.7 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

BOOK: Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith, edited by Donald Crankshaw and Kristin Janz: Last week the husband and wife team of Donald Crankshaw and Kristin Janz published an anthology of science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories that engage with Christianity. It features twenty of the 450-plus submissions they received, all but four of which are published here for the first time. Describing their criteria for selection, Crankshaw writes in the introduction, “We wanted stories that were as untidy and as theologically imprecise as the Bible itself.” The result is a collection of diverse voices and approaches, exploring such topics as sin, forgiveness, the afterlife, the soul, mission, miracles, and supernatural agents. To read excerpts from the book, visit www.mysterionanthology.com.

Mysterion cover

TOUR: “Reformanda 2017: Sacred Arts Today, Catholic and Protestant”: The Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art and Spirituality, founded by the Community of Jesus in Massachusetts, has organized a four-leg European tour for next May 10–30 that will explore the face of sacred art from the last five hundred years since the Reformation. With stops in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, the itinerary includes visits to churches and contemporary art exhibitions, symposium lectures and discussions led by Msgr. Timothy Verdon, and Gloriae Dei Cantores choral concerts. Registration is now open.

Reformanda Tour Map