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.”  

[21:42] Notions of the sublime Otherness of God tends to survive somewhat through the four models, but religious particularity does not.

[21:56] “Religion might be reappearing in contemporary artworks, but until there are compelling critical methods for accounting for it, its appearance will remain problematized—does remain problematized.”

[22:31] “The problem is not simply a lack of religiously potent artworks but the lack of compelling religiously potent interpretations of artworks.”

[22:45] What might it mean for religion to be returning to the art discourse?

“What does it look like for religion to provide the primary questions, concerns, and points of reference for a critical engagement with contemporary art?”

[23:24] The most prominent return has been through the field of visual cultural studies, as seen in the work of Sally Promey and David Morgan. This field takes religion seriously as a social and/or political force, as something that produces objects, but not as opinions or positions.

[24:39] The return of religion to art opens an additional axis of meaning—the theological axis.

[26:08] Why would we want to open contemporary art discourse onto the theological horizon? Because it can provide interpretive thickness. “Religious criticism must be able to open an artwork into compelling and warranted interpretations that would otherwise be inaccessible.” It’s not about imposing a theological perspective but about affirming that the work is already in some way theologically significant.

[27:26] Danger: the theological question immediately cascades into theological particularities, which are divisive. But such problems are intrinsic to all criticism:

Baudelaire believed that “to justify its existence, criticism should be partial, passionate, and political—that is to say, written from an exclusive point of view, but a point of view that opens up the widest horizons.” As far as I’m concerned, that well articulates the goal of theologically oriented criticism: to engage artworks from particular, even idiosyncratic, sensitivities and points of view for the sake of opening up wider and thicker interpretations of the work.

[28:41] Situations in which theologically informed criticism may or may not be desirable:

  1. Artwork that makes overt religious references
    • It doesn’t matter whether the artist is religious or not; the work’s theologically charged subject matter automatically places it on some theological horizon.
    • [30:20] Example of the failure of art discourse to adequately interpret a theologically laden work: Pentecost by Tim Hawkinson, 1999. Reviews provided no more than a half-sentence explanation of the biblical reference in the title, such as “named for the Bible story in which the twelve apostles spoke in tongues.” Its theological substance was ignored almost entirely. Its meaning has been missed because critics have been unable or unwilling to see the theological content of the work.
    • Major artists who have made work specifically laced with religious subject matter: Francis Alÿs, Robert Gober, Jan Fabre, Ann Hamilton, Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Anselm Kiefer, Wolfgang Laib, Shirin Neshat, Kiki Smith, Bill Viola → [34:30] “The absence of theologically informed criticism with regards to these theologically informed artworks results in truncated understandings of the work.”
  2. Artwork of whatever subject matter made by a person of religious faith
    • While we shouldn’t put all the weight of interpretation on the artist’s intentions, we also shouldn’t dismiss them entirely.
    • Los Angeles curator Howard Fox seems to actively restrain Hawkinson’s work from being theologically specific (even though Hawkinson is a professing Christian), as can be seen in this excerpt from one of his essays: [36:15] “Though Hawkinson frequently makes reference to Christian themes, his art is not sectarian or denominational. It is a secular expression of spirituality. His art openly courts a consideration of metaphysical and spiritual issues that might apply to any system of beliefs and that especially resonate with the basic tenets of Christianity.” → This approach runs the risk of substantially evacuating the work. It relinquishes the conceptual integrity of the work to such an extent that there’s not much left to work with.
    • We don’t despecify political themes in, for example, Kara Walker’s work, saying that it could apply to any system of political belief.
  3. Artwork that deals with subjects of interest to a theological tradition—e.g., the human condition, the problem of evil, etc.
  4. Any and every artwork

[40:36] Three ways forward

  1. We need deeper, more careful engagements with twentieth-century art history.
    • [41:06] “Far too often Christians have been dismissive of the elitism and secularity of the world of art writing without ever really understanding the problems and impasses that have plagued the relationship between religion and art. This simply isn’t helpful.”
    • Twentieth-century art history is a field rich to Christian thinking. It stands to be renarrated, reclaimed, in some significant ways.
    • 2010: Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA) founded
  2. We need deeper, more careful engagements with the artworks themselves.
    • [43:38] “Along with C. S. Lewis, I affirm that excellent criticism is criticism that enlarges us and enlarges our being. For such enlargement to be possible, we must, as Lewis says, ‘not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them its vehicles. We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. We must make room for [the subject matter of whatever we’re reading]. . . . The first demand any art makes on us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking yourself first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)’”
    • Good art criticism demands a genuine and open encounter with the work. Too much theological criticism has been really overdetermined: we have a predetermined agenda, and we scan the field of art looking for pieces we can unload the agenda on.
  3. We need deeper and more careful theological thinking.
    • Because art and theology are typically culturally estranged wings of the academy, they haven’t understood each other.

What is ultimately needed are excellent examples of theologically rich art criticism.

[48:00] Q&A

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