Roundup: Frederick Buechner on the arts, contemporary art as spiritual discipline, and more

SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: September 2022 by Victoria Emily Jones: This month’s thirty-song lineup includes a tango, a Pentecostal praise song, a playful setting of the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A number one, an Americana lament for hard times, a Negro spiritual on sax, Christina Rossetti, guitar evangelist Mother McCollum with a unique Jesus metaphor (!), a 9/11-inspired interfaith prayer that I will write about in a separate post, and songs in Turkish (“Kutsal, Kutsal, Kutsal Allah” = Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God) and Sepedi (“Modimo re boka wena” = God, we praise you).

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LECTURE (AUDIO): “God’s Thumbprint” by Frederick Buechner: Ordained minister and Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–nominated author Frederick Buechner died August 15 at age ninety-six. He was a wonderful writer (of both fiction and spiritual nonfiction) and preacher, and I hear him quoted all the time. He once summed up the theme of all his work as “Listen to your life.”

In 1992 Buechner spoke for the biennial Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, about how “art and religion are twin expressions of the human spirit.” Discussing poetry, painting, and music, he shows how the arts help us to pay attention. Listen to the talk, “God’s Thumbprint,” on FFW’s Rewrite Radio podcast. It is an expansion of the “Art” entry Buechner wrote in his book Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized (1988); read the full excerpt here.

Rembrandt_Old Woman Praying
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Old Woman Praying, 1629–30. Oil on gilded copper, 15.5 × 12.2 cm. Residenzgalerie Salzburg, Austria. This is one of the many careworn, lived-in elderly faces Rembrandt painted.

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LECTURE (VIDEO): “Difficult Beauty: Contemporary Art as Spiritual Discipline” by James K. A. Smith: In its content selection and development, the arts quarterly Image, says editor in chief James K. A. Smith, resists both nostalgia (old is better) and progressivism (new is better), charting a third way that he calls “archaic avant-garde.” The journal’s focus is on contemporary art, but contemporary art funded by tradition. Most of the writers and artists they feature see the tradition of religious art as a gift and a launchpad.

In this lunchtime Zoom talk from May 19, 2021, Smith considers why contemporary art so often feels alienating. He focuses on painting, giving a brief history of the onset of modernism in that medium, starting with the impact of photography, which pushed painters beyond the representation of objective reality. He shares compelling quotes by art critic Peter Schjeldahl and philosopher John Carvalho, about how we look and when thinking happens. Smith discusses the need for humility—to be comfortable with the not-knowing, to surrender our desire for mastery and control (i.e., demanding that paintings explain themselves).

What if the art that first alienates us is the art that might also stretch us? Or what if the literature that’s intimidating might also be the literature that has the possibility to kind of break us open in new ways, open us up to others, and even open us up to God? What if the difficulty of contemporary art is a virtue? And what if experiencing that difficulty is actually what we need? (12:42)

Daniel Domig (Canadian/Austrian, 1983–), Prayer Invites Chaos, 2019. Oil on mixed fibers, 75 × 59 in. [artist’s website]

The last twenty minutes consists of Q&A and addresses icons, art as propaganda, whether and how to engage art that comes out of a place of despair, and more.

I admit that I find much of contemporary art difficult, often unpleasantly so. A few readers have requested that I feature more abstract art, but I struggle to know how to talk about it. But I do want to learn. Image helps me do that.

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ESSAY: “Venice Undone” by Matthew J. Milliner: A core publication of Cardus, Comment magazine is committed to “the difficult work of being faithfully present in culture.” This summer they published an essay by art historian Matthew Milliner reflecting on the Anish Kapoor and Anselm Kiefer exhibitions at the 59th Venice Biennale, one of the art world’s largest and most significant recurring events.

Milliner discusses one of Kapoor’s convex sculptures in Vantablack—a nanotech coating so dark that it absorbs 99.8 percent of visible light—which, in its staging at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, dialogues with three Marian icons and a ceiling painting of God the Father; Sky Mirror in the Accademia courtyard (see also Jonathan A. Anderson’s Instagram post on this piece); Shooting into the Corner; and The Healing of St. Thomas.

Photo by Matthew Milliner
At the 59th Venice Biennale, the Infant Christ from Paolo Veneziano’s Madonna and Child Enthroned (1320s) seems to bless one of Anish Kapoor’s “voids,” a black-painted work that appears flat when viewed head-on but whose convexity becomes apparent when viewed from the side. Photo: Matthew J. Milliner.

In part 2 of the essay, Milliner considers how the Kiefer show at the Doge’s Palace critiques Venice’s history of military conquest, replacing Titian’s The Conquest of Zara (1584) with an image of an empty tomb that evokes Jesus’s conquest over death. Apocalyptic themes have long been noted in Kiefer’s work; Milliner sees in particular traces of St. Paul and an interrogation of historic Venice’s bombastic displays of wealth and splendor, which are not lasting. And of course there’s the Jacob’s ladder motif. For a silent video tour of the exhibition, see here.

Kiefer, Anselm_Venice Biennale 2022
Anselm Kiefer (German, 1945–), These writings, when burned, will finally give some light, site-specific exhibition at the 59th Venice Biennale, 2022. Sala dello Scrutinio, Palazzo Ducale, Venice. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Prompted in part by their use of darkness, Kapoor and Kiefer have been read by some scholars through a lens of despair, but Milliner looks with eyes of hope and sees plenitude and light.

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SONG: “Jordan” by Jana Horn: One of Art & Theology’s subscribers sent this to me, and I’m not sure what to make of it, but I definitely find it intriguing, if a bit unsettling. A song from Jana Horn’s debut solo album, Optimism (2022), which Pitchfork calls “cryptic, bewildering, and daringly simple.” “Jordan” is full of veiled biblical allusions and touches on themes of pilgrimage, belief, destruction, incarnation, and burden bearing. I share it here in the spirit of Jamie Smith’s talk above, about not needing to nail down meaning in an artwork—even though I can’t help but ask, “Just who are the two dialogue partners?!” (God the Son and God the Father?)

Horn is a singer-songwriter from Austin, Texas, and a fiction-writing graduate student at the University of Virginia–Charlottesville.

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