The (In)visibility of Theology in Contemporary Art Criticism
Prof. Jonathan Anderson discusses the rift between Christian theology and contemporary art theory and production that occurred in the 20th Century, using Rosalind Krauss’s critique as a jumping off point. He articulates the primary problems that created the rift, and he suggests ways to move forward as Christians in the art world in light of this rift.
For a variety of reasons, religion, particularly Christianity, did not fare very well in the course of 20th century art, neither in the making of it nor in the scholarly discourse about it. The textbooks of 20th 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 20th 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 20th century art as having made significant 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, in fact often to the point of mutual unintelligibility.
By 1979 Rosalind Krauss, a renowned art theorist Rosalind Krauss, had gone so far as to say that these spheres had reached a condition of absolute rift. The reasons for this rift are complex and numerous, and they are certainly bound up in larger cultural dramas of Western secularization. This is part of Krauss’s narration of the rift. “In the increasingly desacralized space of the 19th century, “art had become the refuge for religious emotion. “It became as it has remained a secular form of belief. ”
Although this condition could be discussed openly “in the late 19th century, “it’s something that is inadmissible in the 20th, “so that by now we find it indescribably embarrassing “to mention art and spirit in the same sentence.” Remarkably however over the last 15 years or so scholars have begun to use art and spirit in the same sentence again, and embarrassing themselves evidently. People are talking about religion in the discourse about contemporary art these days. We might even be so bold as to declare, along with Sally Promey, that there has been a return of religion to the art discourse.
But we must also admit that it’s a return that has been riddled with problems and confusions. Krauss’s rift remains and stifles discussion on many levels with what James Elkins has called a complex structure of refusals. What I want to do today is try to articulate where I think the primary problem lies in the rift, what’s it really about. I wanna offer an argument, a brief argument, for how we might think about the return of religion, and then offer some constructive thoughts about how to move forward.
I don’t think Christians have yet been thoughtful or creative enough of how to work productively in this rift, and I wanna throw my weight in that direction of productively working in the rift. In 2004 James Elkins, a prolific and well-known art historian at the Art Institute of Chicago, published his controversial book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, in which he attempted to understand and diagnose the chronic gridlock between contemporary art discourse and devoted religious belief.
His stated task from the beginning is irenic. He wants to see, quote, “if it’s possible to adjust “the existing discourses enough to include religion.” But ultimately he concludes that such an adjustment remains unlikely. Art theory and religion are simply structurally incompatible in their current forms. To distill it a great deal, his argument a great deal, the strange place of religion in contemporary art is that the trajectory of art history and theory and criticism for the past 150 years or so makes it impossible for whatever religious content and artwork might hold to be mediated with any kind of directness or clarity or sincerity of expression, thus effectively precluding it from having any compelling presence in the interpretation of the artwork.
In Elkins’ view the rift does not exist in the artistic production per se in the artworks, the rift exists in the academic writing about art. The problem is inherent to the structure of modern and contemporary visual hermeneutics. Even if it’s there, there are no categories for interpreting it. So this paper addresses the problem of interpretation, a level of meaning. There are, as he says, worlds of art yes. Worlds of art writing, no.
In the book and in the various conferences and publications surrounding it, Elkins repeatedly points to the journal October, which he probably correctly considers to be the most influential academic journal devoted to contemporary art criticism and theory. Co-founded in 1976 by Rosalind Krauss, who you’ll remember from her pronouncement of the absolute rift, October has been responsible for constructing and developing perhaps more than any other single publication the most formidable methodological machinery available in contemporary art theory for the past four decades.
As Matthew Milliner has quipped, quote, “In the intellectual climate of the art world, “it’s always October.” [audience laughing] So what are these critical methods that have so persuasively dominated the world of art writing? In 2004 the same year as Elkins’ book, October’s four most renowned contributing editors, Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin Buchloh published the massive two-volume Art Since 1900 which opens with introductory chapters devoted to articulating the four most influential critical methods that have framed the modern and contemporary art discourse.
The four methods they identify and articulate here are, one, psychoanalysis, two, Marxian social art history, three, formalism and structuralism, and four, post-structuralism and deconstruction. There are of course numerous other configurations or mobilizations of these models, feminist criticism, post-colonial criticism, et cetera, but the implicit argument in Art Since 1900 is that all of these kind of complex mobilizations of these methods are composed from these four primary threads. Feminism is sort of an orientation of psychoanalytic criticism or post-structuralist criticism and so on.
So how do these models work particularly within the evolution of modernist art? So I’m gonna back up a bit and we’ll spend just a little bit of time with Manet. It looks like the title is cut off at the bottom but that’s all right. So what’s happening in this painting? [chuckles] What is happening in this painting? What could it possibly be about? As you begin to add it up, it seems that the painting draws extraordinary attention to the conventions of representational painting itself. It’s a landscape painting. It’s a nude, a still life, even a bather.
All of these kind of conventional ways of themes for making a painting and all set in the context of linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, it is taking all of the conventions of traditional painting and drawing immense attention to the conventions themselves by mixing them up and putting them in conflict with one another. This is a weird contradictory somewhat irrational painting on the face of it in terms of its subject matter.
He’s blended all these together and caused the whole thing to collapse into a bizarre self-reflexive painting. The painting seems to be very critically, very self-critically pointing to itself and undermining itself. The way we picture the world is framed and supported by social conventions, pictorial conventions that when they’re working, are generally invisible to us. We don’t pay attention to them. We just go through the material of the object on canvas and see the pictorial structure, the subject matter, and so on. Manet seems to want to make these conventions rather conspicuous, not allowing us to just pass through them, read the subject matter seamlessly, and then contemplate it and move on.
Robert Storr puts it this way, modernist art is art, quote, “that takes itself as its primary subject. “Before modernist art is about anything else, “an image, a symbol, the communication of an experience, “it is about the logic and structure “of the thing that carries meaning “and about how that thing came into being,” end quote. As such the avant-garde art critics, who would make the most sense of paintings like this, do so by reading behind or beneath the pictorial face of the work to interpret the work as a thing in itself that is participating in various cultural systems. And these four hermeneutical methods from Arts Since 1900 are the means of accomplishing this kind of reading behind beneath the work, not taking it at face value.
A psychoanalytic method would read into this painting as a kind of very much about sublimated desire that is always structuring the way that we look at paintings and construct paintings. And so we have this nude who is addressing you [chuckles], the viewer, what are you looking at and what for, right? [audience laughing] You are these kinda awkward creepy guys that are hanging around. [audience laughing] A social art history would read the sociopolitical power structures at work in the ways that we depict the world and others in it, and that ties into this what role does our construction of paintings of still life and landscape do? What are those about?
Why do we make them in that way? What kind of invisible sociopolitical structures are supporting that whole thing? And so on and so forth. Structuralism and post-structuralism unpack the power of relations inherent in the visual languages of pictorial representation and so on. And just to kind of quickly, here’s a very quick run through 20th century art history. Picasso extends this throwing into further tension the relationship between pictorial illusion, the image that we pass through and look at, the subject matter, and the flatness of the painted thing that’s hanging in a gallery that has been constructed to do certain things in our society for certain social purposes.
And he puts them in conflict with each other, emphasizing not only the subject matter but the flatness of the painting. So he kind of offers an image and then withholds it by the very flatness of the thing. And perhaps casts painting as a kind of brothel [chuckling] that is about sort of an economic exchange for the sake of pleasure and whatever. It’s critique. You can’t just read the image, you have to read the thing and read it suspiciously from behind and beneath all of the supporting structures.
With Pollock, by the time you get to Pollock, there’s nothing left to read or there’s no subject matter left to read at all. There’s no image, there’s no pictorial space, no pictorial structure. There is all of, all of the interpretation rather must be indirect. You have to read into what does it mean to do this thing in this cultural context and in the context of contemporary art history up to this point, modern art history up to this point. All right you have to read into the kind of psychological aspects of Pollock expressing himself or doing so in this way and so on. There’s a total refusal of subject matter, and so all of the reading has to be indirect.
With Duchamp, this would extend to institutional critique. If you are looking for some kind of meaning in the subject matter of a urinal that’s purchased at a hardware store or whatever kind of store, wherever you purchase a urinal, and placed in a gallery, you’re reading it all wrong. The only way to, and this is the whole point of Duchamp’s work, is to set this thing out as a total refusal of all of the conventions of art viewing and art making, and instead causing you to question what is the supportive structure that is making this art? And it’s the museum. It’s the exhibition. Art is a social practice. That’s the point of Duchamp. So it’s all indirect reading.
This would continue through Warhol. You can’t read into this work as about being about Marilyn Monroe. This is about the way that we reproduce celebrity images for certain purposes. Warhol picks that up, mimics it, parities it, and you have to read it indirectly as a parity, you have to read behind the work so to speak. And so on and so forth. So contemporary art gets incredibly confusing to most people because it totally undermines direct reads of subject matter and pictorial representation.
This by the way is Michael Asher, for his exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, he took the last, I believe it is the last 12 years, 10 years, of all of the exhibitions that had been in that space, reproduced the floor plans, framed out all of the walls from all of the floor plans over 10 years of the museum’s existence, and you just get that framing. He has reframed the museum from the inside out.
But once again you have to read it indirectly. There’s no direct pictorial or subject matter-based read. So three observations might be made here. First, it’s important to note the way that these four models work. They each make claims in their own ways on all possible art forms, and in fact all instances of cultural production and reception, because all human experience is necessarily psychological, social, linguistic, et cetera.
These aren’t exhaustive accounts of any art object, but they do claim to account for at least one dimension of any possible art object. The psychoanalytic critic claims that the system of the unconscious is operative in all human endeavors, art, not least among them, and as such any artwork can legitimately be placed on an interpretive horizon, or rather is always already on this horizon in which the orienting questions and points of reference are aimed at understanding the role of unconscious systems in aesthetic production and reception. Does that make sense? [chuckles]
Any art object can be read as psychoanalytic because a human is involved, and the human unconscious is always involved. Similarly the Marxist exegetes the axis of social and economic power running through any human-made object, including artworks. The structuralists impose structures, interrogate art objects as intrinsically linguistic and so on. Secondly, one can see how these methods have been extremely well-suited to reading modernist art as we’ve looked at.
They’re sharply focused on the cultural situatedness of the art object itself and the ideological forces at play beneath the production and reception of the art object. Fundamental to each is a radical hermeneutics of suspicion which suspends appeals to artistic contentions or pictorial composition, and instead attempts to interpret the ideological systems at play behind and beneath the appearances of the work. So to operate in one of these methods is to always be suspicious of what the artwork purports itself to be doing, because it doesn’t know what it’s doing, there are unconscious systems, economic systems, social, linguistic systems that are operating behind it.
So I will kind of encounter all of these works with suspicion as to what they think they’re doing. [chuckles] As Johanne Lamoureux has written, “There has been no theory of avant-garde “without a critical project. “All discourses on the avant-garde “acknowledge the central role of criticality “even if they do not agree on the object “or target of that criticality.”
The third observation that can be made about these models is that you can see how these would have precisely the effect of precluding serious religious thought from communicating with any kind of directness or specificity. Not only is organized religion too much a part of the very social orders that the avant-garde was constructed to interrogate, but more profoundly, and I take this to be the central point of Elkins’ book, religious content is unable to survive the suspicious interpretive operations of avant-garde theory and criticism, which relentlessly reads behind and beneath the subject matter and pictorial composition of an artwork.
Subjecting for example an image that holds a religious subject matter or allegory to a psychoanalytic reading or a Marxist or deconstructive reading will produce disorienting effects for the allegorizer which can’t be counteracted by simply appealing to whatever the artist’s intentions are, because intentions, after all, are precisely what are in suspicion or under suspicion. Artwork conceived as a vehicle for religious meaning will find itself interpretively derailed and destabilized before the vehicle even gets going.
So this is somewhat of a weak example [chuckles] just because it’s sort of easy to make fun of this image in some ways, just because it reads so thinly, it’s a one-liner, but I choose it because this is sort of quintessential Christian art I suppose, at least American art in the 20th century. This image, as well as Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, which you’ve all seen on your grandmother’s wall or, that was on my grandmother’s wall, [audience laughing] are the most reproduced Christian images of the 20th century. So we choose it.
But you can see if this work is out there, if a psychoanalytic critic approaches this work, all bets are off. This is about your sublimated desire and issues with your Father, and these are somehow about, I mean you could read the door in this dark heart as being the sublimated desires and this is a role-playing and a projection of who is rescuing you, and the whole thing would be unraveled.
And each of those critical methods would read this suspiciously. Good luck for the religious subject matter to survive that. And savvy religious artists, which considering Rothko one might be somewhat of a stretch, but savvy religious artists willing to work within these systems of suspicion, generally by approaching, appropriating strategies from negative theology or notions of the sublime, make work that never really connotes religious meaning with any kind of clarity or particularity.
It’s thus unclear how religious content might be able to survive the critical operations of any of these four methods with regard to any religious particularity. We can just get kind of examples of the sublime otherness of God. That tends to survive somewhat through these models, but nothing more particular than that. 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.
And so Elkins rightly concludes that the, quote, “exclusion of religion from contemporary art “is an effect of discourse “which will only change “with changes in the sum total of people “who give us our best accounts of art.” And with that he leaves the rift wide open but remarked as an opening that religious critics should regard as working space. And once again the problem is not simply a lack of religiously potent artwork, but the lack of compelling religiously potent interpretations of artworks.
So what might it mean for religion to be returning to the 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 and to do so within or perhaps even as a critical method in proximity to the prevailing models, these prevailing models? I don’t have time for a survey here so I’m really going to condense the way that religion is showing up in the discourse by choosing probably the most interesting and the most scholarly prominent, scholarly prominent, you can work that out [laughs].
In the scholarly world the most significant return of religion to contemporary art has been through the field of visual cultural studies. Scholars such as Sally Promey, David Morgan, and others are making the case that the available constructions of social art history have been truncated by the exclusion of religion which must, they argue, be included in any sufficiently thick interpretation of the social operations of art. Social functions.
These scholars are doing extremely important work, but this work is almost entirely historical and sociological, confining itself to a thoroughgoing methodological naturalism in the reading of the work. The reinclusion of religion here helpfully expands what can be included in one’s evidence base for writing social art history, but it tends to reduce religion to an object for sociological study.
In other words, they want to take religion seriously as a social force and as a political force and as something that produces objects, but they don’t really take it seriously as opinions or positions you would want to hold as a scholar interpreting the work. But when we speak of religion returning to contemporary art criticism, does it bring something more with it? Does it in fact open an additional axis of meaning, if that’s the term we can use here? I believe it does and I think that we can only refer to this as the theological axis of meaning.
Religion certainly operates among along the numerous personal, social, and material horizons of human existence, but it is more than that. Fundamental to anything properly called region is the question of the relationship of God, of world to God or gods. This is the theological question and it’s the question of humanity’s fundamental relatedness to God. And I think George addressed that wonderfully in the lecture prior to mine.
And once this question is asked of humanity’s and the world’s fundamental relatedness to God, then it opens a theological horizon of meaning along which all human persons, societies, and materiality itself are related to God or to the absence of God as long as the question is a live one, it’s a theological discussion. As Aquinas defined theology as, quote, “a unified science “in which all things are treated “under the aspect of God,” or maybe even the question of God is enough. So why would we want to be questioning and engaging contemporary artworks under the aspect of God? Why would we want to open the contemporary art discourse on to the theological horizon and into theological methods of criticism?
As I see it, any argument for the return of religion or theology to contemporary art criticism must be made on the basis that this return provides more interpretive thickness to the discourse. It benefits the discourse. It provides more thickness to the explanatory power of the discourse. Or in other words, religious criticism must be able to open an artwork into compelling and warranted interpretations that would otherwise be inaccessible.
And these interpretations should in some way enrich the accounts of what artwork is already doing within this cultural context. So this would not be about imposing a theological perspective as much as affirming that the work is already in some way theological significant. A perspective, a perspective, taking a perspective, merely sensitizes us to questioning the significance that’s already happening in the work in this cultural context. Of course opening the art discourse to theological methods of criticism will be an extremely noisy and messy affair for many reasons, not least of which, is that the theological question immediately cascades into theological particularities that are usually divisive especially in contemporary art.
Such problems, however, I think I wanna say, are intrinsic to all criticism. Baudelaire believed that, quote, “to justify its existence, “criticism should be partial, “passionate, and political, “that is to say, “written from an exclusive point of view “but of point of view that opens up “the widest horizons,” end quote. 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.
At its simplest level, just subjecting the work to the question of the presence or absence of God. There are four distinct situations that come to mind in which theologically informed criticism, and I’m not sure how, what other phrase is appropriate there yet, may or may not be desirable. One, contemporary artwork that is making overt religious references.
Two, artwork of whatever subject matter that is made by a person of religious faith. Three, artwork that is specifically dealing with subjects of interest to a theological tradition, for example it’s roughly about the human existence, the human condition, the problem of evil, and so on.
And perhaps four, any and every artwork as though theology might be relevant to any cultural artifact in a way analogous to the October models which have access to all artworks. [chuckles] Let’s briefly take these one at a time, and I’m gonna make these real brief, not give them as much time as they need, but just a gesture in this direction.
So the first of these possibilities, contemporary artwork that’s making overt religious references. Within this category, I don’t see that it makes much difference whether an artist is personally religious or not. If the work draws specifically from theologically charged subject matter, then the work has already placed itself on some kind of theological horizon and should be interpreted in such.
After reading the critical reviews of a 1999 exhibition by Los Angeles based artist, Tim Hawkinson, which included among other works, this room-sized sculptural installation entitled Pentecost, one critic noticed that the reviews of this work, if they mentioned the title of the work at all, provided no more than a half sentence explanation of the biblical reference, usually something along the lines of, quote, “named for the biblical, the Bible story,” not even biblical, “named for the Bible story in which “the 12 apostles spoke in tongues.”
And you generally didn’t get, I’ve read, as far as I’m aware, I’ve read everything written about this work and you don’t get anything more than about a half sentence about the subject matter based on the title. And the theological substance of the New Testament, going deeper than a half sentence to which the work refers was ignored almost entirely. Regarding this kind of critical refusal, James Elkins has remarked rather blithely, quote, “it does seem awkward “to be unable to speak about “the religious meaning of works “that clearly have to do with religion.” [audience laughing]
Yes indeed, but it’s not only awkward, it’s poor criticism. To be sure, Hawkinson’s handling of this biblical subject is highly unconventional, and thus critically demanding, but it’s also deeply substantive, and one that will be missed if critics are unwilling or unable to consider the theological content of the biblical Pentecost in their considerations of Hawkinson’s Pentecost.
By the way I don’t have time to sort this out, I would love to, but what this is, what you’re seeing, are 12 sort of humanoid figures that are made from kind of, you know the topographical mapping of the earth where you build those models, they’re topographical mappings of his own body in various positions.
These 12 figures are distributed around the room each with a mechanized body part, a knee, a nose, [chuckles] so on, and they are tapping on this tree that is built out of air ducting like Home Depot materials. In fact all of his work for the most part is made out of what can be purchased in home improvement stores. This is the stuff we build culture with, all of his work is what we build culture with, this stuff.
And so they tap on this tree that’s meant to conduct air, breath, wind. And as they tap on it, there are syncopated kind of rhythms bouncing around the room [beatboxing] through this tree. I think it’s a wonderful image of Pentecost, and there’s much to be read into it and no one has done it. I’m working on it. [audience laughing] But I’m not gonna do it here this morning. [man laughs] Sorry to withhold, to offer, and to refuse. I’m very post-modern. [audience laughing]
Man: Write a book. [woman laughs]
Ah, give me a couple of years, two years. There are numerous, ’cause I’m going for the whole, I’m going for Hawkinson, not just this work. There are numerous major artists working today who have made work explicitly laced with religious subject matter. There are numerous of them. Frances Ellis, who have an article coming out on later, this year hopefully, in Religion and the Arts Journal out of Boston. Frances Ellis, Robert Gober, Jan Fabre, Ann Hamilton, Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Anselm Kiefer, Wolfgang Laib, Shirin Neshat, Kiki Smith, Bill Viola, to name several.
And the absence of theologically informed criticism with regards to these theologically informed artworks results in truncated understand, in truncated understandings of the work. Or put the other way around, in cases where artists are engaging theological material from whatever perspective or agenda once again, I care not as long as they’re talking about theology in one way or another, we should expect that the inclusion of theological interpretation into the discourse would provide better thicker interpretation of the work. Second possibility, contemporary artworks made by an artist of religious faith.
The example of Tim Hawkinson is a further use to us here in that Hawkinson claims a specifically Christian faith. He’s one of the relatively few internationally known artists that does today. This creates something of a dilemma in the criticism done about his work. To what extent does the thick understanding of his entire oeuvre make demands on our ability or willingness to encounter it in expressly theological terms?
We need to be wary of placing much weight on artistic intention I think. I’m only minimally interested in his intentions other than that he’s one of the interpreters of the work and gives us real cues as to what it might mean and what the process that we read into might mean. But we also need to resist dismissing the artist’s intentions entirely which has been the kind of MO lately. Los Angeles curator, Howard Fox, who has written probably the most interesting essay on Hawkinson’s work, seems to actively restrain Hawkinson’s work from being theologically specific. Quote, “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 almost any system of beliefs, “and that especially resonate “with the best basic tenants of Christianity,” end quote.
While I understand the impulse to make Hawkinson’s work amenable to almost any viewer who might be open to spiritual issues as Fox calls them, this approach runs the risk of substantially evacuating the work. We would not make similar efforts to despecify the political themes of artists like Hans Haacke or Kara Walker, for instance, there are many, such that their work, quote, “might apply to almost any system “of political beliefs,” end quote. Indeed attempting to treat these artists in this way would relinquish the conceptual integrity of the work to such an extent that there would be not much left to work with.
What is instead needed for Hawkinson’s work, as well as for Haacke’s and Walker’s work I think, is an interpretive thickness that’s inclusive of theological thinking and criticism. I love this work by the way, and I’m not gonna talk about it. Just to further tease you, offering and withholding. Third possibility for where this might touch down, a work like Hawkinson’s Humongolous, which is a fascinating meditation on phenomenological method and the constraints of self-understanding, can be opened into theological significance regarding what it means to be a human in the world. A being toward God.
So then what about any work dealing with similar questions? If I impact the theological significance of Hawkinson’s meditations on human embodiment and being unto God, then won’t that conversation immediately open outward into dialogue with every other major artists today working on similar problems. What about Damien Hirst? Severe questions about our being unto death and our efforts to medically control it. What about El Anatsui’s social histories? These are the tops to liquor bottles, he’s a Ghanaian born artist, and they’re the tops to liquor bottles, these kind of foil tops, and it sort of unfolds into, these were what we’re traded for slaves often, and you get this quilt of these people, people? It’s troubling and needs to be read more deeply I think. If we say yes, then it seems that the case for the fourth situation of any and every artwork, as though theology is relevant to any cultural artifact made by a human person, seems implied to me. As Kevin Vanhoozer has written, quote, “what is at stake both in cultural text “and in the process of their interpretation “is the meaningful and the good, “both of which are matters of universal human concern. “All interpreters of culture work with some idea, “however tacit, of what is or is not “conducive to human flourishing,” end quote.
And as such artworks are in some ways always already making some sort of tacit theological claims. Making this move in public is difficult given that the visibility of any level of significance, such as a theological significance, is largely contingent upon the interpreter’s commitment to inhabiting the meaning structures of that level. But we should simply hear that I think as a call to produce more compelling examples, better criticism as Christians. And so ultimately the question is can we deliver the goods? [laughs] To be quite blunt. Okay really quickly I wanna give three ways forward.
Three specific proposals for ways to move forward from where we’re at. Those who are interested in this, and you can, I think, take this into whatever other disciplines you’re working on. Number one, I think we need deeper more careful engagements with 20th century art history. 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 relations between religion and art.
This simply isn’t helpful. In my view we should say along with Milliner, Matt Milliner, that, quote, “Elkins is right to have suggested “that serious thinking about art “depends on the established art narrative, “modern, post-modern, and beyond, “and that October has done so much to shape this,” and thus, quote, “only serious historical “and critical reflection “can move us toward the possibility “that Elkins tantalized us with “which is a change in the sum total of people “who give us our best account of art.” Milliner, for his part, directly and helpfully engages October, carefully locating both points of commonness and what he calls the destabilizing theological touchpoints within October and its methods which are, as he says, a permanent part of the journal’s history that Christians should feel willing to engage.
He sees October as being laced with theological commitments and claims that we should unpack, sometimes critiquing, sometimes not. And in fact I think 20th century art history is a field rich for Christian thinking. I actually think it has much to contribute to Christian thinking [chuckles] as I alluded to at the beginning of the paper. But, and, I’ll say and, it stands to be re-narrated in some significant ways, reclaimed, recovered the theological significance that has been present all along. And there had been some advances in this significantly in the last couple of years. In 2010 four art historians started a group called the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art, in which they are holding conferences and books and whatnot to reevaluate the Christian underpinnings and resonances that are in 20th century art history, from, once again, from whatever perspective. They’re not denominational.
Secondly, and I’ll go over these quickly, we need deeper more careful engagements with the artworks themselves. 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, we must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them our vehicles. We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can our preconceptions, interests, and associations even.
We must make room for the work, 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’s no good asking yourself first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender. For until you have surrendered, you cannot possibly find out. That is risky but necessary for good criticism. Good criticism demands genuine and open encounter with the work. And over against this, I think theological art criticism, up to this point, has mostly been really overdetermined criticism.
Unfortunately we tend to approach artwork with a predetermined agenda and we scan the field of art looking for the kind of artworks that we can then unload this agenda on. And it’s not very good criticism usually which is why it’s ignored. It’s not just the art world is hostile to Christianity, it’s that we haven’t provided very good criticism [chuckles] and interpretation. That’s the problem.
Third, I think we need deeper and more careful theological thinking because these had been two separate culturally estranged wings of the academy, they haven’t understood each other, and so people who are interested in doing this feel like they need to master the massive field of art, criticism, and theory, and then the massive theory of theology in order to do anything meaningfully between. There had been a lot of really good movements in this degree, in this respect, lots of theologians who are writing about art very helpfully, but we need more work on this.
It’s fairly commonplace for us to have really thinned views of the incarnation that we just kind of apply it to anything that includes the immaterial thoughts in material forms, and the incarnation gets thinned out to be applied to everything and not be very thick-thinking and so on and so forth. I think you read even in the best Christian criticism repeated uses of the words this is similar to, this relates to. We get this kind of collating effect where here’s what theology says, here’s what’s going on in the art world.
See how they’re not all that dissimilar? I think we need more deeply structural thinking about what art does and how it operates. I’ll end [chuckles] by saying that what is ultimately needed I think are excellent examples of theologically rich art criticism. For better or worse, this paper is theory, all theory. It’s not an example. In a conference such as this and this paper, it’s helpful in that it sets aside time for reflection about what we’re trying to do and in what context, but what we really need are good examples.
And I’ll end with a quote from Dan Seidell, “The Christian intellectual community “must embody a Christian faith “that is more robust, textured, and expansive “than is operative in the public arena. “The Christian critic must continually show “how wide and deep is the love of God,” that I think Paul Mosher was helpful on last night, “and bring it to bear creatively and critically “on contemporary art.” Thank you.
Man: Jon, coming back to Hawkins’ piece, would the piece change if the word Pentecost were not in the title?
Man: In which case, I mean, could you make something of it if you knew his whole work? And does he include a lot of titles in his piece or is this an anomaly?
All good questions. So for the first one, I think it would make a difference if the piece was titled otherwise in the sense that if I was to read it, pneumatologically read that work, pneumatologically, I would feel like I was making more of a jump, more of a leap. I was going out on a ledge, and that’s what critics do, and that’s good and perfectly fine to go out on a ledge. You try to justify each of your steps as much as possible.
And I think by titling it that, Hawkinson gives you a little bit more security going out on that ledge. So I think it would change it. It wouldn’t change the work, it would just change kind of the evidence that I can appeal to, but the work still has to be read for what it is. So in that sense a title is a fairly weak thing that accompanies a work, but it’s a pointer, it’s a, no, you’re justified in thinking about it in this way, making these associations. So I think it would change it somewhat but not entirely. Your other question was about how he uses titles.
Man: Does he use titles generally or not or?
Yeah, yeah, they’re usually titled. They’re usually titled. Usually not specific, so specifically Christian like that. The associations aren’t so specific. I mean he has one that’s called Newmen which is a sort of pun on new man but it’s spelled as Newmen, Newmen. So he does some things like that. Titles are important for him. They tend to function as kind of riddles, and critics should take account of that. You had one other question in there that I’ve forgotten.
Man: Well, I was just wondering, if you knew his body of work, let’s say that he’s done 30 40 50 pieces and then Pentecost wasn’t on this piece, if he’d still get to the same point so–
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yep. Yes, I mean his work is fascinating. And I think it is, it is all really theologically deep. And you could take Pentecost out of his body of work, and I would still have a field day with his work, ’cause he is just kind of building these networks of artworks that talk to each other and they’re talking about being toward God, I think, to borrow Barth’s phrase.
They’re talking about being, human being, what is it, a human being in a very Barthian sense really. I don’t know how Tim would feel about me calling, kind of associating him with Barth, I don’t know. I don’t think he’d mind. But I think that kind of sort of existential, the human person, the existential question of the human person in relation to God is what I regard most of his work is about.
Man: If I could just draw a relationship to like music, like for example Beethoven, there’s the Fifth Symphony. He just calls it the Fifth Symphony, right? But as people look at his work, they see it as in being involved the French Revolution and guns going off and everything.
Man: Though he just calls it Fifth, right? But other people, they put titles on it.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. No, that’s a good, that’s a good comparison, that if you were to take, if you were to untitle that, or untitle any one of his works, it would change some of the cues that the author has given to it, but it wouldn’t entirely change the tenor and thinking of the whole body of work.
Man: I think I, I want a little bit of clarification. Throughout your talk, you mentioned thick experience, interpretive experience.
Man: Getting a richer, thicker.
Man: As opposed to thinner interpretive experience. And way I thought you were gonna go with that is to get a richer interpretive theological criticism, you gotta sort of give a special place to authorial intent, what the artist said, but you wanted to minimize that role.
Man: And then somehow I think the way it’s supposed to work is that the artwork is supposed to itself engender meaning, it’s supposed to come out of that. And I’m wondering how that works because like go back to the Pentecost example, the artist when you explained it, that makes sense, and you sort of gave what the artist thought of it, why he did all that thing. So that’s his interpretation but–
Actually no, that’s my interpretation.
Man: That’s your interpretation, yeah but I mean so here’s the problem, so somebody else looks at that and says, no, I think I see, well, it says Pentecost, but I really read this as sort of a animistic origin myth, story, where there’s this tree here and there’s spirits. We come from tree spirits. I mean, so what is it, if you disengage the author, the artist’s intention as having sort of special place rather than just one opinion among many, what is it about the artwork itself that’s gonna give you this thick experience?
Yep, it’s a great question. And I think, I think that when we have disagreements about interpretation, the appeal to the author just carries limited weight especially in contemporary criticism, because there’s a general consensus that the author knows much about the process and some of the conscious decisions that were made, but he or she might not understand what the work means. [chuckles] And so if we have differences in interpretation, we argue by appealing to evidence in the work. So if you think it’s animistic, make your case.
What do you appeal to? Appealing to the author is fairly limited because I would just say, well, I think he’s wrong, I think he misunderstands it. If you put these materials in that form in this cultural context, it means this. And that’s how we make the argument. And the author or the artist is part of the handling of the materials in this cultural context and the making of this form but doesn’t have final say over what that means in this cultural context.
And I think, I mean I think in art, I’m an art professor here, so I teach studio classes, and [chuckles] being an art professor will teach you how little artists understand what they’re doing usually. [audience laughing] My students make incredibly meaningful work and they just are not the masters of what it means. And we’re all familiar with this. Words come out of your mouth. Oh I didn’t mean that. Well, that’s what you said.
And if you say that in this context, I don’t care what you meant so much. That we have certain words in our context that if you use them, whatever you mean by them, they carry meaning that surpasses your intention, because you didn’t construct the language, you didn’t construct the culture, and it’s the culture that holds the meanings. It’s the English language, the system of it by which we make sense of what words mean, and you didn’t create that system, you play within it. You try to be intentional and be careful about the way that you handle these things you’ve perceived but you don’t have ultimate control over them.
So I think the artist’s intention is important, and I’m certainly interested in what Hawkinson says about his work, but really he says fairly little. He doesn’t wanna talk about them because he think they’re more meaningful than how he thinks about them. [laughs] I’m sorry, I know that gets us into all sorts of deep water here but. [audience laughing] We’ll leave it at that.
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