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The Table Video

Jonathan Anderson

Works of Love: Contemporary Art in Conversation with Kierkegaard

Associate Professor of Art, Biola University / Artist / Art Critic
June 15, 2017

Contemporary art is well known for being difficult, subversive, and critical—and it is primarily interpreted in these terms. However, by placing a selection of artworks in conversation with Søren Kierkegaard, Anderson will explore ways in which love of neighbor also emerges as a central concern in contemporary artmaking.

Jonathan Anderson is an artist, art critic, and associate professor of art at Biola University. He is the coauthor with theologian William Dyrness of Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism (IVP Academic, 2016). He is also Director of the CCCA – sponsership.

For more from Jonathan Anderson, check out this post on theology and contemporary art. For more on Søren Kierkegaard, check out this post from C. Stephen Evans. 

So, this morning I wanna talk, briefly, about visual culture, contemporary art, and, and gather and assist from Soren Kierkegaard. In the early 1960’s, several artists began, um, drawing attention to the ways that mass media, technology, was increasingly mediating and reshaping American politics. In fact, many artists felt the weight of an ethical mandate on, on this point. To the extent, to which, or the extent to which political discourse is reliant upon or embedded in a visual culture. Is the extent to which artists should feel, um, impelled, to test, interrogate, explore, or perhaps, even sabotage, the political mechanics of that visual culture. This is one of the reasons that modern and contemporary art became difficult and critical. Much of it is devoted to making familiar visual grammars seem suddenly unfamiliar and conspicuous. A couple quick examples, might, uh, be helpful. A, some artists drew attention to the fragmenting effects of mass media, as it splices, sometimes it seems scrambles together quick glimpses of all manner of things. News of foreign warfare, a Ford commercial, The Dick Van Dyke Show, a presidential address, etc. Andy Warhol, famously, highlighted the mechanized repetition and repetitiveness of mass media. It’s a commoditizing repetition. It’s a seemingly anestestize, anesthetizing repetition. Most famously, he pointed to the tragic, Marilyn Monroe. Norma Jean, our neighbor, has become for us, both in her life and in her death, a commoditized thing. An image, endlessly, reproduced for consumption. Whether that consumption is for titillation or scorn or both, Until we use up all the scorn and we move on. Warhol’s insight was that the mechanism of mass mediation has absorbed politics, too, or simply is itself a politic. This is a Jackie Onassis after, uh, the assassination of JFK, uh, and, here’s his, a vote McGovern, which is, well, um, sort of playing on the, uh, demonizing of other people for the sake of exalting others. The mass public square and the political activity taking place in it, is just utterly entangled with, and is indeed, is becoming a form of entertainment culture. Celebrity culture, media spectacle, and that insight seems to never be more relevant than today. A, a, Nam June Paik’s video flags assert that, despite, or perhaps, because of this fragmenting, reiterative, visual logic of mass media, there’s, nevertheless, a coherence to it. A, a salient set of values and identities, namely, some sort of national, political entity that’s formed and projected, in all of this and through all of this. Artists like these viewed art as a means of creating intervals of critical distance from which to question the implicit meanings, values, and telos of our visual culture. But for this reason, contemporary art is well known for being difficult and challenging, but, rarely, is it associated with be loving, or fostering love of neighbor. This morning I want to, very briefly, uh, explore one way in which contemporary art-making might be a valuable contributor to the topic of this conference: Love and humility in the political sphere. And, I want to orient this conversation by wear, way of Soren Kierkegaard’s marvelous book, as I’d take it, Works of Love, which is devoted to thinking through Christian, the Christian love commands. Kierkegaard draws a distinction between Christian love, and, what he calls preferential love. The kind of love championed by the poets, as he says, the elite class of popular entertainers. I think, probably, the equivalent today is the music and, um, film industries. A, when he says poets, we should think Hollywood. [host laughing] I think! I think! A, the pointed issue between the poet and Christianity, says Kierkegaard, is that erotic love and friendship are preferential. They’re organized towards fulfilling one’s passions and preferences, where as Christian love is self-renouncing, oriented not by one’s preferences, but by a received command from outside of yourself. You SHALL love your neighbor! Where as the logic of preferential love, as he says, strains in the direction of the one and only, beloved, suited just for me. Just as decidedly and powerfully does Christian love press in the opposite direction, toward the love of all people, unconditionally, ALL, he insists. On this basis, Kierkegaard launches into a fascinating conversation about the relationship between loving one’s neighbor and seeing one’s neighbor. And it’s, precisely, this notion of visuality that brings art and media into his discussion, I think. There’s a visual logic to preferential love. One that is profoundly and tacitly inscribed in our mass media culture. And, likewise, argues, Kierkegaard, there’s a visual logic to Christian love, which he wants to bring into sharper focus. On the one hand, Kierkegaard believes that Christian love of neighbor, demands and implies a certain blindness. Christianity, he says, makes a man blind, in the deepest, and noblest, and holiest sense. Such, that he blindly loves every person, without exclusionary preferences. In fact, he argues, that one sees his neighbor only with closed eyes or by looking away from all the distinctions, by which we exalt or demean others. Um, and because it’s precisely these distinctions that keep us from seeing our neighbors. And, he regards the neighbor as, the first is the best, taken quite blindly. The one who appears to you. And, this blindness is more radical, yet, a, loving one’s enemies as neighbors. And, if you can’t stand the sight of your enemies, well, shut your eyes, advises Kierkegaard. And, then, you should become all ears for the words of the command that you shall love your neighbor. However, on the other hand, this is not to say that the neighbor is no one in particular. But, somehow, that the neighbor is everyone, in particular! Kierkegaard believed that Christianly understood loving one’s neighbor is loving the very person one sees. The actual persons who surround me at any given moment. Whether or not, one sees perfections or imperfections, in this person, the task is not, he argues, to find the lovable, one and only, who matches my preferences, but to find the ones who are already given, and to find these ones to be lovable, and to continue finding them lovable, because they are God’s. They are God’s, that’s a possessive not a plural! [host laughing] Sorry, just to be clear! [laughing] Aah, God’s children. [crowd laughing] And, it’s precisely, it’s precisely this relationship, a between seeing and unseeing one’s neighbor that, I think is at stake in a lot, of work being made by contemporary artists. And, I’m gonna fly through, just a couple of quick examples. Just to, uh, um, uh, put, uh, them in front of you, and you can look into them further later. For instance, several artists test our ways of how we see each other. Luc Delahaye wonders how it might be possible to love our enemies by adjusting the ways that we see them or, more often, simply by seeing them, at all. Here is his, a, photo of a dead Taliban soldier, about a month after the war in Afghanistan, um, began. Kehinde Wiley, asks us to see the preciousness, even the saintliness, of our African American neighbors, particularly, those African American young males, about whom we circulate so many statistics, so many distinctions. Several artists also experiment with Kierkegaard’s notion of blindness, of not seeing. And, I’ll show you a few, just really quickly. Doris Salcedo, piles more than 1500 chairs in between two buildings in Istanbul, symbolically creating a kind of mass grave. By depicting each individual as a single chair, we are made to recognize each as simply a neighbor, without any further distinction given. No race, no gender, no class. Neighbor. Julie Green makes dishes commemorating the final meal requests of each death row inmate executed in the United States. She’s made nearly 600 of these, a to date. And, she’s committed to making 50 each year until the death penalty is abolished in this country. And, its a way of where we don’t see the person and, yet, we see our neighbor. Kris Martin, lastly, acquired the ashes of five cremated people, ashes that no one would clean, claim or wanted, and so for some reason, they were for sale, and, so he bought them. A, these ashes are of anonymous people, likely, lonely people, nameless people. He dips his finger into their ashes and writes the word somebody on a piece of paper. One for each person. They are somebodies. However, following Kierkegaard, I think it would have been better for Martin to instead have written, Neighbor, for each of these. A, Thank you, very much.