Review: God in the Modern Wing

God in the Modern Wing (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Edited by Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: Ten Christian artists offer reflections on different pieces of modern art found in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, considering both the faith of the artists and what one might see in their art through the eyes of faith.

G. Walter Hansen, a retired theology professor and appreciator of modern art, describes the origins of this book in the preface to this book. He worships at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago, located about a mile from the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. He contrasts the perceived distance between Christian faith and modern art, and his own growing appreciation for the works he finds in the Modern Wing. Out of this came the presentations that are basis of this book. Working with Cameron J. Anderson, former executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts and co-editor with him of this book, Hansen invited ten Christians in the arts to give presentations offering their own reflections on particular artists and works of art found in the Modern Wing. The contributors not only met this assignment but also offer insights into, using the expression coined by Flannery O’Connor, the “God-haunted” character of modern art, as well as the faith of many of the artists.

Cameron Anderson opens the collection with an introductory essay on “Being Modern” exploring the spirit, style, and self of modern art. He observes:

“Calling on their generative agency, artists sought means to foment aesthetic, social, and political revolution. If modern art labored to rid the picture plane of propaganda, then artists became the self-appointed guardians of this new visual horizon. This new generation flaunted its moral and creative freedom, but it also lived beneath the burden of its tragic flaws and lapses” (p. 11).

The following chapters focus on one to a few artists and works in the Modern Wing. The first takes us on a kind of tour through the eyes and ears and sketch pad of “Hadlock,” from Matisse’s Bathers by the River, through the Cubism of Picasso, the work of Diego Vazquez, works of Paul Klee, and others, interspersed with comments of gallery visitors, and the epiphanies of God’s presence in the works and even the inadvertent comments of visitors. Matthew Milliner considers the works of Chagall, Magritte, and Dali, particularly the last’s return to Catholic faith. Cameron Anderson discusses Constantin Brancusi’s soaring columns and his Bird series, and the expressions of joy they convey. Contrast this with the earth-bounded Walking Man of Alberto Giacometti and Anderson sees in these two both the aspirations and existential boundaries of what it means to be human. Joel Sheesley returns to Cubism, considering Picasso’s Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, probably unlike any portrait you’ve seen, not representation, but negation, a statement of what one is not, of what is missing, as apophatic theology has done with God.

Bruce Herman introduces us to the later art of Philip Guston and Richard Diebenkorn. Guston’s Bad Times focuses on “human beings behaving inhumanely.” Many of his paintings explore humanity at its worst, asking “what are we?” but one, Couple in Bed portrays the beauties of faithful love. We are invited to consider Diebenkorn’s Ochre in the Ocean Park series, an affirmation of joy in color and form. Linda Stratford writes of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. The latter, with his Stations paintings, especially fascinated me, black vertical bars with differing widths and locations on a series of canvases, or “stations.”

I had the opportunity to see some of Mark Rothko’s works a few years ago. Makoto Fujimura helped me understand the layers of color floating on many of his canvases and why I must visit the Rothko Chapel if I visit Houston. David McNutt introduces us to the faith of Andy Warhol and the connections between the “Pop” and spiritual sides in his life. Steve Prince describes the prophetic art of two black artists, Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, as well as some of his own prophetic work, and what it means to be a prophet in art. Finally, Leah Samuelson, who works in the community art movement, writes about her encounters with the walking sticks of Andre’ Cadere, who would walk through exhibits, leaving his color-banded walking sticks as impromptu installations. She uses this to explore the art of protest and restoration.

In what I thought an apt afterword, Cameron J. Anderson considers the significance of these presentations as an invitation to make space in our hurried lives to contemplate these works, how they reflect the human condition and the nature and meaning of our modern selves. He observes the “nature of craft” and “nature of being” that has been under consideration throughout. As we study these works, we both explore how the artists have accomplished their works, and what they “saw” as they worked. He considers Charles Ray’s Hinoki, pieces of a fallen tree that captured his attention that he turned into an installation. It, like all art, poses the question, “Has anyone else seen the thing that I have seen?” And to go with it is the question, are we seen, and loved, and what does this mean for our existence?

The text is accompanied with black and white figures in the text as well as twenty-two color images in an insert. These cannot substitute for seeing the works, but certainly help make sense of the artists readings of these works. Late, in life, without former training, I’ve picked up the paint brush and enjoyed painting with my wife and local artists, many with far more art training. I have only the vaguest understanding of the movements within modern art but this work whet my appetite to know more. It reminded me that Christ is at play (reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins) in the ten thousand places of the modern art world. As Anderson challenges us, will we make space to see, and to be seen?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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The ministry with which I work is hosting a conversation with Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen on November 16, 2021 at 5 pm ET. If you want to learn more about God in the Modern Wing you may sign up for a Zoom link for this conversation via https://tinyurl.com/GodModernWing. There will be an opportunity to purchase the book at a discounted price. There is no charge for this event.

Review: The Faithful Artist

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The Faithful Artist, Cameron J. Anderson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Addresses the tensions between the world of modern art and evangelical faith, where opportunities for creative engagement might be found in tensions, and what values might shape the life of one sensing a call to be both faithful Christian and artist.

The world of modern art, and the world of faith, particularly evangelical Christian faith have often been at odds with, or not even in conversation with each other. This is the challenge the author has wrestled with since his teenage years as an aspiring artist who embraced the evangelical faith in which he was raised. In the introduction, he describes his own struggle with the absence of mentors, the disregard of his church for the visual arts, and the parallel hostility toward religious faith he encountered in the art world.

Much of this work explores these tensions between evangelical faith and modern art. He begins by tracing the post World War Two parallel rise of modern evangelicalism as an effort to “guard the gospel” and modern art, as an effort to throw off the shackles of tradition and the “double consciousness” artists struggled with, often by either muting faith, or lapsing into sentimentalized art appealing to their faith community. He uses My Name is Asher Lev to discuss one of the fundamental challenges facing the aspiring Christian artist in training: the practice of drawing the nude human figure, both central to the development of artistic skill and raising questions of whether this is proper, and deeper questions about the Christian understanding of the body, and our embodied existence. Building on this, he considers the senses, and how we think about this aspect of our embodied existence as we engage the arts.

He then turns to the conflicts between word and image that have been at the heart of some of the conflict between faith and art, whether it is the iconoclastic movements, ancient and modern, that favor word over image, and the inconsistency of a faith community that denounces icons while creating its own versions of these. He points toward a theology of word and image that finds its ultimate fulfillment in the incarnate Word. He also explores the radical doubts about language in post-modern thought and its appropriation by artists, sometimes portraying the deconstruction of language. Anderson gestures toward a theology in which word and image cohere, and for the possibility of meaning.

He also gestures toward the transcendental of beauty in art, once again contended territory, both by artists who seek to lay bare the exploitive ways beauty has been used, and an evangelicalism focused on goodness and truth to the exclusion of beauty. Against the art world’s often legitimate protest about the manipulation of beauty for tawdry or oppressive purposes, Anderson holds out the possibility of being beholders of beauty, and for the artist of faith, the seeing in beauty, even co-mixed with pain, evil, and suffering, the hand of the Creator. He acknowledges that this may be a quixotic, yet for the faithful artist, necessary endeavor.

Anderson contends that these collisions of faith and art may “reveal a third way, a great vista where biblical and theological reflection–especially the doctrines of creation and incarnation–become the wellspring of inspiration.” Each of his chapters includes models of this kind of biblical and theological reflection that serve, not to give definitive answers, but to point other artists who wrestle with the same tensions toward this “third way” in the practice of their art. Indeed, his conclusion is an invitation to both the church and artists to embrace this work, and for artists to give themselves as called people to the work of culture-making and good studio practice. He writes,

“…the artists whom most of us deem to be successful share a common trait–they do the work. At some point they set romantic ideas about being an artist to the side and commenced doing the artist’s work. Arriving at this place requires one to accept delayed gratification, the awkwardness that is sure to come from making bad art and the reality of negative cash flow. Pushing beyond distraction and discouragement, they accomplished something Herculean–they pushed beyond musing and imagining to establish regular studio practices, to take on habits of making” (p. 252).

Cameron Anderson is executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) and what he offers in this book is nothing less than an analysis of the recent history of the visual arts and the challenges and opportunities for Christians who are called to work in this field. It reflects his lifelong familiarity with the art world and his presence as an leader, teacher and thinker in the Christian community. I might add, both by way of disclosure and appreciation, that I worked closely with Cam in his previous role as national director of InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty Ministry, and owe twenty years in a job I love to his influence. I saw parts of an early version of this manuscript, kind of like the blocking in of shapes on a canvas that mark the beginning of a painting. It is a delight to see the finished work, which reflects the deep reflection on faith and art that I had come to appreciate in presentations by Cam, disciplined by extensive research and enriched by years of experience working with visual artists.

[This is the second work in the series Studies in Theology and the Arts. The first volume in the series, Modern Art and the Life of a Culture was reviewed earlier this year at Bob on Books.]

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

The Month in Reviews: May 2016

Modern art

This was a month of listening to a number of voices outside my particular cultural context, from Depression-era migrants, to a black NFL player talking about the racial divides in our country, to a naturalized citizen of Mexican descent on the shadow existence of Mexican immigrants and the experiences of Ugandan women. I also have been reading books on faith and politics, given our upcoming election season. I read a couple delightful books now available in the public domain, a Dorothy Sayers mystery and a biography of Erasmus, an important Reformation-era figure. There was also some good theology, including a classic defense of the bodily resurrection of Christ, a helpful book on our own bodily existence, and a great forthcoming book on faith and modern art. So, here’s the list:

Did the Resurrection HappenDid the Resurrection Happen?, David Baggett ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. A history of the debates and friendship between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew, a transcript of a 2003 conversation on the resurrection between these two, a discussion of Flew’s subsequent change from a belief in atheism to a kind of deism, and concluding discussions on the evidences and challenges to the idea of the resurrection of Jesus. Review.

what your Body KnowsWhat Your Body Knows About GodRob Moll. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Explores how our neurophysiology enables us to connect to God and others and how spiritual practices, liturgies, and opportunities to serve enable us to physically as well as spiritually thrive. Review.

God in the White HouseGod in the White House, Randall Balmer. New York: Harper Collins, 2008. Traces the history of the religious faith and presidential politics from the election of John Kennedy as the first Catholic president up through George W. Bush and the religious-political alliances by which he was elected to two terms as president. Review.

Under Our SkinUnder Our Skin, Benjamin Watson with Ken Petersen. Carol Stream: Tyndale Momentum, 2015. Watson posted a series of thoughts on his Facebook page after the grand jury decision in the Ferguson case. As a result of the viral response, he wrote this book to expand on his reactions as a black man to this decision. Review.

Grapes of WrathThe Grapes of WrathJohn Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Books, 1939 (original edition), 2002 (this edition). Steinbeck’s classic narrative of the migrations of displaced farmers from the Depression Dustbowl to a California controlled by large landowners who wanted their labor as cheaply as possible while despising the influx of people. Review.

God Dwells Among UsGod Dwells Among Us, G. K. Beale and Mitchell Kim. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A study of the theology of the Eden-temple of creation as an expression of God’s purpose to have a dwelling place with humanity and the development of this theme throughout scripture, under-girding the mission of the church. Review.

LuminousLuminous, T. David Beck. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Explores how purpose, presence, power and peace enable us to radiate the light of Christ in our everyday lives. Review.

The Weight of ShadowsThe Weight of ShadowsJosé Orduña. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016. In this personal memoir, the author documents his own experience of naturalization, and the shadow existence of both documented and undocumented immigrants in the United States. Review.

Ask the QuestionAsk The Question, Stephen Mansfield. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016. Contends that an in-depth understanding of the faith of political candidates and the role of religion in their lives, as well as in the world, is an important right of citizens entrusted with important decisions in the voting booth. Review.

Modern artModern Art and the Life of a Culture, Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, forthcoming June 2016. A response to the classic work Modern Art and the Death of a Culture by H. R. Rookmaker, arguing that Rookmaaker was unnecessarily pessimistic in his assessment of modern art, overlooking the religious impulses that shaped much of modern art. Review.

ErasmusErasmus and the Age of Reformation, Johan Huizinga, tr. F. Hopman. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957 (first published in 1924). Link is to Dover Publications reprint. This book is now in the public domain and there are free versions for Kindle and other digital formats. An elegantly written biography of Desiderius Erasmus describing his life, thought and character as a scholar who hoped to awaken “good learning” and to bring about a purified Catholic church, and the tensions resulting from being caught between Reformers and Catholic hierarchy. Review.

whose bodyWhose Body? Dorothy L. Sayers. New York: Harper Collins, 1923. (Link is for trade paperback version.) A body found in Thipps bathroom, a missing financier. Two cases that Lord Peter and his valet, Bunter, are called into simultaneously, apparently disparate, ultimately connected. Review.

CrossroadsCrossroads: Women Coming of Age in Today’s Uganda, ed. Christopher Conte. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2015. Narratives of fourteen Ugandan women on various aspects of growing up in a Ugandan society in the midst of political upheaval, the intersection of traditional and modern ways, between repression and reform. Review.

Best of the Month: It is hard not to give the nod to The Grapes of Wrath but I want to highlight here the new book, Modern Art and the Life of a Culture.  This book breaks new ground toward a Christian understanding of modern art, particularly in its historical survey of both the art and the religious self-understanding of the artists. I think this book, and the series it launches, will facilitate a greater engagement of Christians in the wider art scene.

Quote of the Month: 

“Is it possible that scholars who are thinking theologically might be able to offer a more compelling history of modern art, one that can show the contemporary art world that the modern tradition of artistic practice is not a progression of stylistic innovation but a belief system, a way of understanding the self and its relationship to the world that continues to be viable and can address the present situation in the art world, and connect with them as human beings.” (from Dan Siedell’s “Afterword” in Modern Art and the Life of a Culture).

Reviewing soon: I just began An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor that has a James Herriot-type feel, only with human patients. Looks like a light, fun read. I’m also reading Ron Sider and Ben Lowe’s Future of Our Faith, an intergenerational dialogue on key questions facing the church across generations. I’ve been savoring Donald MacLeod’s wonderful book, Christ-Crucified: Understanding the Atonement. Any contemporary scholars who would critique more classic evangelical understandings of the atonement should use this book as their reference, rather than the “straw men” that are often cast up in these discussions. I’m also working my way through Kimlyn Bender’s Confessing Christ for Church and World, a great collection of essays on the theology of Karl Barth. Among my TBRs are Arianna Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution, and Dan Dupee’s It’s Not Too Late on the role parents can play during a teen’s high school years in influencing their faith.

You can find all my reviews since February 2014 by clicking on “The Month in Reviews” on the menu. You will note if you are reading this on a computer that I’ve changed the format of cover images to separate review text. This rendering is closer to the rendering on tablets and phones.

One of my summer projects if I find the time will be to create an Index of Reviews. If anyone has a suggestion of an indexing program that works with WordPress, I’d love to hear from you!

Review: Modern Art and the Life of a Culture

Modern art

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, forthcoming June 2016.

Summary: A response to the classic work Modern Art and the Death of a Culture by H. R. Rookmaaker, arguing that Rookmaaker was unnecessarily pessimistic in his assessment of modern art, overlooking the religious impulses that shaped much of modern art.

A number of us of a certain age were thrilled when we came across H.R. Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, originally published by the same publisher of this work. Rookmaaker provided an analysis of modern art that made sense in terms of the wider movement from Reformation faith to Renaissance to the rise of the modern, existentialism and ultimately nihilism. Rookmaaker argued that this shift in worldview was reflected in the changing character of art. At the same time, Rookmaaker was not calling on Christians to abandon the world of art but rather to think Christianly in their art. There were just two problems with this. For one thing, almost no one outside the Christian community credited Rookmaaker’s analysis, nor did it reflect the actual thinking of many of the artists about which he was writing whose art often reflected profound spiritual, and even Christian insight. It also often left Christian artists in a quandary between what their artistic practice in the studio led them to do versus what they thought Christians in the arts ought to be producing.

This book, the first in a new series on Studies in Theology and the Arts, is written as a response to and reappraisal of Rookmaaker’s work. The authors, one of whom studied under Rookmaaker argue that the fundamental defect of Rookmaaker’s work is that he did not grasp seriously what artists themselves were saying about their work. After two introductory chapters on the intersection of faith and modern art and the particular work of Rookmaaker, they survey the artists and periods covered by Rookmaaker moving from France to Germany, Holland, and Russia (particular work with icons and Dada liturgies) and finally on to the North American scene. They draw upon what artists themselves are saying about their work, and surprisingly, upon the spirituality, often Christian, reflected in works of which Rookmaaker was dismissive.

I was intrigued for example, with their handling of the work of Andy Warhol. They write:

“However, as with all of his other works we’ve seen thus far, Warhol’s subversive parodies are aimed not at this subject matter but at the systems of mediation and the “handling” of that subject matter. We argue that Warhol’s late religious paintings are best understood as the work of a devout Christian [earlier they cite evidence of the devotion in Warhol’s regular mass attendance, service in a church’s soup kitchen, and well-thumbed prayer book] wrestling with the problematic visuality of his faith, submersed as it is in a bog of visual kitsch and cliche’, and profoundly vulnerable to the visual culture of commercial marketing and advertising. In the age of mechanical reproduction, religious imagery is every bit as exposed to the latent nihilism of the “vernacular glance” as photos of celebrities or of human tragedies. The sharp, ironic criticality of these religious paintings is that of a believer scrutinizing the common signage of his faith as it passes through the machinery of mass media. Warhol subjects this signage to the logic of vanitas painting, not for the sake of attacking belief but for the sake of ‘labeling’ one of the major modern obstacles to it.”

What Anderson and Dyrness are proposing is that the case Rookmaaker made was not quite so simple. Yes, there is a devolution of worldview in the culture and yet artists often find themselves at the intersection of this devolution and deep spiritual values and their art reflects that complex response to “the givenness of things.” While we may not appreciate all in the art or life of these artists, it is unjust to the work of many to simply associate it with a decaying and dying culture, when artists in fact are seeking to bring life or to question the ways of a dying culture.

The book concludes with an afterward by Dan Siedell, author of God in the Gallery, reflecting on why the work Anderson and Dyrness have done is important not only for the Christian community but also the broader artistic community. At one point he poses a question with which I’ll conclude this review:

“Is it possible that scholars who are thinking theologically might be able to offer a more compelling history of modern art, one that can show the contemporary art world that the modern tradition of artistic practice is not a progression of stylistic innovation but a belief system, a way of understanding the self and its relationship to the world that continues to be viable and can address the present situation in the art world, and connect with them as human beings.”

It seems to me that an affirmative answer to such a question might indeed be life and life-giving to our culture.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”