Thursday, May 26, 2011

Iconicity vs. Optocracy

At a recent conference on Calvinism and Culture, Princeton Seminary's Gordon Graham employed analytic precision to isolate an inherent Reformed difficulty which has great bearing not only on Calvinism, but on American Christianity in general: One cannot "engage" culture in abstracto as some Kuyperians aim to do, any more than one can dress in abstracto without choosing an actual outfit. The means by which one engages inevitably shapes the engagment. That is to say, actually influencing culture requires a thicker contribution than Calvinism has traditionally afforded.  Lest you play the Rembrandt exception card and call that unfair, William Dyrness, in his sweeping and rewarding survey of Reformed Theology and Visual Culture, ends on a similar note.

Graham's talk connected nicely with one he gave previously on icons at the Seminary.  Icons, he explained, like hymns, are accessible by design. Unlike a Rembrandt, they can be "performed" by laypeople - requiring spiritual discipline without requiring rarefied talent or heroic originality.  Graham contrasted Calvinism to Eastern Orthodoxy, which enjoys such visual norms, norms which - I should add - can (and should) enhance Calvinism, and Protestantism in general, because they don't belong to Orthodoxy alone anymore than Baptists own the Bible, the Vatican owns the Eucharist, or the Moscow Patriarchate owns the Nicene Creed.

This is not just an interesting thought for those who are into this kind of thing.  It's actually quite urgent.  Although her book Image, Icon, Economy is unfortunately saturated with a severe distaste for Christianity resulting in a problematic historical conflation that ignores the cataclysm of modernity, Marie José-Mondzain has an important point: We live in some kind of optocracy.  Just walk through Times Square. Fiery Christian blog entries "interpreting" such a culture are therefore important, but insufficient.  An alternative, tested visual tradition may be necessary if we ever hope to truly "engage."

All this is by way of pointing you toward Carole Baker's perspicacious article, Celebrity and Iconicity:
The realization of Christian identity is not a given, and indeed, Christian identity is being co-opted by other forces at work in contemporary America. This co-opting, moreover, is all the more powerful because much of contemporary Christianity has absorbed an alien metaphysic (i.e., the separation of image and likeness) that has led to an impoverished theology of materiality, a theology that overlooks, or completely denies, the significant role of materiality in realizing iconicity. The result is that Christians conform to economies that utilize materiality for ends other than sanctity, but they do so without recognizing that there is any tension between these practices and the practices of the holy economy. That Angelina Jolie, whose presence is mediated via images, is more real to contemporary Christians than Saint Elizabeth, whose presence is also mediated via (holy) images, should be an indication that the religious imagination has been given over to fabrications.

The church’s response cannot simply be to acknowledge materiality’s importance and then produce more images. The bifurcated metaphysic, that is, the separation of image and likeness, which many enthusiasts for a recovery of the arts in the church seem to be reacting against (albeit perhaps unknowingly), is not going to be sutured solely by artists producing art, even “Christian” art. One reason for this is that “art” is not immune to subjectivist claims. In fact, art is heavily saturated with such claims, especially when it is understood as “self-expression.” Therefore, how art is conceived and executed and used within our communities is highly susceptible to modernist narrations of the autonomous individual, narrations that run counter to iconicity. Artistic practice, including how we talk about artistic practice, must also be re-formed before it can participate in the exchange of the holy economy.
Baker's reflections converge nicely with Andy Crouch's culture making thesis, the insufficiency of (mere) worldview thinking identified by Hunter, Jamie Smith's critique of market liturgies, Hans Boersma's insistence on evangelical metaphysics, and (I suspect) Matthew Lee Anderson's upcoming book on embodiment.  One might think that Baker is high on critique and low on constructive alternatives, but think again: She's an iconographer herself.