Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Unmappable Terrain of Christianity and Art

James Elkins, a prolific art historian at the Art Institute of Chicago, is our best cartographer of the unruly terrain of art history and contemporary art.  Due to his unusual productivity, his books tend to be reviewed in bulk - about five at a time.  Some reviewers are impressed by his baffling range, others are clearly disturbed that his books rarely bear the mark of focused specialization (though he can do that too). 

But what especially disturbs some about Elkins is his refusal to light a candle at the altar of critical theory, which - until quite recently - was a prerequisite for academic success.  The reason for Elkins' demurral appears to be his frustration with theory's essential sameness:  "The wilderness of writing on twentieth-century painting," Elkins explains, "is really an orderly place where the majority of judgments are received opinions, derived from a very small number of models" (159).  Elkins' non-conformity to such models once earned him the opprobium of an Art Bulletin reviewer, who compared Elkins to more fashionable art historians, Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois. 

Most important... is the fact that Krauss and Bois consistently deny the possibility that art can be anything more than its "base materiality." Their argument is strong and consistent: a picture of mold is a picture of mold. Elkins often implies that painting can be transcendent, can move beyond the messy stuff of oil paint itself in order to show something that is beyond the picture plane.  In comparison to Formless, Elkins's book is inconsistent and even sentimental.

A more clear indication of how carefully art historians patrol their disciplinary borders is difficult to find.  Elkins is chastised for trespassing on transcendent turf, a domain which the (supposedly adventurous) methodology of critical theory deemed off-limits.  Indeed, because Elkins' prose sometimes knocks on the door of the transcendent (albeit with protective gloves), it's not surprising that Elkins has found religion. By which I mean, he has found religion to be a subject worthy of art historical interest.  This started with On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, and has progressed into the Art Seminar Series volume entitled Re-Enchantment, which explored the art world's attitude to religion by interviewing dozens of scholars and curators on the subject.  While not monolithic, the book frequently evidenced a younger generation complaining that old guard art historians such T.J. Clark or the much pilloried Michael Fried, don't take religion seriously enough.  

But Re-Enchantment just scratched the surface.  Decades of cultural investment by Christian academic institutions, programs, organizations, and journals have paid off, making the output of Christian perspectives on art criticism, production and history almost unmappable.  As I've remarked before, Catholics are enjoying the revival of Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, backed by the historical studies of Murphy and Schloesser, and the philosophical work of Trapani.  The Orthodox are seeing the emergence of Pavel Florensky, the 20th century art historian, theologian, priest, scientist and martyr (silenced by the very revolutionaries after whom the art history's most influential journal, October, was named).  This revival is due to new translations of Florensky's art writings by Salmond, a biography by Pyman, and a compelling advance of his ideas by Antonova.  What's more, a surprising article from a former editor of Art Forum has suggested that Jacques Lacan - a darling of critical theory - may have obtained some of his best ideas from Florensky, who was translated into French just as Lacan was developing his notion of the gaze.  One couldn't make this stuff up. 

Protestants are also making a strong showing in the aesthetic arena that they have traditionally neglected.  William Dyrness' formidable historical survey of Reformed visual culture would have been enough, but his latest work, Poetic Theology, which could fairly be called a Summa of Protestant aesthetics, pushes the project well into the 21st century.  Dyrness drives the last nail in the aniconic coffin, and argues that Calvin's prohibitions agains images, or his insistence to keep churches locked, were temporary measures never meant to be permanent features of Protestant life.  Dyrness has the panache to distinguish Reformed aesthetics from its Catholic (Thomism) and Anglican (Radical Orthodoxy) alternatives, while still arguing for a symbolically rich, contemplative Protestantism, haunted by brokenness yet socially engaged.  Surprisingly, he succeeds.

This is not to posit the Reformed tradition as the right option, but simply to show the variety of them available for those people - Christian or not - who are interested in the light that Christianity can shed on art and art history.  Theory,
you will recall - according to one of its best elucidators - is inherently and consistently suspicious of the visual.  Christianity, because of the visible God at the heart of its proclamation - is much less so (though, of course, not completely).  One doesn't need a Ph.D. in art history to know that Christianity has meant much for the history of art.  But one very well may need one to come up with an intellectual justification to continue to rule that not insignificant religion out.

Centripetally, books by
 WuthnowDyrness and Taylor have attempted to understand and encourage the state of the arts in North American churches.  Centrifugally, Siedell remains a necessary prod to engage contemporary art on its own terms without striking a Tillichian bargain.  The Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA) evidences the new seriousness with which Christianity is taken by art historians.  Likewise, new journals that show theologically informed engagement of art seem to emerge monthly.   Consider new journals such as Anamnesis, the frequently sharp and prolific output of Transpositions, Curator Magazine, the art coverage of the Other Journal and Comment, Dappled Things and Ruminate, ArtWay, Catapult, Liturgical Credo, Cresset, St. Katherine's Review, to say nothing of the more established venues such as Image or CIVA.

The aim here is not a narrowly "Christian" art world or "Christian" art history, but the better art production and truer study which comes from not ruling out a phenomenon as massive as global Christianity - which, furthermore, frequently doesn't behave.  Many of the organizations and publications listed above are (understandably) interested in an artistically sophisticated faith, and are consequently less than eager to draw attention to the Christian kitsch they seek to, wait for it...  leave behind. But the irony is that such kitsch - the visual religion of everyday believers - has now become a subject of serious academic investigation, as evidenced by the impressive infrastructure erected by
David Morgan and the journal Material Religion.  This is nicely summarized by the fact that the notorious Thomas Kinkade is no longer as much mocked as seriously analyzed by art historians.  In short, kitsch counts. 

But nor is it everything.  Take for example, the effusion of studies on religion in the Renaissance since the seventies, or the publications showing how religion persisted through the early modern world, such as The Idol in an Age of Art, Rembrandt's Faith, Art and Religion in 18th Century Europe, or Painting the Sacred in the Age of Romanticism, not to mention calls for papers like Empowerment and the Sacred or Spiritual Matters.  Modernism is not unaffected as well, as evidenced by two impressive publications (Alter Icons and Avant-Garde Icon) and an upcoming conference regarding how Eastern Christian icons influenced modern art.  One could go on.

"With a few marginal exceptions," wrote James Elkins at the end of a Books and Culture exchange, "the exclusion [or religion by the art world]... is not owned, or owned up to, by anyone. That is why it is so difficult to imagine how this state of affairs can be changed, even though it is inevitable that it will, eventually, be changed." But Christian perspectives on art history and art production are emerging more quickly than anyone - so far as I know - can reasonably assess.  I tried to chronicle this a year ago, and have tried to update it here.  The difficulty of the task makes me feel that "eventually" might be just around the corner, if not already here. 

Update:  Here's a follow-up post.