My New Modern Eyes

By Wayne Adams

Modern Art and the Life of a CultureReview of Modern Art and the Life of A Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism
Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness
Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016
374 pages

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.
—Matthew 13:16

We see what we look for, by and large, or at least what we are open to seeing. But from time to time, we are gifted with the ability to see things that are familiar to us, that we’ve seen many times before, in a new light, so that they are forever changed. We use language like, ‘it cannot be unseen’ or ‘it changed the way I see this’, or ‘now I see it differently.’ This happened to me recently, when listening to a favorite podcast, of a pastor interviewing a Catholic priest. They were talking about the biblical story of the prodigal son. I forget which one said it, but one of them noted how the father in the story responds to the indignant older brother, when he complains that the father has never held a party in his honor, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” The pastor (we’ll say it was the pastor) said the father in the story represents God and we need to remember that, as believers, we can claim this as our own situation—we are always with God, and everything God has (which is everything) is ours. Then, as if I needed the further explanation, he added, “When this is your starting point, it changes everything.”

[blink, blink]

And that was it! My eyes were opened to a new truth that I hadn’t previously seen, and now I’m slowly realizing what it means to see everything differently.

This is a rather dramatic example, but I find it happens more often than I thought. The most recent iteration of this kind of experience came while reading the first book in a new InterVarsity Press series about art and theology. In Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, Jonathan Anderson and William Dyrness call on the readers to see modern art through new eyes—eyes attuned to see religious context and engagement with the art and artists of the modern era. Along with viewing modern art afresh, the book is a call to see the art criticism of Hans Rookmaaker afresh as well, perhaps with a more critical eye.

Anderson and Dyrness argue that Rookmaaker missed the point by assuming that modern artists were making their work devoid of Christian references or religious influence and, thus, were pagan and meaningless, “. . . interpreting these artistic disruptions of mass visual culture as advocating negative and dysfunctional ‘messages’ about reality itself” [326]. Anderson and Dyrness endeavor to tell a different story—turning the negativity of Rookmaaker on its head and pointing to an expansive range of examples, some blatantly displayed in the work (Andy Warhol’s final series) and some by somewhat tenuous extrapolation (Pablo Picasso being influenced by his Catholic environment), of religion playing a role in the shaping of artists’ thinking and resulting artworks. True to my earlier theme, once one starts seeing these examples through a grid of religious awareness, it completely changes one’s perspective of modern art’s project. Far from being the atheist’s triumph of reason, the authors argue that “…the ‘grain’ of the history of modern art, which has so often been interpreted from within a secularization narrative, needs to be deeply reconsidered with respect to the ways that this grain was formed within religious contexts and shaped by theological questions and concerns” [327].

I won’t take time here to analyze the authors’ arguments in rebuttal of Rookmaker’s take on modern art history. It should be noted, however, that a significant portion of the book is directed at summarizing, contextualizing, and ultimately refuting Rookmaker’s take on interpreting modern art. Indeed, the first two chapters are devoted to describing the art-historical writing on modern art and, specifically, Rookmaker’s contribution to it. Anderson and Dyrness praise Rookmaker for being an intellectual leader and consider his seminal book, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture “a rallying cry for Christians to reengage the visual arts and the attendant academic discourses about the arts” [50]. They then proceed to place Rookmaker’s work within its time and cultural context and, although disagreeing with much of his interpretations of modern artworks, from Courbet to Warhol, Anderson and Dyrness’s book is not solely a critique of Rookmaker and his work. They note that, “Rookmaaker’s work has been helpful to generations of Christians active in the arts, and his overall influence has been positive. His reading of modern art was flawed, but his consistent aim was to urge fellow Christians toward a fuller and more intensely constructive vision for the arts” [84].

Similarly, Anderson and Dyrness’s goal for Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, with respect to academic communities anyway, is to bring together those in church communities who have tended toward “weak (or simply misinformed) understandings of modern and contemporary art” and those in the academy, who have “anemic (or simply misunderstood) understandings of theology” [329]. Writing a book to bridge two very different communities is a daunting task, but in Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, Anderson and Dyrness fill the gap and meet both needs simultaneously: both accessible to the lay person and rigorous enough for the academy. In this, the authors provide us with a useful tool for understanding the role of religion—and specifically Christianity—in the history of modern art.

In the epilogue, art historian Daniel Siedell poses the practical question “So what?” His conclusion coincidentally points to my earlier example of seeing everything afresh. Dr. Siedell asks whether evangelicalism has gotten its interpretation of modernism wrong, and in doing so, perhaps much of its understanding of popular culture as well. Siedell names a big risk here, proposed by Anderson and Dyrness: perhaps rereading the history of modern art within this new theological context will cause us to rethink everything we know about modern art and culture, and by extension, our present experience of them. Going further, Siedell suggests, “If that is the case, which, again, I believe it is, then the North American church needs to completely rethink how it understands culture and creative cultural artifacts” [331] In other words, Modern Art and the Life of a Culture may prompt us to see everything differently. It’s certainly worth taking a look.


 

Wayne Adams, a Brooklyn-based artist who received his B.F.A. from Calvin College and M.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, has exhibited throughout the Midwest, New York, and Vienna, Austria. Adams currently serves as president of the board of Christians in the Visual Arts.

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