An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture by Jonathan Anderson and William Dyrness - a review

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture
The Religious Impulses of Modernism
Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness
InterVarsity Press
Pbk; 265 pp; 
ISBN: 9780830851355

This book is part of a new series on Studies in Theology and the Arts (STA). The book, written by an artist (Anderson - professor of art at Biola University) and a theologian (Dyrness - professor of theology and culture at Fuller Seminary), responds to Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (MA&DoC). 

MA&DoC was a ground-breaking book written over 45 years ago. It was even one of Malcolm Muggeridge’s Books of the Year in 1970. It is testimony to its legacy and impact that it is in print and is still written about today. Rookmaaker drawing off Dooyeweerd’s Christian philosophical framework analyses art and culture. Art for Rookmaaker needed no justification. By that he meant that art (and music) was a good cultural activity for Christians to be involved in. Art wasn’t only useful as an apologetic or evangelistic tool: the aesthetic is an important part of creation. 

However, Rookmaaker had a largely negative view of modern art. This book has a much more positive view - hence the change from death to life in the title. MA&DoC was a polemical work, modern art represented a decline; this book is much more eirenic. As they put it:
‘In what follows we intend to pay tribute to Rookmaaker’s pioneering study and to the generative thinking it fostered for many Christians, yet at the same time we will critique and supplant the central theses of that book’ (p.10)
Anderson and Dyrness see modern art as a ‘theologically meaningful project’ and look at the various religious beliefs underpinning several key modern artists. They hope to ‘decipher’ the way that 
‘“spiritual values,” even theological values, are already in play and at stake throughout modern art, even (perhaps especially) in artworks that do not set out to convey any such thing’ (p.40).
They maintain that the crises and labours of modern art were essentially ‘theological crises and labours’. The book is split into two main parts. Part I takes an appreciative but critical look at Rookmaaker’s approach. Part II takes a geographical journey from Europe to North America and examines several key artists. They begin in France and Britain (Chapter 3) and look at, for example, Gustave Courbet, Paul Gaugin, Van Gough and Georges Rouault; the British artists examined include the Eric Gill and Graham Sutherland. What is noticeable in this chapter is the influence of Roman Catholicism. Whereas, in Germany and Holland (the focus of Chapter 4)  the influence of Protestantism is more marked. Here they examine the works of Caspar David Freidrich and see the influence of German Pietism on his work.

Their analysis of Fredrich’s Monk by the Sea and The Abbey in the Oakland is particularly interesting.

They write:
‘This decrepit manmade structure [The Abbey] was built to celebrate the glory (fullness) of God, but it is now a wreckage, undone by the centuries-long inertia of social transformation and natural entropy.  The “soft  wind” that Friedrich had in mind erases both footprints and cathedrals alike. And in Abbey the two are in fact drawn together: the ruined body of the man being carried through the doorway is directly analogized with the broken body of the cathedral; both are images of God that are  finally unable to generate their own lives or to contain that Life to which they refer. Both human life and human theology are thus faltering pointers toward realities beneath or beyond what is speakable and thinkable. … Whereas Monk pushes the religious seeker to the brink of the abyss, Abbey pushes him to the brink of death; and, in both, religious structures and rituals are found outstripped by the unspeakable Beyond to which they point’ (p.152-153).
They also revisit van Gogh in this chapter, tracing the influences in his work of northern romantic Protestantism.  Piet Mondrian, raised in a Dutch Calvinist home, was later influenced by Rudolf Steiner, also comes under scrutiny in this chapter. They note that Mondrian wouldn’t recognise his work in Rookmaaker’s assessment. They assert that: ‘Mondrian’s theory of art could have found its grounding entirely in Kuyper’s neo-Calvinism'. This is an interesting and intriguing assertion - but I think it needs a little more justification than Anderson and Dyrness produce here.

They then move on to look at Kandinsky. Next, in Chapter 5, they look at the developments in Russia and in the, alleged, nihilism of Dada. This chapter looks at the work of Natalia Goncharova, Kazimir Malevich and Hugo Ball. Ball one of the forerunners of the Dada movement was born into a devout Catholic family. In his later years he reconverted to Catholicism. Anderson and Dryness pose an important question: 'How should we understand Hugo Ball’s Dadaism in relation to his Christianity?’ (228).  The authors here show how these artists were  rooted in Christian traditions.

The next two chapters move from Europe to look at North America. They explore the artists Thomas Cole and Fredric Edwin Church and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Alfred H. Barr Jr, a practising Presbyterian, was the key figure behind MoMA. We are then moved onto a discussion of John Cage’s work. Particularly helpful is the discussion of Cage’s (im)famous 4’33” and the relationship between noise and music. Cage was originally a devout Christian, but the churches he attended were ‘were anemic institutions preoccupied with otherworldly sentimentalities’ (p.197). The authors thus see Cage’s work as ‘oriented toward the practical recovery of a more thoroughgoing creational theology’ — a far cry from the view of Cage espoused by Francis Schaeffer! Another artist that comes under close scrutiny is Andy Warhol. Again the authors reveal Christian perspectives that come through in Warhol’s work.  

What Anderson and Dyrness have done in this volume is to highlight the deep religiously held views of many of the exponents of modern art. The book provides an excellent compliment, and corrective, to the pioneering work of Rookmaaker. They have shown that modern art is theologically significant and modern art cannot be written off as symptomatic of nihilism and secularism. 



Part I: Critical Contexts
1. Introduction: Religion and the Discourse of Modernism 
2. H. R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture

Part II: Geographies, Histories and Encounters
3. France, Britain and the Sacramental Image 
4. Germany, Holland and Northern Romantic Theology 
5. Russian Icons, Dada Liturgies and Rumors of Nihilism 
6. North America and the Expressive Image 
7. North America in the Age of Mass-Media

Afterword by Daniel A. Siedell
List of Illustrations


Paola Hayward said...

Rookmaaker's book is certainly worth a reassessment. Have you read it recently? I wonder if it can be read as a basically negative critique of modern art. It is about the "death of a culture" and not the death of culture per se. I seem to recall it being about the death of the grand synthesis between Christianity and Humanism. To the extent that this is achieved in an anti-Christian direction Rookmaaker would have been critical. But perhaps more so towards the paucity of an integral Christian response. Is there not genuine appreciation, in Rookmaaker, for the ending of an unsustainable synthesis, and genuine compassion for the despair he perceived in modern art? I am speculating now, but might it be that the main point of Anderson and Dyrness' book is that the synthesis culture still has its power and is not fully lost? In which case might they have missed the reformational seriousness of Rookmaaker's book?

Rudi said...

Apologies Steve, and my wife, the preceding comment was from Rudi

Steve Bishop said...

Hi Rudi

Thanks for the comments. You make a very good point. I've not read Rookmaaker MA&DoC recently - so my comments may well have been inadvertently influenced by Anderson and Dryness' commentary on him. You are right Rookmaaker's approach is far more nuanced than their critique suggests.



Chris Gousmett said...

We also need to consider how Rookmaaker's "worldview"-ish approach is contrasted with a more theological approach by Dyrness and Anderson. We need to be cautious about any attempt to provide a theological analysis of non-theological material. That is, what they may have produced is a "theology" of art but not an art-historical analysis of art. And there does seem to be a strong element of synthesis still at play - given all I have read is the publisher's blurb, one review and the comments here. The fact that some artists had a Christian profession of some kind does not mean that their art was "Christian" in Rookmaaker's sense.

Hopefully we will see a good critique of both books which point out the features of both which will advance the Kingdom.

Bruce C Wearne said...

Yes I tend to agree with Paola/Rudi comment. I wonder what Bookmaker would say about being dubbed a theologian. The suggestion that to talk about one's dependence upon God in everyday life makes one a "theologian" is I think a serious misconstrual of everyday life.

I haven't examined the book but I find some of the publishers comments and the comment made on the web about it strange to say the least

"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."

The phrase: "Rookmaaker was unnecessarily pessimistic in his assessment of modern art, overlooking the religious impulses that shaped much of modern art" seems to juxtapose pessimism.and religious impulses in an all too uncritical manner.

Of course Rookmaaker's historiography of art is not beyond criticism. My son, a graduate in Fine Art, found Rookmaker a pertinent starting point but had to concede it didn't get him very far when a rejigged post-structuralist historiography of art became dominant in his course. The above statement seems, at least on the surface, to ignore HRR's post-POW WWI experience of Nazism, and the fact that he gave himself the task of making a full-frontal historiographical confrontation with the "pessimism" that was implicit in "modern art", modern music ... . And that is not at all to deny that modern art expresses "strong religious impulses" - HRR was quite aware of Kandinsky's 1912 "On the Spiritual in Art".

Nevertheless, I sometimes wondered whether in his critique the converted post-colonial Dutch Christian who was introduced to reformational philosophy by Mekkes was "too theological" in his account.

But he certainly insisted that ART needed no (theological or other) justification.

One wonders whether the authors are facing squarely the extended crisis in which humanism is plunging - yes its synthesis with Christianity has been shrugged off. Western culture is in deep trouble, and many now consider Sartre's "atheistic nothingness" as a deeply religious orientation.

This reminds me of the all-too-American (booster) critique of Max Weber by Talcott Parsons in which the latter's critique was that Weber was too pessimistic - in other words Weber just wasn't American enough in his failure to adequately embrace the American ideal of what an ideal society should be.