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Modern Art and the Life of a Culture - Review

Review of Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness: Modern art and the life of a culture: the religious impulses of modernism (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2016)

by Nigel Halliday

I am told by some who knew him that Hans Rookmaaker looked forward to the day when no one would read his books anymore, because others had built so well upon them that they would be rendered redundant. I suspect Anderson and Dyrness have aspired to write such a book, but they have not. 

They could have presented this book as honouring Rookmaaker the pioneer, whose approach they now seek to adumbrate and refine. Instead, they have adopted a highly critical stance, intent on taking him down. But in their keenness to belittle him they repeatedly trip themselves up. They leave themselves looking small and Rookmaaker looking greater and his insights deeper.  

The authors set out to fight on two fronts, which is never wise. On the one hand they want to challenge the secularism of so many accounts of modern art which gloss over artists’ religious beliefs. On the other hand they want to challenge the negative attitude they feel many Christians have towards modern art, for which they hold Rookmaaker’s book Modern art and the death of a culture as emblematic and partly responsible.

On the first front they do well. They present a range of interesting material on the religious interests of diverse figures from Gontcharova and Malevich in the Russian avant-garde to Alfred Barr, first Director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art; from Hugo Ball of the Zürich Dadaists to Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. To a large extent they are collating material that has become known over the past 40 years.  Nevertheless, secularism still dominates much of our culture and even when an artist’s spiritual interests are well known, it seems to make the power-brokers in our art galleries, journalism and publishing uneasy and they will often smudge over it. 

So this book is a useful corrective in foregrounding the range of spiritual interests that lie behind much modern art. However, at times I felt the authors were trying too hard and risked undermining their own credibility. Their attempt to dragoon Picasso into the spiritual fold on the basis of his childhood exposure to Catholicism was particularly embarrassing. After all, almost any person born in the West can be shown to have had contact with Christianity at some point in their childhood. T J Clark’s recent Picasso and Truth stands against them and with Rookmaaker, arguing that later Picasso reflects a deep Nietzschean sense of alienation from reality.

Also, in trying to argue for religious influence among the French avant-garde they spend a considerable time singing the praises of Emile Bernard and Maurice Denis. Some interesting research a few years ago showed that, despite the equalization of all images implicit in postmodernism, academic art history in the postmodern era continues to focus on the same canon as the modernists did, from Manet and the Impressionists down to Pollock and Warhol. This consistency points to an implicit recognition of quality. Bernard and Denis may be interesting for their spiritual beliefs, but much of their work is vapid and sentimental and scarcely bears the weight of analysis.

If the authors had left the book here, it would have been a useful addition to the literature. But as their title makes clear, they are spoiling for a fight with Rookmaaker as well. They graciously allow that Rookmaaker’s influence overall was positive (p. 84), but his reading of modern art, they say, was ‘flawed’; and they take great issue with his ‘deeply negative’ and ‘declinist’ approach. By implication they suggest he lacked the ‘interpretive generosity’ they wish to show (p. 86).

But their treatment of Rookmaaker seems to be unfair, sometimes downright misleading, and seems not to realize what he was trying to achieve. In fact, so far do they place themselves from Rookmaaker that in one of their most shocking arguments they suggest that Rookmaaker’s approach should be jettisoned, because they feel it hampers one’s ability to engage in academic debate with non-Christian art historians (pp. 9-10, 71). Ever since Daniel worked in the Babylonian court, believers have needed wisdom about how to engage with colleagues of other faiths. But abandoning arguments based on your worldview because you fear they won’t make sense to non-believers is disastrous. Isn’t this just pietism in another guise? The world needs Christians to be arguing the Christian case. They need the truth, which is rooted in Jesus and his Word. They need Rookmaaker’s depth, not the shallowness of this tome.

‘Declinism’

Sadly, the very title of the book is misleading. Modern art and the life of a culture is clearly intended to make it sound like a corrective to Rookmaaker’s Modern art and the death of a culture. But this is just a linguistic sleight of hand. For the titles use ‘life’ and ‘death’ in quite different ways. Anderson and Dyrness argue (p. 10) that modern art is influenced by religious life and is an expression of people dealing with issues of modern life; and of course Rookmaaker would agree with that. Rookmaaker’s reference to death is quite differently focused, referring to the slow death of Western culture since the Enlightenment, a decline that can be seen expressed in much modern art.           

You only have to consider the statistics for depression and suicide, abortion, family breakdown, environmental degradation and the subversion of power into the hands of wealthy elites to see that declinists still have a case to make. But Anderson and Dyrness simply do not address the issue. They focus on what they see as Rookmaaker’s dark take on modern art rather than giving proper weight to his appreciation of the good job modern art does in addressing the negative implications of a culture that is turning its back on God.

Anderson and Dyrness seem to treat almost any expression of religious interest or trace of religious influence as positive. When Kandinsky refers to his theosophical sense of givenness and his reference to ‘God is in my heart’, they seek to connect this to the biblical idea of human beings presenting themselves before God (p. 189). Later on, they remark on how Rauschenberg’s White Painting can be used to assist in Christian meditation (p. 305), which seems at best isogesis, not exegesis.

On several occasions the authors criticize Rookmaaker for not drawing attention to the religious interests of or influences on their favoured artists (e.g. pp. 114, 196). The implication is that, if he had spotted them, he would not have been so ‘declinist’. But I suspect the reason is that Rookmaaker simply saw the deeper issues. Being ‘religious’, as we know from Jesus speaking to the Pharisees and Paul at Mars Hill, is not the answer to humanity’s problems. What the world needs is not religion, but a relationship with our Creator through his Son, founded on his Word, the Bible. The fact that artists are not thoroughgoing atheists but have a religious faith is not in itself a disproof of the ‘declinist’ argument.  

In their spirit of ‘interpretive generosity’ the authors are offended by Rookmaaker’s robust analysis. For instance, they criticize him for dismissing Emile Bernard’s work as ‘neo-platonist’ (p. 114), even though only three pages later they say that Rookmaaker was right: the works of his circle were neo-platonist (p. 117).  And elsewhere they criticize him for not appreciating that many modern artists are ‘grappling with and extending a deeply Protestant set of theological sensibilities’ (p. 196), i.e. a sense of the goodness of creation, the inexplicable givenness of things and the eschatological longing for the redemption of the earth. The authors acknowledge that Rookmaaker recognized these works as serious expressions of spiritual conviction and as very beautiful. But what they don’t like, or perhaps don’t appreciate, is that Rookmaaker looks deeper than the religiosity of the artist and has got the guts to stand against neo-platonism. It is not a mainstream Christian belief; it is a form of escapism and it will not help to redeem our culture. 

Another case in point is the authors’ discussion of Caspar David Friedrich. Rookmaaker took the view, entirely standard for his day and still worthy of consideration, that Friedrich expresses a post-Enlightenment sense that God is drifting further and further away and the best we are left with is a romantic pantheism. Anderson and Dyrness point to new research showing that Friedrich was in fact a genuine Christian believer, belonging to a German pietist group, and was expressing conviction in the reality of God, not doubt. However, they do not engage with Rookmaaker’s view that pietists were partly responsible for the decline of the culture by their withdrawal from it. Is it of interest that Friedrich was a Christian believer? Of course. Does it make his paintings powerful expressions of Christian conviction that could help to influence the culture towards Christian truth? I don’t think so.

The authors also clearly dislike Rookmaaker’s characterization of abstract artists as ‘gnostic’ and yet that is where the neo-platonic and pietist impulses get you. The development of non-representational art, albeit driven by spiritually related impulses, was accompanied by the multiplication of words – including by our authors here – in order to make it comprehensible, because of the limitation of what abstraction can communicate. The artist and/or the critics become the new prophets who invite us to enter into their vision and their explanation of the work. 

The fact that the early non-representational painters all believed in a spiritual reality which they seek to address through their painting, has long been known but it in no way undermines Rookmaaker’s analysis. If we approach their work from a biblical worldview, their spirituality is flawed in their understanding of God, man, sin, and the path to redemption; and their paintings – indisputably beautiful and effective though they may be at expressing the artists’ worldviews – do not point the viewer back towards biblical truth. As the authors quote, Rookmaaker commends the seriousness of abstract art, its beauty and its rejection of glib answers. It is that same refusal of glib answers that drives Rookmaaker to highlight the mismatch between the thinking/painting of the non-Christian artists and God’s reality in which we live. In this robust critique he does the artists justice by taking them seriously and facilitates honest debate about important truths.  

By contrast Anderson and Dyrness’ approach risks merely patronizing anyone smart enough not to be an atheist and declines to point out the obvious errors or, indeed with some of them, the fatuous nonsense involved in their theory. In fact, towards the end the authors seem to distance themselves from Rookmaaker’s insistence that works of art should have to communicate at all (p. 298), which leaves one wondering what category of human activity they are really talking about.

Did he really say…?

I normally forbear to write negative critiques, but in this case I think readers should be made aware of some of the ways this book misleads.

First of all, one should question the basis on which they cite others as authorities to condemn Rookmaaker. They round off one section (p. 76) by saying Rookmaaker would fall foul of a critique by Donald Kuspit, as if this was Rookmaaker firmly put in his place. But who made Kuspit the go-to authority? Kuspit says that one should not criticize abstract art for what is not represented, but should value the positive presence of the surface. Rookmaaker recognizes the intentions of non-representational art, but holds that it is severely limited in its communicative power by its lack of particulars. Kuspit and Rookmaaker come from different worldviews and reach different conclusions. That is not a point scored against Rookmaaker.

Secondly, there are instances where I feel the authors actually misrepresent Rookmaaker. They seek for instance to put Rookmaaker in the wrong by quoting him (p. 182) saying that Mondrian ‘shunned reality’, whereas, they say, Mondrian only ‘had shunned pictorial imitations of natural appearances’.  But if you check the Rookmaaker source (Collected Works v.5, p. 319), that is exactly what Rookmaaker says. The paragraph from which the words are lifted is entirely about subject matter: in order to ‘render spiritual depth’ Kandinsky and Mondrian had not painted a Madonna or a crucifixion but ‘an abstract interplay of forms’. It was in this context that Rookmaaker said they ‘shunned reality’, i.e. in their choice of subject matter. Anderson and Dyrness give the impression that Rookmaaker is way off beam when, in fact, he says exactly what they say!

Thirdly, later on they quote Rookmaaker saying that ‘Jackson Pollock set out to destroy all (rational) meaning’ (p. 280 n. 134). They describe this as ‘puzzling’ without explaining what puzzles them. This seems to me a bit of a lazy slur, because the reference is not puzzling at all in context. (Interestingly the context is exactly the same page as the quote about Kandinsky and Mondrian above. Once again, I got the impression the authors were spoiling for a fight, grabbing without too much discrimination at whatever might look like ammunition.) Rookmaaker sees Pollock trying to paint without rational control – as Pollock himself says he is doing – in order to access the non-rational. You may jib at the strength of Rookmaaker’s word ‘destroy’, but the gist of what he says is neither puzzling nor, from a Christian worldview, particularly exceptionable. There is a straight line that connects the early surrealist interest in automatic writing and the gestural art of Jackson Pollock (a line obscured by the authors’ stilted attempts to play down the influence of the Europeans on American art). Both seek to avoid rational control in the belief that the non-rational result will be in some way revelatory. Rookmaaker sees this as a rejection of rational meaning. Moreover, he would probably go on to ask the deeper question, which Anderson and Dyrness never approach: why should we believe that what is expressed out of your own psyche is truthful or even meaningful? Where are we looking for the ground of truth and reality?

Unfortunately, these are far from being the only examples of unfair treatment. In the last chapter they acknowledge that there are at least three seriously argued but very different readings of Warhol (p. 314). Without saying why they plump for the first one and then condemn Rookmaaker for not agreeing with them (p. 326). Furthermore, they condemn Rookmaaker’s failure to recognize the religious content in Warhol’s work, even though, as they say, Warhol rigorously hid his religious interests and his explicitly religious works were made after Rookmaaker had died.

They offer a particularly Christian reading of Rauschenberg’s Hymnal, a pierced phone book, on the strength of which they criticize Rookmaaker for his ‘flat’ reading of Rauschenberg, without justifying why their particularly positive reading of a highly ambiguous image should be privileged (p. 310).

Afterword

The authors say that they want to help the Christian community recognize the theological issues raised in modern art and to do so in ways that are charitable and irenic (p. 329), implying that Rookmaaker did not do this. I did not find them either charitable or irenic. On the contrary, their representation of Rookmaaker seems uncharitable and at times even misleading. 

Rookmaaker wanted Christians to honour contemporary art with their serious attention, to see its deeper meanings and to engage with it from a Christian worldview. This latter step seems completely beyond Anderson and Dyrness: they dither pathetically at the edge of the pool, seemingly unaware of what Rookmaaker, plunging bravely into the depths, is trying to achieve.

In their Afterword (p. 329) the authors describe their own work as ‘inadequate’. Sadly, I do agree with this, although presumably not in the sense they meant.

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Nigel Halliday is a freelance teacher and writer in the history of art and one of the leaders of Hope Church, Greatham, in the UK. See http://www.nigelhalliday.org.