The Christian Art Historian - John Walford
The Vocation of a Christian Art Historian: Strategic Choices in a Multicultural Context
by E. John Walford
A spoken address delivered at the Art as Spiritual Perception Symposium, Wheaton College, October 2012
In the course of my career I have often spoken about the vocation of the artist who is a Christian, but I have rarely had occasion to speak of the vocation of an art historian who is a Christian. I suspect, however, that many of the same principles apply: just as there are many ways of being an artist who is a Christian, so there are many ways of being an art historian who is a Christian.
Yet, we are so few, we do well to be strategic about the type of art history we do, and the nature of the topics we engage.
I perceive practicing art history as a sub-set of Christ and culture issues, which also means that individual choices will likely echo the position we take on the spectrum of Christ and culture modes of engagement. While H. Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture (1951) has proved seminal for my generation, today’s scholars would do well to rethink Niebuhr’s approach and categories in light of the difference in our current, largely post-Christian, intellectual and cultural context. Indeed this task has been carefully addressed by Craig A. Carter’s book, Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), and should be duly considered, though I do not intend to pursue that dimension further in this address.
I will speak rather to some of the strategic dimensions of my own experience as an art historian, starting with the nature of art history when I entered the field, and my own inheritance from the Dutch Reformed tradition of philosophical and art-historical thinking. I will attempt to expose some strategic implications from both of these foundations – namely the nature of the discipline when I first encountered it, and the perspective afforded by my personal exposure to Dutch Reformed thinking, specifically in the persons of Hans Rookmaaker and his University colleagues.
My Inheritance from the Christian Dutch Art Historian Hans Rookmaaker
Critical to the Dutch Reformed intellectual tradition in which I was first educated, was the vigilant attention paid to pre-suppositional thinking, which is an acute awareness of the unspoken assumptions lying behind the scholarship of others. This leads to a critical evaluation and critique of the same from the perspective of biblical and theological principles, themselves as defined by the Dutch Reformed tradition.
At the ground level of such Dutch Reformed thinking lay the presupposition that in one way or another, the actions, and hence the art and art history as well, of all human beings are driven by the value- and belief-systems that ground and drive chosen courses of action. It is assumed that none of us operates neutrally and that even if our presuppositions are partially or even largely lodged somewhere in our subconscious, nevertheless they inform and drive our actions. Just as people cannot play a game of soccer without some form of goal posts, so we can’t act in the world, other than in a given direction. To try to do so is to be like the double-minded man, mentioned in the Book of James, unstable in all his ways, and tossed about by every wave of fashion and intellectual ideology.
This also means that as art historians we all have to strategically choose and work from a tradition which, for one reason or another, we value, and we have to start from somewhere and something around us, however much we may eventually seek to adapt what we have been exposed to according to our own maturing judgment and sensibilities.
The Nature of Art History When I First Entered The Field
What was the nature of art history when I first entered the field as an undergraduate in 1969? I raise this not as a matter of reminiscence, but rather because of what I perceive as the long-standing consequences of some of the foundational assumptions about the nature of art history, at least as practiced until challenged by more recent contextual and semiotic approaches. These newer approaches notwithstanding, the discipline still bears the strong, genetic imprint of its early Modern beginnings.
When I entered the field, art history was practiced primarily as the history of stylistic evolution through unified periods and styles. There was also a secondary emphasis on iconography, which I will come to shortly. Within the discipline of art history, there was a pretence of scientific objectivity in the methodology of art history, as then widely practiced, namely the history of stylistic evolution. This foundational methodology was rooted in Johann Winkelmann’s classification system of Greek sculpture, the seminal work of the Austrian Alois Riegl and the Swiss Heinrich Wölfflin, who had studied under Jacob Burckhardt in Basel and then went on to teach in both Germany and Switzerland (Berlin, Basel, Munich, & Zurich), where he influenced a whole generation of German-speaking art historians. [Burckhardt was the son of a Swiss Protestant clergyman and initially studied (Calvinist) theology].
The modern foundations of art history, as shaped by these German-speaking scholars was also fundamentally shaped by ideas stemming from German Idealist philosophy, and from Hegel in particular. When transferred into the discipline of art history, it resulted in the long-standing notion of the unity of period and styles as a manifestation of the ‘Zeitgeist’ or Spirit of an Age – a term that later became extremely suspect to art historians, not least because it implied that Nazism might therefore be seen as inevitable, and therefore irresistible. Meanwhile, such German idealist thought left a profound, long-term impact on the methodology and unspoken assumptions of art history.
The seminal ideas of these early German-speaking art historians were passed down and presented to so many of my generation through earlier editions of Horst Janson’s History of Art. (Janson was born to Swedish parents in St. Petersberg, Russia. During the Russian Revolution his family fled to Germany, where he became a student of Panofsky at the University of Hamburg. In 1935 he emigrated to the US, where he eventually taught at New York University).
An account such as this would be remiss not to include the counter-balancing writings of Clive Bell and Roger Fry, who in the 1920s and 1930s, basing themselves on the formal, analytical principles of the Italian art historian Giovanni Morelli, rejected the literary basis of much Humanistic, iconographic research, and in its place championed pure form, as seen in Post-Impressionists such as Cezanne, becoming the precursor to the formalist tendencies in so much 20th c. art and criticism, while challenging the text-driven, Humanist, iconographic critique. The methodology of Clive Bell and Roger Fry is distinct from that of Wölfflin and his successors in that those historians link style to culture and history, whereas Bell and Fry as pure formalists believed that art has its own history, independent of context.
Stylistic Analysis and Formalism:
Pro’s: Historical classification & chronological structure, which relates to the way we remember things. Provides structure for the multiplicity of data.
Focuses attention on the formal and aesthetic choices of artists, and their handling of materials and chosen media. Upholds art as art.
Con’s: Ignores interpretative questions & broader human significance.
A perceived narrowness of relevance.
Relegates art to a distinct category, separate from the rest of life, associated with pleasure and aesthetic contemplation with no further social relevance.
When I started out as a student of art history, Janson’s historical-evolutionary stylistic approach was complemented by literary-based iconographic studies,modeled by Ernst Cassirer, Aby Warburg, Edgar Wind,Erwin Panofsky, Fritz Saxl and others (Panofsky, Warburg and Saxl were all connected to the University of Hamburg in the 1920s. Warburg died in 1929, and Saxl and Panofsky, both Jewish, left Germany in the 1930s, Saxl taking the great Warburg family library to London and Panofsky eventually settling at Princeton).
Pro’s: Provides insight in the content and meaning of art and therefore in its broad, human significance and social relevance.
It can support an array of diverse interests: spiritual, literary, material, geographic, thematic, etc.
Con’s: Typically ignores the material substance and formal considerations of art.
Can reduce art to message and tie it too closely to verbal modes of communication.
Both of these dominant approaches, the evolution of artistic style and iconographic approaches, had been developed in German-speaking cultural contexts, and in my view this has had a profound, long-term impact on the nature of art history as a discipline, for reasons that I shall suggest. I want therefore to draw careful attention to the some of those implications, so far as I have been able to perceive them.
There was a distinct, but unspoken Humanistic bias in the values, interests and priorities of the leading German-speaking and/or German-educated figures such as the cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt, Alois Riegl and Heinrich Wölfflin,. This bias informed the most influential founders of modern art history. Furthermore, it has had great repercussions in the English-speaking world, given that a number of leading German-speaking scholars were of secular Jewish backgroundand fled from Germany and Austria in the 1930s. What is significant for the art historian who is a Christian is to realize the degree to which this affected the treatment of art made for the Church, and the neglect of the Christian content of so much of Western art. In turn, more recent methodologies have done little to correct these lacunae, since their priorities have tended to focus on material culture and on the politics of the self. Such lacunae, to me, suggest opportunity for the art historian who is a Christian to offer a distinctive contribution.
With the rise of Nazism, someof these leading German, Jewish scholarssettled in the UK, as did the German, Nikolaus Pevsner, and the Viennese, Ernst Gombrich; and others settled in the USA, as did Erwin Panofsky (teaching at New York University & Princeton), Jacob Rosenberg (a former pupil of Wölfflin, and in turn the mentor of Harvard’s Seymour Slive), Walter Friedländer (another pupil of Wölfflin, who taught at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York), and others, coming just as art history was being more firmly establishedas academic disciplines in these countries. (Pevsner, Gombrich, Saxl, Panofsky, Rosenberg, & Friedländer all came from Jewish families, although Friedländer was raised as a Lutheran). I have not attempted to establish which other refugee art historians were of Jewish background, but Vernon Hyde Minor, in his book Art History’s History (Englewood Cliffs, 1994, p. 23), writes of the great boon for American art history in the 1930s from the influx of German-trained, Jewish art historians.
The Enduring Consequences of these Humanistic Foundations
The consequences of this history was the privileging of the Humanistic Classical tradition, with the Italian Renaissance treated as the cultural high mark and point of reference for much else. Classical ideals, and their Renaissance and later Enlightenment revival as well as Classical mythology, could be regarded as possessing a universal value and truth that avoided head-on engagement with the claims and demands of Christianity. By contrast, Medieval and much Northern European art of the fifteenth-, sixteenth-, and seventeenth-centuries, to say nothing of seventeenth-century Italian Counter-Reformation art, did not afford that ideological convenience, if engaged on its own terms.
From this preferred perspective, it followed that there was also a widely-pervasive tendency to describe, focus on and value Northern art in terms of the history of its capacity to absorb Italian Renaissance forms and ideas. Let me underscore that I am not implying that Early Christian, Medieval and Netherlandish art were not studied, only that the dominant methodology (stylistic analysis and to a lesser extent classically-orientated iconography) lent itself to accentuating some elements of the subject, while passing over others, especially in the way that art history was broadly presented at conferences, to students and in the most prominent and widely-read publications.
It also led to a virtual total disregard for indigenous forms of post-Gothic Northern architecture. Red brick Dutch, Flemish and British architecture was deemed a non-architecture. Grey stone neo-classical buildings that looked dull in cloudy Northern climates were written about, while red brick houses that looked good against the wet-green pastures of England were largely ignored.
Most egregious was a marked preference for treating religious art in stylistic terms that largely ignored the function and religious meaning of such art. Thus much of the great religious art of Poland and Eastern Europe, even of Germany, to say nothing of the Spanish peninsular, was almost totally ignored, perhaps because it was alien to analysis according to Classical notions of proportion and harmony, and perhaps deemed displeasing or indeed inferior by such standards.
Byzantine art fared little better, though it had its occasional champion, among them a friend of my mother's, David Talbot-Rice.
Dutch 17th-century art - despite its bourgeois anti-classicism - was grudgingly allowed a short chapter in surveys, but even then barely acknowledged as a precursor to 19th-century Realism. Rosenberg & Slive, the authors of the volume on Dutch seventeenth-century art in the benchmark series of the Pelican History of Art, felt bound to attempt to describe Dutch art in terms of the wider German-idealist notion of the unity of periods and style, an approach which ill-served the distinct Northern traditions from which it emerged. When art historians such as Eddy de Jongh began to apply iconographic methods to the study of Dutch genre painting, a major art-historical war was unleashed, perhaps also because no one liked the Christian moralism that became evident in the art. When thereafter I proposed that not only genre painting, but also landscape and still life embodies a vision of reality informed by Christian thought, my mentor at Cambridge, Michael Jaffé, and later some of my peers in the US simply viewed such an idea with derision. They were committed to stylistic analysis.
Non-Western art was in most general curricular a non-subject, never spoken of, with the exception of Islamic art, seen as influencing the West through Sicily & Spain.
Also evident in hindsight is the neglect of female artists.
To me, all these lacunae and distorted perceptions of history suggest opportunity for the art historian who is a Christian to offer a distinctive contribution.
Newer Contextual Approaches to Art History: Marxism, Feminism, Post-Colonial
In time, as is well-known, these firmly entrenched methods of art history – formalism and style history as well as iconographic studies – came to be challenged and largely supplanted by what at the time was sometimes referred to, at least in England, as ‘The New Art History.’
This so-called New Art History was often driven by Marxist and later Neo-Marxist cultural assumptions, which in time routed both the Humanists and Formalists in the name of placing material cultural context in a preeminent position. The nature of artworks came to be examined in relation to their function within the class struggle, their relationship to the means of production, the economy and other aspects of material culture. Building on the work of social historian Arnold Hauser, Albert Boime and Frederick Antal, Charles Harrison and Paul Wood in collaboration through England’s Open University publications did much to promote the spread of this methodology, as also practiced by individuals such as Michael Baxandall.
This approach was taken up in this country by figures such as (British-born) T.J. Clark, Stephen Eisenman, and Keith Moxey. Soon, proportionally at least,the focus of such writings fell off the aesthetics of any given objectonto its function within the class struggle, the economyand other aspects of material culture- but still largely ignoring the religious context and its implications for the meaning of the art, often even when such was patent! Thus, with several notable exceptions such as Barbara Lane and James Marrow, art historians routinely wrote about late Medieval altarpieces without due consideration of the relationship of such works to the liturgy of the mass or the doctrine of Transubstantiation.
This new sociological methodology proved immensely fertile for expanding the discourse of art history, in as much as the placing of emphasis on the impact of societal forces on the nature of art began to suggest to many younger art historians a whole spectrum of other dimensions of the social fabric that impinge on the making and viewing of art. Thus arose Feminist, Multiculturalist, Post-Colonial, and Queer approaches to art history. Proponents ofsuch approaches have typically taken their lead from literary scholars and work analogously in adapting non-artistic analytical frameworks from other disciplines to the study of works of art.
Emerging in the 1970s Feminist agendas were early promoted by Linda Nocklin, Griselda Pollock, Norma Broude, Mary Garrard, Lisa Tickner, and Ann Sutherland Harris. Initial concerns focused on trying to locate the largely-absent woman as artist in history and on identifying the distinctive contribution of women. In process that expanded the range of art historical inquiry to embrace crafts – often historically the only creative outlets for women – which earlier art historians had largely or almost totally ignored.
Subsequent Feminist studies tended to concentrate more on how art contributed historically and in the present to the construction of female identity and societal roles, functioning to create and perpetuate stereotypes, which were then opened to exposure and criticism from Feminist points of view. Thereafter current female artists and their critical supporters have focused, among other concerns, on the reclaiming by women of their own bodies and their right to present it and deal with it, according to their own choosing.
Yet, once again, the spiritual dimension of personhood was typically left out of account or treated in non-traditional, non-institutional, mystical ways, that set aside traditional Christian belief.
Later on, taking their lead from such studies, Queer theorists such as Douglas Crimp drew strength from the ideas of Michel Foucault, the French historian of ideas, about how language and other forms of discourse construct gender and represent sexuality. The same is true for the construction of racial identity.
Such approaches to art history have done wonders in terms of widening the terms of discourse and possible topics for study. But it should also be noted that such methodologies also feed off a contemporary strain of individualism, under which lies driving concerns such as how does it promote my ideology and what does it do to me and/or for me?
Pro’s: Draws attention to the relationships between art and society and the impact of social, political and economic factors on the form, content, making and reception of art.
It’s a healthy counterbalance to formalist, iconographic and biographic approaches and can illuminate all three in fresh ways.
Con’s: Can draw attention off the art object – and its inherent qualities – onto the nature of the surrounding culture. Art can be reduced to a springboard for discussion of social issues.
Gender studies (as sub-set of a contextual approach):
Pro’s: Brings the relationship between one specific aspect of the social context – gender issues and inter-gender power conflicts – into sharp focus.
It has an implicit human interest dimension for all people.
It gives fresh voice to those previously suppressed.
Stresses that gender identity is a social construction and not essential.
It unmasks the pure aesthetic/formalist approach to representations of the human body.
Con’s: As with all contextual studies it can draw the attention off the inherent qualities of a given art work onto a narrow focus on a specific sociological issue.
The view that gender is a social construction is not shared by essentialists, that is those that believe that gender identity is a given of birth and genetics and not of cultural context.
It supports an instrumentalist view of art (if that is viewed as a ‘Con’).
Aesthetic values are subordinated to gendered priorities.
Multicultural studies (as sub-set of a contextual approach):
Pro’s and Con’s analogous to those of Gender Studies:
Pro’s: Brings the relationship between one specific aspect of the social context – racial issues and inter-racial power conflicts – into sharp focus.
It unmasks the pure aesthetic/formalist approach to representations of other cultures.
It has an implicit human interest dimension for those seeking to give a voice and a cultural space to diverse and often disenfranchised social groups.
It gives fresh voice and cultural space to those previously suppressed. It is democratic and anti-elitist.
Con’s: As with all contextual studies, it can draw the attention off the inherent qualities of a given art work onto a narrow focus on a specific sociological issue.
It supports an instrumentalist view of art (if that is viewed as a ‘Con’).
Aesthetic values are subordinated to multicultural priorities.
Artists’ Biography and Viewer Response Theory or Reception Theory
Besides such contextual approaches, there remain two other obvious parties in the dynamic of viewing and engaging art on which art historians have focused their attention, namely the artist’ biography and the viewer’s response.
Pro’s: Appeals to the dimension of human interest and psychology and harmonizes with the concept of art as self-expression. Plays well for an artist like Vincent van Gogh or perhaps Caravaggio, but doesn’t do much for a study of Jan van Goyen. Andrew Graham-Dixon’s recent biography of Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2010) for example provides a depth of insight to the wider caste of characters that shared the same stage as Caravaggio, and makes for illuminating reading about his time, place, and circumstances, and yet the paintings themselves end up taking a back seat in the narrative.
Con’s: Shifts attention from the art work to the artist and does not take account of work made by artists on commission, where their personal perspective is less dominant.
At the opposite end of the spectrum to biographic analysis of the artist lies viewer response theory or reception theory.
Writing in 1991 on Principles of Art Historical Writing David Carrier included a chapter entitled, ‘Where is the Painting? The Place of the Spectator in Art History Writing,’ in which he considers Leo Steinberg, Michael Fried and Michel Foucault’s respective analyses of the spectator’s role, also making reference to the thought of Gombrich and Svetlana Alpers. This essay is one good place to start to think about the implications of the viewer’s position in relation to the object under consideration. Such historians raise two questions:
1) Where is the viewer situated in relation to the art work?
2) What does such a viewer experience and perceive – both then and today.
Consideration of the psychology of reception has been promoted by figures such as Rudolf Arnheim, Ernst Gombrich, Richard Wollheim and David Freedberg. But I am in no position to comment on their undertakings.
Reception theory is deeply indebted to the semiotic theories of Roland Barthes. Rosalind Krauss, Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, for instance, all draw from semiotic theory to underscore that an image – or a work of art – can only be understood from the perspective of the viewer. It is the viewer who constructs meaning in relation to the object studied and that meaning is valid regardless of what the artist might have intended. Earlier practitioners, such as Panofsky, using an iconographic approach, assumed and sought out an inherent meaning in a given work of art, discoverable through the study of pertinent contextual sources. By contrast, art historians such as Krauss, Bal, and Bryson, building on the semiotic theories of RolandBarthes, are skeptical of such assumptions, since for a start, they argue, the reading of context is itself subjectively constructed. Hence they seek instead to explore how meaning – or meanings – may be derived from the image by the viewer in dialog with the object. Such meaning – or meanings – they argue, is what matters to us today, more so than any past, alleged, possible meanings.
Writing on still life, for example, in his book Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (Cambridge: Harvard, 1990) Norman Bryson starts with the question of what such works might mean for us today. He goes on to observe that meaning arises in the collaboration between signs (visual or verbal) and interpreters. In taking still life as his subject, this also provides him with occasion to consider the extent to which this genre’s historically low estimation, and by contrast its potential to be deemed worthy of attention, might arise from matters of ideology and gender. Thus he also manifests a concern with the reception of such art by different types of viewers.
Reception theory asserts that the past is deemed largely unknowable in terms of its original context. Every historical account is an artificial construction, revealing as much, if not more about its present-day interpreters as about that which it seeks to interpret. What we do with knowledge of the past in the present is what really matters. Viewer response is relative, diverse, inclusive and pluralistic, but actual and relevant in the present, whereas all historically-grounded accounts claim an illegitimate authority for what are in reality covert power plays, which are ideologically driven.
Finally the question arises as to how wide the study of art should expand. Should art historians only consider a narrow ‘canon’ of so-called ‘masterpieces,’ which rings as elitist in the context of a pluralistic democratic society, or should art historians study all forms of visual materials regardless of any perceived aesthetic quality? Such questions opened the door to Visual Studies, and/or Visual and Media Studies.
Visual Studies vs. Art History
We will set aside the issues raised by advocates of Visual Studies, suffice it to say that such studies raise the polemics of non-hierarchical populism and broad social relevance versus elitism and assertions of superior aesthetic quality and more besides.
Building on the work of the English art critic John Berger (Ways of Seeing, 1972), besides many British art historians such as Griselda Pollock, in the USA W. J. T. Mitchell (University of Chicago) and Keith Moxey (Barnard College, Columbia University) have been prominent advocates of the values and virtue of Visual Studies. The Lutheran art historian David Morgan (Valparaiso, and now Duke University) is a notable proponent of this approach, who has applied it specifically to the study of popular religious prints and other such religious artifacts.
Visual studies raise the polemics of populism and broad relevance vs. elitism and quality:
Pro’s: Enlarges the discourse to include all and any visual materials.
Democratic and anti-elitist: gives voice to the visual expression of all strata of society and includes those functioning within the context of popular culture.
Provides a broader picture of visual discourse and its significance.
It dissolves the barriers between fine and applied art, and between high and low.
Con’s: Its non-discriminatory, egalitarian approach comes at the expense of recognizing any qualitative differences of aesthetic value between the ‘masterpiece’ of a famous artist and the illustrations of a comic book.
Populism trumps quality; breadth of audience trumps subtlety of invention, or what Calvin Seerveld refers to as allusivity.
To sum up: Traditional Art History vs. Variant Forms of the So-called ‘New Art History’
Traditional art history attempts to approach art on its terms, within its historical context. It seeks historical understanding, and, while recognizing the limitations of all historical construction as partial and approximate, believes that there is a past that merits and demands attempts at discovery on its own terms. It thus attempts to know and understand the past as much as is possible within its original context.
But, as I have noted, such studies are themselves ideologically-titled and may well, resultantly, leave matters of Christian import out of view.
The new art history views art in sociological and instrumentalist terms typically at the expense of its aesthetic dimension. Art works are approached as sites of ideological debate and confrontation. At its most extreme newer forms of art history approach art in terms of what it means to us today, sometimes regardless of its original context. What matters is what it means to us, not what it meant to its first viewers. All attempts at historical reconstruction are no more than ideologically-driven powerplays.
In time, as the new art history dislodged the old, museum officials would start to complain that art history graduates from Harvard and elsewhere no longer knew how to look at a work of art in terms of its aesthetic merits, but knew a lot about how to use the arena of art as a locus for discussions of authority, powerplays and the manipulation of social identities.
As has been observed by others, such as Eric Fernie, when director of the Courtauld Institute, London in the mid 1990s, such studies tend to overlook that in terms of its core identity art history depends on ‘the expertise of the eye’ and supposedly studies ‘concrete objects’ (Fernie’s words). To that sound reminder, I would add, that only a few of its practitioners have been and are concerned to draw attention to matters of Christian religion and its traditional belief systems, as they inform art’s history.
Engaging This Methodological Spectrum as a Christian
It must first be acknowledged that as in most other professions typically graduate students set out, and often stay close to, the examples set before them in graduate school - perhaps only the most creative start ideological and methodological rebellions at this stage of their careers, if at all.
I will take, as an example, my experience at Cambridge with Michael Jaffé. When at Cambridge, England, I proposed my dissertation topic to Professor Michael Jaffé, a world-renown Rubens scholar, he started literally yelling at me: ‘Where did you get all that nonsense shoved in your head?’
What I was proposing was that even when an artist paints something as seemingly innocuous as a landscape, there is a mode of interpretation at play. Thus a painted landscape becomes the expression of a given vision of reality, of what nature means to its viewers and users in any given time and place, as informed by notions of what nature means to humankind, how it is understood and how it is used.
Strongly committed to what I had learned as an undergraduate in Amsterdam, the intensity of Jaffé’s negative reaction taught me the need to build strong intellectual defenses for my point of view if they were to hold up to scrutiny from my professional peers and ideological opponents. Jaffé, as you might guess, was committed to the study of stylistic development. He was also, as a matter of record, a Humanistic secular Jew, the significance of which I have considered earlier. The result was that I had to make my case credible on his methodological terms, also to meet the approval of two outside readers from other leading universities, both also practitioners of stylistic analysis. Through making such concessions and, as Jaffé warmed up to my ideas, I at least ended up with a product acceptable to Yale University Press.
So, where does all this leave the would-be art historian who is a Christian and who also finds him- or herself in an extremely isolated minority within the field?
I understand a Christian's call to be one of discernment: given my own intellectual history this has meant applying the Dutch presuppositional approach to the various methodologies of art history that I have encountered along the way, most specifically:
- the Humanist paradigm for art history.
- the Marxist paradigm for art history.
- Postmodern skepticism and subjectivity
I have also observed significant pitfalls of the Dutch presuppositional approach. These might be summarized as follows, most of all in people seeing the false presuppositions in a given approach and rejecting what is built thereon. Thus when Hans Rookmaaker’s book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (Downers Grove: IVP, 1970) was first published in 1970, and began to be widely read and respected, Christian art students tended to find themselves frustrated by Rookmaaker’s critique of much of Modernism for its devaluation of human dignity. As a result drawing, I think, the wrong conclusions from his exposition, they would express exasperation as they drew for themselves the conclusion that if that is flawed and the other is flawed too, so what’s left to build off? That was an unintended consequence from Rookmaaker’s point of view. He for himself would never want to overlook the fruits of Common Grace, the wisdom and fruits of the creative gifts that God has placed in all people, regardless of beliefs. His intent was to teach discernment, that people might not follow others blindly, lacking all discernment as to the implications of various cultural manifestations. His expectation was that armed with better discernment others would act in compensatory ways in response to the limitations and distortions found in whatever they were engaging within the surrounding culture.
When teaching art history at Wheaton, I noticed an analogous response to art in students who would often reason along lines such as: this art and that appears to have been inspired by false assumptions about the nature of humanity, and/or of reality, and/or directed towards social goals that are less than admirable, socially manipulative, driven by lust, pride, greed, ambition or whatever other vice might have been in play. The conclusion then drawn by such students was therefore that this is not godly fare and should be rejected by Christians. I would point out that there is no part of human culture that is free from the traces of sin, since culture is a fruit of flawed and sinful mortals, not perfect beings. The conclusion to be drawn is not withdrawal from society, but engagement therewith and efforts made towards its betterment. As Martin Luther once wisely stated, ‘Abuse of a practice is no grounds to reject the practice per se, otherwise you must first go out and destroy your own body.’ This applies no less to art-historical practice and methodology. The wiser path for the Christian is to start with discernment and to proceed with wisdom, taking what is to hand and seeking to make something more wholesome out of it.
Let me expand a little on the notion of Common Grace, because I see this concept as enormously liberating for how we engage the unredeemed culture round about us. Those who are quick to judge and dismiss the ungodly fruits of other people and other cultures, overlook one critical overarching theme of Scripture, namely that God has gifted all of humanity diversely. Perhaps the clearest way to grasp this is to consider in the Old Testament the account that is given of two distinct lines running through humanity: the line of Seth and the line of Cain. Seth’s line, we are told, is given wisdom and knowledge of God, but doesn’t generate much in the way of material culture, music, the arts, technology, architecture and the like. However, by contrast, Cain’s line, while bereft of the knowledge and wisdom of God, is rich in the generation of material culture, for in this line arises music, the arts, technology and city culture. Now notice: each group has been given something and each lacks what the other has been given as a gift and mastered. It is the same for us today. There are those who help us out with their worldly smarts and skills, who are clueless about God’s ways and wisdom; and there are those who are wise in the ways of God, who are clueless about medicine, car mechanics, finances and the like. Each group needs the other. That, too, should give us some clues as to how to go about doing art history or practicing art.
I would therefore rather see Christian activity – in any arena – as a redemptive activity. Therefore I see for the Christian wide opportunity to engage the full spectrum of art-historical methodology and seek to complement what one is personally exposed to or drawn towards, reworking its methods as best one can to include the spiritual dimension of human consciousness and behavior, which seems to be so often bracketed out in the work of others. This is what I think it means to work towards a Redemptive Model for Art History: working with the 'Plunder of Egypt' and making something wholesome out of it.
In Ephesians 4:23 we are exhorted: ‘Be renewed in the spirit of your minds.’ In my experience, Christian faith provides a fresh, informing lens through which to view the world and examine the scholarship of others. A Christian art historian is equipped in grad school with the same set of tools as everyone else. Yet, in putting those tools to work, while faced with the same material as everyone else, as we mature as Christians we should strive to develop what I have called ‘a Christ-crafted lens.’ This puts a different cast on how and what one sees, it brings different aspects of reality into sharper focus or refocuses our perception of what everyone else is looking at.
Towards a Redemptive Model for Art History – My own Attempt
For example, to speak from my own experience, in writing Great Themes in Art (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2001) I was consciously resisting the formalist, stylistic-analysis approach of such introductory texts and seeking to create an alternative to those that focused primarily on materials and techniques. In my judgment both approaches – whatever their inherent merits – left aside attention to the vision of God, humanity and the meaning of life in the world and the surrounding physical reality as conveyed through art throughout the ages. As a corrective I was thus consciously blending aspects of visual analysis, iconographic and contextual approaches, while trying to emphasize contextual spirituality and value systems rather than social and economic factors.
My themes were chosen and organized according to my perception of fundamental human issues, deeming these effective points of contact for a student’s first exposure to the world of art. In practice space limitations and expected coverage severely limited my possibility to really develop any of those themes. Recognizing that no text or approach can do everything, I thus chose an approach and methodology that would, as best possible, within the limitations of my own knowledge and abilities and the willingness of the publisher to allow such considerations, seek to draw out some of the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of artistic expression that tend to receive less attention when using others methods and approaches to the discipline. Thus, by placing first in each chapter a section on spirituality I was able to suggest that people’s belief systems and religious convictions tend to set the tone for, or at least influence, all other priorities.
As a Christian I also wanted to show openness towards peoples of all forms of religious belief, cultural difference, sexual orientation and so forth, recognizing all of humanity as created equally in the image of God, even though people of other cultural traditions have developed priorities and values different from those that I personally embrace. When I was in the process of contract negotiations with the publisher, who knew my personal faith convictions, he reminded me that a textbook is not a soap box for one’s one biases. For my part I assured the publisher that I would seek to represent people of all persuasions fair-handedly and explain as best possible where they stood, as I understood it. For the record, as written but not as published, though it stretched me far beyond my expertise I had attempted to pay significant attention to Non-Western art. The text as submitted for publication had this as 10% of the text, but by editorial fiat it was cut from 10% to just 1%. This was a possibility that I had anticipated from the beginning and had thus stated in the strongest terms that I thought such a move would immediately date the book,as insensitive to then-current trends in academia and, indeed, in publishing.
Let me be a little more specific about what I mean by working towards a redemptive model of art historical methodology. Firstly, my prime assumption is that we build off what we perceive as the best available of current practice, with ‘best’ implying to my mind that which takes most full account of the nature, dignity and fallen state of humanity, also recognizing that we are created as spiritual beings made for a relationship with our Creator, but a relationship sundered by human sinfulness. In relation to surrounding methodology I think it behooves us to keep an eye out for the lacunae in the work of others, what it leaves out of consideration regarding human spirituality and religious aspirations, as well as how it manifests the consequences of our rebellious, fallen natures.
I believe that in our professional practices – as in all arenas of our activity – we should strive to honor God and to uphold the dignity of humanity everyway we can, always working towards human flourishing for all peoples. We are called, also within our professional practices, to follow the example of Christ, who takes what is broken and works to make something healed and whole out of it, as he does with the life of each who turns to him for their redemption. We can thus seek to sanctify the practice of art history, much as Christ sets to work sanctifying us and, analogously, it will be a life-long process. Our call to love God and our neighbor, to exercise discernment, and to pursue what is good, wholesome and up-building applies no less to the way we go about our work as art historians or artists, or whatever it may be.
My own exploration these past few years of the expressive possibilities of digital photography has, in process, taught me a sound lesson in ‘working with the plunder of Egypt.’ Put another way, I have learned to take from what I perceive as inherently conceptually flawed, as nevertheless seeing therein the potential means to achieve exactly what I am striving to achieve, in process bending and molding my chosen models of practice to make them serve my ends, not necessarily those they were first designed to serve. Over the past six or seven years, as I have striven to merge my knowledge of art history with the expressive potential of digital photography, I have found myself endlessly striving for ways to get behind and beyond the surface of things. Photography – writing with light – is by definition a medium that works with how surfaces respond to and are transformed by fugitive qualities of light. But my sense is that the essence and character of reality lies as much below the surface as above it.
In seeking to embody this fuller sense of reality – that which lies below and behind the surface as much as on or above it – I found myself drawing from three streams of twentieth-century art, all of which as a Christian I judge to be built on questionable or flawed presuppositions about the nature of reality and/or human integrity, and yet they each offered me valuable resources. To briefly particularize, I have drawn from the practices of Collage, Surrealism and Appropriation, despite my critique as a Christian of the basic premises of each. Thus I would judge Collage historically to have grown out of a desire to figure fragmentation and dislocation, a disjunction of time, place and action of which Christians, believing that all things hold together in God, might well be wary. For its part Surrealism grew out of the desire to rebut the hubris of Enlightenment rationalism and to propose instead a more Freudian view of what drives human behavior, namely subliminal forces working deep within the human subconscious, to state it crudely. By contrast a Christian might posit that human actions are driven by the fundamental loyalties of the heart and consequent life choices. As for postmodern practices of Appropriation it could be argued that a strategy of appropriation assumes a cynical rejection of human capacity for fresh creativity and/or cultural advance, seeing the process of history as essentially circular rather than linear, thus inviting a jaded recycling of past materials in an indifferent attitude of ‘what goes around, comes around,’ so forget the effort to be distinct or unique. To this posture a Christian might respond that such a cynical view discounts that God has created each of us as unique individuals, in his image and likeness, thus fertile in imagination and creativity, essentially similar to other mortals yet each nevertheless distinct.
For my own practice of digital photography, such a three-fold critique notwithstanding, I have found great value in drawing from each of these diverse strategies and bending them to serve my own goal of seeking to make visible what lies beyond and behind the surface of reality, to render visible the inherently invisible. This experience has taught me more about the potential of taking strategies and methodologies that may well be inherently flawed and then adapting and bending them to serve one’s own preferred ends. This seems to me to be in line with the arch model of Christ’s dealings with an imperfect world, filled with imperfect people and institutions. He works with what is on offer and available, and works to make the best possible out of any given individual or situation. For an artist or an art historian that seems to me to be the best way to engage the world around us. Indeed there is no other world to engage but the immediate one that we find ourselves in – one that is short of eternity and our own completed redemption.
One Final Observation
I will conclude by saying that for these reasons I thus think that a Christian has great freedom to engage the discipline of art history as he or she feels best equipped. Nevertheless I would add one qualification, namely that we strive to hold true to our Christian allegiance and keep before us the need for strategic choices in seeking to complement the work of others, with perspectives and topics that have been and still are so often passed over. If we so operate, perhaps we can offer distinct and strategic contributions to the discipline rather than merely aping the latest fad. Strategic, namely in attending to what others let slip from view, which nevertheless a Christian perceives as of fundamental significance. But how are we to perceive such elements, unless our lives are deeply rooted in Scripture and Christian tradition!?
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Discussion Questions Given the Pro’s & Con’s Stated Above:
· Which of these approaches and methodologies – and/or combination thereof – might a Christian most strategically adopt and why?
· What qualifications might a Christian have about any one of them?
· What approach or approaches capture your imagination as being particularly significant and worthwhile, and why?