Comments on Anderson and Dyrness, Modern Art and the Life of a Culture

1. Internal vs. external interpretative frameworks (Emic vs. etic)

Anderson & Dyrness show beyond any doubt that religious concerns were significant to many significant modern artists, and to the field as a whole. Let’s suppose that in the near future, the religious aspects of modern art do come to be widely recognized and widely studied—one might still wonder about how religious questions might inform or shape the scholarship and intepretations that will be produced.

I have in mind the distinction between “emic and etic.” In anthropology, “emic” interpretations are offered by and for the cultural group being studied, while “etic” descriptions” are offered by and for the scientific community studying them. So in the case of art history, “emic” descriptions would explain the artwork from the point of view, and according to the values, of the artist and community that created it, whereas “etic” descriptions would explain it from the point of view, and according to the values, of the scholarly community of interpretation.

For art historians, religion has always been taken for granted as an essential part of the “emic” interpretation: that is, you need to understand Catholicism to study Western medieval art; you need to understand Hinduism to study Indian art, or Islam for Persian art, etc.—since these religions belong to the communities that have created these artworks. And, it may very well be the case going forward, that you need to understand religion, specifically Christianity, in order to understand modern Western art—likewise being a part of that community.

The “etic” question, however, is quite a bit different. Can, or should, religious or theological ideas belong to the scholar’s own (etic) interpretive framework? One might imagine that there would be much more resistance to explicitly ‘Christian’ scholarship, than to merely acknowledging religious ideas from a ‘secular’ interpretive framework.

And yet, it may not be that simple. For one thing, in humanistic disciplines such as art history, a significant part of successful scholarship is the ability to ‘get inside’ the culture being studied, and illuminate the artwork’s significance in terms of “how it looked to them.” Thus, in practice, the line between ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ in art history is often not a rigid one.

For another, a sense of passionate commitment is perhaps what makes for the most engaging, appealing and readable scholarship in art history (and the other humanities).  Certainly, the most bone-dry, boring, tedious books are often those for which the “so what” never becomes apparent—the question “why do you care?” is never answered. Whereas the most interesting art-history books are those in which the author communicates her passion and enthusiasm for the subject.

In fact, any number of the most influential art historians are especially known for their passionate advocacy of a particular set of values, styles and objects. Within modern art history, up to now that has largely meant secular, materialist values—but that might not continue to be the case.

2.a. How much does academic theory really affect the public’s understanding and interpretation of modern art?

A major influence on the development of my own ideas about modern art has been the enormously stark contrast between the experience of, first, studying art history in a PhD program, and that of, second, teaching art history at a large state university department to non-major students who were largely not seeking to study art history as such (instead, they were required to take art history in order to receive a studio art degree). Briefly, my conclusion from this experience is that the ways that academics (i.e. Ph.D. art historians) interpret and value art, and the ways that non-academics (i.e. everybody else) interprets and values art, have almost nothing to do with each other.

Academics place great emphasis on extremely subtle and arcane theories of semiotics and of philosophy, but in my experience, these questions are of very little interest to anyone else. This difference was brought home to me when, year after year, teaching courses on modern art, students showed virtually no interest in my attempts to explain the theories of Duchamp, or those of conceptual art. Granted, they would dutifully recite them for the exam, if I so demanded. However, what actually interested my students about art and artists, were not these semiotic or philosophical theories, but instead the same things that interest any museumgoer:

  1. Is this artwork beautiful, fascinating, wonderful, amazing?
  2. Who is the artist, and what is his or her biography, and how was this work created?
  3. What is this work “about” — in the sense of a topic, narrative or subject-matter?

These kinds of questions manifest a certain common-sense or “naive” realism that is impervious to any critical theories, and are dependent on certain incorrigible, or perhaps properly basic, assumptions:

  1. An artwork can or should have certain aesthetic qualities (beauty) etc. that are communicable to any audience, across time, place and culture
  2. Contra formalism, New Criticism, etc., seeing an artwork naturally makes us curious about the person who created it, and we naturally see the work as expressing something about its maker.
  3. Works of art can or should be “about” some matter of “real life” (e.g. birth, death, marriage, family, work, leisure, etc.) and this is ultimately more important than whatever art-theoretical questions the work is also “about.”

I believe that the interests of the museumgoing public, as measured by exhibition attendance, catalog/poster sales, Instagram traffic, etc., also track these latter questions much more than they track academic prestige. Generally, modern art attracts public interest when the artist has a dramatic, easily identifiable personal story (Frida Kahlo) or an extravagant public persona (Warhol). Academically prestigious work that lacks these qualities tends to be ignored by the public. Whereas the leading contemporary artists in academia would be semiotic sophisticates e.g. Harun Farocki or Hito Steyerl, those that attract public attention would be masters of spectacle e.g. KAWS or Banksy.

If this analysis is correct, then it would have implications for the narrative re-told by Anderson & Dyrness. For example:

  • Whatever the elite academic interpretive fashions may be at any given moment, they will have only a limited effect on the public’s taste. Academia may try to “ban” questions of beauty, biography, etc., but the public just won’t care.   Or, academia may try to insist that an ugly, but theoretically sophisticated artwork is “better” than a beautiful but naive and “outmoded” artwork, but the public just won’t care about this, and will instead begin to scorn academia as out-of-touch.
  • More specifically, the biographical elements highlighted by Anderson & Dyrness may be of great interest to the public, however much they are studiously ignored by academia. It’s common in academia to tell the stories of e.g. Van Gogh or Mondrian in very formalist terms—cast as the drama of paint on canvas. But the biographical elements highlighted by Anderson & Dyrness—e.g. their personal and family experience of Calvinism in the Netherlands—are probably just as interesting to the public, if not more interesting!

2.b. Materialism vs. Transcendence

I’ve been thinking about the following issue, and wondering how it relates to the theme of Anderson & Dyrness’s book, namely:  Is there a transcendent sacred order that in some way shapes or limits our reality and experience, or is there nothing but the material here and now, to be acted upon by each individual’s will and desire? If this question is asked, it’s clear that the majority of the world’s religions fall on the former side, while modern secular materialism falls on the latter.

And as far as art is concerned, it means that whereas Christian art, as much as that of other religions, can take an essentially hopeful, upward-looking posture towards participating in a transcendental realm, i.e. that of beauty, whereas materialist art is always being pulled downwards toward despair, cynicism, nihilism, anomie, etc.

Referring again to the “experts vs. public” division discussed above, this would account for how the broader public can easily respond with wonder to the sense of beauty and meaning in e.g. Laocoön or Shiva Nataraja or Guanyin—despite the enormous cultural distance among these different points—while responding with revulsion to the ugly and off-putting contemporary art of its own time.

This way of thinking doesn’t necessarily map easily onto Anderson and Dyrness’s book. To compare  several of the American artists they discuss: even if the 19th-century landscape painters (Cole and Church) and the 20th-century postmodern artists (Rauschenberg and Kaprow) are all equally sincere and dedicated in their pursuits, it remains the case that the 19th-century artists see themselves as working within a much more definitely ordered cosmos—and this order is communicated through the beauty of their paintings. Whereas the 20th-century artists presume a much more indeterminate, indefinite cosmos, and thus their artworks come across as ugly and incomprehensible to many viewers—at least those who haven’t yet been indoctrinated by the modern academy.

3. Is there hope for a renewed openness to theological questions within academia, specifically the field of art history, and within art museums?

The authors are right to show that the ‘secularization thesis’ is wrong and should be abandoned.  It’s correct that academia can no longer say that “religion belongs to the past” and simply ignore it. However, I think one can only be hopeful about a renewed openness to theological questions, given a fairly serious qualification:

Whereas a generation ago, it seemed possible that modernism was giving way to mere pluralism and relativism, for which any cultural form would be as good as any other, today it seems much more that mainstream academic and cultural life (at least in the U.S.) is becoming dominated by a new set of metaphysical commitments, sometimes called the “Great Awokening,” whose adherents are known as the “Woke” (McWhorter, Goldberg).

For the Woke, the most urgent, and possibly the only important, moral commitments are the crusades against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, colonialism, and in general, any and all oppression of the weak by the powerful. These moral issues are not seen as being up for debate or discussion, as memorably and succinctly stated in 2015 by Ben Smith, then editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed: “We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides” [to the issue]. In practice, this means that scholars who question the Awokening are not welcome on university campuses, and may be protested or shouted down if they attempt to speak.

The point here is that theological questions, like all other questions, will be subject to the rules set by the Awokening, in terms of their viability within academia. Insofar as Christianity promises liberation from oppression, overcoming racism and sexism, etc., it will be welcome on those terms. Think, for example, of art that communicates aspects of African-Americans’ or of womens’ experience, in which faith provides grounds for hope for liberation from white or male oppressors.

On the other hand, to the extent that theology threatens the commitments of the Awokening— most saliently, in questioning any tenets of the Sexual Revolution, or more fundamentally, in questioning the capacity for the individual’s absolute self-determination and self-creation according to one’s own will–then theology will be subject to the same forms of hard and soft censorship as other “unwoke” subjects.

I would predict that insofar as Christianity is relevant to illuminating the life experiences of marginalized, oppressed and vulnerable classes of people, it will be welcomed; and otherwise, it will be shunned.

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