Image: Bruce Herman, “The Crowning,” from Golgotha series
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 (ESV)
In my last posting I mentioned that during my college years (mid to late 1970’s) the ethos of the art world was still dominated by critical theory that excluded literary references (perhaps especially the Bible) in contemporary visual art. Even though Andy Warhol and Pop Art had exploded the hegemonic control of “pure painting” that was promoted during the 50s by blurring the boundary between “high” and popular culture, university art programs were still a decade later largely a product of the Abstract Expressionist idea that visual art should be primarily “formal” – that is, preoccupied with form, color, texture, etc. Paintings should be about paint, not illustrations of poems or stories. “Illustration” was actually a dirty word in university painting departments. Yet I was unconvinced. I felt that art and poetry, art and the Bible could get along just fine—just as they had during most of Western art history. Interestingly, contemporary art, which is often associated with socially transgressive imagery and content, had made sincere religious images the last taboo.
Just after I finished grad-school, an influential museum curator in the Boston area showed interest in my art and included me in a statewide survey exhibition of contemporary painters. He told me to stay in touch and keep him abreast of developments in my studio—and he’d potentially offer me a one-person show. A short time after that, my personal life went into a tailspin connected with my conversion to Christian faith. (That’s another, rather long story.) And as a result of this tumultuous time in my life, I left the Boston art community and moved away (both geographically and artistically).
A decade later, when I had found my feet again and developed a means of incorporating art into my worship and my faith into my art, I sent this museum official examples of my Golgotha series—large paintings and drawings all depicting the sufferings of Jesus on Good Friday. I do not remember what I expected by way of response from him, but the curator wrote back a two-page letter telling me that while he still admired me as a painter, he thought I had committed intellectual and artistic suicide by trying to “illustrate the Bible.” He wrote, “Bruce – no one believes this stuff anymore, and using bible stories as the crux of your work is really not viable for a contemporary artist. Sincerely meant religious imagery died out almost two hundred years ago. You know this.” I was very grateful for his honesty and willingness to coach me a bit instead of simply writing the typical polite brush-off. But I strongly disagreed with him and still do. I wrote back saying, “I hope you live long enough to see that you’re wrong on this one, friend.”
Yet despite the massively changed world of contemporary art—where now nearly anything goes—the idea that a serious contemporary artist would incorporate non-ironic biblical imagery into her paintings is still pretty much beyond the pale. Most evangelical Christians I know who show their work in contemporary galleries or museums need to keep their religion below the radar artistically speaking. It is as though the tradition of public scandal associated with modern art has reversed direction and now finds sincere religious art to be an offence.
The tradition of the artistic scandal (succès de scandale) beginning in mid-19th century France has more than a century of steam behind it here in the States. But what I find personally fascinating is the fact that the Cross of Christ, which began as a scandal (σκανδαλον – skandalon – a stumbling stone) in 1st century Palestine, is now, twenty centuries later, socially unacceptable again among the intelligentsia.
NOTE: I’ll continue a discussion of art, faith, and scandal in my next posting.
- How do you incorporate sincerely held faith into your academic discipline? Does belief in God seem to be irrelevant to the pursuit of science, engineering, medicine, or literary studies?
- Does the tradition of art as social protest or political dissent have possibilities for Christians who work in the fine arts? What connections, if any, could be made between the tradition of artistic scandal and intentional use of this by Christians?
God, you have searched me and known me. You are intimately acquainted with all my ways—inside and out. Cure me of the tendency to put self-expression at the forefront in my work. Help me to connect deeply with others, to care and work tirelessly in order that the world be leavened with Your love—in the arts and humanities no less than in the helping professions.
For more on the image above, see Bruce Herman’s Golgotha series: