Book Review: Modern Art and the Life of a Culture

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Influences of Modernism, Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Influences of Modernism, Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: A response to the classic work Modern Art and the Death of a Culture by H. R. Rookmaaker, arguing that Rookmaaker was unnecessarily pessimistic in his assessment of modern art, overlooking the religious impulses that shaped much of modern art.

A number of us of a certain age were thrilled when we came across H.R. Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, originally published by the same publisher of this work. Rookmaaker provided an analysis of modern art that made sense in terms of the wider movement from Reformation faith to Renaissance to the rise of the modern, existentialism and ultimately nihilism. Rookmaaker argued that this shift in worldview was reflected in the changing character of art. At the same time, Rookmaaker was not calling on Christians to abandon the world of art but rather to think Christianly in their art. There were just two problems with this. For one thing, almost no one outside the Christian community credited Rookmaaker’s analysis, nor did it reflect the actual thinking of many of the artists about which he was writing whose art often reflected profound spiritual, and even Christian insight. It also often left Christian artists in a quandary between what their artistic practice in the studio led them to do versus what they thought Christians in the arts ought to be producing.

This book, the first in a new series on Studies in Theology and the Arts, is written as a response to and reappraisal of Rookmaaker’s work. The authors, one of whom studied under Rookmaaker, argue that the fundamental defect of Rookmaaker’s work is that he did not grasp seriously what artists themselves were saying about their work. After two introductory chapters on the intersection of faith and modern art and the particular work of Rookmaaker, they survey the artists and periods covered by Rookmaaker moving from France to Germany, Holland, and Russia (particular work with icons and Dada liturgies) and finally on to the North American scene. They draw upon what artists themselves are saying about their work, and surprisingly, upon the spirituality, often Christian, reflected in works of which Rookmaaker was dismissive.

I was intrigued for example, with their handling of the work of Andy Warhol. They write:

However, as with all of his other works we’ve seen thus far, Warhol’s subversive parodies are aimed not at this subject matter but at the systems of mediation and the “handling” of that subject matter. We argue that Warhol’s late religious paintings are best understood as the work of a devout Christian [earlier they cite evidence of the devotion in Warhol’s regular mass attendance, service in a church’s soup kitchen, and well-thumbed prayer book] wrestling with the problematic visuality of his faith, submersed as it is in a bog of visual kitsch and cliche’, and profoundly vulnerable to the visual culture of commercial marketing and advertising. In the age of mechanical reproduction, religious imagery is every bit as exposed to the latent nihilism of the “vernacular glance” as photos of celebrities or of human tragedies. The sharp, ironic criticality of these religious paintings is that of a believer scrutinizing the common signage of his faith as it passes through the machinery of mass media. Warhol subjects this signage to the logic of vanitas painting, not for the sake of attacking belief but for the sake of ‘labeling’ one of the major modern obstacles to it.

What Anderson and Dyrness are proposing is that the case Rookmaaker made was not quite so simple. Yes, there is a devolution of worldview in the culture and yet artists often find themselves at the intersection of this devolution and deep spiritual values and their art reflects that complex response to “the givenness of things.” While we may not appreciate all in the art or life of these artists, it is unjust to the work of many to simply associate it with a decaying and dying culture, when artists in fact are seeking to bring life or to question the ways of a dying culture.

The book concludes with an afterward by Dan Siedell, author of God in the Gallery, reflecting on why the work Anderson and Dyrness have done is important not only for the Christian community but also the broader artistic community. At one point he poses a question with which I’ll conclude this review:

Is it possible that scholars who are thinking theologically might be able to offer a more compelling history of modern art, one that can show the contemporary art world that the modern tradition of artistic practice is not a progression of stylistic innovation but a belief system, a way of understanding the self and its relationship to the world that continues to be viable and can address the present situation in the art world, and connect with them as human beings.

It seems to me that an affirmative answer to such a question might indeed be life and life-giving to our culture.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Editor’s Note: Thank-you to Bob Trube for sharing his reviews with Emerging Scholars! Bob first posted the above review on Bob on Books. In a brief online search I came across The Importance of Hans Rookmaaker by David Bruce Hegeman (Comment, 11/1/2004). I offer the link to provide a glimpse of Rookmaaker’s compelling life story and an example of how he blessed a young artist. Agreeing with the importance of engaging the belief system(s) one finds in the art world(s), Warhol’s engagement with the Byzantine Catholic Church provides a unique angle on the possible relationship of faith and vocation (in this case art). In 2017, hope to read Modern Art and the Life of a Culture and once again consider Warhol’s work/perspective when visiting friends in Pittsburgh. If you’ve already read Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, please interact with Bob’s review by sharing your insights below. Thank-you. ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director, Emerging Scholars Network

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Bob Trube

Bob Trube is Associate Director of Faculty Ministry/Emerging Scholars Network, and Senior Area Director for InterVarsity's Graduate & Faculty Ministry team in the Ohio Valley (Ohio, West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania). He resides in Columbus, Ohio, with Marilyn and enjoys reading, gardening, choral singing, and plein air painting.

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