May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
May 13, 2009
Dostoyevsky once said that beauty would save the world. Most Christian writing on the visual arts, however, is a betrayal of the depth and profundity of the Christian tradition that Dostoyevsky represents. It reflects the negativity and superficiality of contemporary cultural discourse rather than the living tradition of the church as Christ’s presence in the world.
Saint Paul tells us to embrace “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable [. . . .]” (Phil. 4: 8). We are called to embrace, not merely to reject in the name of Christ. Too often Christian writing on contemporary art is a litany of rejections and, at times, even appears to take pleasure in drawing our attention to those characteristics and qualities that contradict Saint Paul.
In addition, Christian writing on art often seems to have a superficial view of beauty. The beauty that will save this world is not “of this world.” It therefore might at first blush appear to be terrifying, ugly, weak, and distorted. It might even be despised. Beauty is derived first and foremost from the beauty of the face of the crucified Christ, who emptied himself, took the form of a servant, and was considered nothing (Phil. 2: 6-11). It is this Christ that reveals the Father. It is this Christ that turns the world upside down, who, by death trampled down death. And it is this Christ that, with the Father and the Spirit, created the world and pronounced it not only good, but very good. (The Septuagint translation goes so far as to call it “beautiful.”) Sadly, too much Christian writing presents an unattractive picture of Christianity for those committed to contemporary art and an unattractive picture of contemporary art for Christians whose imaginations should be shaped by it. Both contemporary Christian practice and contemporary artistic practice, which are so closely related and mutually reinforcing, are thus presented as having nothing to do with the other.
As a Christian who is a historian of modern and contemporary art, writes art criticism, and curates exhibitions of contemporary art, this is not merely a problem, it poses a personal challenge to my vocation. I have devoted nearly twenty years of my life to studying modern and contemporary art, theory, and art criticism. And so I follow Jesus and work out my salvation in the bowels of the contemporary art world that so scandalizes and infuriates so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ. The Russian Orthodox theologian Father Alexander Schmemann once said that a Christian is one who sees Christ everywhere. I have come to the conclusion that if Christian critics and intellectuals can’t find Christ in the contemporary art world then all I can suggest is that they have not looked closely enough. And looking closely is what an art critic as well as a Christian is supposed to do. For it is in looking closely at the world, including art, that we can open ourselves up to the presence of Christ. And that is risky business, indeed; perhaps too risky for many who serve as the cultural gatekeepers of our souls.
Humanity, as C. S. Lewis once observed, is amphibious. It dwells in the between, between the gods and beasts, between spirit and matter, between self and Other. And art, whether it’s a video, performance, abstract painting, landscape painting, or an object set on a pedestal, is an aesthetic embodiment of this between. Its very existence is a testimony to the human urge for transcendence, redemption, salvation, and communion with the divine. It testifies to the poetry of existence, a poetry that finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Surprisingly, my experience is that such an amphibious urge for transcendence is at times more powerfully evident in the work of artists who are not Christians and whose work is not only not explicitly Christian but also might at first glance seem to be anti-Christian. I have come to understand my own vocation as a Christian and as an art historian, curator, and critic as attempting to locate those aesthetic instances. Furthermore, much art that is explicitly “Christian” reveals a hermetically sealed and purely immanent world of “messages” sent and received, an immanent, materialistic play of signs and symbols easily read and received, among a million other “messages” so sent and received in our culture. Some “Christian art” might be a denial of transcendence, a denial of amphibious existence; in short, it may embody a radically anti-Christian world.Art is not merely or even partly a “communication” of “messages.” It is not a visual illustration of a philosophy, idea, or sign. It is not a preformed idea that is wrapped up in artistic material that the viewer then unwraps to “get.” As I never tire of telling my students, art is a complex and tense hypostatic union of form and content; it is about its “howness” (form) as much as its “whatness” (content). There is nothing to unwrap. This is why art should not be “read,” “decoded,” or otherwise considered to be the sum of its constituent parts. It is to be experienced—contemplated and communed with, dwelt upon. This of course is dangerous, because an aesthetic experience can do unexpected things to you. And given our own differences in experience that the work of art engages, our responses to the work will be different. Much Christian writing about art begins with an immovable, monolithic, yet surprisingly facile “Christian perspective” or “Christian worldview” which is then used to “explain” the art. This approach, however, makes the art only instrumentally important as grist for the Christian worldview mill.
What would happen if the process were reversed? What would happen if a Christian perspective or Christian worldview were formed only in the process of encountering the work of art; that the work of art would dictate in some way the contours of the Christianity that is brought to bear on it? Would it be possible for such encounters with contemporary artistic practice to mold and shape, add texture, depth, and breadth to—even critique—one’s understanding of Christianity? My encounter with a richly sacramental painting, Enrique Martínez Celaya’s Thing and Deception (1997), revealed to me how profound was my un-sacramental and un-liturgical approach to the Christian faith and it served as an important catalyst in my spiritual and intellectual development. As the poet Rilke observes in one of his poems, art takes you by the throat and demands that you change your life. Christian writing on the visual arts should enable that occurrence.
I would like to share a recent such experience with the work of Houston-based artist Robyn O’Neil. Barely thirty years old, O’Neil’s large-scale drawings of horses, birds, landscapes, and seascapes, often consisting of groups of tiny male figures, have received significant critical and curatorial attention. I had long been interested in her drawings, but it was not until I was asked to write an exhibition catalog essay last fall that I was able to spend substantial time with the work. I was asked to write a 1,000-word essay and rather than explain my approach to her work, I’ve included it below, with the kind permission of Dunn and Brown Contemporary, Dallas, Texas.
Signs of the apocalypse abound. The End is near. These are the messages that, in a perverse way, drive our culture. The End appears to be good business. Amid the apocalypse, amid The End, a new counter-cultural prophetic voice is needed. What will its message be? Robyn O’Neil’s drawings have an answer.
This Is Our Ending, This Is Our Past is a very small exhibition of five very large drawings that end Robyn O’Neil’s labyrinthine seven-year project that chronicles The End. It is easy to say that O’Neil’s preoccupation is simply a part of the larger cultural fascination with apocalyptic narratives. But to describe them thus would be to give insufficient attention to the drawings themselves, which do much more. The influence of cinema and literature on O’Neil’s work has been well documented. Her drawings begin, not as sketches and studies, but as a literary narrative. The finished drawings, however, speak in a tighter, more allusive, poetic register. Their cinematic nature, then, is iconic. I am reminded of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Passion of Andrei Rublev (1966), a film that does not narrate a story but rather offers highly distilled images for contemplation that provoke associations, not interpretations. Like Tarkovsky’s moving icons, O’Neil’s drawings produce discrete experiences and feelings that transcend their status as “events” in an apocalyptic story.
This Is Our Ending, This Is Our Past offers a tightly compressed and abrupt end to O’Neil’s epic seven-year exploration of The End. It is a cold, dark, empty, and forebodingly quiet exhibition. Catastrophe is imminent, if not already at hand. The five drawings that comprise the end are divided into two parts. The first part consists of three large square-shaped drawings, each featuring simple, yet enigmatic images: a sensitively modeled horse with its head smudged out; two tiny sparrows, one dead and another calling out in grief or for help; and a long, ominous tree branch suspended against a bleak landscape. These drawings share a flattened space achieved by the sharp horizon line that divides the surface, which gives the impression that the images are symbolic, iconic. They are for our contemplation, for our meditation. They are icons of transitions from one state to another, from presence to absence—or is it from absence to presence? (horse); life to death—or is it death to life? (sparrows); and from completeness to lack—or is from lack to completeness? (broken tree branch). Indeed, the titles for each of these drawings (A Disharmony, The End, A Fracture) suggest such an interest in contemplating transition. The second part, which consists of two mural-sized drawings of epic proportions, is a set of bookends to the three icons. One mural, which bears the title of the exhibition, features a man hanging from a fraying rope that spans the sky, and hovering above a raging sea. In this exhibition, O’Neil has cleared out her men, those strange figures rendered stiffly and awkwardly, who wear identical sweat suits and Nikes and do strange things that defy explanation. This is the only man left in the exhibition, and he seems to be, in some way, the last man, as he hangs precariously over the abyss, suspended between. O’Neil’s men make me think of Pascal.
“What a chimera, then is man!” Pascal exclaims, “What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a subject of contradiction, what a prodigy. A judge of all things, feeble work of the earth…the glory and the shame of the universe!” The human condition, embodied in these weird men, is bizarre indeed, capable of honor and dishonor; glory and shame; life and death. With this single, solitary man, I also think of Nietzsche, whose Zarathustra proclaims, “Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Overman—a rope over an abyss” and elsewhere, “man is a bridge not a goal.” But again, one must ask, is this The End or the beginning? (The frayed rope does hang in front of sky that reveals the light, a break in the storm.) To where is this man going? What is spanned? These final hours embrace, at last; This Is Our ending, This Is Our past is an icon of the human condition. The second mural, which is completely devoid of objects, men, animals, and symbols, offers a distant view of a tree-lined mountain region, a location close enough to stimulate our curiosity, to encourage our desire for this place. We are again in transition, from one place, our place, perhaps the place of the man hanging suspended over the abyss, to this distant land. This drawing, A Birth in Grief and Ashes, is an icon of Hope.
This exhibition is about transitions. And therefore The End is not—cannot be—The End. These drawings testify to a belief that there is something else, something beyond or through The End. These drawings don’t so much express or point to this as simply give off a faint fragrance, almost in spite of themselves. It is like the brief smell of fall amidst an oppressively hot August afternoon. This is what makes O’Neil’s apocalyptic drawings about The End so profound, so radical. Despite their terror, their coldness, their darkness, their undeniable bleakness, there is the still small voice of the “And yet.” This fragrance, this voice, is Hope. And that is truly prophetic. We need to believe that things can be otherwise; that the world can be better, and will be better. Art’s existence testifies to the reality that the world is not what it should be. Art projects alternatives. This is embodied by O’Neil’s intense, obsessive presence in these drawings, which, although it has produced her darkest and most intense work to date, also produces Hope through the intense alchemy of drawing. Hope smells of graphite. It is not hope in this or that utopia, this or that Paradise or this or that End to the story that is needed. It is simply Hope itself, which resists inevitability, destiny, fate. It is Hope that gives the lie to the imagination, to faith, to belief. Her drawings testify to the belief that beauty will indeed save the world. This is what O’Neil’s drawings offer us.
After writing this little essay I have come to know the artist. She is profoundly well read, intelligent, spiritually sensitive, and even shares my enthusiasm for Russian literature and film, especially Dostoyevsky and Tarkovsky. And I have learned that although she was raised Roman Catholic, she is not a practicing Christian. But we nonetheless share a deep conviction that to be human is to be between, and that our being, our very existence is contingent on an Other. To be a Christian is to be a human being in the most profound sense, the sense revealed by Christ’s Passion. It is in this way that art is the most profoundly human of human practices. And that is what makes art beautiful. A Christian writing on art that does not reveal this is not Christian writing at all. O’Neil and I will be working together on another project at the Des Moines Art Center in which I will probe even deeper into O’Neil’s imaginative world and to reveal the name of the One whose altars she has devoted so much of her time making.
I think Dostoyevsky is right. Beauty will save the world.
Read more from Daniel A. Siedell in his new book God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art.
Daniel A. Siedell
Daniel A. Siedell is Director of Theological & Cultural Practices at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Previously he was Professor of Modern & Contemporary Art History at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He is the author of many books and essays on art, including God in the Gallery. He is at work on book on Christianity's influence on modern art with Bill Dyrness to be published by InterVarsity Press. Follow him on Twitter at @DanSiedell.