Seeing God in the shadows
Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism
Author: Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness
Publisher: IVP Academic
I’m grateful that years ago recording artist Jeff Johnson recommended Modern Art and the Death of a Culture by H. R. Rookmaaker. It fascinated despite being a bleak assessment. It did, however, offer a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in the arts.
This is the background for Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, in which the authors acknowledge the contributions of the former but offer correctives to the view that modernism was bereft of religious influences. Rookmaaker tended to see in terms of black and white, whereas the authors of this book provide a more nuanced view of art history. They find the religious influence where it is not obvious but nevertheless a factor. It is a little like seeing God in the shadows.
This makes it not only informative but a delight. As stated in the Afterword by Daniel A. Siedell, “This book is a gift to those whose lives as Christians have been shaped by modern art and culture. It reveals the authors’ love for their subject. Their words are nothing if not life-giving” (338).
It helps if you have a background in art history, and/or have read Rookmaaker, but even if you have not, the biographical sketches of the artists examined are engaging and inspirational. In particular, I enjoyed reading about Vincent van Gogh and Andy Warhol. The story of the latter takes me back to the quote at the beginning of this volume, “One should reject nothing without a determined attempt to discover the living elements within it” (Vasily Kandinsky). On the surface, one might judge the works of Warhol to be irreligious, but as they do so adeptly throughout, the authors find signs of life, prompting an alternative view to the accepted, which is not always accurate. This reminds me of the words of Jesus, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24 ESV).
I have heard it said that reviewers often get it wrong. I know that it’s been true of this reviewer, which makes the following a favorite: “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not know as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2 ESV). Pride and hasty judgments lead to error. It’s why I appreciate the careful exposition found in this volume. The authors are not immune to our human propensity to get it wrong, but their mastery and love for the material is obvious, as well are the irenic tone.
As an outsider to the art world, who sometimes felt a little lost in the details here, the thought of F. W. Boreham helped me to persevere in my reading:
If a man is to keep himself alive in a world like this, infinity must be sampled. Like a dog on a country road I must poke into as many holes as can. If I am naturally fond of music, I had better study mining. If I love painting, I shall be wise to go in for gardening. If I glory in the seaside, I must make a point of climbing mountains and scouring the bush. If I am attached to things just under my nose, I must be careful to read books dealing with distant lands. If I am deeply interested in contemporary affairs, I must at once read the records of the days of long ago and explore the annals of the splendid past. I must be faithful to old friends, but I must get to know new people and to know them well. If I hold to one opinion, I must studiously cultivate the acquaintance of people who hold the opposite view, and investigate the hidden recesses of their minds with scientific and painstaking diligence. Above all I must be constantly sampling infinity in matters of faith. If I find that the Epistles are gaining a commanding influence upon my mind, I must at once set out to explore the prophets.… ‘The Lord has yet more truth to break out from his Word!’ said John Robinson; ‘and I must try to find it.
I don’t normally read this type of book. Art history is a foreign culture, but I see the wisdom in Boreham’s advice. I have gained understanding.
If Rookmaaker left me despairing of culture, I recognize again that things are not always what they seem. I never want to be undiscerning, but to borrow the thought from an old song, I want to have my Father’s eyes: “Eyes that find the good in things/When good is not around.” The authors have this type of vision and it’s worth emulating.