Jonathan Anderson: Religious Inspirations Behind Modernism – Interview Revd Jonathan Evens

Hugo Ball_Magic Bishop

Jonathan Anderson is an artist, art critic, and associate professor of art at Biola University. He is the coauthor, with theologian William Dyrness, of the book Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism (IVP Academic, 2016). He is currently in the UK working on a PhD at King’s College, where his research focuses on modern and contemporary art, with a particular interest in exploring its relations to religion and theology. 

Jonathan Anderson
Jonathan Anderson

In their book, Anderson and Dyrness argue that there were strong religious impulses that positively shaped modern visual art. Instead of affirming a pattern of decline and growing antipathy towards faith, they contend that theological engagement and inquiry can be perceived across a wide range of modern art. Anderson has said that: ‘The research for this book was full of surprises for me. The religious backgrounds of these artists, as well as the ongoing theological content of their work, are sometimes buried deep in the academic literature and primary sources, but once you begin to dig you find extraordinary things.’ In our interview, I particularly wanted to explore the breadth and surprises of his research.

RJE: ‘Modern Art and the Life of a Culture’ seeks to recover two untold stories about modern art; first, Western art carries the mark of its religious roots; and, second, modern art is always doing theology at some level. Why have those two stories been untold in the modern period?

JA: Well, it’s difficult to answer this in a satisfactory way, because the cultural shifts that caused religion and theology to disappear from the narratives of modern art are extremely complex. But a couple things might be said. First, most understandings of modernity have heavily relied on one or another theory of secularisation, which postulates that as a society modernises it will necessarily secularise as well—to live into modernity is to live into secularity. The history of modernist art has generally been written with an especially strong secularisation thesis at its heart, understanding modern art as quintessentially secular, emancipated from religious patronage, subject matter, and devotional use—and thereby (supposedly) emancipated from any theological horizon of meaning. Early on, modernism was presented as an alternative or replacement to religion, but gradually it came to be seen as totally detached from and mutually irrelevant to religion. In the canonical narratives of modern art history, religion and theology were precisely what modern art was not supposed to be about. There are several problems with this thesis, which have become clearer in recent years: (1) the sheer momentum of this sweeping story caused us to pay overly selective attention to what was actually going on, overlooking significant contradictions to this story, and (2) secularity was wrongly assumed to imply unbelief rather than a changed cultural condition in which religious belief actually multiplies and pluralises, which is closer to what has happened.

Second, the prevailing critical methods that were developed to explain and interpret modernist art have largely screened theological content out of close readings of artworks, even those that include religious subjects. These critical models became increasingly suspicious in their orientation, regarding anything that might accord with religious tradition as explainable by a deeper, more disruptive play of language, social power dynamics, sublimated desire, and so on. As a result: even though religion and theology have continued to play an important role for artists, they have become more or less invisible in the writing of art criticism and history.

As a counterpart to this, we should probably also explore what happened in the discipline of theology during this time, as it withdrew from constructive engagement with and in the arts. In short, one way or another, art history and theology formed into different disciplinary cultures with different histories, concerns, and intellectual grammars. For much of the twentieth century, art didn’t recognise what was going on in theology and theology didn’t recognise what was going on in art.

RJE: Are these factors specific to the Visual Arts or have they impacted the Arts more generally?

JA: These factors have certainly impacted the arts more generally. One finds similar dynamics, for example, in the histories of modernist literature, music, theatre, and so on. I suspect that the visual arts have had an especially fraught relationship with religion and theology, given that this relationship was already so controversial within and between religious traditions over the past several centuries. Because the visual arts have always been strongly wound up in questions of idolatry, the theological debates about visual art have been more extensive and more controversial than in other art forms, which I think has made the theological dynamics of visual art especially complex as art left the church. And at any rate, my field is the visual arts, so that’s what I spend my time trying to understand.

RJE: What part do you think postmodernism, with its emphasis on unheard voices, has played in creating a space where these untold stories can be recovered?

JA: Postmodernism has created quite a lot of open space for reassessing and rethinking the ways we have written our histories, and this has certainly included a renewed discourse about religion and theology within these histories. The ‘theological turn’ in contemporary phenomenology, for example, grew directly out of French ‘postmodernism’. The critique of secularisation theory and the discourse of postsecularity has been supported by various strands of ‘postmodernism’. But it’s important to note that there are, of course, multiple postmodernisms (just as there are multiple modernisms), and these diverge from one another and compete with each other, sometimes radically. Some of these have collapsed the space available for religious and theological discourse in the writing of history, some have opened more space for it. It’s a mixed bag.

RJE: Were you at all surprised by the stories that you recovered and by the extent to which artists in modern and contemporary art have been engaging with theological questions?

JA: Yes, the research for this book produced a number of surprises. The vast majority of the most important artists working in the modern period were raised in Christian or Jewish homes. Many of them had family members who were pastors, priests, or theologians, and several of these artists wanted to go into the ministry early in their careers. Many were deeply influenced by religious and theological texts, and many dealt with religious subjects in their work, not only in the early stages of their careers but also throughout, often returning to it in their later years. This isn’t to say that they were each devout in any straightforward way, but it is to say that religion played a more significant role in their lives and in their thinking than is often assumed.

The pattern that emerged over and over again was not one of religious unbelief but of conflicted belief. There are some examples of modernist artists who were either deeply devout or deeply antagonistic toward religion, but more often what we find are artists who are deeply conflicted in their religious beliefs and allegiances, and they’re willing to press further into this tension rather than resolve it. Many modernists became estranged from the church, but I was consistently surprised at the extent to which they continued to think about and work on questions that were essentially theological in nature and were in fact rooted in and informed by religious practices and traditions. (And I would venture to say that this is true of many, many contemporary artists as well.) In short, modernism was not an art of unbelief or of anti-belief as much as it was an art of fragilised belief: belief trying to adapt under the strain of cultural cross-pressures that greatly intensified in the age of modernity. I think that’s extremely interesting, but adequately accounting for its influence in the history of modern art demands a more robust theological discourse than we currently have in the discipline of art history.

RJE: What stories do you tell in the book which may come as a surprise to your readers?

JA: One of the artists who was particularly interesting to me is Hugo Ball, the founder of Dada where it began in Zürich. Ball was raised a Catholic and at university became a Nietzschean anarchist—as one does. After leaving Dada, he reconverted to Catholicism and began writing books about early Christian mystics, including John Climacus, Simeon Stylites, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite. Shortly before he died at the early age of 41, Ball published his journals in a book called Flight Out of Time, which traced his thoughts and experiences in the years before, during, and after his involvement in Zürich Dada. These journals not only reveal early Dada as a movement that was a theologically resourced and ethically outraged protest against World War I; they also trace the journey of a man wrestling with the problem of evil in overtly theological terms and moving toward a radical, ascetic Catholicism. Dada is often represented in the history books as nihilistic—and indeed it did contain a strongly nihilistic strain—but it also contained a mystic strain that was shaped by a profoundly kenotic Christology.

RJE: The stories that you recover relate primarily to Christianity, but there is perhaps a wider story to also be told regarding other expressions of spirituality such as Theosophy or Spiritualism that impacted the development of modern art. Do you see those stories as in any sense complementary to the stories you have told?

Theosophy and spiritualism were definitely important to the history of modernist art – JA

JA: Many artists, especially around the turn of the twentieth-century, were interested in, influenced by, or participants in various forms of esoteric spirituality. In one sense, these movements fall well outside of Christian orthodoxy, and I don’t want to downplay that fact. In another sense, however, they often served as way stations for Christians who felt estranged from the church and were wrestling with deep doubts, but who was nevertheless committed to a view of the world that was open to transcendent realities and opposed to reductive materialism. Theosophy, for example, was for many people a space for asking open-ended questions about the deeper questions of life, especially concerning two major cross-pressures that had emerged with extraordinary force in the nineteenth-century: globalisation, on the one hand, which brought Western theology into direct contact and mutual exchange with various forms of Eastern thought; and quantum physics and evolutionary biology, on the other hand, which were calling traditional Christian understandings of cosmology and anthropology into question. Theosophy was a fairly loosely structured forum for engaging these questions in a way that sought some sort of unifying ‘divine wisdom’ that would spiritually reconcile Western and Eastern traditions, and intellectually reconcile religion and science—and they quickly identified art as one powerful way of accessing or formulating this wisdom. Some important modernists formally joined the Theosophical Society (e.g. Mondrian), some were influenced by it but kept a distance (e.g. Kandinsky), and some were involved for a while and then returned to Christianity (e.g. Verkade). And of course, the very shape and meaning of the project meant different things to different people and took a variety of different forms, including some ideas that have had some staying power and many others that have not. All that to say, yes, theosophy and a variety of other esoterica are certainly part of the complex religious and theological histories of modernism, but not in any uniform or singular way. More than anything, I think they are further examples of belief under the pressures of modernity.

RJE: Has there been a sense that artists themselves may understand themselves to be spiritual beings engaging with theological issues, while both the art establishment and religious institutions have often failed to recognise or acknowledge that reality?

JA: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that launched me into the research I’m currently doing is that I noticed that many artists working today are very interested in religion and theology, and they are often thinking about it in their work and willing to talk about it in their studios. However, when you turn to the writing and public discourse about their work—reviews, catalogue essays, gallery or museum statements, conference presentations, etc.—this aspect disappears almost entirely. It’s there, but it’s often functionally invisible or inaudible in the art discourse. At the same time, however, these artists often feel tepid about the church and feel that they have few if any interesting conversation partners there. Indeed, these dynamics have been going on for a long time; it was as true of many of the influential modernists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as it is of artists working today.

RJE: Your book may be part of a wider move to recover these stories and pay attention to artists as spiritual beings. Do you see signs of change around you?

JA: Yes, definitely. Over the past twenty years or so there has been a remarkable shift in the number of artists who are more explicitly thinking about religion, the number of curators who are staging exhibitions specifically addressing questions of religion in contemporary art, and the number of scholars who are studying the role of religion and theology in modern and contemporary art. There are now shelves of books and exhibition catalogues related to these topics, and they are being written from several perspectives and at the intersection of several disciplines, including art history, religious studies, sociology, and theology. This shift has created a conversation that feels fairly chaotic and unfocused, and there also remains, as James Elkins has said, ‘a complex structure of refusals’ against this kind of conversation both in academia and in the art world. But, nevertheless, the shift has been quite remarkable.

RJE: You call, in the book, for ‘a more charitable hermeneutic’ to be employed by Christian commentators on modern and contemporary art; of what does that hermeneutic comprise?

JA: The idea of a charitable hermeneutic begins from the premise that reading and interpreting others’ works is a form of human relationship—a means of negotiating our sense of meaning in life with our neighbours, our fellow humans, including both the artists who made the works and those with whom we discuss them. So, is there a way in which the writing of art criticism and the writing of history might function as love of neighbour? What would it mean to recognise an artist as my neighbour (even an artist who has long been dead) and to love that neighbour as myself? What would it mean to regard my reader as my neighbour (even a reader who has not yet been born) and to love that neighbour as myself? Just as there are some meanings that can only be apprehended by way of suspicion, are there some meanings that can only be apprehended by way of love? I think those are important hermeneutical questions.

At the most basic level, a charitable hermeneutic demands that as I strive to make sense of any given work, I must regard the person who made it and presented it as someone who may experience life radically differently than I do but who is every bit as much an ‘I’ as I am. She is a ‘me’. To love one’s neighbour in the practice of art criticism is to attend carefully to this particular work she has made, to receive it on its own terms (or at least in terms that are appropriate to it), and to try to name the ways that important human concerns, longings, joys, laments, failures, and so on are active in the work and have some bearing on me today. This certainly doesn’t mean that we remain uncritical, but it does mean that we are patient in trying to really see what another person has been concerned with.

RJE: What does it mean to pay ‘attention to artists as spiritual beings’ and is that possible in relation to artists who view themselves and their work as non-religious or secular?

JA: Those are important questions. Let me try to approach it this way: Social art historians and critics have done a marvellous job of attending to the ways that artworks are always already functioning within dynamics of social and economic power. Regardless of how mindful an artist may or may not be about these dynamics, his or her work is open to—even calls for—interpretation about how these dynamics are in play and at stake, because the making and exhibiting of art are intrinsically socially and economically significant activities. Feminist historians have further sensitised us to the ways that these dynamics are gendered, wherein artworks are both manifesting and reinforcing the ways we see each other. And so on. All of this has been fruitful and has deeply shaped the ways that we talk about and understand modern and contemporary art. It’s important to note that these critical methods are based on larger claims about what it means to be humans-in-relation, and these claims have some sort of bearing on all practices of artmaking, whether or not an artist is particularly conscious of it. My contention is that in addition to being intrinsically social, economic, gendered, and so on, human societies and the artworks they produce are at some level also organised by various theo-logics. To be human is to be always already participating in the sheer inexplicable givenness of the world and to be ontologically ‘open’ to the unspeakable, transcendent Fullness in which all things have their being. The traditional word for this Fullness is God, and the traditional word for the aspect of human creatureliness that is structurally ‘open’ to the transcendent is spiritual. So much artmaking, including modernist art, is at one level or another wrestling with the meanings of human living and dying in relation to the presence or absence of God—which is fundamentally a theological question.

To pay attention to artists as ‘spiritual beings’ is to attend to the networks of concepts, practices, and longings by which their works manifest and operate within some sort of theo-logic. Admittedly, the downside to referring to artists as ‘spiritual’ beings is that this word has become a total shamble, a mirror-maze of a word that houses any number of superstitions, affectations, and narcissisms. It might be better to say that humans are ‘religious’ beings or ‘theological’ beings, but those terms are also each problematic in their own ways. Whatever term we use here, what I mean to attend to is the way that artists are addressing the questions of the life’s meanings in ways that are not reducible to a materialist logic.

As to your second question, I’m very interested in how artists identify and view themselves religiously, but they in no way have the final word on what their work means. In the same way that a social or feminist historian is not particularly confined to an artist’s intentions—indeed, these historians might find it perfectly necessary to read against the grain of what artists say about their works—so too a critic reading the religious or theological history of art is not really confined to artists’ own self-descriptions and identifications (as important and interesting as those may be). Being personally non-religious or secular doesn’t really provide any closure on the range or quality of theological questions in play in one’s work—just as being personally religious certainly doesn’t ensure a significant range or quality of theological content.

Why have Christian commentators tended to adopt polemical approaches to modern and contemporary art in the past?
Modern and contemporary art traffics in ambiguities, difficulties, disruption, destabilisation, experimentation. As religious allegiances seemed to be unravelling in North Atlantic societies in the twentieth century, I suppose the difficult and conflicted domains of avant-garde art hardly seemed to be the place to be conducting careful, patient theological reflection. Christian commentators have often worried about this way of conceiving of art’s social function—including the heterodoxy, heresy, and profanations (whether real or perceived) that come with it—and they’ve often felt that guarding or bolstering the faith is a higher priority than offering careful, nuanced readings of the artworks themselves. It’s understandable, really. But this means that the default mode has been one of maintaining critical distance, conceptualising theology’s role in the arts as serving a corrective function before anything else. The (probably unintended) result is that the possible lines of theological questioning within modern and contemporary art have usually been short-circuited and therefore have not contributed much to the writing of twentieth-century art history, which, frankly, has been written and studied with a collapsed theological imagination.

RJE: Is there an essentially untold story of charitable theological exploration of modern art by theologians such as Paul Tillich and Hans Urs von Balthasar? If so, would this also be a story worth recovering?

JA: Yes, there’s a richer story to be told here. Both Tillich and von Balthasar have much to offer to theological explorations of modern art (and of course there’s also much to critique in their work as well). In addition to them, we could include many other theologians who have done some serious thinking related to artistic modernism: Pavel Florensky, Jacques Maritain, Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, Calvin Seerveld, John Dillenberger, George Pattison, John de Gruchy, Timothy Gorringe, Richard Harries, Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, Rowan Williams, Jeremy Begbie, David Bentley Hart, Ben Quash, and many more. The list would actually be longer than we might expect. This work has been extremely valuable and deserves further study.

One of the problems, however, is that this work has tended to be conducted in such a way that it has thus far had limited influence on the scholarship happening within the disciplines of modern art history and criticism. Partly this is due to the fact that theologians have tended not to conduct extended discussions on particular artists or artworks: they are usually operating within theological histories, grammars, and points of references rather than art-historical ones. That’s perfectly fine, but it just means that this work has tended to be more intelligible (and more widely read) in seminaries than in departments of art history. On the other side, historians and critics of modern art have tended not to read those theologians—or much of any good theology at all. So the two sides of the discourse have been fairly disconnected, and what we’ve lacked is rich theological intelligence within the writing of modern art history. This is rapidly changing: there are shelves of books being published these days by scholars who are working to develop precisely this kind of intelligence within the discipline of art history. We’ll see what comes of it.

RJE: Was your book written primarily with the mainstream art world or the Christian sub-culture in mind? How best can the issues it raises and the stories it recovers be explored within the context of the mainstream art world?

JA: Given that our book was published by InterVarsity Press (a Christian publisher) and that we directly engage the writing of Hans Rookmaaker (a Christian art historian), one of the primary intended audiences for this book was certainly the Christian subculture—or at least the portion of it that thinks seriously about the arts. The conversation devoted to Christianity and the arts has been growing over the past two or three decades, and our book is inevitably positioned within that conversation. On the other hand, we were also definitely writing with the more mainstream discourse of modern art history in mind. In fact, in many ways, that audience is of primary concern for me personally. The central task of our book is to offer—or at least clear more space for—a rereading of the history of modernism that pays more careful attention to the ways that it was shaped by religious contexts and theological concerns. Most of our citations are to art-historical texts, and the success of our chapters should depend ultimately on whether or not they offer persuasive accounts of particular artists and artworks and positively contribute to the study of art history. It is difficult to try to speak to both of these audiences at once—they generally don’t read each other’s literature and in fact often seem to be speaking different languages—but it’s important to keep trying.

RJE: Could you point to contemporary artists who are in our own day and time continuing the stories that your book recovers and retells?

JA: There are so many! I am currently very interested in the Belgian artist Kris Martin. Looking more broadly across Europe, I would point to Andrea Büttner, Aija-Liisa Ahtila, Danh Võ, Marlene Dumas, and Cristina Lucas. In the UK, I’ve recently been looking more carefully at the work of Mark Wallinger, Cornelia Parker, and Mark Dean. North American artists Tim Hawkinson, Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Theaster Gates, Ann Hamilton, Sean Scully, and Jim Hodges all deserve further (theological) consideration, as do, in Latin America, Doris Salcedo, Francis Alÿs, and Teresa Margolles. Turning to Africa, I think El Anatsui, William Kentridge, Emeka Ogboh, Diane Victor, and Wim Botha are all extremely interesting examples. And in Asia, I’m interested in giving further thought to Xu Bing, Hai Bo, Zhang Huan, Wenda Gu, He Chunye, and Do-Ho Suh. There are many more, but that’s a start. Not all of these artists would identify as personally ‘religious’, but all of them are wrestling with deeply theological ideas and are positioning (at least some of) their works in relation to particular religious traditions. The problem is that this aspect of their work is rarely discussed in the writing about these artists. I’m interested in attending more carefully to this aspect of their work and opening more interpretive space for this kind of investigation.

Interview: Revd Jonathan Evens speaks to Artist Jonathan Anderson © Artlyst 2018 Top Photo: Hugo Ball ‘Magic Bishop’ 1916

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism (IVP Academic, 2016)    Purchase On Amazon Here


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