i'm posting a `work in progress'....a semi re edited version of an essay that I wrote (and got published by PRISM magazine) back in the mid 1990s. I'm reworking it for inclusion in the book `Each with our own brush'........ Here's where we are `at' so far. Bear with occasional typos and format glitches.
I'D WALK A MILLION MILES FOR ONE OF YOUR SMILES (MONA)
`The question of whether or not art will change the world is not
a relevant question anymore. The world is changing already, in
inescapable ways. We can no longer deny the evidence at hand. The
need to transform the egocentric vision that is encoded in our
entire world view is the crucial task that lies ahead for our
culture. The issue is whether art will rise to the occasion and
make itself useful to all that is going on.'
Suzi Gablik `Making Art as if the world mattered'
In the early 1970s I was in Paris, France, as part of a
city wide evangelical outreach. Almost every day we would be out,
passing out tracts, putting up posters for meetings and talking
to people on the street. When we weren't doing that, we were in
Bible studies, prayer meetings and times of worship.
On one of the few afternoons we had a little spare time, some of
us made our way to the Louvre museum. I have forgotten a good
deal of what I saw. One thing that sticks in my mind
is the large crowd gathered round a small painting known as `The
As we made our way back from the museum I can remember glancing
into the window of a record store, and noting that David Bowie's
new album, `Aladdin Sane' was now out. This recollection sets the
tone for what I want to say, because it reminds me
of those of us who were Christians and art students at the time,
looking for ways of bringing the three worlds of Fine Art, Pop
culture and evangelical Christianity together.
In what follows I try to briefly sketch out some of the
differences that are emerging in contemporary culture in the wake
of what is called `Post Modernism,' because I believe that an
understanding of these differences is vitally important to the
three worlds I mentioned above.
1: A Crash Course for the Ravers
`It is impossible to say precisely when one can speak of the
existence of two distinct and bitterly conflicting modernities.
What is certain is that at some point during the first half of
the nineteenth century an irreversible split occurred between
modernity as a stage in the history of Western Civilization-a
product of scientific and technological progress, of the
industrial revolution, of the sweeping economic and social
changes brought about capitalism- and modernity as an aesthetic
concept. Since then the relations between the two modernities
have been irreducibly hostile, but not without allowing and even
stimulating a variety of mutual influences in their rage for each
other's destruction.' (Matei Calinescu `The Five Faces of
Modernity' Duke University Press, 1987)
Calinescu goes on to map the landscape of what he is talking about.
The first modernity was
driven by the idea of progress,increasing confidence in benefits
of science and technology, a marriage of reason and pragmatism,
resulting in an `instrumental rationalism.'
The other modernity (for which I will use the term `modernism'
to help cut down on the clutter)was the birth place of the avant
garde in culture and art. It often combined radical social ideas
with radical approaches to art. It set out to confront and
challenge the cultural and social conformities that were
springing up in the wake of modernity's relentless expansion.
When Marcel Duchamp painted whiskers onto a reproduction of the
Mona Lisa, he was throwing down the gauntlet to a system of
cultural values and inherited good taste that seemed increasingly
irrelevant to an era rocked by social upheaval, revolution and
war. Not only was Duchamp and those like him responding to his
time, but they were also opening the door for all those hard
questions and increasing uncertainties that were starting to
impact the worlds of the sciences. As the `big picture' began to
change in the areas of cosmology and physics, other pictures
began to change also. A revolution in ideas began to take hold
in areas as diverse as Cultural anthropology, linguistics, and
the philosophy of science that revealed to us both the
complexity and the smallness of the world we inhabited. It also
revealed that our way of describing things (already under review
in the hard sciences) was simply one among many. We came to see
that knowledge was `personal,' influenced by consensus and
convictions, and our big picture, controlling paradigm, or world
view had a particular history, and had even been shaped at some
levels by the language we used to describe it. This crisis in
our world view cast a shadow across the unquestioned assumptions
that drove the engines of modernity. The various attempts to
regroup and rethink our relationship to the past, and come up
with a new model or paradigm for the future come together under
the umbrella term `Post Modernism.'
(Artists like)Duchamp challenged the accepted notions of art with `anti art,' not
only opening the door for future generations who would challenge
the conventions of artistic taste,, but (by)also forging the beginnings
of a link between the general crisis in modernity and the
eventual demise of (cultural)modernism.
How and why did this happen?
The failure of modernism in the arts is linked back to at least
Firstly:In spite of the variety of its imaginative expressions,
modernism in the arts was necessarily rooted in the same cultural
and philosophical soil as the overriding modernity it sought to
challenge and critique. This `soil' was a world view haunted by
a profound dualism. In the ancient days of philosophical
idealism, this dualism opposed the realm of eternal truths and
ideal forms and the realm of contingent material reality. As
modern `rationalism’ supplanted ancient tradition, then the dualism
re surfaced as a split between `faith' and `reason' creating
separate, self contained worlds of `neutral facts' and `inner
Secondly , many of the underlying dynamics that drove modernity
in its quest for ongoing progress and expansion ended up
Unconsciously(?) influencing the vocational agendas of artists who
have made their `careers' attempting to confront and challenge
Thirdly, modernism's attempts to confront modernity, whether
through `rebellious' imaginative expression, shocking anti art,
or extreme self reflexive abstraction invariably ended up being
neutralized and assimilated by the gallery system and prevailing
critical discourse. The artists were drawn back into the very
system they were trying to confront..
How does Post Modernism differ?
How does it retrieve(or take up??) the challenge that modernism failed to rise
to, and what new things does it try to tell us about art at the end of modernity?
I would like to offer four suggestions as to how it does this.
1:It challenges, retrieves and recuperates aspects of its
own history. If the larger crisis of modernity is calling into
question the controlling assumptions of our world view, then it
may well be that an art history written as if those assumptions
were unquestionably correct and universally valid may need a
thorough overhaul. Artists and movements marginalized by
`official history' may be due for reappraisal.
2: Also due for reappraisal and evaluation are those social
and historical factors that influence the way we decide
something is art, and the way we look at it.
The entire complex of gallery and museum exhibition, art
criticism, and all the other factors that affect how we approach
something we have been told is `art' are undergoing scrutiny as
part of the larger crisis of modernity, and as part of the post
mortem on `modernism.' The concept of `the artist' is also
undergoing critical reevaluation . Inspired genius? Cultural
worker? What does their art work reveal or hide about their
social and historical situation?
3:In the light of the critical rethinking of our fine art
tradition , and radical re evaluation of our cultural history
what do we make of the previously held distinctions between
popular culture, mass culture and high art? There has always
been exchange between these three cultural trajectories.
Some examples of popular culture inspired fine artists, or, over
time came to be seen as fine art itself. Some fine art has been
genuinely popular, and has also provided raw material for
assimilation into `mass culture.'
`Mass Culture' should be understood as an aspect of modernity. In
the name of `democratizing' culture, it targets the `felt need'
of a community for some kind of cultural dimension and markets
culture conceived of as a commodity to the lowest common
denominator in the spectrum of that `felt need.' This approach
to culture will borrow from popular culture, high art, and in
some cases `social relevance' to come up with a marketable
commodity, or marketing strategy. In spite of all the exchanges
that have gone on between these three cultures the boundaries
have always been firmly in place. Or at least they were until the
Post modernist artist and thinkers began to redescribe the
cultural landscape. In this new landscape the moral indignation
of Duchamp's defaced Mona Lisa gives way to the deadpan irony of
Andy warhol's silkscreened Mona Lisa. Duchamp questioned
cultural values in an era of social upheaval while Warhol
questioned the sanctity and aura of the unique art object in an
era of mass reproduction.
4: Another aspect of our cultural landscape that is
undergoing redescription involves our relationship to other
cultures. While some artists have felt free to borrow from
artistic forms in other cultures, some museums have
(traditionally)put cultural artifacts on display as ethnographic
data that in some way supports our assumptions about cultural and
We have also tended to view other cultures in the light of our
own artistic preferences. As we rethink our relationships to
other cultures we are realizing that our particular view of what
good art is, and how it relates to a society is just that: a
The collapse of modernity as a universal technological panacea
and the failure of (cultural)modernism to effectively critique and
challenge the cultural status quo clears the way for a
reappraisal of other world views and other cultures. Post
modernity and cultural pluralism go hand in hand.
Post modern cultural theory calls into question all the
previously held assumptions about history, culture and cultures.
Accordingly, much post modern art attempts to keep its footing
by keeping moving. It borrows images, styles and themes from
the newly leveled cultural and historical landscape, sometimes
appreciatively, sometimes ironically, in its quest to combine the
ongoing relentless criticism of the old order, with the
celebration of the new order, or of no discernible order.
As we begin to conclude this somewhat sketchy overview, we might
ask ,where does that leave the world of `evangelical
Christianity' in terms of the three worlds I was hoping to see
brought closer together?
Of course Christianity suffers as a system of truth and ultimate
values in an intellectual and cultural climate which seeks to
deconstruct any claims to certainty and `absolutes' and reveal
them as historically grounded fictions or thinly disguised grabs
for power. And of course, it is important that Christians risk
telling and doing the truth in such a climate. What is at stake
is not just a particular idea about high art, or even a shared
consensus about right and wrong. Under this kind of
deconstructive scrutiny the very idea of the `self' or `human
being' may end up looking like a linguistic formulation, or a
socially mandated fiction. Will Christians respond, though? Will
they step into the marketplace of ideas at the end of history,
with a message that redeems the concept of the individual, and
places it in the context of a community, and accountability
before a personal God? If the current cultural efforts of what
has been dubbed `the evangelical subculture' is anything to go
by, the picture is not too bright. Why?
I want to suggest that much of what finds expression in this
subculture suffers in the same way that the rest of the cultural
and intellectual world suffers. It not only feels the effects of
`the end of modernity' it also experiences a crisis similar to
the one modern art went though.
((Really??????))What are the similarities?
I suggested earlier three factors that contributed to the
failure of modernism in the arts. How do these factors impact
the Evangelical subculture?
Firstly, this subculture is haunted by dualism.
The ancient philosophical dualism that divided the world into a
realm of ideal truths, eternal forms and a world of appearances
and contingent reality still haunts much of this Evangelical
subculture in the guise of the `sacred/secular' distinction. The
more modern dualism with its split between `facts' and `values'
builds upon this `sacred/secular' distinction by building a wall
of separation between emotional feeling and critical thinking.
This dualism in both its ancient idealist/gnostic and its modern
rationalist/skeptical forms attempted to separate the Jesus of
history from the Christ of faith. If we operate as if this
dualism (in whatever form it presents itself) is true then we
risk opening the back door to a version of this error. We also
risk setting up a conflict between an orthodox verbal confession
and a heretical mindset and practice.
Secondly, some of this subculture's idea of expression and
effective ministry is severely compromised. Not only is some of
our thinking paralyzed by the ancient and modern dualisms but
some of our thinking and doing is compromised by being `unequally
yoked' to some of the driving forces and underlying agendas of
the culture we are trying to reach. Those forces might convince
us that bigger is better, whatever works must have some truth to
it, and the ends do, in fact, justify the means.
Thirdly, in the light of points one and two, this subculture
is assimilated back into the very system it seeks to critique.
This `evangelical subculture becomes useful only insofar as it
helps prop us the existing status quo. Or, conversely it becomes
viable as a commodity, one option among many in the fragmentary
pluralism that follows in the wake of modernity's collapse.
And, also in the light of points one and two as this subculture
surrenders the option of deep an consistent Biblical thinking and
replaces it with an approach to the surface of scripture as
fragmentary and misleading as any advertising slogan or political
soundbite, then it ends up resembling a symptom of the very
problem it claims it wants to address….
How do we change? How do we move beyond mimicking the
symptoms of Postmodernism, or merely reacting to some of its
effects? How do we engage with and respond to some of these ideas
as Christians, and how, ultimately do we link all this back to
art? I want to wrap this up by asking if there is anything
we can possibly learn from the Post modern position? I am going
to make some suggestions based on the four points I made about
Post modernism and art history earlier.
1: I mentioned `deep Biblical thinking' above. This is
necessarily preceded by close reading. A close reading of the
gospels reveals a social world in which, from a Roman point of
view, nothing was sacred. One could believe in as many or as few
Gods as one liked, debate customs, culture, fasting, food,
clothing and ceremonial law, so long as one remembered,
at the end of the day, all kidding aside, Caesar was God.
The Gospels also reveal a world in which, for the Religious authorities,
nothing was secular. The revealed Law was interpreted in such a
way, and channeled through an infrastructure of Rabbinic
commentary and tradition, so as to impinge on most areas of an
ordinary person's life. The Gospels reveal hoe Jesus set in
motion a series of events that questioned the foundational
assumptions of both these world views, while at the same time
retrieving and recuperating those elements of society who were
pushed to the periphery and marginalized by those world views.
2: We can begin to understand how the New testament might
be relevant to our attempts to analyze the power centers and
established worldviews in our own day. Is it possible to train a
more analytical, critically distanced eye upon church history?
What would we learn about the development of this institution?
We saw earlier that social, historical and economic factors have
some bearing upon the role art plays in our culture. How have
they impacted the growth of the church, with all its forms,
different emphases of ideas, doctrines and ceremonial practices?
3:As we retrieve a New Testament worldview that balances
`holism' with sharp analysis, and start to lay bare some of the
influences and agendas that impacted some of developments in
church thought and practice, then some of the previously held
distinctions between `sacred' and `secular' (just like the
distinctions between high art and popular culture) undergo deep
revision. I am going to suggest that we have to do a couple of
Firstly we have to balance a deepened appreciation for
what the New testament actually teaches about those two
spheres, with a more exacting critical analysis of the underlying
social and historical factors that led the church community to
declare certain things `sacred' and `secular' at different times
in its growth. Secondly, we have to remain sensitive to how
these categories function in cultures different than our own.
4: If, as Swedish Minister and writer Olov Hartman says, the
ideas of `sacred' and `secular' were nailed to the cross with
Jesus Christ, then in my opinion, we should read the account of
the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the second Chapter of Acts
as a decisive deathblow to any notions of a single, definitive
`Christian culture.' Everybody there heard something they could
understand, regardless of their linguistic or cultural
background. True worship and proclamation found culturally
plural expression, and laid the foundation for us to retrieve the
concept of cultural pluralism, without succumbing to any form of
relativism in the area of Truth. The early church did this by
anchoring the many culturally distinct expressions of the faith
in the historical and social particularity of Jesus of Nazareth.
For the church to speak effectively into a culturally diverse,
cosmopolitan situation, it had to be built upon the foundation
of a leader and teacher who claimed to be the embodiment of God,
and also the definitive demonstration of God's intention towards
His creation. This leader and teacher was not only born into the
human family, but also willingly underwent adult
baptism/immersion into a particular community, in a particular
historical and social situation.
We Christian artists and thinkers should pause here, and
reflect. we often refer `the incarnation' when alluding to our
own struggles to make or justify our art. We often talk about
the graciousness of God, who revealed his power in weakness,
taking on the limitations of human form. We use this allusion to
undergird our own struggles with giving material expression to an
idea. We are used to drawing upon the mystery of `the two
natures in one person' to somehow anchor our own concerns with
the relationship between form and content in an artwork. If we
are going to have anything to say to the postmodern condition we
need to move our understanding of incarnation, and our
understanding of art past the questions of form, content,
humanity and divinity, and move into the questions of history,
community, context and reception, questions that necessarily come
to the surface when we consider the Biblical story of the True
god who chose to become a particular man, in a particular culture
at a particular juncture in history. Anything less, is merely a
sophisticated version of the `Christ of Faith/Jesus of history'
heresy I allude to above.
Can we as Christian artists and cultural workers overcome this
implicit dualism in our own thinking in order to (in Ms Gablik's
words) `rise to the occasion, and make ourselves useful to all
that is going on?'
This question is still with us, and like the Mona Lisa's
mysterious smile, it threatens to haunt us for some time to