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A longer version of this essay appears as the introduction to God in the Gallery: A Christian Approach to Modern Art, forthcoming this fall from Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 2008. 


For my wife, Kerri, and children, Daniel, Morgan, and Jacob

WE THINK WE KNOW what art is. And that is the problem. From kindergarten drawing classes and community arts projects to docent-led museum tours and Sister Wendy Beckett, we often receive a view of art that merely affirms our intuition that we know art when we see it. This makes it very difficult to appreciate much of the artistic practice that has developed over the past one hundred and twenty-five years.

This popular view of art relies on two errors. First, it assumes that art is primarily—if not exclusively—a recognizable image. But art is much more than an image. It is a dynamic, hypostatic union between form and content—between how a thing is made and what it depicts. Second, and perhaps more seriously, it assumes that to understand and experience art in its fullness should require no effort. It renders irrelevant “experts” like art critics, curators, and art historians who dare suggest that artistic practice might not conform to its distorted image in the popular culture.

This essay does not take for granted that we know what we’re talking about when we speak of art. It asks us to suspend our preconceptions about what art is and pretend that we know nothing about art. My own work as an art historian, critic, and curator continues to be motivated by the desire to understand this wonderfully mysterious thing called art, which is at once infinitely complex yet at times staggeringly simple—perhaps too simple.

Too often Christian approaches to art have merely validated popular misconceptions with theological justification. In contrast, I suggest that an important reason that much modern and contemporary art has been either ignored or vilified by Christian writers is due to a constrained Christianity that is usually brought to bear on the works of art in question. I would argue that modern and contemporary art deserves the critical attention of a more robust Christianity.


The Educated Appetite

Some of the most deep-seated pleasures of our natural selves…involve appetites that had to be educated. If these pleasures are rooted in crude instinct, they nonetheless grow in depth and power as we acquire hierarchies of discrimination, until the second nature is nowhere separable from the first. Yet visual art—and abstract art most particularly—remains one of the last bastions of unashamed, unrepentant ignorance, where educated experience can still be equated with phony experience…. This syndrome becomes ever more acute as the tradition gets fatter and the works get leaner.
——————————-—Kirk Varnedoe, Pictures of Nothing

Art is a deceptive cultural practice. On one hand, it is ubiquitous in popular culture. Art museums attract thousands of visitors, and local community arts projects abound. And with the current interest in the “creative class” and the “creative turn” in the corporate world, art, as a manifestation of creativity, is good for business. But it is rarely defined. We seem to know what art is when we see it; or, perhaps more accurately, we know what it isn’t. On the other hand, few cultural practices have such a wide disparity and disconnection between the populace and the specialists, who are almost universally assumed to be irrelevant to understanding and appreciating art. Any talk of art’s complexity and difficulty seems to fly in the face of its accessible, fun, child-friendly nature, which is the message communicated by museums and local arts organizations. By and large, art’s popularity is derived primarily from its instrumentality as an economic tool for the chamber of commerce.

Art might be popular, but it is poorly understood, in large part because its historical and philosophical conditions are believed to be unnecessary for its appreciation. At the risk of being considered an elitist, I would argue that such conditions must be understood. This popular understanding of art also manifests an arrogance that restricts art’s horizon, limiting it to a form of decoration or cultural symbolism. Viewing and understanding art, as much as practicing it, requires hard work and discipline. The common assumption that modern and contemporary artists ignore their audiences ignores this fact. Therefore, it is important to lay some groundwork before an exploration of modern and contemporary art can begin in earnest.




Modern Art and the Museum


The arts are very much a part of the contemporary church. But when the arts are referred to or discussed, it is often in one of two ways. First is within the context of worship; that is, what kinds of art will be incorporated into a worship service. Most often, this has to do with artistic practices that have no direct resemblance to the subject of this essay: music, banners, dance, film clips, film stills, graphic design, or internet clip art. Outside the church, Christian attention to the arts has primarily to do with music and film, a concern, incidentally, that reflects their popularity and ubiquity in the larger culture. Although the kind of art I am talking about influences these art forms, this essay is not about them.

This essay is about museum art, that is, “high” or “fine” art, art made, as Nicholas Wolterstorff observes in Art in Action, for contemplation. This classification has made Christian commentators, particularly of the evangelical persuasion, nervous. It appears elitist. Huge swaths of visual images are ignored and subjugated to some practice that is considered higher, finer, and part of a practice of elite culture that is enjoyed by very few. It is therefore neither populist nor democratic, which also violates key tenants of American religious experience. Even Wolterstorff restricts high art’s importance, emphasizing that it is just one of the many ways that art functions.

This reflects a societal bias as well. Absurd and scandalous works of art, inflated auction prices, public controversies such as the Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and an idealized and mystified lost “golden age” of the pre-Reformation past when high art was sponsored by the church and was accessible to the “average person,” conspire to reinforce a deeply negative and suspicious view of museum art produced since 1900. This need not be the case. It is perhaps worth mentioning that both Hitler and Stalin condemned modern art as “degenerate,” a fact that should provoke us to reflect on the origins of and reasons for our negative views of modern art.

The history and development of the art museum is an inextricable part of the history and development of modern and contemporary art. The public art museum developed as part of the political and cultural imperialism of France, England, and Germany in the early nineteenth century, when cultural artifacts from around the world were brought to these institutions for public display. What emerged was a distinctive tradition of experiencing them aesthetically, which de-emphasized the particularities and distinctives of history and culture, and which laid the groundwork for the development of modern art.

This development evolved with, and in opposition to, the academy. As Egyptian, Assyrian, and Greek antiquities, along with medieval altarpieces, icons, and Renaissance portraiture came to be interpreted within an internationalist, transhistorical modern aesthetic, a living tradition was established that was so powerful that the French realist Gustave Courbet could encourage art students to study with the Old Masters in the museums rather than with the faculty at the academy. This living tradition of museum art came to exert a shaping influence on emerging modern artists in the mid-nineteenth century, who self-consciously submitted to this living tradition as the interpretive framework for their artistic practice. Products of aesthetic work by artists participating in this living tradition are responses to and critiques of this tradition, extending it, deepening it. As T.S. Eliot remarked in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the individual artist achieves his identity as an individual by participating in a historical tradition.

Museum art, then, is a profoundly historical practice with a developed tradition, a living tradition of the dead rather than a dead tradition of the living, to paraphrase Jaroslav Pelikan’s famous description of the church. That much of modern art appears to many museum- and gallery-goers as strange and arbitrary has much to do with not knowing the living tradition out of which such work emerges and into which artists, curators, and critics are baptized. That most people are not a part of this living tradition does not invalidate its integrity. By comparison, that T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or James Joyce’s Ulysses require extensive notes to explain references and allusions does nothing to undermine the fact that Eliot and Joyce were working within a living tradition. It just so happens that this living tradition has not been shared by most readers, either in Eliot’s or Joyce’s time or in our own.


The Institutional Definition of Art


Art is not only a cultural practice; it is also an institutional practice. Therefore, any discussion of art must take into account its institutional framework. Modern art’s primary institutional framework is the art museum. Modern art and its living tradition exists not only invisibly in the hearts and minds of its practitioners and participants but is also embodied, mediated in and through its visible public institutions. And it is in fact this public or outward manifestation that produces the private and inward experience of art. What art is, then, is defined through a public network and not merely by private assertion or opinion.

An influential, albeit much criticized, definition of art is the institutional definition, whose primary adherent is George Dickie. He was influenced by Arthur Danto’s essay “The Artworld,” published in 1964. Danto’s essay was an attempt to reflect philosophically on a single problem: how could Andy Warhol’s plywood Brillo Box be understood as a work of art since it is virtually (visually) identical in every way to a simple cardboard Brillo box? “To see something as art,” Danto observes, “requires something the eye cannot decry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an art world.” The difference, for Danto and especially for Dickie, is that Warhol’s reliance on the familiarity of the ordinary object provides the interpretive ground for his hand-painted copy of the mass-produced original. The object becomes art when it is placed in a museum or gallery space that invites and provokes certain responses on the part of the viewer. The viewer, in short, responds to it as a work of art by contemplating its union of form and content in a particular way and by reflecting on this experience as a distinctively aesthetic one. For Danto, it is the presence of interpretation and theory that enables an object to become a work of art. For Dickie, it is the museum or gallery space that enables this transformation. It is the institution, as a literal and conceptual space, that shapes both artistic practice and audience response.

Institutional theories of art account for the role of museums and galleries, interpreters, and other non-aesthetic aspects of art that participate in constituting what art is, so that, to quote Danto, “nothing the Brillo people can make will be art while Warhol can do nothing but make art.” But institutional theories do not offer sufficient analysis of the mechanics of producing and experiencing art. This is perhaps not surprising, since most theories of art have emerged as means to accommodate new artistic developments that challenge established frameworks. Institutional theories emerged in an effort to comprehend and interpret the work of Warhol and Duchamp, two artists whose work, it has been said, was often more interesting to think about than to look at.

The institutional approach to art locates a break between the modern notion of high art as being true art and premodern visual representation—which functions within other institutional frameworks such as the church—as being something else. Given this, some will assume that the term “art” cannot be applied to premodern visual representation, but that “art” is a modern, western concept. Although such an institutional approach is helpful in clarifying and distinguishing important differences in visual practices, there is a certain intrinsic meaning in visual representation, or aesthetic embodiment, that a hard contextualism such as the institutional theory cannot recognize.


The Ecological Theory of Art


Philosopher Paul Crowther offers a complement to relativistic approaches to art, such as the institutional theory, that pay insufficient attention to what occurs cognitively in the process of producing and experiencing art. Influenced by the thoroughly embodied phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Crowther develops what he calls the “ecological theory of art,” which involves the development of the self through creative and imaginative interaction with the environment. Crowther addresses the important role that art plays in the growth of self-consciousness as the embodied self interacts with the world aesthetically.

What is important for Crowther is that visual representation, as made manifest by art, is not merely an institutional practice but fulfills basic human needs such as affirming bodily presence and bodily knowledge, what Crowther calls “body-hold.” Art imaginatively projects a harmonious relationship between the subject and object of experience, which reconciles the self to the other in the preservation of human experience. Crowther thus locates art’s significance in the practice of its making and its experiencing. It “brings rational and sensuous material into an inseparable and mutually enhancing relation.”

Significantly, Crowther also argues that this relationship is at its foundation a transcendent one. A work of art enables the self to move beyond and outside itself toward another object, and this process has a significant impact on the self’s development toward a reconciled relationship with the world. This transcendent relationship makes love possible—which is nothing if not transcendent—by helping us move beyond ourselves, toward our neighbor and toward God.

Crowther’s ecological approach to art offers what he calls a “transcultural” definition of visual representation, of which the western institution of high art is but a particular manifestation. Crowther argues that all cultures believe something important takes place in visual representation. Most cultures recognize that this importance is distinctively powerful, magical, and religious. This is not because these cultures are primitive or unenlightened but simply because what makes visual representation significant—that it offers a unique and complex hypostatic union between sensuous material and rational ideas—is inexplicable and thus named “religious.”

This mysterious, hypostatic union is the source of high art’s power. Crowther argues that the institution of high art acknowledges this mysterious power, which has given rise to the close relationship between art and religion that has preoccupied artists and critics since the advent of modernism. But it has been named the “aesthetic,” and the museum is the place where such inherently religious experience is called an “aesthetic experience.” Still, the inherently religious—even magical or mystical—nature of aesthetic experience, as a distinct embodiment of the hypostatic union, remains.


Representation and What Is Not Seen


What is important to consider in these theories of art is that there has been no discussion of what art is supposed to look like and whether art is supposed to be mimetic (that is, representational, which is the conventional assumption of art’s significance—that it makes images of the world that look real or that correspond to what is empirically seen). Unfortunately, the assumption that art is supposed to be representational, that its images are representations of what is seen and experienced empirically in the world, is often given moral, ethical, and spiritual justification so that representational art is life- or creation-affirming while abstract art is nihilistic and creation-denying.

This is simply not the case. And it was not the case for the classical Greeks, from whom we receive stories about the remarkable likenesses of their aesthetic creations—of birds trying to nest in a painting of a tree or a young man falling in love with a sculpture of a woman. Wrote Philostratus:

Your artists, then, like Phidias and Praxiteles, went up, I suppose, to heaven and took a copy of the forms of the gods, and then reproduced these by their art, or was there any other influence which presided over and guided their molding?

There was, said Apollonius…. Imagination wrought these works, a wiser and subtler artist by far than imitation; for imitation can only create as its handiwork what it has seen, but imagination equally what it has not seen; for it will conceive of its ideal with reference to the reality.

Visual art was recognized, then, as being more than something that depicts outward, observable forms; it also consists of imaginative projection. The history and development of modern and contemporary art necessitate that we understand that representational art requires imaginative projection while abstract art requires representation of some kind; in other words, abstract art is representational in different ways from figurative art. This dialectic between abstraction and representation, between outward form and inner feeling or spirit or imagination, is fundamental for understanding the economy of the icon—an ancient form that can do much to help us comprehend modern art.

My working definition of art is thus derived in part from both a moderate institutional theory that recognizes the important role that the museum space plays in determining meaning and mediating a history, tradition, and theory of what occurs in that space, and an ecological theory of art that affirms that in its making and viewing, art does something to and with the self, projecting an imaginative world of thought in aesthetic form that is necessary for human development. The transhistorical nature of visual representation offers a basis for reflecting on modern and contemporary art through the theory and practice of the icon because its primary goal is to seek communion with God. Its foundation is prayer.

Artistic practice, then, is utopian. It recognizes that the world is not as it should be. And it therefore projects alternative worlds. Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once said, echoing Dostoyevsky, that if the world were perfect there would be no need for art. Art is a witness to both our fallen world and our hope for its redemption. In a bracing introduction to the work of Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, Russian-born poet Joseph Brodsky declares, “Art is a form of resistance to the imperfection of reality as well as an attempt to create an alternative reality, an alternative that one hopes will possess the hallmarks of a conceivable, if not an achievable, perfection.”


The Economy of the Icon


In The Crossing of the Visible, a provocative book about images, icons, and idols, the phenomenologist and Roman Catholic thinker Jean-Luc Marion observed, almost in passing, that:

the image-affirming doctrine of the Second Council of Nicaea concerns not only nor first of all a point in the history of ideas, nor even a decision of Christian dogma: it formulates above all an—perhaps the only—alternative to the contemporary disaster of the image. In the icon, the visible and the invisible embrace each other from a fire that no longer destroys but rather lights up the divine face for humanity.

This study takes seriously Marion’s observation that the theory of images articulated in the Second Council of Nicaea—which in AD 787 reestablished the orthodoxy of icons (the holy images of Christ, Mary the Theotokos, the angels, and the saints for use in church worship and private devotion) and reversed the iconoclastic council of 754—can make a significant contribution to the study of contemporary art. The key principle of icon veneration is that the honor shown to the image is transferred to the prototype, and whoever honors an image honors the person represented by it. The icon (eikon, “image”), then, is a material means of grace, a pointer through which devotion, contemplation, and communion with God are enacted. It is the sacramental presence of a transcendent world.

Saint John of Damascus, the foremost defender of icons in the eighth century, laid out several different images of God. The first image, what John calls the “natural image,” is the image of the son. The second image is God’s predetermined will, the images that he will bring about. The third image is humanity as the image of God. The fourth image is found in the scriptures: the use of figures, forms, and shapes that depict “faint conceptions of God.” The fifth kind of image is also found in the scriptures: images that prefigure the incarnation of Christ. The sixth and last kind of image is made up of those that recall the memory of past events either in words (scriptures) or images. John advises Christians to “receive each [form of image] in the reason and manner fitting to each.”

An exploration of the economy of the icon is not possible without the study of iconoclasm, which was an organized movement against images used in worship that began in earnest during the eighth century in Constantinople. Although it was ultimately defeated by the church in 847, it lingered, only to reemerge with a vengeance in the West during the Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century. Significantly, both iconoclasm and iconophilia trace their roots to Neo-Platonic thought, particularly as it is manifest in Origen. They are two sides of the same coin. Cultures, communities, and institutions are simultaneously iconoclastic and iconophiliac.

Nicene Christianity does not merely tolerate images in the church. It requires them. Icons are not an alien eastern addition to Nicene Christianity, but its essence. The Council of 787 in Nicaea, the seventh and last ecumenical council of the church, was an affirmation of the Nicene faith as embodied in the economy of the icon. Religious imagery, particularly the holy icons, was considered to be dogma in paint, painted scriptures. Canon 82 of the Council in Trullo (691–92) forbids a symbolic representation of Christ as a lamb because it was a type or image of the coming Christ who has already come and thus should be depicted as a man in “remembrance of his incarnation, passion and redeeming death, and of the universal redemption thereby accomplished.” One need not be chrismated in the Eastern Orthodox Church or a cradle Roman Catholic to draw from the riches of this too-often ignored history of the church. The Protestant practice of freely appropriating from church tradition, which has culminated in what the late Robert Webber called “ancient-future faith,” certainly legitimates the appropriation and adaptation of the economy of the icon for Protestant use.

This aesthetic economy rests first and foremost on the cosmic implications of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, which did not merely or only effect our salvation, but renewed all of creation, bringing the creation itself, to quote Saint Athanasius, into the eternal triune relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Saint John of Damascus argues for the importance of Christ’s incarnation for the veneration of icons:

Of old, God the incorporeal and formless was never depicted, but now that God has been seen in the flesh and has associated among human kind, I depict what I have seen of God. I do not venerate matter but I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked.

A key aspect of the theory and practice of icon veneration is that the material world is not, as Greek philosophy assumed, a burden that must be abandoned or transcended in order to achieve communion with God or participate in his divine nature. The material immanence of the world is the very means by which divine transcendence is or can be experienced. It is precisely at this point that Christianity critiqued and transformed Hellenic thought. Since the son, the divine Logos, has put on creation through the incarnation, this is especially the case in the new covenant. Mocking his iconoclastic opponents as super-spiritual, John of Damascus admits that, “since I am a human being and wear a body, I long to have communion in a bodily way with what is holy and to see it. Condescend to my lowly understanding, O exalted one, that you may preserve your exaltedness.” John’s affirmation of the material world as the means of God’s grace is repeated seven centuries later in 1525 when Martin Luther returns to Wittenberg from exile to battle the iconoclastic Andreas Karlstadt and his cohorts, to whom he referred sneeringly as the “heavenly prophets.”


Modern Art, the Modern Church, and the Power of Icons


Reflection on the economy of the icon has much to recommend for a study of modern and contemporary art. From a historical point of view, the icon has never been far from the history of modern art. The development of an autonomous institution of art in the West resulted in painting that takes place on portable panels and later canvases, materials that approximated the mobility and discrete look of icon painting. Modern painting could be said to be the western equivalent of eastern icon painting.

More important is that a number of avant-garde painters during the first decades of the twentieth century, particularly the Russians Malevich and Kandinsky, found in icons the embodiment of spiritual power. And spiritual power—real presence—has been perhaps the driving force of the history and development of modern art. The avant-garde was eager to access this spiritual power and so they began to describe their paintings as iconic. In addition, they borrowed various formal compositional devices, use of color, greater self-consciousness about how they practiced their craft, even, as is evident in Malevich’s exhibition practices, installing some of their paintings in the eastern corners of the gallery spaces, which followed traditional Byzantine practice. For these and many other painters well into the twentieth century, including the Russian immigrants John Graham and Mark Rothko, modern painting functioned like an icon, creating a deeply spiritual, contemplative relationship between the object and viewer. Rothko once observed that if the viewer doesn’t cry in front of his work then he or she isn’t having the same experience that he had while painting it.

The historical relationship between icons and modern art is largely metaphorical. This is not to say that it is insignificant. It is a way to denote that a painting has a certain spiritual and contemplative power. In the mid-1970s critic Joseph Masheck explored the range of this metaphor, perhaps revealing its real power: “We apply certain notions from the earlier history of painting, especially religious painting, to present-day art, not to project meaning onto contentless forms, but to inquire into integral contents in art, at a time when early modern aspirations to a transcendental function for painting have revived.” Iconoclasm haunts the history of modern art just as it haunts the history of icon veneration in the church. Reflection on modern artists’ interests in icons provides productive insights into the religious and spiritual underpinnings of the development of modernism.

Not only are icons relevant to the study of modern art, they are relevant to the practice of contemporary western Christianity. Eastern Orthodoxy and eastern Christianity in general have received a considerable amount of interest, particularly among those of the emergent or “ancient-future” faith movements, for which interest in icons is part of a larger interest that includes ascetic practices, candles, incense, plainsong and chant, bowing, prostration, and other forms of ancient practice. From more mainline and seeker Protestant churches, the role of the arts in worship has become an increasingly important subject. Visual images are playing an increasingly prevalent role in Protestant churches. As Protestant churches puzzle out the question of the arts in general and images more specifically in worship, the study of icons and their theory and practice within the eastern churches can offer significant assistance. The deep riches of dogmatic reflection on icons in the eighth and ninth centuries are not exclusively the possession of the Orthodox or Catholic traditions but part of the rich deposit of the Nicene Christian faith.

The economy of the icon operates in a worldview that is profoundly sacramental, in which the transcendent is mediated through the immanent and is recognized, experienced, and contemplated through material means. As Graham Ward observes, “To desire or to love God is to invest the world with significance, a significance which deepens the mysterious presence of things.” The vocation of humanity is not only as prophets who proclaim God’s love and as kings who rule as God’s royal representatives but also as priests who mediate between creation and Creator. Alexander Schmemann asserts:

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with his Eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing Eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.

For Saint John of Damascus, humanity is by its very nature a mediation of the creator and the creation: “Man is a microcosm; for he possesses a soul and a body, and is placed between spirit and matter; he is the place in which the visible and invisible creations, the tangible and intangible creations, are linked together.”

Much modern and contemporary artistic practice manifests this priestly function, this yearning for a liturgical reality that reveals the world as gift and offering. Many works of modern and contemporary art manifest this reality. They are indeed poignant altars to the unknown god in aesthetic form. The challenge for the Christian art critic is to name them and testify to what they point toward, however haltingly, tentatively, and incompletely.

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