The Word-Soaked World
Troubling the Lexicon of Art and Faith
Since 1989, Image has hosted a conversation at the nexus of art and faith among writers and artists in all forms. As the conversation has evolved, certain words have cropped up again and again: Beauty. Mystery. Presence.
For this issue, we invited a handful of past contributors to examine our common lexicon as a sort of personal inventory on the part of the journal. Were there words we were using too glibly, we asked, words that needed to be reconsidered, revitalized, or tossed out?
The writers’ responses surprised us. Some pieces retain an element of that self-critical spirit we requested, such as the essays on beauty and suffering. But the majority of the essays ended up as a referendum on the power of language, like art itself, to represent and reveal. Words, the writers seemed to say, deserve to be weighed heavily. On consideration, some words that seem simple or obvious are more demanding than we think.
Language is double-edged. On the one hand, the ability to call things by their names can connect us to others, and can anchor an artist in the created world. Perhaps language itself even offers an image of the divine. Some would even go so far as to say that language is what makes religious experience possible.
But at times, even after long wrestling and careful study, language can seem inadequate, more a stumbling stone than a pathway. Sometimes language seems able only to point to things just outside its reach, things we crave but can’t grasp, things we dare not approach, things we draw back from in awe or revulsion.
This collection of short essays demonstrates the push-pull relationship believing artists have with words: We are in pursuit of a God who is revealed through the poetry of the oldest Psalms, but whose true name is impossible to pronounce.
Theodore L. Prescott
THE GREAT twentieth-century American sculptor David Smith revolutionized post-war sculpture with his welded steel forms. Though his work is often described as having an American sensibility, anyone with eyes to see also recognizes an obvious debt to European modernists like Picasso, Braque, and Giacometti. An interviewer once asked Smith how he came to be exposed to cubism, which along with surrealism accounts for the structural origins of his work.
Smith had spent almost a year working and traveling in Europe, but he didn’t mention that. Instead he described seeing modern sculpture in the French journal Cahiers d’ Art, which the artist John Graham had loaned to him. He was quick to add that since he didn’t read French, he “just looked at the pictures.” I’ve always loved this small but revealing anecdote. Surely it must warm the heart of anyone who publishes a journal. What a testimony to journalistic influence. But it warms my heart too, because I sometimes just look at the pictures and skip the text. Further, the anecdote quietly exposes the fault line running along the border between “art”—as I’m using the term—and things that you ingest through words. You can find this line in the categories listed in Image’s table of contents. Though poetry and fiction are surely art, it is only visual art that is identified as such there, just as in the broader culture the word “art” most often signifies visual images, not literature, music, or dance. For my purposes here, I take Image’s word “art” to be defined by its pictures, and not by what is written about them.
In the twentieth-anniversary issue’s introduction, Greg states that Image is not a “thesis-driven publication,” nor, he says, does it back “a single artistic style as salvific.” He goes on to write: “the sheer diversity of work that Image has published demonstrates the persistence of the religious sense among those who make art—an ongoing struggle to integrate faith, reason, and imagination.”
I affirmed that diversity in an article for the same issue, discussing visual artists who had been featured in Image. But I also noted the journal “exhibited a fondness for figurative and narrative painting.” My judgment was based on looking, not quantitative analysis. I’ve just now thumbed through several stacks of back issues, and still have the same sense. It’s worth noting, too, that the opposite condition pertains regarding sculpture. It appears to me that a good bit of sculpture featured in Image is nonfigurative, and sometimes rooted in a kind of materials mysticism. My goal in pointing this out is not to become the house contrarian, but to raise a question: Is the kind of Judeo-Christian religious vision that lies at the heart of Image predisposed towards some kinds of art, or some ideas about art? Wouldn’t this inquiry reveal how Image “thinks” about art?
Recently I read a statement by the painter John Currin which casts an odd light on this question. He is famous for “almost old master” pictures that mix elements from kitsch, porn, and mass media with figures that imitate the work of some of the great painters of the Renaissance. When asked about his figures in a 2000 interview, Currin replied, “The worst thing, in my mind anyway, is serious figuration. When I was in grad school that was always the domain of the married grad students or Christians who would be painting Hopperesque psychological tableaux that always looked awful to me.”
Whatever we make of that gratuitous swipe against seriousness, married graduate students, Christians, and Edward Hopper, Currin does link figurative art to religious faith. It would be interesting to learn why Currin made the link. Were there really a bunch of Christians at Yale painting Hopperesque psychological tableaux? I suspect the real problem for Currin is not figuration and faith, but seriousness. When Greg speaks of an “ongoing struggle to integrate faith, reason, and imagination,” I hear the sound of seriousness. I know Currin is serious about his work and career, but nothing I’ve read or seen indicates that he is serious about art in the way that Image so clearly is.
I’ve often felt that Image’s approach to the visual arts had a slight modernist artistic flavor. That was partly because of the fine-arts orientation of Image. Photography, illustration, and art originating from craft traditions seemed distinctly less present in Image than they have been in the broader artistic culture. Now, after meditating on what was likely a quick throwaway by Currin, I realize too that Image is serious about art in a way that no longer fits with the way significant portions of our contemporary arts culture believe or behave. Image has a modern seriousness.
This is a tricky distinction. I am not suggesting that Image is modern, while the art world is postmodern. That is a simplistic and misleading division, and ignores the fact that Image’s genesis occured during the rise of postmodernism, and can be seen as an example of it. It also suggests that artists today are “postmodern.” But surely we are post-postmodern. The critical distinction between Image and much of our current arts culture lies in beliefs about art; what it is, what it may achieve, and its ultimate place in the grand scheme of things.
Image’s particular modernist aura is nurtured by the quiet hovering presence of patron saints like Flannery O’Connor and Jacques Maritain. Their beliefs about art were developed through engaging the work and ideas of their modern contemporaries as much as they were an expression of enduring religious convictions. Their seriousness—like Image’s—had a reverence towards art, because for them art could be a type of revelation. This is the belief that Bruce Nauman both expressed and mocked in his famous 1967 piece, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, which was written out in a spiral of neon on a gallery wall.
It is not that something like Nauman’s piece would never be found in Image because of its irreverence. There are plenty of things one should be seriously irreverent about, and one need only recall the work of artists like Guy Chase or Lynn Aldrich, who have both been appreciatively profiled in Image. The spirit and the process of their work have some resonances with Nauman’s. Regarding Nauman’s piece, I believe that an Image writer would be inclined to interrogate the joke and ultimately affirm the expression—even with its deliberate mawkishness—that art can reveal truths not accessible by other means. If my speculations are right, Image affirms a lofty concept of art, which is as much an act of faith as it is a reasonable belief.
In this, Image stands apart from our culture’s embrace of “when we call something art, it is art,” that powerfully seductive belief that we are masters of art’s universe, rather than creatures working within it. This idea is incubated, cultivated, and disseminated by the academic-theoretical complex, which surely can be as inimical to the experience of art as the military-industrial complex is to the democratic process.
Such an intemperate little screed by someone who writes about art and enjoys reading criticism needs a bit of explanation. The explanation is that the explanation is not the art. However, if art is an empty category whose boundaries expand or contract with the descriptions and definitions made by artists or theoretical-critical scribes, which are subsequently validated through institutional contexts, then the definition turns objects into art. This goes some way toward explaining why contemporary art is so self-consciously “art.” Its being depends too much on its definition. As art historian James Elkins recently noted, contemporary art is burdened with self-reflexivity.
Doesn’t the way Image sees and thinks about art come from a different place? Its understanding of art is certainly socially mediated, but for Image art’s origins lie beyond the circle of artists, writers, and readers who make up the social institution “Image.” For Image, art is natural, not civilized, since it is rooted in the created order. It is human nature to make the images we call art, which is amply confirmed every time ancient civilizations are discovered and excavated. God made us do it—or at least to do it. Thus, I believe Image’s serious understanding of art tacitly acknowledges art’s true source.
A religious view of art, but not a religion of art, befits a religiously oriented arts journal. Does this mean the art we see in Image is religious? And, can we tell that just by looking at the pictures? Or, do we need to read the accompanying texts to know?
Here I hit the little “like” icon for Image’s articles accompanying art. They are readable, which is a refreshing change from art journals which apparently equate obscurity with depth. (Artforum used to take pride in its “unreadability.”) I particularly like the essays that weave the narrative of the artist’s life with the artist’s work, so one sees how choices are made and why the artist is drawn to certain forms and subjects. I have certainly learned from Image’s articles on art, but what I’ve learned has little to do with how or why the work under consideration is art. I may be persuaded to see it as good or significant work, but that is a different issue.
The answers to my questions finally depend on the viewers and readers of the journal. Ironically, while anything may be seen as art today, many culturati have difficulty grasping that the Judeo-Christian tradition does not parse life into sacred and secular bits, so that Madonnas are religious while portraits are secular. The idea that all subjects might have religious significance is culturally challenging if you think liturgy, worship, and the paraphernalia of the church or synagogue are where art with religious sentiments belongs. Image tends instead to look to the studio, the gallery, or the museum for its art. This focus is part of what makes Image’s view of art modern.
Most people who write for Image are predisposed to look for religious affinities in all kinds of work, even if the artist isn’t especially religiously aware. If exercised responsibly, a religious reading of apparently nonreligious art is not mere wish projection. It is rooted in the biblical narrative, where all people, wittingly and unwittingly, are part of a grand unfolding drama being written by a divine author.
A drama? We return now to the observation that Image seems to tilt towards figurative painting. This may simply reflect the strong “return” to figuration that has developed across the artistic spectrum over the last few decades. However, one reason for this return is a renewed interest in narrative as a subject and source for art. Even as postmodern thinkers sought to discredit metanarratives, the longing to investigate one’s life and world through narrative led artists back to the threshold of old, universal stories—including religious ones.
In a similar fashion, there has been a growing exploration of materials—both natural and synthetic—by contemporary sculptors. For some, materials may be just more dumb matter to be jerked around at will. But for others, artists like Wolfgang Laib or Tim Hawkinson—both profiled in Image—there is a palpable sense of the mystery about matter’s existence in their work. That mystery permeates the Jewish and Christian understanding of creation’s innate goodness, and the way the physical reveals the spiritual.
The most provocative question I was asked to consider for this essay is whether I think Image has “words that have become tired from overuse…that we need to examine more closely, to abandon, to reclaim, or to reinvigorate.” Who would miss the word “art” if Image declared a moratorium on its use? Would anybody notice? We can talk about skill, depth, beauty, expression, the desire for permanent goods, and a host of other things without mentioning the word. So it isn’t really “art” that Image reveres and pursues, but the capacity of all images to represent and reveal—which is at the very heart of the definition of an image, and of Image. Art, rest in peace.
Theodore L. Prescott is an emeritus professor of art at Messiah College. He is a sculptor who writes frequently about art.