By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – October 31, 2016) — As I was sitting with the curating team as they perused my portfolio to choose paintings for The Collective — an artist consortium in Albuquerque, New Mexico — I found myself interested in their thoughts concerning the artwork.
Jason said, “I love them. But lets steer away from the use of violent images and the Bible at this time” (I have paintings of guns, bombs, and the like superimposed over sections of the Bible).
Samantha was interested in the American Icons paintings, caricatures of notable American artists painted over a 1611 section of the King James Bible.
Nikki was looking at the painting, When Death Thinks Softly, part of my series, Thoughts Made Visible. In this particular painting an image of a bull’s skull is painted over Feynman Diagrams. Richard Feynman (1918-1989) was a theoretical physicist known for his work on quantum mechanics and integral formulations.
As they studied the works, I studied their impressions. As any artist knows, when you show your art to others you are exhibiting your contemplations and considerations, your interaction and understanding of the world. With art an artist is presenting a portrait of his or her mind reaching for meaning.
As an artist I am interested in the intersection between images, words, numbers, and symbols, incarnations of mental processes. Art is idea; contemplation made concrete. And though I generally don’t have a thorough explanation for the all the inferences in my artwork, I understand that what’s placed on a paper, canvas, or any artistic medium, carries meaning. And meaning gives artwork momentum to communicate. And communication affords one to listen. In the end, art is about discourse, a conversation between minds set aflame by the presence of an object interwoven with a person’s ability to respond .
During the picking process mentioned above I was interested in the discourse taking place, the response of the curators and the conversation the artwork elicited. It was fascinating.
I’m glad I’m not the only one interested in the discourse the arts provide. In two recent IVP Academic releases and one Cascade book, Jonathan A. Anderson, William Dyrness, Cameron J. Anderson, and Daniel Siedell tackle the often-misunderstood role art — and artists — have taken in the culture and church, particularly as it relates to modern art.
In Modern Art and the Life of A Culture, Jonathan A. Anderson and William Dyrness have a dialogue on the influence and meaning modern art has had on and within our society and church. Using the classic book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture by Hans Rookmaaker’s as a springboard, the authors tell a story of how faith influences modern art. As an artist (Anderson) and theologian (Dyrness) the discussion revolves around the critical contexts (“Religion and the Discourse of Modernism:”) and the various “encounters” modern art takes in differing countries (France, England, USA, etc.). The undercurrent the book proposes is modern art does have “strong religious impulses.” By bringing together the disciplines of art history and theology, the authors respond to the questions “Is the Christian faith at odds with modern art?” and “Does modernism contain religious themes?” The book is a wonderful read, helping one discover the answers to the questions in an informative and illuminating way.
In The Faithful Artist: A Vision For Evangelicalism And The Arts by Cameron J. Anderson, the tension between of Christianity and the arts is furthered, honing in on the rise of evangelicalism and modern art (contemporary movements). Cameron traces the relationship between the two movements in postwar America — “two entities that often found themselves at odds with each other.” In the end, Anderson “casts a vision for how Christian artists can faithfully pursue their vocational calling.” Like Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, The Faithful Artist: A Vision For Evangelicalism And The Arts is well worth the read, particularly as Anderson moves from the crises of the two movements to a cure in chapters seven and eight (The Music of the Spheres and An Aesthetic Pilgrimage).
In Who’s Afraid of Modern Art: Essays on Modern Art and Theology in Conversation, Daniel Siedell stresses a particular method for interpreting modern art: Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross (“tentatio,” or “agonizing struggle”). In a Theology of the Cross, art emerges not necessarily from proportion (as revealed in a classical understanding of art: form, color, balance, etc.) but from pain. For Siedell, “Modern art puts us back in touch with our pain and suffering, which is where art meets us, where God meets us…And east of Eden, it is only through this suffering and fear that we can experience beauty, goodness, and truth.” For Siedell, art and beauty are not necessarily handmaidens of systematic theology, but of crises as revealed in culture. In the end, all authentic art is a product of grace. Siedell states, “Authentic art is nothing less than an aesthetic testimony to the promise of grace, and as such, it deserves our utmost respect and our efforts to preserve it against forces that would distract us, especially those forces that come in the name of decency and moral values.”
Though much more can be said concerning each book, this isn’t the place to unpack all the nuances. Rather, as an artist, I’m pleased that people within the church are paying greater attention to the role the arts and artists perform on the stage of society — be it in the larger culture or the church. I hope others will read and react to the books.
For in the end, art offers, what writer John Updates calls, “space” — “a certain breathing room for the spirit.”
And God knows we need breathing room and space in our society today. If anything, let the artist help you breathe a little better — in whatever form that takes, letting the artwork communicate that you are not alone, challenging assumptions, and providing meaning. In art, there is a confluence that allows both the human spirit and divine Spirit to speak. Our role is to listen and respond.
Photo captions: 1) Modern Art and the Death of Culture by H.R. Rookmaaker. 2) Modern Art and The Life of a Culture by Anderson and Dyrness. 3) Who’s Afraid of Modern Art: Essays on Modern Art and Theology in Conversation by Daniel Siedell. 4) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA) and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). As a published author, editor, radio host, recording artist, and visual artist, Brian spends his free time with his three children and wife, painting, writing music, reading, and visiting art museums. To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.
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