Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness. Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. See here to purchase the book.
A. Anderson is an associate professor of art. William A. Dyrness is a
professor of theology and culture. Daniel A. Siedell, who writes the
Afterword to the book, is an art historian and associate professor of
Modern Art and the Life of a Culture
challenges the idea that modern art is necessarily secular and
a-religious, as if modernity left religion behind. More specifically,
Anderson and Dyrness disagree with Hans Rookmaaker's 1970 book, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture.
Rookmaaker was a Dutch art historian and Reformed Christian, and
Rookmaaker depicted modern art as rather hopeless and nihilistic in
terms of the worldview that it presented.
Anderson and Dyrness
appear to acknowledge that there is modern art that transgresses
boundaries, and that Christian critics understandably see such modern
art as antithetical to Christian orthodoxy. And yet, Anderson and
Dyrness argue, overall, that modern art interacts with religious themes,
Anderson and Dyrness profile a variety of
modern artists, including (but definitely not limited to) Vincent van
Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Vasily Kandinsky, and Andy Warhol. The book
occasionally profiles authors, such as Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick.
profiling artists, Anderson and Dyrness usually provide some
biographical background and discuss specific paintings. Some of the
paintings are abstract, but some are of concrete depictions of people,
scenery, or objects. Some of the paintings are obviously religious.
Some paintings, on the other hand, are not saliently so: Rookmaaker may
interpret a certain painting as promoting hopelessness, whereas Anderson
and Dyrness disagree with Rookmaaker and posit instead that the
painting is actually conveying a hopeful religious message. In many
cases, Anderson and Dyrness look at the writings of artists in which the
artists discuss religion. That added solidity to their argument.
and Dyrness argue that many of the artists they profile were
Christians, yet they highlight variety in their Christianity. Some were
Reformed. Some were Catholic. Some belonged to another branch of
Christianity. Some, such as van Gogh, struggled with the Bible, yet
Anderson and Dyrness argue that he continued to hold to some form of
religious faith. Anderson and Dyrness refer readers to secondary
sources that offer alternative viewpoints. Van Gogh's views on
religion, for instance, is rather debated within scholarship.
terms of the religious messages that the paintings conveyed, the
messages sometimes related to the presence of the divine within the
world or nature, or how nature communicated the way that God is. Some
focused on the human realm, including the manual labor that people did.
Some, on the other hand, presented God as indescribable and
transcendent. Whereas a number of artists focused on what was being
represented, Kandinsky actually held that the art itself can have a
spiritual influence on a viewer. Some of the religious messages that
Anderson and Dyrness discussed were more nebulous than others. Perhaps
Anderson and Dyrness could have more effectively brought those messages
down to earth for the reader in their description of them, or perhaps
the authors did the best that they could in light of the sources that
Anderson and Dyrness occasionally
discuss Christian attitudes toward art. For instance, they talk about
Calvinist justifications of art. These discussions would have been
better had Anderson and Dyrness talked more about the second
commandment's prohibition on religious images, since that has influenced
Reformed stances towards liturgy and worship.
This book is effective in terms of its overall argument, however: that modern art conveyed religious messages.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
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