In 1970, InterVarsity Press published Dutch Neo-Calvinist H. R. Rookmaaker's now classic theological critique of modernity, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. For many Protestants, particularly Evangelicals concerned about the arts, this became the touchstone source for cultural engagement. Given this heritage, it is appropriate that IVP Academic opens its new Theology and the Arts series with a reappraisal of Rookmaaker's project. This uniquely coauthored approach offers insights from both artist Jonathan A. Anderson (associate professor of art at Biola University) and theologian William A. Dyrness (professor of theology and culture at Fuller Seminary).
The text is broken into two primary sections: “Critical Contexts” and “Geographies, Histories and Encounters.” Section 1 locates the discussion within the relations of art and religion broadly, and more narrowly addresses the Rookmaakerian heritage. The dominant narrative casts modern art as a thoroughly secular affair; Rookmaaker's investigations of its theological underpinnings furthered this notion, as he located modern art within a cultural context that he saw as a pervasive decline into nihilism. Anderson and Dyrness share Rookmaaker's perspective that modernity was working with profound theological questions, but take his argument in a different direction. Rather than adopting his declinist perspective, they explore how Christianity may have helped shape the modernist avant-garde (10). Drawing upon the work of Charles Taylor, they challenge the dominant narrative of modern secularity, contending that “modern art is not principally an art of unbelief; it is an art of fragilized belief. It is an art of doubt and searching and, above all, of heightened sensitivity to the contingencies of modern secularity” (29).
Section 2 attempts to elucidate those claims by turning toward an art-historical method organized by geographically focused chapters. The authors constrain their project to both the primary artist canon within North Atlantic modernism between 1800 and 1970 (86) and the investigation of Christian influences on Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism, allowing a deliberate overlap with Rookmaaker's focus.
Chapter 3 explores the strong sacramental imagination at work in many artists, both explicitly and implicitly, in nineteenth-century France. The authors trace a Catholic imagination from Courbet and Delacroix down to Gauguin, Bernard, and others, with special attention given to Jacques Maritain's influence on Georges Rouault. The authors argue that these nuanced influences on the artists’ work need further exploration, and should be added to other currents of interpretive influences, such as politics and economics. Chapter 4 turns north to Germany and Holland to explore the influence of various Protestant strains in Caspar David Friedrich, Van Gogh, Mondrian, and Kandinsky. Chapter 5 ventures east to explore the influence of Orthodoxy's iconography and liturgy upon Malevich's apophatic nonobjective painting, as well as Hugo Ball's Dadaism.
In chapters 6 and 7, the authors survey modernism in America. Their argument suggests a uniquely American legacy of Emersonian romanticism and Puritan theology that construes nature as not only the setting in which divine purposes are achieved, but also the context that creates the possibility of a direct and personal experience of God. This legacy inspired early American realist landscape work by Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, as well as the later Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock. Chapter 7 deftly explores theological influences on the work of Allan Kaprow, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ed Ruscha, and includes a lengthy examination of Warhol. The book concludes with a brief epilogue and essay, “So What?,” by art historian Dan Siedell.
This text is an outstanding addition to the field of theology and the arts, opening a much-needed postsecular reexamination of modernity and the visual arts. It is refreshing in its humility and generous hermeneutic of modern art and existing art-historical scholarship. The authors repeatedly point toward rich areas for further study, particularly beyond modernism into contemporary art and culture.
While the treatment of Rookmaaker will be of particular interest to Protestant readers, the reassessment of modern arts’ perceived secularity extends its relevancy across the church and into art history as well. Thus, this book is highly recommended as a valuable resource for both theology and art libraries, and as advanced reading for those engaged in similar conversations.