Friday, August 31, 2007

Atonement and Depictions of Christ

I have finally decided on a Thesis topic for my final year at Denver Seminary. I even submitted the official proposal, and it was passed this week. I am so thankful. This will be the title of my thesis research: "Two Views of the Atonement in Contemporary Depictions of Christ in Art." The two views of atonement that I will focus on are the Christus Victor and the penal substitutionary view. For some great introductory reading on these two atonement models I highly recommend the book Four Views of the Atonement, by Beilby and Eddy, eds.

I have also limited my research to only six depictions of Christ, which I have selected because they are contemporary (created within the last 20 years), they have been displayed very prominently before large diverse audiences, all art works have inspired critical writing in major publications, and each one I feel is unique in imagery and background. I hope to get images for my blog so you can know what work I am talking about without going on a wild google chase (that's google chase, not goose chase).

1. Alexander Kosopalov, born in Moscow, 1943

This is My Body, and also his work This is My Blood

2. Mark Wallinger, born in Chigwell Essex, 1959

Ecce Homo

3. Kent Twitchell, born in Lansing, Michigan, 1942

The Word

4. Cosimo Cavallaro, born in Montreal, 1961

My Sweet Lord

5. Gottfried Helnwein, born in Austria, 1948

Epiphany (Adoration of the Magi)

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Visual Language of Iconography

If we limit ourselves to the study of Christian iconography, then we are choosing to study the early Christian visual language. We are not necessarily choosing to study early Christian art, neither are we choosing to study Christian theology. Iconography is essentially a visual language, and Christian iconography is parasitic. Andre Grabar, author of Christian Iconography: A Study of its Origins, put it this way,

The Christian iconographic language is comparable rather to one of those special or technical languages that linguists call parasitic because, like parasitic plants, they depend on another language—another plant—and take from it those terms which are needed for the special area involved.

Just as there is a language of electricians, sailors, or thieves—all languages of limited use, which are grafted onto the stock of a national language—there is a Christian iconographic language, which does not comprise a complete repertory of original signs appropriate to all possible uses but consists of a limited group of technical terms which, when added to the normal terms of Greco-Roman imagery of the time, give the image the desired Christian significance.[1]

Although a Christian worldview—the Gospel—was certainly the motivation behind developing Christian iconography, the largest contributor to Christian Iconography was the pagan culture of the Roman Empire. A distinction must be acknowledged between artistic motivation, which is the intent, and desire that moved the artist to create, and language, the mode of communication that the artist chose to employ to express her desired intent.

The earliest Christian iconography dates to the second century, two centuries after the foundation of Christianity. Although Church leadership continued to develop the appropriate language of theology for hundreds of years after the events in the book of Acts took place, basic Christian beliefs, which created a Christian subculture, preceded the development of Christian iconography. It is possible that the roots of Christian iconography reach earlier than the second century examples that have been preserved. Perhaps the very earliest attempts at creating the visual Christian language did not survive for our study and fascination. However, since the earliest artifacts of Christian iconography, the funerary decorations in the Catacombs and on second century sarcophagi were created after Christian theology was basically developed, we must ask why there was such a gap between the onset of Christian theology and the emergence of Christian iconography.

In terms of iconographic development, the second century was not the pivotal period of the Christians alone, and perhaps this historical knowledge sheds some light on the possible reasons why iconographic development was so much later than theological development.[2] As surprising as it may seem, we have the earliest Jewish iconography dating from the second century, and this parallel seems too significant to be only a coincidence.[3] Of course Jewish iconography was nonexistent prior to the date by the command of God to the Israelites in Exodus 20:4. The time that passed between Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai and Septimius Severus amounted to many centuries. While it is impressive that there was a definite shift of the Christian culture towards the arts and visual language after a couple centuries of being an aniconic religion, what’s more surprising is the development of Jewish figurative iconography at precisely the same time. There are several theories of why the second, third, and fourth centuries were so nurturing of iconographic development. Although a complete explanation of the existing theories would bring us further away from our focus on the origins of Christian art, it is interesting to mention that the theory of the late Wilhelm Koehler. He believed that Manichean iconography was a very effective source of propaganda within the Roman Empire, and it perhaps catapulted the creative efforts of the Christians and Jews to counter its success.[4] Whatever the reason, the synchronized acceptance of images of Jews and Christians alike meant that both religions gleaned elements of their language from the same Roman culture that prevailed during the second century, and this is certainly reflected in the stylized figures and combinations of imagery that began to emerge. There are similar illustrations of the distinction between the languages of subcultures within the prevalent contemporary culture that we live in. Consider a recent example that illustrates how the rules of interpreting a visual language within a culture may prevail, even when there are other great differences that set a subculture apart. Consider my personal experience as an illustration of the way a visual language works.

The past Memorial Day weekend I drove with friends from Denver, past Moab, Utah to Mexican Hat, a great junction of canyons in the Southeast corner of the state. Our three-day backpacking destination was the Anasazi ruins; cliff dwellings carved out of the red rocks a hundred feet above our sleeping bags. In my mind, the highlight of seeing the deserted community was climbing up to the lowest level of the dwellings and witnessing the Anasazi paintings, pictographs, and the ancient carvings, petroglyphs, throughout the 800-year-old community. The hands prints and depictions of humans are tangible, simple to understand because of the clarity of their representation. These creative markings have appropriateness, they fit the peaceful desert surroundings. At the same time, they stick out being distinctly human in the midst of seclusion. Any backpacker who happens upon the communicative artwork is lucky to experience the language of the past.

In contrast to the Anasazi culture, I can reflect upon the drive to Mexican Hat from Denver, and remember all the hundreds of signs and billboards in between our departure and our destination. There is some evolution of imagery among the signs as one moves west from the Rocky Mountains, forests, and Colorado culture to the desert red rocks, plateaus, and Native American influence upon the culture of Utah. The colors, pictures, and fonts change. There is even more of an image gap between the modern day representations of Anasazi paintings on the billboards and the original pictographs and petroglyphs of the Anasazi at Mexican Hat. Yet, there is a connection between all of the signs I encountered on the journey last weekend. That connection is the intention of the creators to use images as a visual language of communication. Both the Colorado and modern Utah graphics assume that viewers have within them ideas about how our culture communicates visually. For example, we read right to left, while driving in our cars we read signs to our right, bolded letters signify importance, colors have certain meanings such as water, emergency, caution, geographical data, etc. There are many more rules that most modern American viewers know. People are familiar with this language immediately upon viewing it, after having experienced it in their environments, and they trust implied meaning without question by the time they become familiar with certain meanings.

When I view the ancient artwork of the Anasazi I attempt to make sense of it by using the canon of modern-day rules of interpretation that I am familiar with. Perhaps some of these rules are universally known and innate within us, as human beings, and perhaps it is appropriate to expect that I can make sense of the age-old artwork by using these rules. However, if my culturally indoctrinated sign-reading tendencies do not reflect the sense of the Anasazi people, then their image-language is lost to me, though I will never know it.

Having laid before you a lengthy example of both the usefulness and confusion of an iconographic language let us turn to Andre Grabar’s account of the origins of Christian iconography. His main point, the fundamental idea that he presents before explaining the development of early Christian art, is that Christian iconography is a language developed out of the pagan culture of the Roman Empire. The secular culture of the day proceeded Christianity, providing cultural citizens of the day with cultural rules of interpretation. Christians of the second century were conditioned to “read” images according to the cultural norms of the day. Even if their worldview was antithetical to the pagan religious pluralism prevalent within the Roman Empire, they could not have created Christian art distinctly outside of the pagan iconographic language.

Even if it were possible to develop Christian iconography that was completely uninfluenced by the pagan culture that would not have been a desirable approach to art for early Christian artists. The intention of all art everywhere is to communicate ideas—even if the intention is only to communicate the idea of confusion to the viewer, or only to communicate an idea back to the creator herself; communication is central. This first principle of communication is even truer for the early Christian artist who understands the duty to “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” Matthew 28:19. It is understandable then, and not shameful at all, for the Christian to admit that early Christian iconography was not merely influenced by pagan art and pagan images, something rarely discussed in Christian art circles, the pagan iconographic language was employed to communicate Christian truths. Grabar writes about borrowing symbols for theological purposes,
An incalculable number of features, inseparable from the Greco-Roman imagery of the empire, passed into the Christian iconographic language just as naturally and inevitably as words, expressions, and syntactical or metrical constructions of the first centuries of our era—or Aramaean, Greek, or Latin—passed into the language of Christian theologians.[5]

The examples of how pagan symbolism was used for visual Christian communication are so numerous that we can speak about them in general terms. Frequently occurring motifs in early Christian art include ships and water, the dove, palm branches, and shepherds.[6] Ships and water often represented stories of Jonah and indicated deliverance and salvation. The dove and palm branches also indicated deliverance, salvation, and victory—themes that are congruent with the Hellenistic athletic traditions. The Greek Goddess, Athena, is usually pictured with a laurel wreath around her head, and her accompanying personification of Victory, Nike, often bears the palm as she hovers above the victorious party in narrative depictions of athletics and warfare. Shepherds were common in the art of funerary environments in the Roman Empire. They were so common, in fact, that the distinction between Christian sarcophagi and catacombs picturing The Good Shepherd, Christ, and Hellenistic sarcophagi picturing pagan sheepherds is often so subtle that it is easily missed.[7]

At least, we, contemporary scholars and art historians, often miss the distinction, but this may not reflect the apprehension of ancient viewers. One may think of the Christian t-shirts that are sold in Christian bookstores, which, upon first glance, seem like a logo for a well known American company, but after a longer look one realizes that the word has been switched to some word or phrase that is tied to a mainstream Christian worldview. Christians and nonbelievers alike can detect the difference, but those removed from the culture will not immediately recognize the substitution—especially someone who is not familiar with this word play of the English-American language. In the same way, it is very likely that we don’t understand the obviousness of Christian iconography creeping into the iconography of funerary Roman environments.
Another, more specific example of this kind of borrowing, or image-intention blurring, has to do with the representations of fish in the Eastern Mediterranean area. The Semitic cult of Dagon and the goddess Atargatis were both represented in art as a fish, and also devotee of both deities believed that eating a meal of fish was necessary to harness their powers. It has been suggested “some converts, in Syria for example, transferred to Christ the reverence and worship they had given once to these fish deities,” and that perhaps this is the explanation behind the complex development of the Christian icthus.[8] The symbol was merely a transition of intention, rather than a new creation of symbolism, as was the case with the cross.[9]

The intimate relationship of early Christian art with pagan culture says everything about the burden for clear communication that was the heart of early Christian artists, and really does not lessen the importance, uniqueness, or truth of the Christian message. On the contrary, it actually enhances it by revealing artistic intention and Christian motives; namely that a clear message is necessary and nondiscriminatory. Nondiscriminatory because, using the Christian iconographic language to express transcendent ideas does not exclude pagans from understanding what is being asserted, since the same language rules are used.
It is not surprising then, because Christians must always wrestle with the question of how much culture can color faith without compromising the Christian message, that the contemporary church must decide that clear communication of the gospel is important enough to engage the current secular language so that secular communities can “read the signs.” The church must realize the distinction between language and message, and not shy away from the secular former at the expense of the Christian latter.

The more we understand about contemporary Christianity and early Christianity, which the origins of Christian iconography reflect, the more apparent it is that the Roman Empire and the United States of America present a similar backdrop for the development of Christian art—especially for contemporary Protestant communities who are without the luxury of the rich artistic traditions of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Church. We live in the most visual culture that the world has ever know—even though illiteracy is not as widespread as it used to be among the lower classes—with television, the internet, films, graphic technology, and such advanced printing technology that billboards can be found in the countryside all the way past Moab, Utah. For the Protestant Church to not go through an art reformation, of sorts, would mean that they are denying culture with extreme tenacity and incredible success. However, without the rich education of Church art history, without a background of promoting spiritual formation through creative means, Protestant artists find themselves in a very experimental stage, and it is just as it was for Christian artists in the second, third, and fourth centuries. The language choice is a pagan one, Christian artists look to secular culture for influence, but they are doing so with good intentions. Iconography is about clear communication within a community, and that much hasn’t changed.


1. Gough, Michael. The Origins of Christian Art. Praeger Publishers, Inc.: New York, 1973.

2. Grabar, Andre. Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins, Bolligen Series XXXV. Princeton Univeristy Press: Princeton, 1968.

[1] Andre Grabar, Christian Iconography: A Study of its Origins, Bollingen Series XXXV (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1968), p. xlvi-xlvii.
[2] Ibid., p. 23.
[3] Ibid., p. 22.
[4] Ibid, p. 28.
[5] Ibid., p. xlvi.
[6] Michael Gough, The Origins of Christian Art (Praeger Publishers, Inc.: New York, 1973), p. 18.
[7] Ibid., p. 21.
[8] Gough, p. 24.
[9] The cross was not used in Christian symbolism until several centuries later when the memory of the inhumane punishment had passed from the minds of Christians and the Roman culture.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

"A little spark proceeds a great flame." -Dante

Last week I was reminded afresh why I have never considered myself a scholar. Midterms will do that to some people. I am one of those people. One of the average folk who occasionally decieve themselves into thinking that they are greater, smarter, swifter, more eloquent, more admired, more infallible, and/or more aspiring than they really are. It seems a bit contrary to popular notions of promoting self-esteem and a healthy self-image to says these things about oneself. Popular notions do not equate with accurate notions. In truth, I don't consider these commments entirely negative. The truth is that when I left that class room after taking my exam I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it had been a good five years since the last time I had bombed such a major exam with such unintentional tenacity. It is also true that hope is not only appropriate for the Christian, I believe it is necessary.

I was a jumble of sentiments after writting the four essays on epistomology. I possessed both hope and disgust all in one silly moment. For post-midterm stress relief, I went on a walk in the park with two of my classmates. Both women exceed me in every way academically. I was trying to sort through all of my present emotions with them--something, actually another thing, that I do very poorly, especially being an artist. I was ticked off, and unusually so, but I was also captivated by the hopeful thought that God uses average people to glorify himself. Am I looking for fame, fortune, accolades? Maybe so. I admit that my motives are never one hundred percent pure, being the fallen human that I am. (My Mom told me once that if you wait for pure motives you will never do anything at all.) I will hastily admit that I want God to use me for his glory, because the way God glorifys himself is always big, brilliant, and a mystery. His plan is true life and high through and through. If God used Moses, a coward when it came to public speaking, Esther, only a pretty face, to shift the political currents away from genocide, Sarah, a sterile and decrepit woman, to be the matriarch of the nation of Israel, and Paul, a misguided buffoon, to preach grace and peace to the world, then surely he can use you and me with all our weaknesses for great things.

Did you know that Michaelangelo turned down the pope's numerous offers to paint the Sistine Chapel, because he felt that he was a sculpter and not capable of such a large painting project, until the pope finally made him an offer he couldn't refuse (which looked more like a command)? His painting, The Last Judgement, in the Sistine Chapel is considered by many to be the greatest epic painting this world has ever known, unmatched by the hubris of many talented, but not as gifted, artists over the centuries.

In sum, I have just written myself a pep-talk for this next week of difficult studying. I must press forward knowing that God will use the things he gifted me with. God also gifted me with weaknesses. It is weakness which really makes a person great. I hope that we can apply these thoughts in some way to our own creative persuits. Be encouraged. Reread the title to this essay as often as you need to. I know I need to. And I will need to week...when I get my exam handed back to me....along with my pride.

Monday, February 26, 2007

A Universal Beauty?

I would like to resume the topic of universal beauty. I say resume because I had set out to blog about this topic last week, when suddenly a theological current swept me away and I didn't resist its tugging on my mental track. But now finally I want to bring up something that I think I have always been interested in and facinated by, that is the idea that there are natural laws, a created system within our universe, which tell us what is and what is not beautiful, ugly, attractive, pleasant, and repulsive. I certainly am not the first person to entertain the idea that there are laws that define beauty, which are not contingent upon culture, era, ethnicity, gender, background, or human ability to percieve (In fact there is a conference on theological approaches to beauty this weekend, at St. Andrew's Institute for Theology Imagination and the Arts (ITIA), with such lecturers as Nicholas Wolterstorff, Jeremy Begbie, Trevor Hart, Robert Jenson, Carol Harrision, Patrick Sherry, and Bernard Beatty). In other words, that there is the possibility that laws exist which determine and define that which is beautiful in the universe, and these laws are not contingent upon the existence and understanding of a human mind. These laws of aesthetics would have to be independant of perceptive minds, they are unchangible and incorrigible, they are as real and independant as the universal laws of quantum physics, logic, and morality. (In fact, it might be noted here that the early philosophers considered aesthetics just one facet of among many of moral laws and ethics.) This idea of consistant beauty, independant of our personal opinions sounds a bit radical, at least to those who have spent any time hanging around art departments at a Public University. It sounds a little hard nosed and narrow. It sounds rigid to claim that there are laws which determine how beautiful an angled line is that are just as certain as the numerical speed of sound. The funny thing is that I do believe this, and I believe that if these particular laws exist, then we have the ability to discover them--just like Newton discovered the law of gravity. And, like most constanct laws, it is difficult to affirm their place in the universe without also affirming someone who put them in place and established the laws forever (or perhaps it is the other way around).

I am not the first to believe these things, but sometimes I feel like I am the first because of how infected most people's minds are with Postmodern philosophy, because I studied Fine art at Boise State, where most professors revelled in those ideas, even though philosophy has moved beyond the postmodern movement. It is interesting to me that a Christian, opposed to a postmodern worldview from the very depths of their heart, will still avoid affirming any absolute statment with regard to beauty. It does not surprise me that a person would do this, what is surprising is how effectively postmodern philosophy has pervaded the minds of unsuspecting, even intellectual, i,Christian, individuals. However, I am not too interested in writting about postmodern thought these days. I think the reason why people shy away from making absolute statements about beauty is because there is a misunderstanding of what is being discussed. There is a misunderstanding of what part of beauty is being discussed, and people want to affirm the concept that beauty is in the eye of the beholder--this can be a true idea on some levels. Surely, personality determines an individuals taste in another person's personality, the choice of stripes versus polka dots, tuna or salmon, horns or wind instruments, creamy or crunchy, or warm or cool. However, these classifications are still on a larger scale than the level of the laws of beauty. When we are talking about consistent beauty we mean the elements. In the visual arts this means color, scale, variety, unity, rhythm (I am sure that I am missing one or two)--and a composition where all these things work together in a harmony of balance and interets may reveal universal ideas of what beauty is. Offense is taken when someone is denied the right to believe something is beautiful, but this is not what the study of beauty, aesthetics, is about. We must get down to the tiny level, the level of the elements to discuss what is making something beautiful, or what is lacking to make something seem ugly. If we approach it this way then getting offended by someone's claim that a lithograph is beautiful is the same as getting offended by someone's claim that a math problem which spans three white boards is beautiful. When speaking of the laws of beauty, start small. We don't take offense at simple arithmatic problems. Should we be offended by studying the nature of color? or Rhythm? or Variety?

Friday, February 23, 2007

Interest and Time: A Challenge

You never know when life will capture a person. You never know when an interest will capture a life. Our existence has so much opportunity, so much potential, and we, beings possessing creative minds, if nothing else have met the prerequisites for participation in the interests of life. There is so much to be interested in that I am fascinated to imagine having one single interest so strong and powerful in my life that I devote my entire life to it. When speaking of devotion, I only desire to have one single devotion to God. God is not an interest, but worthy of lifelong devotion. But is there an interest capable of capturing my attention for a lifetime? Time and my obituary will tell.

A truly life-capturing interest must have the depth to humble and enthrall me through all the phases and maturing that life requires. A lifelong interest must surprise and intrigue. It must contribute to my quality of life. It must consol me when I am in need of consolation, and distract me when I am in need of distraction. This interest, if it is to consume my life, must refine the aspects of my being, otherwise it is not worth my time here on earth.

Generally speaking, art is this absorption for me—but what specific focus is still unknown to me. In fact, I am at a loss to know if my primary fascination is as an artist or as a scholar of art history and theory. My interest is still too vague and broad to affirm just one period, style, medium, subject, artist, philosopher, or theory. Merely choosing a topic of art to be captured by is a shallow way to go about a life long interest. An interest of such strength must be developed over time. The interest must be specific enough to cultivate a mastery over the subject, but vast enough to infect every day of your life—even a day spent in the DMV with ecru walls, waiting for a license renewal. The interest must infect you on all levels.

My challenge to both me and you is to get infected with an interest worthy of your being. You are a creature of dualistic nature. Both your body and your mind are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Your time, your attention, your mental, emotional, and physical resources are precious beyond what you can comprehend. So when you decide to use your existence in a certain way, weigh in your choice. If you believe that Christ has atoned for your sin, and you hope to spend eternity in the presence of God, then consider the next statement: How you spend your life will influence your sanctification as a holy creature of eternity. God has given you gifts to use. If you decide to not utilize your gifts in this life, then you chose to put their sanctifying power for your life on hold, but you are not turning down your gifts. Eventually someday, in some world, either this finite one or the eternal one to come, you are going to use your gifts for God’s glory, because He will use your existence to glorify His. He is worthy of our glory.

Imagine that you are a potentially infinite being in terms of time—That is to say, that you have a beginning, that when God created you, but you are created to be an eternal being. Consequently, with regard to temporality alone, you are potentially infinite. I am not using the label potentially infinite here in the new age sense, meaning that you are god who doesn’t realize it yet. That is not my meaning here. I am speaking of time not capacity in your case. You are, in fact, a potentially infinite being. Now, where you spend your eternity is uncertain to me. You can choose to spend it with or without God. However, whether you spend eternity near to God or not, you will pass from this life only knowing maybe 80 years of life and existence, that is, if you are blessed with longevity. 80 years out of an infinite number is next to nothing at all. 80 years is inconsequential; it is blown from my imagining mind when I place it mentally next to my concept of infinity. What do I make of this?

Transition with me: maybe you are a freshman in college pursuing a business degree with all the tenacity of pursuing a leprous skunk because you “haven’t found yourself” yet. Maybe you are out of college—maybe out of grad school, and you still haven’t discovered something in this life that attaches to your heart, mind, and body moving you beyond wild day dreaming, and bringing you to a point of action. Maybe you are 73 and you realize that you have never been so seized by an interest that you sleep soundly every night knowing why God has created you, a human in this finite world, and not an animal or an angel in the transcendent world instead. None of these scenarios, if they be similar to your own, should upset you too greatly. Whenever you die, either at age 80 or at eight months (in which case you would probably not be reading this blog right now) you will hardly have begun to know yourself and understand your specific existence and purpose as God does.

You are an infinite being with regards to time, but now in a temporal world. What is your purpose, your lifelong pursuit, your one capturing interest? You will only know the answer for certain on the other side of this life. Perhaps it will be billions of years into eternity before you have “found yourself.” (If there be standard earthly concepts of time in heaven, and I doubt there will be.) You will not yet understand who God has created you to be exactly when you die. Angels are old creatures who never die, but do they still learn? They do, because God is the only omnipotent and actually infinite being. Why shouldn’t they progress in their knowledge of themselves? It is very certain that they do grow in maturity and knowledge, and I believe we will continue to do the same.

Howard Hughes described himself as an aviator, and the apostle Paul called himself a servant of Christ. Will they think the same thing 40 trillion years into eternity? I think the latter man will. Nelson Mandela was quoted for saying, “Your destiny is to manifest God’s glory.” This truth is pertinent both now and forever. But what about now—specifically? Find your interest! Pursue it, lose yourself in it, and find comfort in understanding it as the reason why you were born a human, a man or woman, in this era. Let your lifelong fascination seize your heart. But don’t confuse it with your eternal identity. Our life is not for ourselves—God has His reasons.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Denver Art Museum with my friend, Angela. Now, hold that thought and rewind two months ago. Two months ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Denver Art Museum on a first date. Do you sense the differing moods between the two visits just by reading these two sentences in contrast to each other? If you are thinking "yes," then congratulations--you are in fact attune to context and not without a social clue. It is true that attending a museum on a first date and attending the museum with a long-time friend will be two very different experiences. However, I highly recommend any good art museum as the perfect venue for a first date. The main reason is because compatibility between two people is exposed in some degree by your dialogue about and reaction to the artwork. But, I am not blogging here about my advice on dating. I have greater matters to attend to--matters of art. Matters that matter.

I would like to introduce you the work, Life, by Yue Minjun. (I have attached an image of the work for your reference. It is in the right hand column on my blog.) Here is an oil painting, and I apologize that I do not have exact dimensions, but my guess is that the painting occupies a space of about 15' x 9'. Each partitioned square that you see must be about 3 square feet in physical existence. In case you are having difficulties perceiving the work, I will describe the content of the painting. The subject of the painting is a wiry little Asian man with a manic, full-toothed-with-scrunched-up-nose, laughing expression. The man is pictured in each square, in a variety poses--not merely childish contortions, but seemingly strange postures, which hint at insanity or, at least, an extremely emotional state of mind.

At first blush, I blushed. (This was on the first date trip to the DAM.) I interpreted the mural sized work as representing in partitioned squares the euphoric insanity of a vulnerable human being. My Christian worldview requires me to understand humanity, and its depictions, as representative, in some capacity, of God’s image (Genesis 2:26). Only the bizarre representations of the human figure in life somehow seemed more base to me, irreverent, silly, and slightly animalistic. I was unsettled by this representation of sub-human mania, and by the fact that the guy pictured was wearing a black speedo—let me qualify this comment—the speedo didn’t bother me, nor did his nakedness, as nakedness in and of itself. I was bothered by the helpless exposure of this man, his defenselessness, both in mind and body, and the risk behind his poses.

In all honesty, I wanted to stand there pondering the oil painting much longer than I was able to. After all, I work mainly with humanity in my artwork, and this was a technically beautiful rendering of the human figure, with muscles contorted in ways not often captured by painters these days. But alas, it was a first date; I didn’t want to freak my date out by deliberating about what he might see as merely a man in a black speedo. Besides, the museum is filled to brim of interesting stimuli, so we moved on. However, I didn’t forget the mural.

Several months later, I was so grateful for Angela to suggest an outing to the museum because I had long been wondering, not only about Life, but about some other works included in the exhibition. I was thrilled to have a second chance to stand with my jaw dropped before them. You never can tell how a museum with hit you. A well curated show is worth months of brooding-over—it tides you over until the next installation. I was blessed to have Angela as my companion last Friday for many reasons, but the reason that has inspired me to blog today is that she shed reams of light on the Minjunpainting.

After escaping a rather talkative museum guard, we found ourselves in the gallery with the huge oil painting. My friend was already looking at it. I walked over and glibly said something like, “This disturbs me.” “I like it,” she replied just as quickly. Surprised, and now curious, I asked her why. Angela is a first-generation Korean. Minjun’s subject is an Asian man—not a boy, not a young man, necessarily. My friend explained that in the Asian cultures extreme emotions are always reserved, hidden, and even manic happiness is rarely displayed, especially in the case of familial patriarchs. Angela has a father and a brother, and their family is close, but she does not often witness their raw emotions. Her reflection startled me a bit, because Angie’s family has gone through so much hardship, and suddenly I imagined everything that has happened to her without the outward expression of pathos. I was shocked—this new thought in my mind quickly turned me toward a new appreciation for the painting. Angie said, “This is like the Father I never knew.” The freedom to express is what attracted her to Life.

I could no longer write off the work as another unmemorable painting, postmodern in its repetitious composition and random imagery. I had to stare at the content in light of the cultural mores, previously unknown to me, before I could feel thankful for the existence of such a strange painting. I remembered again that one reason why I love art so much is for its ability to communicate the transcendant. I think that the art that will still occupy wall space hundreds of years from now will be the art that communicates universal truth. Humanity, expression, communication—all of these elements will preserve Minjun’s painting, and I hope that you have a chance to see it some day. It would be better if you could see it with Angela, but I am not at liberty to volunteer her insights for your every museum whim. Sorry. Instead, you should bring a first-date.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Part One: Kitsch Twenty Two

I've had reservations about kitschy objects since I was a young child. I am not very sentimental and I have always found large kitschy things, such as parade floats, particularly creepy. I doubt that I will ever find myself enthusiastic for the stuff, but I am interested in it nonetheless (So long as I don‘t have to own any). I am more intrigued by kitsch now, having read Betty Spackman‘s book, A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch, who raises some interesting questions about its nature and purpose. The love/hate relationship, or love-to-hate relationship, of arts-conscious people and kitsch has increased in popularity over recent years on account of artists such as Jeff Koons, Odd Nerdrum, and Pepon Osorio. For better or worse, these artists are at the forefront of elevating mass produced objects, which were previously considered base, to the level of high art.*

What is kitsch? If you are an American, and have spent any time at all using your sensory organs while you live, I guarantee that you are familiar with the stuff more than you know--and have been since childhood. Kitsch is a word with German roots, shortened from the word kitschen, which means gaudy trash or to smear. The word was popularized in the 1930’s by the art theorists Clement Greenberg, Theodor Adorno, and Hermann Broch. They used the term to describe low art--objects created pretentiously, but with the artistic deficiency--art created in bad taste. They saw kitsch as the antithesis of the avant-guarde. Often kitsch includes mass-produced objects, replicas of artworks traditionally considered great, and extremely sentimental works, created for their nostalgic appearance. Kitsch, like craft, is formulaic, and contingent upon a prescribed regimen of copying, high art. Kitsch is imitative and lacks a sense of creativity. Some common examples of kitsch, which might help acquaint someone with the term, are velvet paintings of Elvis, John Wayne, Jesus, Native Americans, wolves, or Dale Earnhardt, McDonalds happy-meal toys, garden gnomes, replicas of the Venus de Milo, Dutch children salt and pepper shakers made in China, Thomas Kinkade paintings, and the inspirational posters in dentists offices of waterfalls with quotes to the effect of “If you fall…try, try again.”**

What can be the purpose of kitsch? Two weeks ago I would have flippantly responded, “NOTHING! It’s all marketing, all propaganda, all ploys to gain a buck from people who aren’t creative enough to create their own souvenirs with their imaginations! I am appalled!”*** But in fact, kitsch has a purpose unique unto itself. Consider an example that Spackman gives in A Profound Weakness. She has a souvenir of Canada. What is a souvenir of Canada? In this case, it is a small pink plastic bunny, with an eerily large proportioned head and pair of front teeth. The rabbit wears a huge bow tie, red with white polka-dots. The platform for the plastic caricature is a flat cut of a tree branch. The wooden disc also serves as the base for the sign perched next to the bunny, which reads, “Souvenir of Canada.” Of course, as Spackman points out, this bizarre combination of elements has nothing to do with Canada at all--for Mounties have yet to discover pink bunnies inhabiting the Canadian expanse. However, the object does not bear the responsibility to accurately render the Canadian experience. Rather, its existence serves to jog the memory of the keepsake’s owner, and it promotes dialogue about memories made in Canada--or at least, memories about the garage sell bin where the owner discovered the tacky item. The in vogue response to kitschy objects is a stuffy frown. As I have already admitted, I am inclined to do my share of scowling, but Spackman has challenged me, scowls and all. I am now more inclined to see the unfairness of the kitsch/fine art comparison. In many cases, kitsch isn’t created to be considered fine art, neither were African tribal masks, nor the cave paintings at Lascaux, France. (I believe that intention is crucial in classifying art.)

In the same way, kitsch isn’t about the artistic integrity, technical execution, image accuracy, or precious rarity of the object. Kitsch is about the narrative which flows from the item. The more meaning communicated on account of the base craft piece, the more valuable the kitsch. Kitsch has a completely different economy than art; the object’s value is intimately connected to dialogue or personal reflection. Consequently, it is not in our interest to demand kitsch to fill the place of art--we should evaluate kitsch as kitsch--a placeholder for memories, a vessel of meaning. Maybe this is why some people have amassed house loads of kitschy souvenirs. Kitsch says more about the person’s preference in memory-keeping than it says about itself.

So, what is the problem? Why does kitsch have a bad reputation and why do some art-snobs snub its existence? Reasons vary. There is a one reason that stands out to me from my Protestant standpoint. (I admit that this may seem to be only an irrational fear, but if you are interested check out .) When kitsch is available to people who are not exposed to the fine arts--the art of great masters and contemporary masterpieces of all mediums--kitsch defaults to the position of fine art in their environments, whether or not there is memory and narrative attached to the objects. I believe that this is an undesirable result because kitsch has a limited nature. Whereas fine art is vast, limited only by its medium, and able to convey universal truths, kitsch cannot boast of such lofty achievements. The very definition of kitsch is uneducated, primitive in its technical execution. It is an orphaned creation, estranged from meaning, when separated from its owner. Kitsch relies on outside explanations, but fine art provides us the explanation within itself.

*Theirs’ is a part of the longstanding artistic approach to kitsch, the roots of such a concept were nurtured by Warhol's “Brillo Box” and his prints of tomato soup cans, and earlier still, by Duchamp's “Fountain,” his comb, and his shovel. Of course, there may be many similar approaches throughout art history--something I would like to look into further, but simply haven’t the time to invest at this juncture. Here’s to the future existence of a post about the kitsch of the ancients--cheers!
**If this brief paragraph on kitsch interests you, and you like art history, I recommend checking out Clement Greenberg’s essay, “Avant-Gaurde and Kitsch.” Along with Greenberg's academic response to kitsch, an art critic who was very much a part of the face of the Modernists, I would also recommend reading Odd Nerdrum’s manifesto, On Kitsch. Nerdrum proclaimed that he was not an artist, but rather a painter of kitsch. I think now most critics would agree that Kinkade is more accurately the “painter of kitsch” and Nerdrum the “painter of light,” if those were the only two labels that artists could vie for.
***The Czech writer, Milan Kundera, in his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being, wrote "Whenever a single political movement corners power we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch." While this comment seems extreme, it is interesting to think about the connection of kitsch to politics and national causes.