Art history matters

At the risk of sounding like the president of the Matthew Milliner fan club, I think his piece on John Ruskin and “visual ecumenism” in the latest issue of SEEN is something of a turning point for the contemporary theology and art conversation. (SEEN is the bimonthly magazine put out by Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) whose conference is coming up in Chicago in June.) Milliner, who blogs here, has suggested in a few places the importance of art history – not just good theology! – as the most important dialogue partner for would-be theologians of art. For art history grounds us in the praxis, iconologies, and thematic concerns of actual movements and artists, in specific images and developments rather than generalities. To try to come up with an abstract “theology of art” apart from this empirical, historical data is to risk a superficial understanding of art and perhaps even a de-incarnate theology.

As an example of theology engaging art history (not just the generic concept of “art”) Milliner notes recent work by Leonard Aldea on the Dada movement (in the latest volume of Modern Theology). Aldea draws the intriguing parallel between Dada and apophatic (or “negative”) theology, suggesting that what appears to be pure nihilism and meaningless in Dada may in fact be straining towards something transcendent. (Read the full post here.) It’s an interesting approach, though I am a bit wary of overusing apophatic theology as a way of “theologizing” elements of “secular” culture – to take a famous example, is Derrida really a negative theologian, as John Caputo suggests, or is this a misreading? (Though of course I have used apophaticism myself to talk about Barnett Newman, so perhaps the criticism is best left “unsaid”!)

The bigger point, however, is that art history is worth our attention. This takes us back to the Ruskin article. Here Milliner celebrates the seminal contributions of Hans Rookmaaker, Nick Wolterstorff, Jeremy Begbie and Bill Dyrness for a Reformed “theology of art.” These important writers have restored to Protestants, particularly evangelicals, a sense of the vital importance of art and artmaking. In fact, they have given Protestants back a sense of the important role art and the “aesthetic” plays in their own history; rather than defining the Reformation as purely an iconoclastic movement defined in opposition to Catholic image-making, we have been reminded of five centuries of Reformed creativity and imagination. However, as Milliner notes,

There are moments… when this new Reformed confidence may slip into hubris.

In other words, the welcome discovery that Protestants have something to bring to the table when it comes to aesthetics sometimes degenerates into a feeling of superiority… as if Reformed sensibilities have succeeded where Orthodox and Catholic image-making has failed.

Milliner suggests that we turn to art history, in this case the history of sacred images in all three of these ecclesial traditions, as a “primary interest” (not just a corollary to theologizing about art) for reinforcing a sense of unity and continuity between the churches – from icons to altarpieces and everything in between. These are notes, then, towards a “visual ecumenism.”

Art history as tool of ecumenism? It is a fascinating idea:

Just as there is… “One Lord, one faith, one baptism,” so perhaps there is also one variegated yet unified Christian aesthetic, to which the different traditions, at their utter best, ascend. Full maturity (which for evangelicals has been a long time coming!) is not to see with Protestant, Orthodox or Catholic eyes, but with the eyes of Christ.

I think there is something important going on here… which I would, expanding on Milliner, describe as a sense of the importance of the aesthetic (not just cognitive or ‘propositional’) dimension to ecclesial tradition and dogma. “What we have seen, what we have heard…” This is what is passed down through the Church as of “first importance.” As we grow to see together – and to touch, taste, and listen – we will find our divisions replaced by a sense of a shared Body.

As for art history in general… my contention is that it can not only enrich our “ecumenical” understanding of our unity with other church traditions, but with the whole “ecumene” of humanity – the cultural “world” in which art and artists serve to illuminate our common experience of beauty, truth and meaning. If the methodological shift implied by Milliner heralds a new horizon for the theology and art conversation, I think it is a step in the right direction.

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