Book Write-Up: Modern Art and the Life of a Culture

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.

Jonathan 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 Christianity.

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, often positively.

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.

In 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.

Anderson 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.

In 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 they had.

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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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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