introducing... The Society for Critical Imagination

Whatever committed readers might frequent this blog deserve an explanation as to why there has been such a recent drought of posts. Well, besides transferring universities, having a child and moving back to the States to take a teaching post, I have applied myself to the development of something altogether new and different. A bit of history is required.

Upon learning that we would return to Jackson, TN and our alma mater Union University I was happy to discover some friends and like-minded partners in the project of cultural engagement modeled in the post posted here. We set to planning a regular meeting time for discussing theology and the arts and actually found that more interest than we expected existed among students. So, we opened up the conversation to anyone and everyone that wanted to take part. This project has been labeled The Society for Critical Imagination.

We are happy to report that this semester has so far seen surprising numbers in attendance at weekly meetings, excellent presentations from faculty, staff and students, and the establishment of a podcast for the society. Maybe more than any of these milestones, we are glad for the spirit of the conversation adhering quite closely to the expectations outlined in our creed. It seems that we have unearthed more questions than answers, and to our minds that constitutes a huge success.

Please feel free to make use of any and all of the resources available through our blog and know that you are always welcome in our meetings. We look forward to finding out where things will go with this initiative, and of course, we would appreciate any support we could receive. I heartily welcome your feedback and input. Thanks for your patience.


music... Introducing Will Gray

Announcing the new EP from Will Gray, along with the launch of a new website and myspace...

At a time when the music industry is facing a crippling moment of self-evaluation, artists have to fight tooth and nail to win an audience. Getting signed by a record label is no longer the given that it once was; sadly, many talented artists are left out in the cold these days. Fortunately, the grassroots ethos of the indie music faithful has created and sustained the voluntary connections that keep the music flowing. Through electronic word of mouth and communal hot spots in the blogosphere, we can still find out about the freshest music being made. In an online culture of perpetual recommendations, I can confidently say that Will Gray has something truly unique to offer.

His music has a gravitas that can't be found anywhere else in hip hop and a certain carefree exuberance that folk music lost a long time ago when it started singing to itself. Will captures all the trauma and drama of rap's prophetic voice with none of the self-defeating irony of those that claim "We Don't Care." While the folksters keep whining about administrations and social ills and religious fundies, Will's moan sounds a good bit more like the scourged man of God in Job when he cries out in prayer "How long?!?" Let the beats draw you in and the soul will bring you back.

Find great pre-order prices on the new EP and lots of other merch at Will's new site.

Also, watch out for upcoming posts from this artist here.


art... Damien Hirst's 'Beyond Belief'

Damien Hirst
'Beyond Belief'
White Cube, London
3 June - 7 July, 2007

What more can be said about this recent exhibition? Especially the sparkling highlight of the show For the Love of God, Hirst's diamond encrusted, platinum encased human skull?

8,601 VVS to flawless diamonds...

1,106.18 carats in total weight...

In the UK, 2nd in value to the Crown Jewels...

I have to say that the piece is truly stunning and well worth all the hype and media attention it has garnered. Hirst's skull is probably the most remarkable accomplishment of contemporary art. Not to detract from Smithson's Spiral Jetty or Barney's Cremaster Cycle, but this most recent product by Hirst must be the most significant piece of contemporary art to date. Let me qualify that grand compliment.

I am a committed fan of Hirst's work and have an abiding appreciation for the lineage of his practice, especially the earliest works, but I, like others no doubt, have observed a serious decline in the quality of his recent productions. It is almost too obvious to say that Hirst's art has become an international brand, more high class commodity than avant-garde creation, but maybe it should be stated clearly once more. The once refreshingly wry and unrefined sentiments about life’s temporality and death’s perpetual villainy in the form of over-the-top sculptures involving the animal carcasses and life cycles and installations of medical magic have come to possess maybe the greatest monetary value of any art works around but little meaning in the face of their ongoing reproduction. We are beginning to see that we must now take Hirst at his word when he seems to feign that it’s all about the cash.

Despite the glitzy haze surrounding this recent work and the fact that the rest of the exhibition resembles a formulaic museum retrospective and not a very interesting slice of new work, the sheer potency of Hirst’s skull cannot be dismissed. I think the skull will be remembered as his crowning achievement (pun intended!) for the simple fact that it has accomplished his highest aims for art and at the same time embodied consistently the spirit of all his overall body of work.

One of the more attractive features of Hirst’s legacy has been the irrepressible attitude of the common man at work within his practice. Due in no small part to his rather rough, working-class upbringing in Leeds, Hirst brings a simple, often crass perspective to bear on the makings and meanings of contemporary art. None too subtle, he bashes the often vain sophistication of the art world with a deep interest in art that surprises its audience and confronts real life.

With a persistent concentration on the imagery of death, Hirst has pushed aesthetic debates about what can be considered ‘art’ and at the same time leveled biting cultural critiques at the broader society and its specific attempts to escape the realities of death. In this way, he has made name for himself that rivals many international trademarks. Basically, I think that Hirst’s work constitutes a modern appropriation of an interesting and explicitly Christian format from art history—the memento mori. This Latin phrase means ‘Remember that you will die’ and represents a body of art that involves specific symbols of life’s fleeting condition (e.g. flowers, hourglasses, and skulls!) in a tradition of handsomely crafted genre paintings. With this framework, I see three important or overriding categories of death imagery: natural death (i.e. the animals and life cycles), the clinical aesthetic (e.g. the Pharmacy installation), and the death of painting (i.e. the butterfly mosaics, spot and spin paintings).

In this way, Hirst employs the aesthetic of minimalism and a tongue-in-cheek appreciation for the commodity fetish of late capitalism (a posture he learned from Jeff Koons’ philosophy of art as ‘the best that money can buy’) in the service of grand gestures about the most common and elemental features of the human experience: birth, sex and death to name the central core. Thus, For the Love of God must be the natural apex of this sort of practice, for, as the artist himself explains, what could be a grander gesture in the resistance of death than a diamond-encrusted skull smiling back at you?

But of course, the importance of this work does not rest merely on the qualities of the aesthetic object. The fact of the matter, however, is that the atmosphere of pomp and circumstance surrounding the work cannot be explained through the customary language of experiencing art that informs the common fare of art criticism today. As one who has seen the piece, I can say that the experience of viewing the work rehearses the strictures of a medieval pilgrimage to see a holy relic and resembles very little the casual strolls through contemporary museums we usually take. Indeed, the act of assembling with other worshippers outside the gallery and then journeying through the gallery to the dark room where one finally gains that private audience with the skull must awaken latent spiritual sensations in anyone who has ever visited the ruins of an ancient temple or a historic cathedral. For many, the experience of Hirst’s skull may be the most religious event of their lives or the closest to the traditional structure of an officially religious sort of worship.

As Jerry Saltz has pointed out so well, Hirst’s attention to death imagery is devoted to a bold affirmation of life. At the risk of neglecting the complexities of nuance and ambivalence so highly regard by the art world, Hirst intends his work to send audiences home thinking about their own lives and the certain death that awaits us all. So, I happily join the ranks of the worshippers in enjoying the sly irony of the skull, and after all the fun of seeing it, I marvel even more at the gesture represented by the work. Anytime I can get my education about a piece of art from the confident and engaged musings of a security guard, I’m happy. In providing the impetus for so much essential outsider interaction with a piece of contemporary art (i.e. security details around the work, unprecedented media coverage and basically making a gallery show a broadly relevant and entertaining cultural event), Hirst has popped the bubble of art world exclusivity for a moment; hopefully just long enough for an inquisitive elect out of all the uninitiated masses to find something to latch onto inside the discourse and maybe an opportunity consider some important questions in a fresh way. That sort of prospect I can’t resist.

View a brief overview of the show and an interview with the artist here.

Also, check out another interesting interview from a few years ago at a major retrospective in Naples, Italy. See below.


art... Antony Gormley's 'Blind Light'

Since this was the most I got to see of the Hayward's exhibition of Antony Gormley, I thought I would offer a photo essay instead of the normal fare. Due to enormous queues over Saturday and Sunday, we were unable to actually make it in to see the show. I guess that fact proves the now worn-out accolade that the press continues to circulate about Gormley being the sculpture laureate of the nation. I hope to catch it next time.


film... "Who the #$% is Jackson Pollock?"

Review of Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?

Maybe you saw a newspaper line from several months ago about a woman who purchased a drip painting at a thrift store and subsequently set out on a quest to prove its authenticity as an original Jackson Pollock. Well, the press about this story, which has been ongoing from many years now, was promoting the release of a film about Teri Horton and her potentially priceless drip painting. This documentary was recently recommended to me because it contained a great demonstration of art world hubris. Specifically, it was supposed to show the insular and deluded character of the art world in relation to the plight of the everyday person/art world outsider. Indeed, the protagonist of this bizarre story does widely represent the interests and values of the average individual in that she has absolutely no knowledge of modern art and even less respect for the complexity of the contemporary art world. Basically, she embodies the sort of commonplace derision that most people direct at art and the unpractical and useless 'nonsense' that operates in that world. Her vitriol is actually a huge step up from the even more popular attitude of complete dismissal, but it is the ire that she conjures up when facing those art world representatives that really makes this film even watchable.

While I don't wish to debate the entertainment value of Horton's rants about the art world (she is quite an endearing character with the ever-popular, odd combination of spunk and nastiness that we can only appreciate in the elderly), I would like to redress the balance a bit on this story. The quirky nature of the story actually cements interest in this documentary despite the really poor efforts of the filmmakers. At many points I felt I was watching a heart-warming interest story on the local news instead of an unbiased and objective effort at documentary film-making. While the lionization of Teri Horton and every other art world derider may draw mass appreciation for this film and its sappy fable, no one actually gets a fair sense of what's at stake in this story.

Despite the fact that it seems the filmmakers intentionally selected the most reproachable comments from the art world representatives sampled here, the film never manages to bring the same level of analysis to bear on the simple, yet crude protagonist. For all her hopes that the amazing find might yield even more amazing dividends, we can find no hint of interest or curiosity for the artist that may in fact generate her millions. Teri Horton, more than possessing a work of art, is indeed quite a piece of art herself, and not in the classically beautiful sense but more in the ironic Haim Steinbach or Jeff Koons sense. Consider, for instance, Horton's endgame should the whole project not work out for her: “Before I let them take advantage of me,” she said, smiling broadly, “I’ll burn that son of a bitch.” (from the NY Times 11.09.06 review). In this way, she offers an excellent starting point for viewing art as pure commodity, and to their shame, those who produced this documentary failed to ever draw attention to this glaring character flaw. If they had, their audience might begin to see that the same hollow pursuit of money and fame that Horton so easily vilifies the art world for is quite at work in herself. Unfortunately, the remarkable and more interesting story of how Horton attempts, however naively, to use this quest to right the wrongs in her own life remains undeveloped and unsatisfactorily explored. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the real victim of project is Jackson Pollock, a character that surely could have appreciated a story about second chances.

The work in question:


music... Ben Gibbard

Ben Gibbard, one of my favorite contemporary songwriters, is in the midst of what is surely an amazing solo acoustic tour. If you value the subtle poignancy of his lyrics and vocals with his band Death Cab for Cutie, then this is the type of show you will love. I have wanted to discuss their work for a long time but never felt like I had much to offer. Not that I have that now, but I wanted to alert others to a great show that NPR has made available. The show is available to stream and while supplies last, available for download through the All Songs Considered Podcast. David Bazan is supporting Gibbard on this tour, and his set is also available. In other words, it is a tour that should not be missed.

Gibbard offers a great set of music mixing DCFC standards, some key Postal Service numbers and some surprising covers (Most notable was the stunning take on another Seattle band's timeless acoustic gem). He moved back in forth between acoustic guitar and piano and never lost the thrilling dynamic of such an intimate performance. In the process, he fended off lots of belligerent crowd chatter and annoyingly ignorant suggestions. There was, however, one really bizarre moment that stands out. Though Gibbard traversed the hysteria quite deftly, it deserves, I think, some careful reflection.

Even though it has been awhile since I have seen a show in the States, the last I saw before the transatlantic move were on the whole really poor examples of crowd cooperation. I have to say that American audiences could learn a great deal from Brits about respecting the artist at a live show. This outburst, however, transcends the typical fare of crowd idiocy.

Not to spoil the surprise, Gibbard closes his encore with an earnest goodbye, his song "I will follow you into the dark." For those of you that might be unfamiliar, I have included the lyrics below. It is a somber, acoustic tune that basically confronts the whole issue of dying alone. Not exactly a rousing bar tune to be sure.

"I Will Follow You Into the Dark"

Love of mine some day you will die
But I'll be close behind
I'll follow you into the dark

No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white
Just our hands clasped so tight
Waiting for the hint of a spark

If Heaven and Hell decide
That they both are satisfied
To illuminate the NOs on their vacancy signs
If there's no one beside you
When your soul embarks
Then I'll follow you into the dark

In Catholic school as vicious as Roman rule
I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black
And I held my tongue as she told me
"Son fear is the heart of love"
So I never went back

If Heaven and Hell decide
That they both are satisfied
To illuminate the NOs on their vacancy signs
If there's no one beside you
When your soul embarks
Then I'll follow you into the dark

You and me have seen everything to see
From Bangkok to Calgary
And the soles of your shoes are all worn down
The time for sleep is now
It's nothing to cry about
Cause we'll hold each other soon
The blackest of rooms

If Heaven and Hell decide
That they both are satisfied
To illuminate the NOs on their vacancy signs
If there's no one beside you
When your soul embarks
Then I'll follow you into the dark
Then I'll follow you into the dark

Well, as Gibbard concludes the final verse in the moment just before returning to the promissory chorus once again, he sings "the blackest of rooms" and some really enthused fan screams out: "F*ck Yeah!!!" Gibbard takes the moment in stride, as if something that ridiculous happens often. He pauses on the chord and simply inquires: "F*ck yeah?... That's like the last thing I would yell at that part." Having posed his question and received overwhelming praise from the crowd for the profundity of his query, Gibbard then commences to finish the song unhindered. "What a strange night?" thought the power pop, indie frontman.

I just wonder what it means when even moments like that can be squandered by some crude concert-goer. I mean, who these days is coming to introspective indie rock shows, and acoustic ones at that?!? This is the leader of Death Cab for Cutie were talking about and not the Rage Against the Machine reunion tour. Here, we have maybe the only example of a contemporary pop song that tries to deal carefully with universal anxiety and doubt we all feel about the inevitable moment of death and what sort of solace we can take in facing it, and this guy wants to yell "F*ck yeah!"

I appreciate the honesty of the song and more than that I am really thankful that someone out there making music still has the curiosity to consider such moments. But for anyone that knows Gibbard's songwriting skills, this is yet another powerful moment stolen from everyday life, redeemed with emotional clarity through a pop song and given to us to consider. Would that more elements of pop culture could offer a similar gift.

I have one request for everyone attending a show on this tour. If you're not going to pause to consider the significance behind what Gibbard is singing, please at least pause to ask yourself: "Is this the right moment to scream 'F*ck yeah'?" Thanks.


art... "Re-Enchantment"

The Art Seminar Roundtable
organized and chaired by
James Elkins
E. C. Chadbourne Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism
School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Event Abstract:
One of the most difficult questions in contemporary art and art history is the place of religion and spirituality. Gestures of transcendence are ubiquitous, but they are seldom admitted into serious discourse on art unless the work is critical or religion. Artists who embrace various forms of private spirituality can find places in the art world (eg, Bill Viola, Wolfgang Laib), but those who represent the principal organized religions normally can’t. The gap between artists and critics who talk openly about spirituality or religion, and academic writers who eschew it, is enormous. Meanwhile art history is theorizing transcendence in very interesting ways.

Monday, April 16, 2007; SAIC Auditorium, Columbus Building, 6pm
Why Religion and Contemporary Art are Incompatible
, James Elkins, SAIC

Tuesday, April 17, 2007; SAIC Ballroom, Maclean Center, 112 S. Michigan Ave, 10am-4pm
Roundtable: 'Re-Enchantment'

Panelists and Readings:

Gregg Bordowitz
, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
"Abstract for You"
"My Postmodernism"

Thierry de Duve, University of Lille-III
"Come on, humans, one more effort if you want to be post-Christians!"
"Mary Warhol/Joseph Duchamp"

Wendy Doniger, University of Chicago
"The Impermanence of Art"

James Elkins, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
"Ch. 4, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art"
"Ch. 5, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art"
"Ch. 7, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art"

Boris Groys, Academy for Design Karlsruhe, Germany
"Religion as Medium"

Kajri Jain, University of Western Ontario
"from the Conclusion to Gods in the Bazaar"

Tomoko Masuzawa
, University of Michigan
"intro from The Invention of World Religions"

"Troubles with Materiality: The Ghost of Fetishism in the Nineteenth Century"

"Return of the What?--or Why Should We Care About the (Mere) Concept of Religion"

David Morgan
, Valparaiso University
"Interview with Meg Cranston, co-curator of '100 Artists See God'"
"'100 Artists See God' Exhibition Review"

Taylor Worley, PhD candidate Durham University
"Reparations and Conversations: A Future for Contemporary Art in Theological Reflection"

Brief Review:
Due to the great diversity of research represented by the scholars on the panel, much of the conversation on "Re-Enchantment" centered on essential questions of defining the terms of the debate: contested items such as 'religion', 'belief' and 'faith'. Driven by the antipathies between Western and non-Western perspectives, these issues were not quickly resolved but left hanging around in the interest of discussing art practice more specifically. Appropriating metaphors like 'camouflage' or 'smuggling' for understanding how religion creeps into art practice, the panel debated hotly the intentions or motivations behind artists that allow their work to have a religious or spiritual quality. Apparently, the great suspicion of religion demonstrated by Tim Clark (with his oft-quoted statement: "I will have nothing to do with that Leftist, self-satisfied clap trap about art 'as substitute religion.'") runs deeper than most of us thought. Why is it so difficult to state clearly modernism's opposition to traditional religion and postmodernism's suspicion of 'true believers'? Maybe the contentiousness of the panel over the terms employed represents the true starting point for understanding that the age we live in prizes no one perspective over the other and that the result for art criticism or art history is that there is no authoritative power to keep religion either within or beyond the pale. Most helpful was David Morgan's discussion of different 'ways of seeing,' and hopefully his insights will be further developed and allowed to offer guidance in this subject. With the text of the transcript now in the hands of the participants, we can all look forward to a more focused conversation finding its way into the pages of the book. Details on the publication will be forthcoming.


art... new video posted

I came across some interview footage with Damien Hirst for the Gagosian show last summer with Francis Bacon. I have attached it to my review of the show here.


art... Tino Sehgal

Tino Seghal
This Success
or This Failure
Institute of Contemporary Art, London
29 January - 4 March 2007

Pushing open the large, heavy door to the main gallery I see ten or so children of various ages and one adult dispersed throughout the room. Amid the stark white walls of the gallery and the bare concrete floor, the pulsing shapes of children at play begin to animate the space and dispel its visual emptiness. Besides the occasional effervescent peep or giggle, the hushed mood of the room seems at once disturbed by my obvious intrusion, but I soon learn that the game at hand is Sleeping Lions, a game that depends upon a certain attempt at quiet. Out of instinct I approach the adult, but she seems disinterested by my presence. The children, however, are only too inviting. In the short time since my intrusion, the children seem to have identified a winner, and its time for a new game to begin.

Alright, time for an abrupt change. The new game will be Sleeping Bears instead of Sleeping Lions; both involve the same rules but yield a contrast undecipherable to anyone unable to distinguish the roar of a lion from the roar of a bear. My focused study of the group has generated curiosity among my subjects. They perceive my smile as a subtle request to join them. I am only too willing.

Like the other participants, I lie down on the bare concrete and silently await the hunters. With eyes closed, I listen for the other bears to be awoken by the stealthy hunters as they stalk and startle their prey. Peeking only occasionally to assure myself that I am not the only participant left alone on the floor, I wait to receive the due attention of the hunters. Before long, footsteps creep toward me and the ferocious growl of a child comes down upon me. Elated, I open my eyes to stare face to face with a giddy, smiling seven year old boy. He has played well his part in this game, and I am only too happy to be his prey.

For only a moment, my elation is pure and tangible. Not only am I accepted and included, but I have played an integral role in the joy of others. My participation has added something wholly unique to the moment. The game is a better one for my involvement in it, of this I am at once quite certain.

As I rise from my sleeping posture, I notice the walls of the gallery lined with several more adults, just watching and observing the random play before them. They have crept in unnoticed and remained beyond the boundaries of our game. They sit with blank expressions on their faces and exude a sense of disappointment.

This success or this failure.

Soon a fresh group of children arrives in the room, and those I have played with are gone for a break. I am not surprised to learn that the artwork consists only within this gallery. Like the experience of most of Sehgal's work, I exit with more questions than answers.

Let me say very clearly to the skeptical: this piece is not an experiment. But rather, it was a moment, a completely unrepeatable opportunity. Sehgal has offered each visitor either the chance to redeem a small interval of time or the invitation to lose another moment to distant observation.

Fortunately for us, the general ambiguity of his work and the lack of dictated instruction allows each visitor to internalize the opportunity for maximum effect. Without a prescription for success in this interpersonal puzzle, each person must confront their own fears and anxieties in order to learn what they wish to gain or lose from each experience. Sehgal has placed this type of moment under the microscope of careful reflection by constructing these authentic encounters in the gallery. They feel so real because they are, and they are real so that they might have an actual effect on one's daily life.

How many opportunities like these fill our days without us ever engaging them with such introspection? I would guess quite a few of these moments pass us by each day. Most of us have never taken a moment to consider just how isolated we are as individuals in today's complex web of social specialization. Where is the meaningful contact that we all long for? Could it be just beyond the bubble of one's own perceptions of isolation, alienation and loneliness?

To redeem these moments for all the good that God has hidden within them, one must venture a great risk. I must wager my own vulnerability against the potential effects (both positive and negative) of interaction. What is the good news of Jesus' restoration and reconciliation of sinners to God and to one anther if not a promise of hope for such free and honest exchanges? It has taken the giddy smiles of young faces in Sehgal's relational space to help me recall this great truth; no doubt a providential gift to a father awaiting the arrival of his first child.

In this way, perhaps, Sehgal's This Success or This Failure is a poignant emblem of the choice embedded within the contemporary challenges of engaging art. We all want a meaningful experience of art, but how many of us are willing to extend the personal wager it might require to ensure such an experience? It seems that the climate of contemporary art refuses to accommodate the social specializations that sustain our comfortable isolations, and therefore we may need to adjust our own modes of perception and engagement to find a way through.

This problem or this possibility...


art... Vik Muniz

Vik Muniz
Artist's Talk for "Pictures of People"
31 Jan. - 15 April

Self Portrait (Fall No 2), 2005

Marlene Dietrich (Diamond Divas), 2004

Creature from the Black Lagoon (Caviar Monsters), 2004

Bloody Marilyn, 2001

Double Elvis (Pictures of Chocolate), 1999

For this recent show at the BALTIC, Muniz' work has been organised under the category of portraiture; an interesting art-historical claim to be sure. More than play with notions of the portrait, Muniz offers visitors a fun and accessible entry point into the contemporary discipline of visual studies. As a photographer, he remains quite conscious of the visual dilemma of our present culture. In a word, we suffer from saturation, a drowning in the sea of visual stimuli. Under such a burden, it seems the visual image has come to have less and less effect upon its intended target. For his work, Muniz has selected both those tired images of pop culture cliché and the touchstone monuments of art history in order to re-examine the way we interact with the visual image through a curious exploration of unorthodox materials. Freely playing with both scale and perspective in his compositions, he has utilised a host of materials ranging from toys, junk, food, dust, thread and even raw paint pigments. Muniz presents the quizzical masses with quite an eyeful; the question remains, however, can we be helped to actually see what we looking at back in the real world?

Find out more about the artist and view his work here.

books... Art and Theology Sources

for Kevin Figgins...

1. Introduction:
Jeremy Begbie, Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001.

Here, Begbie and colleagues discuss various high and popular art forms and the ways in which they might serve a theological end. It is a helpful entry point for thinking about the intersection of art and theology.

2. Cultural Context:
George Steiner, Real Presences: Is there anything in what we say? London: Faber, 1989.

“Where God clings to our culture, to our routines of discourse, He is a phantom of grammar, a fossil embedded in the childhood of rational speech. So Nietzsche (and many after him). This essay argues the reverse.” p. 3

3. Art Critical/Art Historical Perspective:
James Elkins, On the Strange Place of Religion and Contemporary Art. NY; London: Routledge, 2004.

“Sooner or later, if you love art, you will come across a strange fact: there is almost no modern religious art in museums or in books of art history. It is a state of affairs that is at once obvious and odd, known to everyone and yet hardly whispered about. I can’t think of a subject that is harder to get right, more challenging to speak about in a way that will be acceptable to the many viewpoints people bring to bear.” ix

4. Theological Aesthetics:
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980.

"There is no purpose which art serves, not any which it is intended to serve. Art plays and is meant to play an enormous diversity of roles in human life. Works of art are instruments by which we perform such diverse actions as praising our great mean and expressing our grief, evoking emotion and communicating knowledge. Works of art are objects of such actions as contemplation for the sake of delight. Works of art are accompaniments for such actions as hoeing cotton and rocking infants. Works of art are background for such actions as eating meals and walking through airports." p.4

5. Theological Aesthetics:
Calvin Seerveld, Raindows for the Fallen World: Aesthetic Life and Artistic Task. Toronto: Tuppence, 2005.

“Art is one way for men and women to respond to the Lord’s command to cultivate the earth, to praise his Name. Art is neither more nor less that that.” “Art, christianly conceived, is not something esoteric. Art is no more special (nor less special) than marriage and prayer and fresh strawberries out of season.” p.25

See also the reading lists available from the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts here.


art... Raqib Shaw

Art Now: Raqib Shaw
Tate Britain
7 Oct– 17 Dec 2006

Toward the end of his career, the Post-structuralist philosopher and cultural critique Michel Foucault concentrated his efforts on analysing the history of sexuality in the West and proposed a six volume study of that title, from which comes The Will to Knowledge, The Use of Pleasure, and The Care of the Self. Within his treatment of Western cultural traditions on sexuality, the power structures of scientific knowledge again feature prominently. He especially lamented the fact that unlike cultures in the Far East; China, Japan and India for example, the West has not developed its own ars erotica- a repertoire of imagery and artistic sensations that probes the heights and depths of sexual pleasure. In his view, an art tradition devoted to examining the intensity, duration, quality and effects of pleasure upon the human body offered a more accessible and reliable source of knowledge about sexuality than the scientific discourse of religious morality or modern psychology. Foucault sought to demonstrate how the various, historical power structures of the West have dominated the discourse on sexuality by controlling the exchanges and inquiries related to sex. In his view, too much of the discourse on sexuality has taken place either in the confession stall of the church or on the psychoanalyst's couch and not before truly provocative and engaging art.I offer this lens with which to view the work of Raqib Shaw. Not only the elusive references to Eastern mythological imagery but also the sheer sexiness of the work qualifies it as an unavoidable attempt at a modern, Western ars erotica. Incorporating a vibrant palette of industrial paints, gleaming jewels and precious stones, Shaw presents a surface teeming with sexual energy and unfettered Bacchic exuberance. To date, his most impressive and formidable series remains a collection of large canvas' intricately detailed to refine the artist's hedonistic vision, aptly titled Garden of Earthly Delights.

While I admire the virtuosity of this painter's technique and especially the juxtaposition of alternative materials for an impressive painterly surface, I can't help but question the scenes he has offered here as so much eye candy. It seems the longer you look the further you see, and seeing through the work the vision of sexuality becomes darker, less and less inviting. Shaw's work, if taken as an ars erotica, evokes a sexual ethic more dependent upon violence and masochism than pure pleasure. In addition to the work's inherent violence, it lacks any hint of femininity, and in this way, represents something wholly foreign and strange to what meager lineage of eroticism exists in the history of Western art. If this is Shaw's contribution to an ars erotica, many will no doubt reject this vision of sexuality once the effects of his visualisations have worn off.
Watch an interview here.