Mirolsav Volf's essay on 'Soft Difference'

As promised, here's a bit more reflection on the CIVA conference and specifically it's initial keynote.

Miroslav Volf, director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School, gave the keynote address for the conference and centered his talk on issue of human flourishing. I particularly appreciated the way in which Prof. Volf approached the general topic of cultural understanding and the specific issue of artistic endeavor from a more comprehensive and theologically-enriched perspective: the good of culture and broader human flourishing. Despite his comparisons of art and the exercise of spiritual ascent in the mystical traditions as a lens for understanding the prophetic voice of the church - an unfortuantely easy and problematic comparison, I found his remarks on the relationship between Christians and the culture(s) in which they find themselves to be exceedingly refreshing and full of encouragement for Christians who happen to care about the visual arts.

Much of Prof. Volf's thoughts on culture for his talk came from a 1994 essay he wrote for Ex Auditu entitled "Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter". The essay attempts to navigate Troelsch's historic dichotomy between a 'church' and a 'sect' and reflect upon the prophetic call of 1 Peter to 'sojourners and exiles' living in a hostile and uncomfortable world. This essay stands out as perhaps the most enlightening reflection on a theological understanding of culture that I have read in a long, long time. In many ways, Prof. Volf responds to some of the time-tested questions about culture and at the same time manages to re-write the terms of the discussion. At once biblically-sound and theologically-astute, this essay is a must read.

My fellow panelists and I had the difficult task of trying to offer a response to Prof. Volf's presentation. We were encouraged to 'translate' the concerns of the presentation into specific fields of artistic inquiry. For my part, I choose to identify practical ways in which a perspective enriched by this concept of 'soft difference' might approach the contemporary artworld afresh. I was particularly interested to see what it might look like to "replace the anger of frustration with the joy of expectation" (Volf's phrase) in our engagment of contemporary art. In what follows here, you can read the expanded notes from which I offered my response.

The Cultural Dynamic of ‘Soft Difference’;

or How to “replace the anger of frustration with the joy of expectation”

I refer to the cultural dynamic of ‘soft difference’ because I think it is a particularly helpful model of thinking and living (a way of life) that encourages mature, gospel discernment in culturally precarious times. My focus has been and remains the multi-faceted, frenetic and perhaps chaotic “world” of contemporary art.

Other Examples of ‘Soft Difference’ can be found in:

- Scripture: teaches ‘soft difference’ or something analogous to it in many places.

- Tradition: demonstrates the lessons of ‘soft difference’; moments of impatience or longsuffering in the history of the church.


1. Trust a different approach to power (the power of the gospel).

a. Admitting as many of the ways in which our flourishing is, at least in this life, bound to that of our neighbours.

b. Sacrificing the ‘us versus them’ mentality of merely earthly conflict.

c. Sowing in hope; Sowing with hope.

2. Practicing a specific kind of affirmation and negation.

a. Affirming the good, true and beautiful in what we find through participation and engagement.

b. Negating the worthless through silence and a lack of support. (In other contexts, we are called to openly oppose the destructive and unwholesome, but in the arts, any publicity is good publicity.)

Practicing ‘soft difference’ in the contemporary art world can be frustrating and difficult because the worthwhile and the worthless can sometimes exist side by side or within the same work.

PROBLEM/POSSIBILITY – contemporary art represents a dialectical character of promise and dilemma.

These remain issues in contemporary art that will require a careful negotiation:

1. Historical/Theoretical Issues

a. Observation: As a result of competing historical accounts of the avant-garde (i.e. various modernisms and postmodernisms) and a highly specialized language around art (e.g. analytic philosophy of art, the influence of critical theory and post-structuralist approaches), contemporary art exists in a state of intellectual pluralism.

In Master Narratives and Their Discontents, James Elkins writes: “The revaluation or rejection of the modernist distinction between high art and low art creates a relativized field of art in which the act of privileging one work over another cannot be justified by appealing to values that are taken to be normative. The resulting relativism is compounded by the pluralism of the contemporary art world, which discourages extended comparisons between different works by making all comparisons seem somehow misguided.” 148

b. Example: Provocative art works can emerge in obscurity or sensationalism and then later become touchstones of philosophical discovery (e.g. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes).

c. Question: Rather than the dissolution of the traditional narrative, can we as Christians see this climate of historical and theoretical pluralism as an opportunity to enrich our intellectual curiosities and evaluate our own assumptions about art?

2. Political Issues

a. Observation: While by no means immune to political posturing and manipulation, contemporary art continues to demonstrate a fortitude that will not allow it to be commandeered by politics.

b. Example: While both politically topical and controversial in it’s day, the work and legacy of Felix Gonzalez-Torres has left a legacy that extends far beyond the political energy it sparked.

Claire Bishop, prominent scholar of relational aesthetics, writes: “This mixed panorama of socially collaborative work arguably forms what avant-garde we have today: artists using social situations to produce dematerialized, antimarket, politically engaged projects that carry on the modernist call to blur art and life.” “Social Collaboration and Its Discontents” Artforum (2006)

c. Question: Similarly convinced that art is larger than politics, what prevents Christians from taking part in this development and pursuing the exploration of social energies that may affect significant change in communities?

3. Economic Issues

a. Observation: When it seems like contemporary art worships money, we can count on either market forces to collapse or prominent voices to cry fowl.

Jerry Saltz writes: “Nothing we say about the market adds up, partly because “the market” isn’t really an autonomous subject. It’s a diversionary tactic—essentially, a blend of economics, history, psychology, stagecraft, and lifestyle; an unregulated field of commerce governed by desire, luck, stupidity, cupidity, personal connections, connoisseurship, intelligence, insecurity, and whatever.”

b. Example: A work like Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God embodies the extreme poles of our cultural moment: ridiculously materialist and profoundly curious for spiritual transcendence.

c. Question: If Christians understand better than anyone the cultural good of art, can’t we expect from those communities an unparalleled level of generosity and a remarkable resilience to the love of money?

4. Globalization Issues

a. Observation: With the growing influence of Western globalization and particularly the rise of developing art markets around the world, contemporary art is experiencing an influx of artists from surprising locals (e.g. Chinese and Islamic artists).

In his recent manifesto, Nicolas Bourriaud – curator of the 2009 Tate Triennial “Altermodern,” writes: “Many signs suggest that the historical period defined by postmodernism is coming to an end: multiculturalism and the discourse of identity is being overtaken by a planetary movement of creolisation; cultural relativism and deconstruction, substituted for modernist universalism, give us no weapons against the twofold threat of uniformity and mass culture and traditionalist, far-right, withdrawal.

The times seem propitious for the recomposition of a modernity in the present, reconfigured according to the specific context within which we live – crucially in the age of globalisation – understood in its economic, political and cultural aspects: an altermodernity.”

b. Example: It seems the post-colonial guilt that makes Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary work is giving way to more legitimate and less self-conscious endeavours like 2009’s Tate Triennial “Altermodern”.

c. Question: As those who celebrate the diverse expressions of the image of God from around the world, why would Christians not take this opportunity to assist these artists?

5. Religious Issues

a. Observation: Despite the rich traditions of art history and the various intersections of art and the spiritual, contemporary art maintains a tentative, critical and ambiguous – at best, relationship toward religion.

b. Example: Why do lapsed Catholics like Robert Gober make the best religious art today (installations at LA MoCA or Matthew Marks Gallery)?

c. Question: Rather than bemoaning the suspicions of religion among the contemporary art world, why not demonstrate a serious searching and questioning of belief in our art and in the way we discuss the work of sceptical or lapsed artists?

To the degree that we take seriously these issues and make them our own, we may begin to see the cultural dynamic of ‘soft difference’ at work in our relationship to contemporary art.


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