God in the Modern Wing: A Review

God in the Modern Wing: Viewing Art With the Eyes of Faith. Edited by Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2021. 216pp. $30.

“All things are permissible unto me, but not all things are profitable.” Thus says Paul in 1 Corinthians. If there is to be modern art, then let it be art which is spiritually profitable. Yet between the contemporary art world and Christianity, there is believed to exist a chasm which cannot be crossed, the pious traditionalists on the one side and the subversive radicals on the other. The book God in the Modern Wing, however, attempts to bridge said chasm. It is a collection of essays from various academics and artists who present modern art as something accessible to Christians, specifically by analyzing artists featured in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago “through the eyes of faith”. Rather than systematically presenting an argument for why the two should be brought together, the essays serve as examples of how a Christian may view specific artworks.

Each essay focuses on one or two modern artists, providing a biography of the artist, exploring the development of their work, and finally analyzing their general oeuvre and a few specific works. In this way, the book works as a Modern Art 101 class for the Christian who is interested but uninitiated. Often, the essay will admit that the artist was not religious. Maybe he was raised by a pious mother but fell away or created a concoction of various Eastern and Western spiritualities. In a few notable exceptions (perhaps delightfully surprising to some readers), like Dalí and Warhol, the artist explicitly brought their faith into their career–an unorthodox faith with a few personal heresies and spiritual eccentricities, but not as atheistic as one would presume.

The analyses are not all especially accessible, however. Some contributors seemed to be speaking to a skeptical reader and others seemed to be targeted at modern art true believers, making the intended audience for the book unclear. Further, some essays felt merely Christian flavored. For example, in the chapter on Giacometti’s sculptural series “Walking Man”, Cameron Anderson connects the wandering, emaciated figures with both Cain being a fugitive and a wanderer and the Son of Man having no place to lay his head. And yet, the next paragraph is about modern man being “burdened by the need to acquire a self” and then continues on about Giacometti’s friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre.

Similarly, many other chapters use biblical references as mere tasteful allusions, adding a Christian flavor to an otherwise secular analysis. Leah Samuelson’s chapter on the relatively unknown André Cadere explores the use of art for disrupting cultural institutions. The only explicit connections between that goal and Christianity is in two brief sections alluding to John the Baptist and Jesus each being disruptors who are outsiders, but doesn’t say more. Another example is in Joel Sheesley’s essay on cubism and Picasso. He sets up the chapter by referencing apophatic theology in Thomas Aquinas’ work, a method of avoiding positive assertions about an incomprehensible God which has its roots in the writings of Church Fathers like St. Maximus the Confessor, Pseudo-Dionysius, and even pre-Christian, Jewish writers like Philo of Alexandria. Could there be such a parallel between Picasso and St. Maximus? Unfortunately Shessley continues to say “I suggest that Cubist picture making constituted a similar quest, through negation, it too aimed at a simple view of reality.” Although apophatic theology has an impressive pedigree in church history and an exploration of the theological implications of Picasso could have been interesting, I can’t say that this analysis of Picasso is especially Christian in substance. Sheesley does have some later comparisons with Byzantine iconography, yet the thesis of the essay, like many of the others, set itself up as theological but proved to be mostly unrelated to Christianity. Like a VBS camp attaching a biblical theme onto a game of capture the flag, I don’t think the substance is wrong, and it’s actually quite enjoyable even to the skeptic, but it feigns a theological relevance that it never delivers on.

A notable exception is Makoto Fujimura’s chapter on Mark Rothko’s abstract expressionism. I can’t say I am convinced, but he presents the most genuine and Christian argument for transcendence in modern art, both by looking at Rothko and discussing how it influences his own work. Unlike many of the other authors, Fijumura sees Rothko’s lack of faith as a limitation. He may be able to express truth, but he can’t see beyond “the broken realities… today.” The transcendental meaning of his art can be gleaned and appreciated by Christians but it creates a longing for a new heaven and new earth. As Fujimura says, “Rothko, the great master, could only describe the edge of the abyss. By faith, I can describe the world beyond it.” Throughout, he neither comes across like he assumes we already agree with him nor that he’s selling something to the reader. Instead he’s contemplating the relationship between faith and abstract art honestly and openly. If I ever come back to this book, it will be largely because of Fujimura’s essay.

The contributors to this volume have very different perspectives on art, and so it is difficult to make statements about the book as a whole. But an assumption that pops up in several places is that figurative art (i.e., art that is of a thing, often depicted realistically) lacks the ability to convey spiritual or transcendental meaning to the viewer compared to work untethered from the physical world, generally by becoming abstract. For example, in the opening of Linda Stratford’s essay on Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, she says, “It can be convincingly argued that these essential subjects of faith [i.e.,Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection] are not easily translated to representational images. In fact, a concept like ‘Word made flesh’ defies illustration.” Although the argument can perhaps be made convincingly, certainly Stratford doesn’t make it. In several places she references some earlier proof of this proposition and yet those few lines are all I found in the work. Perhaps too frugal an editor removed a vital section from the original manuscript, but at no point is there a true comparison between the use of traditional, representational religious art and modern art. Another example is in Tim Lowly’s essay in which a quote from Pieter Mondrian is included: “Art is higher than reality and has no direct relation to reality. To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality.” This quote is then elaborated to mean that abstract expressionism is able to get to higher realities than artists who are tied to a literal view of the physical world. This would certainly be interesting to hear explored but it is taken as fact and the essay moves on. In other places there are a few mentions of the risk of turning religious paintings and icons into idols, but the proposition that abstraction is spiritually superior is everywhere assumed yet never developed or proven.

Overall, as someone who always skips the modern wing in public art museums to get to the “good stuff,” God in the Modern Wing, is a reminder that the two sections are not distinguished from each other as clearly as the sheep and the goats. God is omnipresent so as long as there is a modern wing, God will be in it. The question remains, however, whether modern art is a profitable means of divine contemplation. It is a question begun as a bold endeavor yet quickly forgotten in this collection (with a few notable exceptions like Fujimura’s essay). Although the book is presented as tackling that controversy, it often makes the reader feel (if I am permitted to mix clichés) like a fly on the wall while the authors preach to the choir. As such the mission of the collection felt unclear. Is this directed at those of us skeptical of modern art or at those who already enjoy modern art but also are likely to be found in church on a Sunday morning? It’s a fascinating book, but it leaves the question written on the back cover of the book unanswered: “Should Christians even bother with the modern wing at the art museum?”

Nicholas Thorp is a third generation painter. He privately studied classical realist painting technique under Louis Carr and Alex Venezia for two years, specializing in portraiture. He graduated from St. John’s College, Annapolis and now resides in the mountains of western North Carolina with his wife and daughter. In his spare time, Nicholas enjoys playing croquet, studying Ancient Greek, and fixing cars. His artwork can be found on Instagram at @thorpnicholas.


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