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Art, Atheists, and Altars to Unknown Gods

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I remember it like it was yesterday. Seventeen years ago this month, I was appointed Chief Curator of my hometown university art museum after having finished a doctorate in the history of modern art. In the Sunday arts section of our local paper an article had announced my appointment. At church later that morning an elder, sitting in front of me, turned around and congratulated me. And then he said, “now you can take down all the nudes on display in the museum.”

This was just a foretaste of the tensions I would experience in the church as an evangelical working in the art world and writing about modern art. Most of these tensions have come from the church’s desire to use ‘good’ art to shape public policy and teach morality or to show how ‘bad’ art reflects a defective worldview and causes vice. When the church thinks about the role of art, it usually thinks of it as a tool for something else, something more important, something more ‘practical’, more ‘relevant’.

And, let’s face it, the church usually considers art to be the enemy anyway—it just cannot be trusted.  Art possesses the uncanny tendency to break down the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’, undoing the tidy emotional boxes we create to help us filter the pure, lovely and commendable from the slanderous and obscene. However, to spend time with art—to devote the effort to understanding it—usually results in refocusing our attention on our own sinfulness and recovering the dignity of our neighbor’s search for the Unknown God of which St. Paul speaks in Acts 17.

This might be why the church distrusts artists and the work they produce.  And this is why the most insightful and life-giving writing about art comes from outside the church—often a long way from the church. Such is the case with Camille Paglia—she loves art and she wants you to love it, too.

Glttering ImagesThat’s right, the same Camille Paglia who is a founding writer for Salon.com; the self-described “pro-sex, pro-porn, pro-art, pro-beauty, pro-pop” public intellectual and cultural provocateur who infuriates the Right and frustrates the Left.  That Paglia, who holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Yale University and teaches art history and the humanities at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, where she has taught since the mid-1980s.

Paglia’s book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars (Pantheon, 2012) is written for those who like the idea of liking art but have been turned off by the vulgarity, obscenity, and elitism of the art world, Glittering Images is for you.  In an interview with Salon.com about the book, Paglia observed, "As a longtime fan of talk radio, I’m very worried about the low opinion that conservative hosts and callers have of the American artist. Art is portrayed as a scam, a rip-off and snow job pushed by snobbish elites."

And so she has written a modest book that she conceived as a “devotional” to revive popular interest in art history, which celebrates the creative imagination of human beings through time and place, but has vanished from public education and college curricula. She continues:
I’m providing a handbook to anyone—to people who never took an art history course or who haven’t thought about art since college. I want to do something very inviting, readable and non-threatening, with each chapter as short as possible.

Paglia has selected twenty-nine works of art to make her case, from a tomb painting of Egyptian Queen Nefertari and an icon of St. John Chrysostom to Warhol’s icon of Marilyn Monroe to, surprisingly, a scene from George Lucas’s movie, Revenge of the Sith.

Although it is written for a general audience confused by art, Glittering Images is not pedantic, condescending, or preachy. It is a personal, even vulnerable book. From the idiosyncratic choices of works of art to her distinctive way of interpreting them, Paglia reveals her life-long love of these works, desiring nothing more than to share her passion.

MondrianAnd that passion leaves plenty of room for the reader to form his or her own experiences and opinions. Unlike most writing about art, Paglia’s is expansive, creating space for her reader to join her.  She doesn't presuppose agreement, only curiosity and openness. Each of her twenty-nine meditations end in an evocative manner that expands rather than restricts the potential for further reflection, such as this conclusion from her meditation on the Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930):
His work was a process of discovery where color and form were explored for their own sake…But Mondrian’s floating, weightless images vibrate with an internal drama. Do his black lines define and limit his colors? Or is color, like a divine spark, an autonomous force pushing its way toward life? (131)

For an atheist, Paglia’s writing is surprisingly comfortable with the religious, the transcendent, and the spiritual while actively seeking out the metaphysical, mysterious, and inexplicable. And indeed, Paglia has considerable respect for organized religions, calling them “vast symbol systems containing deep truths about human experience” (xii-xiii). In fact, in an important essay, “Religion and the Arts in America” (Arion 15/1 (2007), Paglia argues that the arts need religion in order to thrive.

de Maria

In another provocative conclusion, Paglia takes one of the strangest, least art-like works made by an American artist, Walter de Maria’s installation in New Mexico, The Lightening Field (1977) and—as if responding to the incredulous reader—“what makes this art?”—she concludes:
When De Maria’s metal poles are nested in green ground cover and spring wildflowers, The Lightning Field seems like one of Emily Dickinson’s haunted landscapes where the dead are frozen witnesses to eternity. The grid is the game, a playful mapping of life’s mysteries, which art accepts but science can never fully explain (170).


Paglia’s interpretations embody her claim (or is it a confession?) that art “unites the spiritual and material realms” (xiii). Unlike many art critics and art historians, whose atheism or agnosticism spreads to marginalizing the role of religion and spirituality in the work of the artists’ they study, Paglia refuses to dismiss them as unimportant (including their atheism). For example, in her meditation on Claude Monet’s Irises (1900), painted late in the artist’s life from his backyard garden, she writes:
Like Wordsworth, Monet was an atheist wary of ideological systems. There is a luminous pantheism in his landscape paintings. His concentration on the act of seeing reaffirmed the power of the senses. Art was his faith, repairing the broken connection between man and nature (100).

Paglia recognizes that art itself is a confession and an act of faith, which seems to demand the language of religion and spirituality to describe.

It is often said that every work of art is a self-portrait, revealing something hidden about the artist. But when the writer opens herself to an experience with a work of art and digs deep to articulate that experience, what results is also a form of self-portraiture, an autobiography activated in through an experience with the work of art. Art criticism is as much about the critic as it is the work of art that is being interpreted.

In his poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (1908) by Rilke, the narrator is confronted by a work of art that exclaims, “you must change your life.” When we are confronted by a work of art, it makes a claim on us, it provokes our realization that by standing in front of a work of art, we are being addressed, not just by a painting or sculpture, but by God and by our neighbor.

It is thus not much of a stretch to claim that Paglia’s sensitive art writing is also a confession of faith.  That faith is in art certainly, but perhaps in something else as well, something she can only feel in the art she experiences. One might be tempted to add art museums and artist’s studios to foxholes as places not conducive to atheism. To her credit, Paglia knows these risks but she’s willing to take them for the sake of describing her experience with these artifacts to her reader faithfully and truthfully. And with every entry, Paglia’s response to these works of art affirms the goodness of the world that lay just beyond its brokenness and alienation.

Paglia’s meditations on these twenty-nine works thus offer plenty of room for thinking about art from a distinctively Christian perspective, that is, provided we abandon our penchant for instrumental worldview-ish thinking that reduces art merely to the expression of an artist’s religious beliefs or as a tool for something we deem “more important.”

For Luther, our justification by grace through faith frees us to love our neighbor through our work, restoring the dignity of those trades and jobs deemed irrelevant, unimportant, or unworthy of serious Christian involvement. Because God is busy at work in the world, everywhere, all of our work, from cleaning houses and middle management to running for congress or painting pictures are simultaneously irrelevant and of the utmost importance.

For North American evangelicals, culture is useful only insofar as it bears on politics. Because God has chosen to work through the “foolish” and “weak” things of the world (1 Cor. 1: 27), the gospel releases the arts from the burden of relevance and practicality; of what we believe is relevant and practical, how we believe God should be at work in the world (i.e., through the heroic and powerful).  This allows both those that make art and those that devote time to looking at and studying art the dignity of recognizing that God is at work, even in the most unlikely and unexpected of ways—in the artist’s studio and even in the writing of Camille Paglia.

(Dr. Daniel A. Siedell is on staff at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, where he works with LIBERATE, Tullian Tchividjian’s resource ministry.  He is the author of several books, including God in the Gallery (Baker 2008) and is currently at work on a monograph with artist Makoto Fujimura and a book project with theologian William Dyrness on modern art with IVP Academic Press.)
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  • Thank you for writing such a thoughtful review. I just added the book to my Amazon wishlist.

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  • Thanks for this thoughtful review of what sounds like a thoughtful, helpful book; I look forward to reading (and, I suspect, enjoying) this book.

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  • I'm curious what your opinion of certain movies is, particularly "The Wrestler" and "Monster," both of which I find strong redemptive elements and even narrative in. At the least, they are truthful portrayals of tragic characters. I'm a Christian, but these wouldn't last an hour in a debate with most evangelicals.

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  • Mondrian's work, while interesting graphically, was not art.

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  • Guest - Bubba Jones

    Good review. Camille is one of the only atheist intellectuals that I can stand to read. She is not as insufferably insulting and condescending as your typical atheist.

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