Jonathan Anderson and William Dyrness analyze how modern art reflects the cultural mindset in Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, the inaugural entry in a new series on Studies in Theology and the Arts from InterVarsity Press. The most important thing is whether the book will be of interest to those who have little-to-no training in arts or theology. That is, can the book really bridge the gap between these fields? As one trained in theology, but with only the most introductory (read: general studies requirements) knowledge of art, from that side, I’d say the answer is a resounding yes.
Anderson and Dyrness explore modern art through the lens of H.R. Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. However, they are not uncritical of this source material. Rookmaaker, they argue, was too quick to see more points of contact between Christianity and modern art than might be intended. However, Rookmaaker also provided a paradigm for viewing works of art as the basis for critical interaction rather than the life of or intentions of the artists themselves. This paradigm is quite useful, but it would be remiss to completely ignore the intent or life of the artist when looking at a work of art. It is this latter point which carries throughout the book, as the authors look at individual works of art, critically reflecting on them while also giving a holistic view of the artists themselves.
These descriptions are never boring or overdone. The authors write in an engaging style that weaves theology and art together in ways that are often surprising and frequently thought-provoking. The artists included are from a range of theological background and understandings. Thus, the book provides a broad look at different geological regions and their art from about the 1800s on (with some dabbling into earlier periods) that will give readers a working understanding of how the development of these styles interacted with the surrounding culture. At times, these stories are fascinating–how did the aristocracy or church react to differing depictions of icons in Russia, for example–and they always provide needed background and concrete examples.
The book also includes a number of full-color pictures to examine which are integrated into the text in useful ways. They are beautiful and often haunting. If there is one critique I may offer of the book, it is that more pictures would have been helpful. Some chapters have almost no images. Some have only black-and-white pictures. It is great to have more pictures, but the black-and-white ones make it a little difficult to discern details. More pictures would have helped readers like me–untrained in the arts–to get a better grasp on what some parts of the text were discussing. I looked up multiple paintings and images online to get a better understanding, but having them included in the text would have made it an even more excellent resource.
What is perhaps most important in the book, however, is the critical perspective the authors offer. It is impossible to give a wholesale acceptance or rejection of a field of art, and the authors provide ways to engage with both individuals and single pieces of art in ways that go beyond simply looking at the painting. It can be said, honestly, that the book will make readers want to go out, look at art, and let it speak to them in new and more profound ways. To say that about a book intended to get Christians thinking theologically about art is to give it the highest praise.
Modern Art and the Life of a Culture provides an excellent way to kick off a series on theology and the arts. It is engaging, eye-opening, and beautiful. Readers from many fields will find things of interest, and the authors provide numerous points of contact for future study. It is a highly recommended work.
+Introduces reader to an array of topics
+Critical interaction with source material
+Provides example of art criticism from Christian perspective
+Draws from international sources
+Includes beautiful color artwork
-Difficult to discern some details in the black and white pictures
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to provide any specific kind of review whatsoever.
Jonathan Anderson and William Dyrness, Modern Art and the Life of a Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016).
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