Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Art and the Progressive Spirit of Christianity

“As a protestant, I might fear lest in doing so we confound the eternal spirit of Christianity with the mutable forms in which it has deigned so speak to the hearts of men, forms which must of necessity vary with the degree of social civilization, and bear the impress of the feelings and fashions of the age which produce them; but I must also feel that we ought to comprehend, and to hold in due reverence, that which has once been consecrated to holiest aims, which has shown us what a magnificent use has been made of Art, and how it may still be adopted to good and glorious purposes, if, while we respect these time-consecrated images and types, we do not allow them to fetter us, but trust in the progressive spirit of Christianity to furnish us with new impersonations of the good– new combinations of the beautiful.” (emphasis mine)

That's quite a sentence. Written in 1846 by Anna Jameson, its really interesting because she seems to believe that Art and the "progressive spirit of Christianity" will bring us into new understandings of the beautiful. I don't think I've come across anything on the subject of "Christian art history" like this. The context for this sentence comes at the end of her historical survey of the use of imagery in churches and into the museums. Here, she weds together something eternal about Christianity that is always subject to various forms, yet we ought to determine those forms according to tradition. Essentially her claim is that Art once was found in the church but has been exiled to somewhere else. Rather than getting more out of Art by liberating it in the museum, we have narrowed our experience of it as well as narrowed our experience of Christianity.

Postscript: Could it be said that the reformation forced art museums into existence? Like abortion in ghettoes of cyclical poverty? As Jean Cocteau once said: "By breaking statues one risks turning into one oneself." All this to say, Matthew Miliner is on to something with his  "post-iconoclastic calvinism". 


Jon Furst said...

PD, how much do you think our view of history impacts our view of art?

P.D. said...

I like the question. Can you expound what you mean by "our view of history"?

Jon Furst said...


I am curious because Anna Jameson is writing during a period in which the optimism of Protestant post-millennialism (which is as much about history as it is about the future) was still fairly strong in Britain. Her comment might reflect this. So, I suppose by history I mean how one interprets the narrative arc of time (supposing one believes there is one).

Is that clearer, or have I further obscured my question?

P.D. said...

Reader response is huge for this article. If it is understood to be for the church then it is calling for a very unique post-iconoclastic approach to protestantism. If it is directed towards the art world, it is asking that museums and galleries to open themselves up to the possibility of having these images that were once valued but are now dismissed. Personally, I think it has more to do with the artworld.

I'd be hesitant to impose post-millenialism on Ms Jameson. She probably had more of a secular belief in progress than a theologically informed one.

As for the view of history. It's hard to say, there are only histories. By that I don't mean histories of art, histories of theology, histories of economics. I mean that history is whatever you want to "connect the dots to". Everything is always contingent on "history" both explicitly and unintentionally.

I guess if you have in mind people who think that blogs, twitter, email, facebook are evil, then it should come as no surprise that they're view of modern/contemporary art is very low. Art demands an understanding its history. To ignore or dismiss it is do to so to your peril.

Jon Furst said...

Of course, I speak of what I know. I don't know galleries, and I feel I barely know the church.

"histories"? I disagree, but then that puts a rather large burden of proof on me. Give me a few years.

P.D. said...

I think i kinda slurred around with my comment last night...

"We live in a second hand world" is definitely the case, so history certainly affects our life. The history that is, is the history we assemble. This is the job of the academic and the historian, to create and present a history that penetrates into today. It's just as much about making connections as finding them.

I think a lyrics from mewithoutYou captures this notion of history well. (art = fish, history = sea) "Fish swim in the sea, while the sea is a in certain sense contained within the fish"

For this reason too, I think it is impossible to be a neutral, objective historian of anything.