Easter Monday & Modern Art

No student in her right mind would ever choose the term “co-curricular event.”  No, a “co-curricular event” is what professors call a good time.  In any case, our penultimate Good Time for the year saw a goodly cohort of Honors Students going downtown to visit the Modern Wing of the Art Institute a couple of Saturdays back. On the way down the Dan Ryan, I threw a question over my shoulder, as professors in the driver’s seat are wont to do: “What’s your disposition towards modern art?”  Not surprisingly, there were mutterings and murmurings and even a “blech” that sounded distinctly like Matt Mulder.

I say, “not surprisingly,” because in the Reformed tradition in particular and in the  broader evangelical tradition in general, there has long been a sort of uneasy relationship between Christians and modern art.  This is somewhat due to Francis Schaeffer and H. R. Rookmaaker’s efforts to brook and dam this stream of art history: they did so by treating modern art as an expression of nihilist tendencies in the Western tradition. Practitioners and curators like Dan Seidell (read his wonderful God in the Gallery) , as well as our own Professors Bakker and Castleman and Browning, have labored to win a longer attention from contemporary Christian viewers for works by Chagall and De Kooning and Christo.

You know, the Art Institute is an exhaustingly good place.  We were only there for a couple of hours, but we came away quite worn out by all the wealth of just that one wing.  The students did a great job of not treating the art work as if it were a somewhat clumsy attempt to “say something”; instead they tried to enter into relationship with the various works, including the eerie Buddhist monk who looked like he was breathing somehow.

They approached the pieces from different angles, stood silently, talked avidly, and avoided saying, “Sheesh, I could have done that!”  And afterwards, we decompressed at the Corner Bakery. You’ll have to study these two photographs (as you might any piece of modern art) to discern that one of these is subtly not like the other.

You’ll have to get reports of the trip from Megan and Leah and Brittany and Adam and, and, and–others.  But for me, this trip to the Institute was novel in that it was the first time I’ve ever had someone I didn’t know come up to me in an art gallery and say, “What do you think of that?”–and then launch into a conversation.  (That actually happened to me twice this time around!) But that conversation, in front of a De Kooning piece, was formative for me: just standing there and talking about the piece with an enthusiastic stranger  changed my mind about it. I moved from not liking the piece to admiring it.

It was also the first time I’ve ever gone to a museum and laughed at a piece.  Something about the whimsy and playfulness of this sculpture evoked merriment:

Our trip downtown on the Saturday before Palm Sunday has me thinking about the Monday after Easter.  For if we learned anything from our little junket it is that if you stand in front of a piece of art for a long time and just look and look and look, you begin to notice things you’ve never seen before.  This tide of the Christian Year is known as Easter, and it’s a season that goes on now for 50 some days–the “Great Fifty.”  Walmart is already taking down their Easter bunnies, and the grocery stores are shifting their plastic eggs to the discount  bins.  But in Christian communities everywhere, we’ll still be saying, “Christ is risen!”–and answering “Indeed!”–for weeks to come.  How come?  Because there’s a great deal to see.  You can stare at that cross–that brutal sign of imperial powers–and stare and stare and stare and still never come to the end of it.  What happens again and again, as we stand humbly, quietly, before this symbol of  nihilistic and fragmenting imperial power–and in front of the empty tomb that follows it, disconcertingly–is what Roland Barthes would call a semiotic shift.  The signifier stays the same, but what it signifies turns.  And as the symbol turns, so does the world on which it bears.

So it is Easter Monday.  If you’re like me, you’re feeling a little melancholy after the high feast day we’ve all just enjoyed.  Ach.  We’re back at it, back to the desk, the library, the lab, and nothing seems changed.  But wherever you find yourself called to take up work again, remember the deep flow of time that this season bears witness to.  Keep an eye open for the artfulness of Eastertide.

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