Q&A with Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin, arts theorist
Contrary to popular opinion, appearances do not generally deceive. Instead, they are an indispensable feature of the way things are and serve as our first contact with the world. The world reveals itself first through the way it can be sensed and felt, by means of our eyes or ears or by touch or taste. Art helps us see, sense and feel the world in novel ways by revealing new angles and fresh perspectives.
Comment: You have said elsewhere that "an important function of art is actually getting us in touch with [an] embodied experience of our environment." How do you think art does this?
Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin: I put so much emphasis on sensuous, embodied experience in order to contrast it with two approaches. The first is the tendency in much of theological aesthetics to think of art as something which lifts us out of our mundane daily existence into a higher spiritual reality. The second is the misplaced theoretical bias of much contemporary art and art education. These strange bedfellows seem to agree that humans need to leave the sensuous world behind and, through art, rise up to a higher spiritual or intellectual level.
By contrast, I think that art can and should give us a heightened experience and understanding of the world we encounter through our senses. Contrary to popular opinion, appearances do not generally deceive. Instead, they are an indispensable feature of the way things are and serve as our first contact with the world. The world reveals itself first through the way it can be sensed and felt, by means of our eyes or ears or by touch or taste. Art helps us see, sense and feel the world in novel ways by revealing new angles and fresh perspectives. It also helps us to see the world from someone else's perspective, an essential prerequisite for nurturing empathy.
How does it do so? By focusing on the concrete rather than the universal, even if the metaphoric meanings of the concrete thing or event transcend that particular instance. This also applies to non-visual art. A good story zooms in on concrete characters and events; otherwise, it risks becoming a theoretical or moral treatise. It also does so by evoking the kinds of associations and subtle nuances of which we may have been subconsciously aware but which were never fully articulated. This is what I mean by an "embodied experience of our environment".
Comment: Which contemporary artists would you say do a good job of helping us get in touch with such "[an] embodied experience of our environment"?
ADC: I feel quite encouraged by the fact that, in addition to the still-popular conceptual art of our time, there are many imaginative artists able to provide us with such an experience. There are, of course, several artists working consciously with the natural environment, such as Andy Goldsworthy, Antony Gormley and Richard Long. But then there are also installation artists/sculptors like Cornelia Parker, Rachel Whiteread, or Anish Kapoor who, at least in some of their work, do a great job in conveying such experiences.
For some reason I have not found performance body-artists such as Mona Hatoum, Orlan or Marina Abramovic all that convincing, as they still seem to be illustrating a theory rather than actually "embodying" one. But the notions of "embodiment" and "environment" are not confined to representations of the body or the natural environment. That's why artists as diverse as Anselm Kiefer, Brigid Riley, Paula Rego or really any good or interesting artist would qualify!
Comment: What do you think would a "theology of the body" look like that would make room for this kind of art?
ADC: Well, obviously, such a theology would not denigrate the physicality and sensuous dimension of God's creation, but would see it as an inherently good feature of the world, even if fallen and in need of redemption. However, when confronted with deep or moving art, both Christians and non-Christians seem to be very quick to describe it in terms of its "spiritual quality" or its "iconic value" in pointing to a "transcendence".
The first term, spiritual, is used mainly in connection with modern art, especially that of abstract expressionist painters such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, where "the spiritual" (in German: das Geistliche—which, as we know from any Hegel translation, is notoriously difficult to translate) stands for the realm of abstract ideas or universal, mystical feelings as contrasted with the material world. This use of the term stands in tension with its use in Scriptures, where it refers to the spiritual orientation and life of the concrete human being. It is not at all abstract or ethereal.
By contrast, the term "transcendence", especially in the context of postmodern art, can refer to the experience of something concrete but something strange or unfamiliar, something radically "other". Much postmodern art, for instance, appropriates religious imagery, but does so in a way estranged from its traditional context and iconographical history—for instance, in works by Andres Serrano, Chris Ofili or Terence Koh. In this appropriation, postmodern art invites us to discover new meanings and interpretations. Again, however, such epistemological "transcendence", no matter how intriguing, should not be confused with the biblical notion of ontological transcendence, which refers to the distinction between Creator and creature.
I'd hope that a Christian contribution to these kinds of discussions might be able to help people regain a renewed sense of the depth and richness of the world as we concretely encounter it, rather than succumbing to the modern and postmodern assumption of its putative flatness and then having to resort to the kind of pseudo-religious language I just mentioned. In other words, I would want to emphasise the fact that the physical and sensuous creation is already full of God's presence, and that art is one way of evoking human wonder about that.
Comment: It seems as if the relationship between feeling and imagination is important in your thinking about the arts. Can you talk a little about that relationship?
ADC: For me, the notion of feeling is very important in connection with art, but it is often misunderstood. People often think of "feelings" as clearly defined and definable emotions such as joy, or sadness, or anger; I would call those heightened feelings. The feelings connected with art are often more subtle and nuanced, and at the same time, more complex. I also do not believe that art "expresses" emotion in the way that laughing or crying does. Rather, and I learned this from thinkers such as Susanne K. Langer and Peter Kivy, art articulates feelings in visual or audible forms and compositions. These can be simple experiences such as the enjoyment of butterflies in a spring garden or intense, harrowing experiences of human tragedy. In order to be able to construct such works one clearly must have imagination, not only in the sense of being able to enter imaginatively into these possible worlds of human experience, but also in the choices and uses of materials and media.
Another way that feeling is misunderstood in relation to art is the idea that feeling is always subjective, and therefore without norms or criteria. I reply that a subjective feeling is not the same as a subjectivist notion of feeling, and that there are appropriate and inappropriate feelings in response to things and events. We need to acquire both emotional and aesthetic sensitivity and maturity in conversation with others to develop normative criteria and skills of discernment in this area.
Comment: If our readers wanted to deepen their own thinking about the body, emotion, and the arts, what would you recommend they look at, listen to, read, or do?
ADC: To deepen one's thinking about these things, it is important to be able to look, listen and read as widely as one can, in order to learn to discover quality and value across a wide range of genres and styles and periods—across so-called "high" and "low" arts, fine and applied arts, and in some non-Western art (which may require more effort and additional information to appreciate).
Three books which can encourage such a broad appreciation are: Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996) by anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake; God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2008) by art critic and curator Daniel A. Siedell; and Everyday Aesthetics (Oxford University Press USA, 2008) by Rhode Island School of Design professor Yuriko Saito, who broadens the discussion of aesthetics beyond the realm of art.