They Who Have Ears to Hear, Let Them See?
Considering aspects of modern art that have been despised by most theologians and Christian art writers.
The ears are the only organs of the Christian.
The Ear And The Eye
A work of art speaks and, as the viewer, I listen. We look at a painting, but what we are really doing is listening.
There is a saying in the art world that collectors, curators, and dealers see with their ears. It is intended to reveal the shallowness of the business of art—collectors, curators, and dealers respond first to the buzz and gossip they hear and that determines what they see when they look at an artist's work. The saying, however, discloses a profound theological and aesthetic truth. A painting is more than meets the eye. In a provocative essay entitled "On Painting," artist Enrique Martínez Celaya admits, quite surprisingly, that "paintings tend to distract us with the way they look."1 This has been a significant challenge for theologians and Christian art writers who have been unnecessarily distracted by works of modern art that do not conform to conventional appearances. A theological approach to art that cannot embrace the last two centuries of artistic practice dramatically limits the capacity of the Christian faith to bear robust and confident cultural witness.
Martin Luther argued that the ears are the only organs of a Christian, since it is through the ear that life begins, through hearing the preached Word of God. And so, for Luther, the pre-eminent theologian of the ear, we must hear it before we can see it. As Lutheran theologian Steven Paulson writes, "All creatures have a relation to God not preached, but only those who have a preached God experience His mercy."2 For Luther, the eyes can deceive us. We are distracted and seduced by the spectacle of power, status, and wealth, which causes us to forget the promises God brings to us through His Word. A robust and practical theological approach to artistic practice must begin, counter-intuitively, with the ear, not the eye; with the particularity of the preached Word of God, not the image. It is through the theology of ear that a theology of modern art begins.
Back To The Bible?
Most theological approaches to art begin either with the scholastic presumption that grace completes nature, or with common grace, which presumes (quite rightly) the goodness of creation. Both approaches are keen to avoid Protestant iconoclasm and an excessive Biblicism that confines artistic expression to illustrating biblical narratives, imagery, and subject matter in the service of "preaching the Gospel," reducing art to Christian propaganda. The solution lies in leaning further into the particularity of the preached Word of God's grace, which, according to Luther, does not complete nature, but frees it, allowing it once again to be what it was intended to be: God's good creation, in which he is present sacramentally. For God, as Paulson writes, "is Creator—a materialist, not an idealist—and so he is not far, far off, but deeply present." The starting point for a robust theology of modern art is not natural theology or common grace, but the living and active Word of God, which returns the Creature and Creation to their rightful place.
But this is not a return to the Bible as a controlling norm for artistic practice, as Francis Schaeffer put it in Art and the Bible. It is, quoting Luther, a "voice that comes to us."3 According to Oswald Bayer, as devoted as he is to the Bible itself, it is its oral character, not its written form, that is most important to Luther. And this oral character is deeply material. The promise, "God is for us," comes to us from the mouth of the preacher to the ear of the hearer. The Bible, which preserves these promises, is activated through the bodily performance of preaching. It does not speak about the promises; rather, it makes them present, and so, for Luther, preaching is profoundly sacramental.
Most theological perspectives on art, however, pit image against the text, reducing the latter in the effort to rescue the former from Protestant, iconoclastic neglect presumed to have been caused by Luther's emphasis on the Word. Yet neither image nor text is foundational. Both are grounded on the Word that is preached, which creates life and frees the image and text. It is in the implications of the preached Word that a robust theological approach to art can be most fully developed because the preached Word, grounding both image and text, does not unnecessarily discriminate visually. What a work looks like is much less important than what we hear.
Ironically, theological approaches to art that begin with natural theology and common grace have ended up unnecessarily restricting the visual scope of art. H.R. Rookmaaker's and Francis Schaeffer's insensitivity to abstract paintings, for example, is a natural outgrowth of their theological approach to art, which presupposes that paintings, for example, must have certain appearances.4 For both Schaeffer and Rookmaaker, a painting does not "speak" in its own voice to a viewer— it is a passive visual image, merely a product of what the artist believes.
In contrast, T.S. Eliot said that the meaning of a poem lies somewhere between the poem and the reader. A theological perspective on art shaped by the preached Word gives preeminence to what the viewer "hears" rather than interpreting the work as evidence for the beliefs or worldview of the one who made it.
For Luther, the preached Word of God reveals and discloses the world in all its enchanted beauty and aesthetic richness. On September 8, 1538, Luther gave a remarkable sermon on Jesus's healing of the demon-possessed deaf and mute man in Mark 7: 31-13, the gospel reading for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity. Jesus recreates the man by opening his ears and sighing "Ephphatha!" (be opened!). Jesus recapitulates the creation of Adam, places his spittle in the man's blocked ears with his fingers to open his ears to "hear" the world, turning him toward the world, unlocking him from the prison house of his own head. For Luther, preaching is sacramental, material means by which God brings his promises to us—spitting on his fingers and sticking them in our ears and sighing, be opened! God is preached through matter, and hearing the Word spoken to us—and believing— creates life and opens the world to us, allowing us to taste, see, and feel God's presence in creation.
In reflecting on Luther's sermon, theologian Oswald Bayer writes in Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation,
The most surprising point in the entire sermon is that Luther, without digressing and in a theologically bold way that is most strange to our ears, takes the Word that Jesus Christ himself speaks in the miracle story and claims it as a Word that every creature speaks to us.
For Luther, the whole world speaks: "Sheep, cows, trees when they bloom, say: 'Ephphatha.'" The world speaks, yet without the proclaimed, sighing Word to open our ears, the sighing Word who has entered into the narrowness of creation, we are deaf to it. For Luther, "Creation," as Bayer argues, "is the promised world." It is an article of faith and is disclosed as creation only through Christ, the preached Word, God's promise, which opens our ears, and by so doing, transforms what we see and what we make of the materials of the world, including oil paint and canvas and what we hear from them. A theological perspective on modern art that begins with the preached Word of God thus offers no visual restrictions, for appearances are deceiving, and the visual and what we see is not foundational, it is contingent on the preached Word. This eliminates the temptation to claim that "realistic" painting is "good" because it appears to affirm creation while "abstract" painting is "bad" because it appears to deny the goodness of creation.
Law & Gospel
Luther's aggressive, dynamic, and creative approach to the Word of God, which creates faith through the ear, unlocking all of the other senses, requires that God's Word is understood as two words: law and gospel. In Luther's theology, grace frees nature by killing it. The law reveals not only God's good and righteous standard, it also discloses the forensic structure of reality. Justification is much more than a doctrinal proposition—it is, as Oswald Bayer argues, ontological. The justification of our existence, to ourselves and to others, as well as the desire for recognition and acknowledgement, defines the structure of the natural world. Preaching the law, then, reminds the hearers that they cannot justify themselves, destroying pretensions to obedience and progress. For Luther, the law is preached in order to open space for God's promise of grace.
The idea that the Word of God is two words, law and gospel, and that it addresses the deep alienation of modern and contemporary art—which is manifest in countless ways, some more tolerable than others—has given theologians difficulty. But in Real Presences, George Steiner observes, "Serious painting, music, literature or sculpture make palpable to us, as do no other means of communication, the unassuaged, unhoused instability and estrangement of our condition." A theological approach to art shaped by Luther's thought takes seriously that art operates within the forensic structure of reality, in which justification is an ontological fact, and embraces artistic responses to it, as dark and shocking as they might be. That modern art has given aesthetic voice to this suffocating and narrow world in which achieving justification is impossible has gone largely unrecognized ("unheard") by art writers and theologians who have been too easily put off by the works' dark, desperate, and alienated appearances.
Lament And A Theology Of The Cross
Another important feature of Luther's understanding of the preached Word of God as a means to approach modern art is the distinction between theologies of glory and a theology of the cross. For Luther, theologians of glory are seduced by external appearances, displays of power, wealth, and beauty (an often used and abused term in theological discussions about art). In contrast, the theology of the cross recognizes that Christ is found in weakness, brokenness, poverty, and desperation. This also opens up creative and interpretive space for considering aspects of modern art that have been despised by most theologians and Christian art writers, such as the apparent lack of artistic accomplishment and skill, especially in comparison to the great works of Renaissance art, such as Michelangelo's triumphant Sistine Ceiling or Raphael's magnificent School of Athens. Moreover, many modern artists, like Gauguin, Picasso, and Matisse, painted figures that were intentionally evocative of children's art in an attempt to restore a sense of innocence, naiveté, and wonder at the world, which to their mind had been obscured by an artistic skill that claimed to know too much of the world, had too easily made sense of the world.
The theology of the cross also opens up a legitimate and important space for the lament— that is, the sad and even angry cry that things are not as they should be, that injustice reigns. And we demand, as Job does, an account from God, who seems hidden. What we see in the world does not measure up to the promises of God. And so we cry out. But we do so presuming that God can hear us.
The history of modern art is the history of aesthetic lament, of desperate, angry, and arrogant cries to God, to the cosmos, that this world is not right. And, as Picasso's Guernica demonstrated, with its suffering in paint, they are correct. The world is not right, and modern artists have often been the first to protest.
Although God has promised us that all will be well, from what we can see, all is not well. As Bayer writes in Living By Faith, "Our scream of indignation and accusation presupposes a disappointed expectation."
Modern art has operated in that space of lament for over two hundred years, but it has rarely been heard by theologians and Christian art writers, primarily because it does not conform to the appearances of beauty. Yet a theologian of the cross knows that beauty is deceptive, and although beauty will save the world, as Dostoyevsky prophesied, that salvific beauty is in the beaten and despised body of the crucified Christ.
Critical Excursus: Edvard Munch
The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch is most famous for his terrifying series of paintings entitled, The Scream (1895). Like many avant-garde artists, Munch was fascinated and terrified by nature. Like many of his avantgarde colleagues, he understood an important theological point: Nature is much more than what you see, or have been conditioned to see. In 1907 Munch wrote, "Nature is not only that which is visible to the eye. It is also the inner image of the mind. The images upon the reverse of the eye." Munch despised academic painting—the pictures of nymphs, nudes, and angels that populated the salons and academies of his day—because it presented a defanged and domesticated nature—explained and interpreted—through excessive allegorizing and spiritualizing. For Munch, nature was mysterious, brilliantly opaque, and dangerously violent. He perceived in nature something terrible and unrelenting. It demands our life. He confronted this demand by making it the crux of his work.
This is why he often painted outside in the snow in his studio in Ekely, near Oslo, Norway, subjecting his canvases to the cold, wind, rain, snow, bird droppings, and anything else that nature could throw at it. He did not consider his paintings to be delicate objects, but psychic, intellectual, imaginative struggles with nature. The elements gave them a patina that tested their mettle and commemorated their fight. And this is also why many shocked viewers, erroneously presuming art's role to be to comfort, affirm, and entertain, found them sickening.
In his paintings, Munch peers into the maw of death: He grows old, his eyesight fails, he loses his virility, he experiences the death of loved ones, and he dwells in the growing isolation and desperation of a modern life in which even the most routine daily tasks have the potential to ignite into violent confrontations with his most deepest fears. Nothing is hidden from the viewer and despite his artistic ambitions and art world success, his work dwells in the weakness of the human condition.
For the Renaissance artist, shaped by a Scholastic worldview, a painting reveals nature to be open to grace, to complete, infuse, or fulfill. Nature, as given, is porous, transcendent, charged with salvific potential. Yet for Munch and his avant-garde colleagues, for whom God had been (partially) exorcised, nature cannot be allegorized and spiritualized— that is, graced. In many ways, nature becomes more remarkable, mysterious, and awe-inspiring in avant-garde painting. But it also becomes violently mute. The agnostically spiritual Munch, who was raised in a devout Lutheran home, makes paintings that share Luther's deep skepticism of natural theology. For Luther nature must be revealed in all its violence in order to enable a greater violence, the Gospel of grace, to overcome it. Nature thus needs recreation, not completion. But Munch cannot find grace, or, as he called it, "a way out."
The Scream, like all of his work, is deaf and mute. Munch knew that his paintings were silent. And this silence terrified him. It became an echo chamber where his own anxiety in the face of death, a subject with which he was obsessed, could only yield a desperate, silent scream. Munch's paintings are remarkable because they give us nature undiluted, "red in tooth and claw," and force us to swallow it. The Scream is the sound of our response to nature's brut silence. About this work, Munch recalls, "I felt a huge endless scream course through nature."
"Art emerges from joy and pain," Munch wrote in his journal in 1905. But he concluded, "Mostly from pain." Munch's work destroys the veneer of aesthetic sentimentality in art that often obscures the violence of nature. It presents nature undiluted, making us yearn for the sound of grace that can overcome violence and pain that comes to us through the Word, even if Munch himself was unable to hear it. A recognition of the Word of God as two words, law and gospel, and the sensitivity to weakness and brokenness that the theology of the cross discloses, opens up creative and interpretive space for the work of even the most alienated artists, like Munch, to drive us to the gospel by revealing aesthetically the suffocating narrowness within which we live in the fallen world.
Luther's thought offers a rich opportunity to develop a robust theological approach to modern art because it is grounded on the preached Word, not on appearances, likeness, and imagery, giving priority not to what is seen, but how the work is heard.
The work of art has its own life—it is not tied to its maker. The work of art exists and is made for, the other. It is a gift. It is painted to be heard. To regard it as evidence of an artist's beliefs or worldview does violence to the integrity of the work itself, which exists for me. It confronts me now, in my present. And so it forces me to be present with it, now. Art asks one thing from us, that we be present in the moment of its experience. And this is what the preached Word demands as well, which brings God's promises to us at the only moment God has given us: the present. Yet it is the most difficult moment to maintain. Under the demands of justification and recognition, the suffocating confines of if/then, tit-for-tat, and quid pro quo, we drift off into the past, out of regret (did we do enough?) or surge into the future in hope (can we do more?).
This is why art seems gratuitous, unnecessary, and infuriatingly useless in a world built for efficiency and instrumentalism, where everything is a means for self-justification, where even theologians and Christian art writers use art to justify their theological and philosophical systems. As cultural critic Andy Crouch writes, "Art perhaps is one way of naming everything we as cultural beings do that cannot be explained in terms of its usefulness." This is also why art that is preachy, didactic, and overtly moralistic and commercial rings hallow and insincere to our ears. Yet it is also work that is most comfortable for us, because it is most easily assimilated into our legal schemes, grist for our justification mills.
As an art critic and curator I live and breathe and have my being in the artist's studio and in the gallery space, where I am confronted by works of art and must articulate what I hear. Luther's relational theology offers tremendous potential to handle that situation as an art critic, by not allowing the work to distract me with its appearance but to take the time to listen. And what a critic hears is not necessarily what the artist believes or even intends. Although many modern artists were atheists, I hear otherwise from their paintings, which testify to something beyond the hills, a faint recollection or echo of a promise, that God is for us.