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10 Alternative Theses on Art

[Ben Myers recently posted ’10 theological theses on art’.  This is my response.  As you can see, I find his theses — like the vast majority of Christian reflections on art — to be problematical.]
(1) Theodor Adorno famously remarked that writing poetry, after Auschwitz, is barbaric — Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch.  This, then, prompted others to explore the possibility of doing any form of theology, music, or art ‘after Auschwitz’ (i.e. after the Holocaust).  And rightfully so.  Adorno is not simply questioning poetry; he is questioning the entire web of Western culture which has now been revealed as indissolubly connected with the mass production of death.  Illustrating this point, George Steiner writes: ‘We now know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning’ and Adorno adds: ‘The idea that after this war life could go on as normal, that culture can be resurrected… is idiotic.’  Thus, Adorno and Steiner both pose deep moral challenges to our cultural or artistic endeavours.
(2) It is these challenges that are the proper starting place for any Christian discussion of art.  Why?  Because Christianity necessarily privileges the experiences and perspectives of those who are oppressed and who are not only excluded from the circles of the cultured, but from the community of the living.  This is what necessarily results from following a crucified Lord.
(3) However, to question the value and role of art ‘after Auschwitz’ does not yet take us to the depths of our current dilemma.  After all, the Holocaust is now more than half a century in our past and the world — including the world of culture and art — has gone on.  People have forgotten what happened, the survivors have slowly been dying, and we are left with little more than the sentimental representations of the Holocaust provided for us by Hollywood — precisely the sort of representations Adorno warned us about.  Thus, we have become incapable of creating art ‘after Auschwitz’ because we are incapable of properly remembering Auschwitz.  Therefore, when we visit the location of Auschwitz, as a tourist destination, we are engaging not in an act of remembrance, but in an act that illustrates our inability to remember.  Indeed, this is why aging Holocaust survivors are three times more likely to commit suicide than others — they are the ones who, unlike us, are unable to forget Auschwitz (which then leads us back to Adorno’s greater question: ‘Is life possible after Auschwitz?’  The answer, I suppose, lies in series of questions: ‘Life for whom?  The survivors?  The perpetrators?  The spectators?’ and ‘What sort of life?’ but exploring these would take us too far from the topic at hand).
(4) That said, we must immediately recognise that we are not really living after Auschwitz.  Proper reflection upon our contemporary situation should lead us to conclude that we are living during Auschwitz.  By saying this we are not suggesting that the Holocaust of the Second World War is still ongoing; rather, we are retaining an understanding of ‘Auschwitz’ as a way of referring to the mass production of death related to Western culture and its self-absorbed lust for property and power.  Thus, for example, every 200 days something equivalent to the Holocaust occurs — every 200 days another 10,000,000 people, mostly children, die due to starvation, water-borne illnesses, and AIDS.  These are just a few of the largely preventable, but largely ignored, causes of death in our world.  Causes of death, we must repeat, that are intimately linked to the web of Western culture, politics, and economics.
(5) Therefore, the question becomes, ‘what is the role of art during Auschwitz?’ and the answer, just as with the question above, depends upon whom is doing the art.  On the one hand, we have seen that, even within Auschwitz, inmates produced art.  Indeed, oppressed and persecuted peoples have always produced art, and it cannot be denied that both the act of producing that art, and that art itself, contain a great deal of life-giving-and-sustaining power.
(6) On the other hand, we must ask ourselves about the value or significance of art produced by those who are numbered amongst the oppressors and spectators during, but outside of, Auschwitz.  Here, we must become much more critical.  All too often such art is simply a contemporary manifestation of the madness and cruelty of the Roman dictator, Nero, who is rumoured to have played the lyre and sang in theatrical garb… while Rome burned.  Thus, while children starve to death, we paint pretty pictures; while children die from drinking dirty water, we analyse films; while children are destroyed by AIDS, we deconstruct classical literature.
(7) Therefore, to continue to engage in art as though Auschwitz never occured, and as though Auschwitz is not continuing to occur, is unjustifiable and immoral.
(8) Instead, art must be created or performed in such a way that it becomes a part of a life-giving process of mutually liberating solidarity with victims and survivors, the dying and those left for dead, around the world.
(9) Indeed, to think that art can ‘seek the beautiful’, or be ‘a parable of redemption’, or come into the ‘proximity’ of the ‘beauty of God’ in the ‘crucified Christ’ apart from engagement in this life-giving process of mutually liberating solidarity is foolishness.  Again, more strongly: to engage in artistic endeavours that seek the beauty of God (which is found in the crucified Christ), without simultaneously engaging the crucified Christ who is revealed in the poor people of history is, to borrow Adorno’s language, idiotic.
(10) To make this assertion is not to suggest that all art must then engage in some sort of overt or superficial didacticism.  It is simply to suggest that the Christian artist — like Christians in every other profession — stands under the Lordship of Christ and is accountable to certain basic, and unavoidable, Christian commitments.

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  1. Nice post, I largely agree. “Art” as a societal institution is clearly bankrupt, but maybe the issues just shift onto broader notions of poetics or creativity generally, then? And onto the same issues you raise: “art” in the service of what, and to/for what form-of-life? (If you haven’t already run into them, based on your post you might like G. Agamben’s _Remnants of Auschwitz_ book, or his first book from 1970, on the circularity and vacuity of the Western concept of art, _The Man Without Content_?) I don’t think the crucification was primarily intended to be aestheticized (!), although the Mel Gibsons of the world might disagree…

  2. As someone who’s spent a fair bit of time in Germany, I don’t even mention the A word. Far too traumatic. I have seen school teachers and friends in convulsive tears (I have held my friend for half an hour and talked with her for the whole night), because it is their parents we are talking about.
    Thus, I would question the pertinence of blogging, or talking, or preaching, or whatever… about processes with which we have never engaged. Mentionning “the Aids crisis”, in my mouth, is obscene. It might not be art. But it’s a form of representation.

  3. Thanks for your interesting response, I am wondering though, in the way in which academic theologizing is possibly justified or authenticated by our actions towards the poor, can art be redeemed in this way if it is directed towards this cause (for want of a seriously better word here), please forgive my stumbling around in this area, of which I have no experience.

  4. I am still on board with Zelizer’s exhortation against “remembering to forget,” but ultimately Holocaust Studies is too isolated a discipline to provide general theses on art. It fosters a kind of film and representation theory that actually short circuits itself, dead-ending in the opacity of this historical event that like G-d/Adonai defies representation. A short response to these theses is that even though trauma studies provide a handy backdoor aesthetic access to the cross, and the injustices it embodies, we are not living in the Holocaust. Advent defies the circuity of this logic.

  5. I don’t have anything to add or any point with which to quibble just yet, but your post reminded me of the poetry of Paul Celan which in and of itself may have been a reply to Adorno’s statement.
    Art is necessary.
    Art is futile.

  6. “(7) Therefore, to continue to engage in art as though Auschwitz never occured, and as though Auschwitz is not continuing to occur, is unjustifiable and immoral.”
    As a writer, musician, and painter, i have wrestled with this question for 35 years. (should we blog after Auschwitz?).
    In working at Pine Ridge Res. for many years, most every day i drove by the wounded Knee Massacre burial site. It was a constant reminder that whatever (sometimes doubtful) ‘good works’ i might accomplish there, must always be reckoned in the presence of that monument. i wrote and painted responses to the massacre but always felt the staggering incommensurateness of my pathetic efforts. Is driving aged Sioux grandmothers to bingo at the Catholic church, usually their only outing for the week other than Mass, a propitiate response? Well, i didn’t read Goethe and listen to Schubert at night (usually read Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira and listened to Arvo Part). But if I didn’t take them they just had to stay home. (should one play bingo after Wounded Knee? how about the children of the survivors?). I don’t know but dan’s 10 thesis will be posted at my next art show. My last show in october on whidbey isle was labeled ‘G-d, Death, and the Structure of visual Perception.’ I had made charcoal rubbings of the names on the Wounded Knee monument, and used them in juxtaposition to a large plaster re-creation of walls in Auschwitz; mostly names and drawings and poems by the victims themselves that are being lost through corrosion (i made no rubbings there). The facing wall, like a iconostasis, was covered floor to ceiling with my Icons of Jesus and Mary. I hung the show purposefully that way so that it compelled the viewer to stand in between these two irreconcilable actualities. reckon i am still standing there now.
    thanks for the great post dan
    obliged Daniel on whidbey island

  7. That show sounds excellent, but what makes thesis 7 problematic is that this kind of application of Holocaust Studies becomes delimiting in its capability of addressing trauma and its representation outside of the scope of Holocaust historical memory. I merely quibble with the idea that the Holocaust persists as a sui generis totalizing geist that should automatically have precedence in our aesthetics. (Though, poserorprophet, you would really enjoy this year’s Heartbeat Detector, which very ably argues something along those lines).
    I think I would prefer to find a way to hold Holocaust and Advent in tension as competing historical trajectories, and try to find a “Christian” aesthetic somewhere in that incredible tension.

  8. Dan-
    As always your thoughts are deep and provocative.
    Thank you!
    (Aside–I also read your banter on original sin and found that fascinating. I have concluded after much trouble–that we are born ‘vulnerable’ to sin.)

  9. to Mleary “…I merely quibble with the idea that the Holocaust persists as a sui generis totalizing geist that should automatically have precedence in our aesthetics….” I think MLeary’s point is important to bear in mind when reading dan’s excellent decothesis. I brought the massacre at WoundedKnee into the discussion not to compare competing genocides but to reinforce dan’s point in #4 that we are always living through the/a holocaust. Indeed, one could stepstone back to the time of Christ landing on holocausts/genocides/massacres perpetrated by/with (sometimes on) Christians. Emmanuel Levinas wrote something attending to this in “Is It Righteous To Be.” “…The terrible thing was that the dangerous matter of the inquisition and the Crusades were bound to the sign of Christ and the Cross. I cannot understand these things; they must be explained to me. Moreover, what attends these concerns is that the world has not been altered–this is my main concern. ‘Christian’ Europe did not find it in itself to accomplish this, not by way of what Christians have done as Christians. Above all else, Christianity has not thwarted people from doing the things they have done–from the Holocaust. It is the primary thing I have to say, and it is still vital. The message of the Gospels has been forever compromised for us by history.” (256). The Jewish levinas survived the camps, and his wife and daughter were saved by Catholic nuns. He wrote and spoke often of this seeming paradox. Perhaps dan is not saying that the holocaust is a “sui generis totalizing geist” but that we might think of the holocaust in Europe as transubstantiative of the murder of any and all innocents, and therefore something always to be reckoned with through our aesthetics, politics, theology, moral philosophy, daily life choices, etc. (RC’s) bear in mind on dec. 25 that dec. 28 is the mass for the massacre of the innocents (the Christmas vestments recognize the coming massacre by Herod). oh my, how i have went on, sorry. Daniel on whidbey island

  10. Dany:
    Yes, I think you are pointing out the aporetic situation that Adorno is highlighting. On the one hand, we are morally compelled to speak out about the horrors of history — Auschwitz, the AIDS pandemic, and so on — but to remain silent, or to gloss over these things, is to be complicit in their performance. However, on the other hand, all forms of representation (visual, audio, or other) are completely incapable of acting as faithful witnesses to these things.
    Consequently, any effort to speak about these things, must take this into consideration. Like Bonhoeffer, we are compelled to act, while simultaneously begging forgiveness for our actions.
    Yes, I think that thesis (8) actually leaves us with a lot of room to work creatively.
    M. Leary:
    I think that Daniel has provided an adequate response to your objection. I really am not trying to view art, or anything really, through the lens of ‘Holocaust Studies’ (of which, I am almost entirely ignorant). To persist in saying this, is to entirely miss the point of what I’ve written.
    Further, I’m not sure I entirely understand what you’re getting at, but I don’t really see any tension between what I have written here, and a focus upon Advent. After all, Advent was the beginning of Christ’s road to the cross, and descent into hell (the trajectory that Christians are called to follow). So, to use the language of this post, Advent is God’s gateway into Auschwitz… where he is crucified (or, to recall Elie Wiesel’s story, hung on the gallows).
    Daniel & Roger:
    Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts on this post. Given that you are both artists, I respect what both of you have to say on this topic — you speak as insiders, while I only speak as an outside observer. Daniel, we must really find a time to see each other in the New Year. And Roger, I’m glad that you’ve been swayed by this form of thinking on original sin (it really does just make so much more sense than some other understandings).
    The Allied War was a redemptive act? For whom? For the Jews in Europe (some of whom had been rejected, and sent back, from Allied ports)? For the Roma people and people with disabilities in Europe? For the inhabitants of Dresden? Of Tokyo? Of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
    Can making-war ever be described as redemptive? I doubt it.

  11. While doing some thesis research, I stumbled onto a couple of interesting Moltmann quotes, related to the matter at hand. First:
    A cultural saving of humanity by means of the cultivating and deepening of our subjectivity in constant metaphysical reflection, in art and religion, is romanticist escapism as long as social conditions are not changed. Where conditions are left as they are, this cultural saving of humanity automatically acquires the function of stabilizing these social conditions in their non-humanity (from Theology of Hope, 1965).
    It has been rightly said that my book The Crucified God is a Christian ‘theology after Auschwitz’. But literally speaking it is a book about belief in God after the crucifixion of Christ. What we dare say about God ‘after Auschwitz’ surely depends on what we can say about God after the event on Golgotha, and the way we talk about God when we hear the echo of Christ’s death cry: ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ (from A Broad Place, 2008).

    • Another Moltmann quote:
      Christians are ‘artists’ and their art is their life. But their life in turn is the expression of their faith and their experiences of the Spirit of Christ. Christian life is …ars Deo vivendi. The art of living with God for God. We are the ‘artists of life’ and we are called individually and communally to shape our life into an art work which brings into expression something of the beauty of divine grace and the freedom of divine love.
      (The Open Church)

  12. Well, as they say, war never solved anything. Except Tyranny, Nazism, Fascism, Japanese Militarism, Communist oppression, Wahhabism…
    The act of dying in uniform, an act of blood, is very much like the redemptive act. It isn’t perfect, like Christ’s, but it looks very much the same. Love is there, duty, submission, service…why do i think you’re not getting this?
    The west is not guilty of Auschwitz – I lay that at the feet of the statists who came to power in Germany and Italy, mainly, in the thirties. Your statement that war can never be redemptive is lacking in nuance, my friend.
    Sorry to come over here and flame – i speak in humility and wish you well. I don’t think I’ll wear the ash cloth for the death camps, though.

  13. I said “merely quibble” because your statement that “art must be created or performed in such a way that it becomes a part of a life-giving process of mutually liberating solidarity with victims and survivors” is dead on. Too often Christian aesthetics gets to persist in some kind of estimation of cruciformity as “beautiful” without reference to either victimization or liberation. My quibble is birthed in a disaffection with Holocaust Studies and the kind of representational absolutes it inspires. If we want to use Adorno, then we must like Moltmann hold Auschwitz in dialectical suspense with Advent.
    This is to say, I dig your theses on art, but would append a lot of footnotes to them. When it is all said and done: art uninterested in justice is betrayal. I think we share this page. Which is kind of a Heschel page.

  14. I agree. Art produced by the oppressed and marginalised is very life giving. And would you agree that it is often the most “powerful” and “prophetic” language that speaks to the human being? The great “divorce” occurs when it is eventually commodified, and distributed for consumption as a status symbol by the powerful. Outsider art is a good example of this. Street art is another. Banksys now owned by Brangelina. The german expressionists of the 20s were mostly men who were broken by the great war and had PTSD. Im always drawn to darkness in art, and people always scratch their heads at this. You may have just given me some solid ground to stand on.
    But I also think there is a tension there that is mostly unresolvable. For technical skill in art, ( ie Rembrant, old masters etc…) Is still something that “speaks” to the human heart.

  15. Well, as they say, war never solved anything. Except Tyranny, Nazism, Fascism, Japanese Militarism, Communist oppression, Wahhabism…

    Except that there’s still tyranny everywhere, fascism didn’t end in Spain by war, Japanese militarism is alive and well – many Japanese leaders still visit a shrine for war criminals – it’s just in suspended animation, communism was ended in Europe by peaceful uprisings, and Wahhabism is still going quite well. It’s also worth noting that war was the catalyst to bring many of those things into existence.
    The problem with war in many, many cases is that it unleashes forces that one simply cannot predict or control. Britain, France and the US fight the German Empire and they get the Third Reich as an unintended consequence.

  16. M. Leary:
    Fair enough. However, I think that Moltmann uses the language of Advent differently than you are using it in this series of comments (i.e. Moltmann speaks of Adventus in order to speak of the coming of God, and the consummation of Christ’s kingdom, as a novum distinct from futurum, which is simply the continuation of that which has been). It seems to me that you have something more like David Ford’s talk about ‘overwhelmings’ in mind here (cf. The Shape of Living).
    Thanks for jumping in on this… I’m under the impression that you’re an artist, so it’s good to hear another insider’s perspective.
    Regarding the tension that you mention, I do think that my thesis (8) might leave room for the Old Masters — it certainly doesn’t exclude them a priori — but further discussion would be needed to figure this out.

  17. Well, my focus on the materiality of art both in the fine arts and the cinema is really birthed in adventus in that it “makes of every present a provisional transcendence.” In application to a theology of art, this involves the present specificity of material in manipulated forms. It is a mere hop, skip, and jump from adventus to Bazin’s theological conception of cinema.
    “God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God – that is the basis for real hope which both embraces and overcomes the world.”
    There is the great tension. Let’s say it this way though… could you reframe your ten theses with no reference to Adorno?
    (Whatever Ford I may in mind is the remnants of a bastardized Bloesch version of Tillich. So there is a bit in there, but muddled to be sure.)

  18. If I may, on the war thing. I knew someone would snark that these malodorous political forms still exist. I think you push your argument too far.
    Human politic continues. The victories wrought by war, as I’ve described, changed things. I particularly enjoy a BBC production called Battlefield Britain, wherein the historian hosts always end the program with a brief about the change caused by the defeat of the Spanish Armada, or what have you.
    If you wish to argue against the preposition that “wars change things”, I would say that you have a lot of ‘splainin to do. With history written as it is, your theory is poor.
    Careful on that tyranny everywhere statement. I happen to think that Italian and Nazi tyranny were quite a bit different things than, say, a librarian producing reading records of suspects to the FBI. I mean…come on! Were there any meat hooks involved in the librarian case?

  19. Thanks for your thoughts Dan. It’s my opinion that the art that we produce should try to be an acurate potrayal of our world view and that our world view should line up with the word of God. Thanks Dan.
    Just because things have changed doesn’t mean things are fixed.

  20. In mulling this post over, I think I have figured out a more practical explanation of my problem with it: Chagall embodies a far more effective response to Holocaust-like tragedy in Jewish history than Adorno. There are many interpretations of Adorno’s dictum, and about 75% of them have turned out to be self-refuting. (The only ones that work as a cultural critique are taken up by Zelizer.)
    Otherwise, Chagall understood art in a way that Adorno could never comprehend.


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