Steiner’s light

Floating III, Sheona Beaumont, 2010

I’m in endurance mode with George Steiner’s Real Presences (1989). What pitted, articulate, ranging, poetic depth he brings to present-day understandings of the arts. At my sense of it, he says we need a reckoning with the undisputed ‘life of meaning in the text, in music, in art’ (p.50) because our world is doing away with having to face mystery, immediacy (even ‘the wholly personal hospitality we owe our own death’, p.50) in what is a society in thrall to positivist accounting for the humanities or cheap journalistic thrill. We’d rather write about the arts, and screen their effects, than face their ‘implosive powers within the echo chambers of the self’ (p.10).

Everything about the journalistic-academic burgeoning of commentary and reflection and endless publications about the arts, the tsunami of talking, the preoccupation with inflated argument is ‘bustling pretence’ (p.48), ‘caring mediocrity’ (p.23), a ‘narcotic’ against interpretation as lived and felt (p.49), articulating ‘an epistemology and ethics of spurious temporality’ and ‘novelty’ (p.26,27). When some interpretative mode-du-jour fails, ‘when the zero-point of trust and of felt meaning is reached’ it’s more a sign of general decay and overinflation in ‘the mushrooming of semantic-critical jargon’, not of reckoning with ‘real presence’ and the humane (p.49). Rather than shooting down such malaise (as Baudrillard would), Steiner asks ‘how can personal sensibility go upstream, to the living springs of ‘first being’?’ (p.40), and proceeds to elaborate what is a declaration for hermeneutics as imaginative, transforming, event; hermeneutics as ‘defining the enactment of answerable understanding, of active apprehension’ (p.7); hermeneutics as ‘a shaping reciprocity between ourselves and that which the heart knows’ (p.9). Actual encounter with the arts precipitate this – for Steiner, especially music.

Amongst the hermeneutic approaches he discusses is the Jewish midrashic circling, retelling, and reimagining tradition towards Scripture. It deliberately brings the text into ‘palpable presentness’ (p.42), being ‘indeterminately synchronic with all individual and communal life’ (p.44). Not so the Christian (‘Catholic’) tradition, which works to extract fixity over and through the specific testimonies of Jesus and the disciples (so ‘dogma can be defined as hermeneutic punctuation, as the promulgation of semantic arrest’, p.44). It is these more legislative and systematic programmes of Christian theological interpretation which the humanities largely inherit today, combined with positivism and carried in the US by a wider non-canonical (‘democratic’), ahistorical ‘egalitarian ideal’ (p.32). But over and against each of these which might notionally stand for or accommodate theological-metaphysical interpretation, Steiner spends the bulk of the book (the 2nd of 3 chapters) elaborating on why modernism radically counters and annihilates such theological possibility.

Since the 1870s, Western consciousness has ‘moved house’ (p.94), effecting a fundamental break between word and world such that the ‘covenant of reference’ (p.96), or the ‘mystery of consonance’ (p.105) which supposes meaningfulness in representation/discourse is gone. Meaningfulness in language (or the linguistic, understood to describe all art) is, according to deconstructionism, a delusion, a ‘lazy dream’ (p.124) exhibiting ‘sclerotic remnants of religion, of metaphysics, of gross positivism’ (p.125). So the death of God, of the author, of intentionality, of logocentrism, etc. ‘Deconstruction dances in front of the ancient Ark. This dance is at once playful, …and instinct with sadness. For the dancers know that the Ark is empty’ (p.122). It feels like a devastating indictment, like Steiner himself accepts nihilism, from which there is no recovery. And yet, because the project is about the living, ever-returning, responsibility-inducing experience in front of art (where we feel ‘the talismanic quickening of our being’ p.63,64), in the final instance Steiner says the reckoning with deconstruction is limited by its theory, its dependence on logic to refute logic.

The full, indisputable freight of deconstructionism is not to be denied or denounced as untrue (within its own postulates, it is true), but it stands apart from the fact of the creative effort, and the fact of interpretative encounter with art. Steiner says he has never met an artist who is a deconstructionist. So with the serious encounter with art, to which everyone can testify at a kind of universally experienced level, even if not articulated through the privileged educational setting of high art. Both describe the human ‘wager on transcendence’ (p.214), the looking to meaning expressed and received beyond or above the immanent, manifest plane of our world. Whether the meaning is there or not, whatever the ‘style of designation’ for the otherness of encounter (p.211, which Steiner himself posits as the reception of an unknown guest knocking at the door), whether it exhibits confirmation or challenge or disruption to our sense of knowing, we enter into it. And it needs theological language, however foolish or embarrassing that is felt to be, to describe it. Steiner stands by this, though ends finally, melancholically, with uncertainty in the face of cultural rejection of the transcendent (which he says is understandable politically, morally, and linguistically) – will art, he wonders, become an archaeology when ‘the verticalities of reference to ‘higher things’… drain from speech’? Will general sentiment follow, or will it ‘aspire to religious fundamentalism and kitsch ideologies’? (p.230) It’s a supremely timely question.

The perspective of pilgrimage at the Sony World Photography Awards

From Alys Tomlinson’s ‘Ex Voto’ series, at Somerset House, London, 2018
Overall winner and Photographer of the Year at this year’s Sony World Photography Awards is Alys Tomlinson for her series Ex-Voto. A British winner for the first time in ten years, Tomlinson presents a series of black and white photographs across the genres of portrait, landscape, and still life exploring the geography and legacies of particular European pilgrimage sites. In Lourdes (France), Ballyvourney (Ireland), and Grabarka (Poland), a distillation of details with carved crosses in rocks, suspended animation in forest clearings, and quietly direct faces form a study in contemplation that reaches for depth in faith and history.

It is a superlative achievement, rendered with a poise and sincerity that seemed to eclipse the noisy exuberance of other entries. Tomlinson entered in the category for professional photographers called ‘Discovery’, new this year to the competition. It appears to tap a vein of invested story-telling, something that goes beyond the documentary, externalised interest of other places and people. Also shortlisted in this category was the series Els Enfarinat by Antonio Gibotta, in which scenes of ‘the Floured’s War’ are shown taking place in Ibi, Spain every December – a flamboyant festival of smoke, fireworks, and enacted combat with reverberations in the biblical festival of the Day of the Innocents. Both Gibotta’s work and Tomlinson’s reveal ‘discoveries’ that suggest an internalised interest, a connection of world with something soulfully and historically meaningful. In this case, perhaps surprisingly, it is also Christian. Here an observant photography, far from being blind to cultural politicisation of the visual field, or blind to the global, diversifying, colour of the contemporary environment can also see the Bible, the horizon of Christian faith, and the sincerely held habits of belief in European traditions. Further, it can do so without suspicion, without irony, and with a lens porous to the visual meaningfulness of spiritual observance.

Nun, 1921 by August Sander.
Tomlinson herself feels the attraction of simple faith, though she does not share it. Her time at the pilgrimage sites grew out of a residency at Lourdes at the Marie Saint-Frai in 2014. Her long-term project there had spanned her studies for an MA in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism, and Pilgrimage (SOAS), during which time she continued in documentary and editorial photography. But it was the contrary impetus of a world defined by ‘the peace and the space that people carve out to just sit and think’, as she has said in interview, that drew her attention. In this sense, Tomlinson’s recognition of faith is registered in images that seem to concentrate slowed time and intentionality. Her own perspective shifts in what is immersive sympathy with, and not simply conceptual accommodation of an ‘other’ community. The views in the photographs imply her own viewing directness, the near-tactility of objects, and the self-positioning of her gaze – not to mention the aesthetic of black-and-white across different focal zones. There’s a hum to the series as a whole that resists any suggestion of artful distance, instead resonating with the personal effects of a certain kind of reflective action. The portrait above bears comparison, for example, to an August Sander portrait from 1921. The frontal pose and the framing of the figure against a blurred background give the same nominal setting for the same subject, but Sander keeps the societal difference and the signs of his classification in view (as evidenced in his 1929 publication Face of Our Time), whereas Tomlinson renders at life-size an immediacy and vulnerability of person. Across her series indeed, we find this attentive and searching gaze, reflected and held in a vision that is at once photographic and spiritual.

Let there be light!

Enslen's 'Face of Christ Superimposed on an Oak Leaf', 1839/40
Enslen’s ‘Face of Christ Superimposed on an Oak Leaf’, 1839/40

Coming up in the middle of June, I will be presenting a paper at the Rethinking Early Photography conference in Lincoln. Below is my abstract for Let There Be Light: Theology and Spirituality in Early Photography:

Largely absent from discourses on the development and context of early photography is an examination of the religious and theological backgrounds of its pioneers. This paper will consider the evidence for a Christian spiritual hermeneutic both in the plates/prints and through the backgrounds of Niépce, Daguerre and Talbot; further, it will discuss the surviving work of Johann Carl Enslen (1759-1848), a largely neglected figure in conventional histories of photography. Enseln’s 15 extant salt prints, including ‘Face of Christ Superimposed on an Oak Leaf’ (1839-40) will be shown to explore a concept of divine immanence through highly experimental collage techniques. Of critical importance is the argument that the birth of photography was pervaded by a Christian spirituality that manifested itself in both the culture at large (in the popular press and in the background of empirical scientific endeavour) and in the individuals’ inclusion of biblical or theological reference in their images. The manner of such references will be examined, ranging from textual quote to conceptual collage to the reproduction of religious paintings/prints.

Historical discussion of such evidence of spirituality must also challenge the discourses pertaining to photography’s ontology, so this paper further argues that the so-called hegemony of photographic realism is somewhat complicated by its religious affiliation. Considered as a misplaced ideology of the Victorian era from which we have an enlightened critical distance, it will be suggested that such notions of objective realism are helpfully resisted by an understanding of Christian spirituality (rather than vice versa). The tools of contemporary photography criticism are all the richer and sharper for the heritage of theological terminology and concepts, and this paper attempts to bring such a heritage to light with particular reference to the term ‘index’ and its ongoing usage in this field.

Habitat series, ‘Forest Globe’ work-in-progress

Forest Globe
I’m on a balancing line with these – a new series of 6 globes, each of a different habitat. Creation is beautiful and good, but also fractured and threatened. I can’t see where the resolution of the image should sit, both in terms of its meaning and its look. What role has sight in this – i.e. does our looking construct the world as we want to see it, or have we given up on utopian ideas about paradise and see things fall apart (Chinua Achebe)? What does recreation mean that’s different to uncreation? Come on theologians, help me out!

Where is God in contemporary art?

Stevenson cartoon
'Now there's a nice contemporary sunset!'

Has he retreated to the safer places for conventional religious art, like above an altar or in the carefully crafted designs of church kneelers? Is he buried somewhere in the easy appropriation of sign and symbol, or Biblical reference? Does he speak through artists’ attempts to reference the spiritual, even if they don’t know what they mean? Did we lose him altogether back in the old pre-modern days?

I’d like in my research to attempt to answer these questions by way of artists who refer to explicitly religious themes in their work, particularly from/of the Judaeo-Christian faith since this is the obvious blind spot in the eye of Western art tradition. Along the way, I’m anticipating the following possible design:

  • The thesis. Modernism set art on a pedestal, institutionalised the art gallery and lends to the whole sphere of fine or high art a lingering ‘bogus religiosity’ (to quote John Berger). The artist, the gallery, the work replace the priest, the temple and the icon (James Elkins). What vestiges of the sacred does modernism still carry forward, even as it has unquestionably rejected the faith-filled worldview? Can religious art ‘do’ representation of its subject at all given the self-reflexive turn that defined the progression of early twentieth-century isms (impressionism, cubism, abstract expressionism etc.)

  • The antithesis. Postmodernism attempted to deconstruct the pedestal and in some ways (but not others) art devolved to the irreligious in pop art, op art, minimalism etc. If there was a landslide of signs and symbols, a linguistic turn (Richard Rorty) where certainties melted and in religion where anything goes, are we now at a level playing-field for religious art to be able to dissolve dogma and embrace the end of form? Is such work suddenly super-spiritual everywhere at once?

  • The synthesis. Twenty-first century art isn’t afraid to look the Bible in the eye any more: exhibitions and cathedral residencies or commissions (including international celebrations of the KJV anniversary) and films/TV shows (The Passion, The Nativity) are increasingly frequent. Where is the locus for faith in these examples, and others that are less explicit, and what might this say about the latent theology that is carried in such work? Is it possible now to talk about religion and art in such a way as to honour both, without cheapening or nullifying the history of either?

Your comments are welcome!