Book Review – Modern Art and the Life of a Culture by Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness
It’s not often that a new book critiquing a classic book appears with the same intellectual force and profundity as the original. However, in the case of Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, I can say with confidence that we have that very thing. The story starts in 1970 with Hans Rookmaaker’s classic Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. In this book, Rookmaaker sets to demonstrate that modern art represents the death of a Christian culture and is instead informed by a nihilistic and secular philosophy. Rookmaaker, for his part, had a wonderful grasp on the philosophical underpinnings of modern art as well as the history of art in general. He successfully highlighted the trajectory from Christian art to despairing art. For all of this and much more, Rookmaaker’s work is a classic that should be read by all Christians who want to better understand how culture informs art and how art informs culture. If you haven’t read Rookmaaker I recommend doing so before picking up this book.
To be clear, Anderson and Dyrness have not set out to ridicule or dismiss Rookmaaker. They both express an incredible amount of gratitude for him. However, they have set out to demonstrate that modern Art, while not the most theologically accurate examples of art, is deeply informed by religious impulses and should not be dismissed as irreligious. They argue that the very artists who we often think as divorcing theology from art are actually engaging in theology by responding to profoundly religious questions. In recognizing the theological questions found in modern art, we are better equipped to understand the culture and how individuals within culture relate to questions of faith. In Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, Anderson and Dyrness have listened to modern artists and instead of dismissing them, they have chosen to engage with them and see them as they are. This has the effect of taking their theological questions seriously and sets the stage for rigorous and authentic dialog. What I really appreciate about their approach is that keeps us (keeps me!) from seeing the study of modern art as nothing more than a road map of how we got from hope to hopeless… it forces me to engage with the ideas and deep questions presented in the art. In short, it re-humanizes the modern artist and takes their engagement with faith seriously.
Modern Art and the Life of a Culture is full of examples from such artists as van Gough, Gauguin, Kandinsky, and Warhol (not to mention the many artists in between) and asks serious theological questions about the message they are conveying. It does much more than this however, it examines the lives of the artists in order to humanize them and seek to understand how their religious upbringings influenced the art they produced. Most importantly, it takes the intersection of the sacred and secular seriously rather than dismissing the modern voice as completely irreligious.
I would recommend Modern Art and the Life of a Culture to anyone with an interest in the intersection between art and worldview — certainly if they are Christian artists themselves or engage with the arts on a deep level. It would make a superb addition to a homeschooling art curriculum for older children who already have an understanding of worldview and the history of intellectual thought and culture. It would be good to read Rookmaaker first and to consider both of these great works as a complimentary pair.
Where to Purchase
About the Authors
Jonathan A. Anderson (MFA, California State University, Long Beach) is an artist, art critic, and associate professor of art at Biola University. He is the coauthor, along with Amos Yong, of Renewing Christian Theology: Systematics for a Global Christianity and a contributor to Christian Scholarship in the Twenty-First Century: Prospects and Perils.
William A. Dyrness (DTheol, University of Strasbourg; Doctorandus, Free University) is professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including Modern Art and the Life of a Culture (with Jonathan Anderson), Senses of the Soul: Art and the Visual in Christian Worship, Reformed Theology and Visual Culture, Changing the Mind of Missions (with James Engel), Theology Without Borders (with Oscar Garcia-Johnson), and was a general editor of the Global Dictionary of Theology.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from IVP Academic in exchange for an online review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”