We live in a time of disenchantment, or so we’re told. Strange.
Our first text is an essay by Boris Groys, “Life Without Shadows, 1996,” in Jeff Wall: The Complete Works, a gorgeously produced tribute to the photographer published a little over twenty years ago. “It’s completely impossible to overlook Jeff Wall’s works in an exhibition: they glow,” Groys begins.
What does it mean to glow? “For all peoples throughout history, the ability to glow, to shine, has been a sign of holiness, of being chosen, of being invested with magical powers.” Ah! “Glowing produces an aura.”
Groys observes that “Wall’s works have a public, liberating effect.” Now we’re on safer ground, you might think. But wait a bit: “The light of enlightenment, passing through what exists, does not encounter an opaque, dark core of reality, but another light with which it can mingle.” What? This sounds almost . . . mystical. Keep reading:
The light of enlightenment proves to be related to the mystical light of apocalyptic illumination. The emblematic nature of photography refers to the emblematic nature of icons. Both are a form of writing with light, a system of signs that cast no shadow. . . .And what is hidden behind the light? A light source. Maybe a god, maybe a sort of lamp. But this light is so publicly inaccessible and opaque that there is certainly no point in wasting any further thought on the matter.
Or so says Boris Groys, media theorist, impeccably accredited, a man of the left, editor most recently of a book on Russian Cosmism—a wild movement combining theological, scientific, and utopian strands. (Pavel Florensky, the Russian Orthodox polymath who wrote at length about icons, among other subjects, figures in the story.)
In a column several weeks ago, “Art Rethought,” I mentioned Jeremy Begbie. For more than 25 years now, through his books, his teaching and his public lectures (if you have a chance to hear him in person, don’t miss it), academic programs he has guided, graduate students he has mentored, and more (not least, an international network of artists, theologians, and kindred spirits), he has fostered conversation about theology and the arts. Here I want to draw attention to his recent book Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts: Bearing Witness to the Triune God.
Begbie raises cautions about some recurring themes in this conversation and suggests correctives. In particular, as the title suggests, he wants us to examine critically claims for “stirrings of transcendence” in the arts, particularly “signals of transcendence in artistic culture at large, beyond the conventionally or explicitly Christian,” even when, as in Groys, “transcendence” is scrupulously ruled out. Begbie suggests that this Christian discourse of “transcendence” via a sort of common grace is often inadvertently at odds with God’s self-revelation in Scripture; in particular, he argues, it is functionally non-Trinitarian. (He develops these themes in another recent book as well, A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and the Arts, which I’ll take up in a future column.)
Begbie’s criticisms are nuanced. “If the pervasive talk of the arts and transcendence today is to be taken seriously,” he writes, “as undoubtedly it should, and if it does present a remarkable opportunity for fresh conversations about faith, as undoubtedly it does, then what is needed is a certain recovery of confidence in the sheer profundity and generativity of the church’s core confession.” This is must reading, not only for those immediately persuaded by Begbie’s argument but also for those (including, as he notes, longtime friends and colleagues) whose perspective differs sharply from his in some respects.
One more sentence from Groys seems fitting to end with today: “Behind the world, as it is represented in works by Wall, nothing is concealed apart from its visibility as such, an inner light source that flows through the surface of the world.” Almost biblical, isn’t it?
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.