Faith and Vision

The formation of independent artists’ groups has long been a way for artists to resolve a new creative vision with practical concerns. From Die Brucke in 1906, to the Arts Workers Coalition in the 1960s, to the countless artists’ associations and workshops active around the world today, artists’ groups have enabled the organization of exhibitions, the establishment of networks for the sale and distribution of images, and the creation of other platforms from which to engage society. Above all, the independent artists’ group gives its members a community.

The formation of Christians in the Visual A rts (CIVA) in the late 1970s was no exception to this pattern. Faith + Vision: Twenty-Five Years of Christians in the Visual Arts traces the history of CIVA from its grass roots to its current structure in commemoration of its twenty-fifth anniversar y in 2004. Featuring nearly 200 images by CIVA members, the book is a beautiful publication and testimony to the efforts of a Christian community dedicated to furthering the visual arts.

Four authors provide four perspectives on the organization’s past, present, and future. Faith + Vision Their principal argument is that CIVA has been a place for Christian artists to support one another, to promote the value of the visual arts to the Christian community, and to “establish a Christian presence within the secular art world” (150). The editors, Cameron J. Anderson and CIVA president Sandra Bowden, have thus focused the book on CIVA’s central goals. This is both the strength and the weakness of Faith + Vision. While the book offers an eloquent verbal and visual account of CIVA’s history and aspirations, it may also have delimited its audience largely to CIVA members and others with a vested interest in the organization. One of the first indications of this point is the lack of reflection on the historical pattern mentioned above. Although some of the events raised in the essays are connected to institutions and trends outside of CIVA, rarely are positive connections drawn between them and this organization.

This weakness is most apparent in the introduction, “Living in Two Worlds,” by Nicholas Wolterstorff. Wolterstorff was a keynote speaker at the first CIVA biennial conference in 1979, tying him to the organization at its earliest stage. He addresses the philosophical question of what it means to be a Christian artist, representing the experience of the Christian artist as one of “double alienation” (11) from the communities of the church and of the secular art world. Such alienation is resolved in CIVA, he argues, where artists find acceptance for their creative calling and their faith.

Wolterstorff frames his definition of the relationship between the artist and society using Max Weber’s theory of modernization, which casts modern society as being fragmented into autonomous spheres, each oriented to its intrinsic values. Art, as a distinct sphere or “world,” is thus directed to “what was called ‘disinterested’ or ‘aesthetic’ contemplation” (13), in other words, freed from connections to the values of the spheres of religion, business, or the academy. The use of Weber’s theory is problematic. Wolterstorff in fact admits that the theory must be qualified, but does not address these qualifications here. This simplification regrettably leads to a misinterpretation of the art world, which is not an impermeable sphere, “freed” from the values of the economic, political, or religious sectors. Artists, Christian or not, are not subject strictly to their own aesthetic impulses, but also to the values of the marketplace as well as a network of other social structures.

Furthermore, while Weber’s theory may explain a certain ideal of high modernism, it is not applicable to the practice of the visual arts after the Second World War. By the late 1970s, the term “postmodernism” was entering the critical discourse in the arts. To speak of current artistic practice in terms of “modern,” “modernization,” and “avant-garde” (17- 18) is not only incorrect terminology but misses several decades of developments in the art world. Wolterstorff’s intentions with the reductiveness of this discussion are unclear, but at the very least, the impression the essay creates is that his intended audience is more interested in the concept of “double alienation” than in the history and theory of contemporary art.

The second essay, “Alchemical Actions,” by Karen L. Mulder, follows a similar scheme. Mulder identifies the important areas of CIVA activity, including conferences, publications, exhibitions, and the expansion of information networks within the CIVA membership. However, Mulder continues a characterization of the art world that oversimplifies movements outside of CIVA. The description of the culture of the 1970s as one that “seemed to brim with dross” (19) is only one of several references implying the inferiority of ideas and practices in the art world vis á vis the issues circulating among CIVA members.

Admittedly, the emphasis on persistence in the face of challenges found in both essays, surfacing also in Alva Steffler’s “Chronology of a Movement,” captures the ethos of the late 1970s moment when CIVA was founded. It is also a reflection of the very real dismissal and hostility Christian artists have experienced within the church. Quotations from members testify to the strong emotions of the early days, when artists were energized by the possibility of a community in which they could collectively fight for a place in both the art world and the church. However, the absence of a constructive discussion of developments like the Culture Wars of the 1980s as the context for CIVA activities gives a sense of insularity at odds with CIVA’s stated goals.

It is therefore a promising sign that the strongest essay in Faith + Vision is written by its youngest contributor, James Romaine. Romaine provides a much livelier sense of the nature of contemporary artistic practice, sidestepping vague descriptions of the art world. Many specific examples illustrate his discussion so that, avoiding a generalized sense of what it means to be a Christian artist, Romaine points instead to the particular and varying ways that Christian art can be informed by a faith perspective and movements in the art world.

CIVA’s newest members demonstrate the continuing potential of the organization. Whether or not members perceive themselves to be in a situation of “double alienation,” Faith + Vision brings to light CIVA’s most valuable contributions. One of these has been its equal consideration of artistic media. While in many institutions the categories of “fine art” are separated from “craft,” CIVA publications, including this one, present works in fiber, ceramics, and metals alongside the historically privileged media of painting, drawing, and sculpture. The inclusion of new media, video art, photography, and conceptual practice is also exciting. The partnership of media areas is relatively rare and a quality that should be preserved, along with the awareness that CIVA participates in a long historical tradition of artist groups.

Faith + Vision demonstrates that CIVA moves into a new century with a spirit of confidence. CIVA has gained a position of social authority and has much to offer, in practical, ideological, and interpersonal resources, to any person of faith committed to the visual arts.

Lisa VanArragon is assistant professor of art history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.