Let’s not kid ourselves. Modern art is a buzz kill. It’s strange, intimidating, and puts you on the spot. How many times have you been to a museum and stared at a painting of emaciated lines and distorted shapes, knowing you should “get it,” but just can’t, and as the room fills up with what are clearly people who have “gotten it,” you feel the anxiety. As a museum curator and art history professor for nearly twenty years, I know the look on your face. (But those people next to you that seem so sophisticated, who have The Answer to Modern Art, are faking it.) And, since we’re among friends, I can admit, I’ve often experienced the same feeling.
What we need is a preacher, someone to proclaim and explain it all to us. But what we usually hear, whether in an art history course or museum tour, frustrates us even more. So, we look for the nearest exit from the modern collection and slink away into the rooms of French academic painting, finding comfort in the arms of nymphs, cherubs, gods, heroes and noble virtues, of paintings that look and behave like art.
But in my breakout session, “Hearing The Scream: Edvard Munch, Modern Art, and Grace,” we’re going to linger a bit longer among the off-putting and impenetrable paint-splattered canvases. I will ask, however, that you allow me to do something quite violent and unkind to you—kill your beliefs about art. Our familiarity with art needs to be dealt with before we can get on with our task. Modern art can’t be added onto what we already know. It needs to be killed. And in its place I’ll offer something quite alien but wonderfully alive. Modern art contradicts nearly all our assumptions about art. It isn’t about heroes to emulate and challenge us, relaxing scenes with happy trees and quaint cottages to comfort us, outrageous images that entertain us, or even an expression of the artist’s worldview. (Although I’ve devoted my entire professional life to studying modern art, it continues to contradict and challenge my presumptions and forensic desires to explain, define, and finally to take comfort in art.)
But perhaps most shockingly, modern art is not about what we see. There is a saying in the art world that collectors, curators, and dealers see with their ears. It is intended to reveal the shallowness of the business of art—collectors, curators, and dealers respond first to the buzz and gossip they hear and that determines what they see when they look at an artist’s work. The saying, however, discloses a profound yet disruptively counter-intuitive truth. A painting is more than meets the eye. The ears, as Martin Luther famously said, are the only organs of a Christian. Our breakout session will focus on hearing modern art and we’ll use Luther’s sermon on Mark 7:31-37 as our scriptural foundation. Is it possible that it is the ears and not the eyes that are the key to experiencing modern art?
I’ll perform this alien work through The Scream, painted by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, and one of the most recognizable paintings of the modern tradition. It was sold at auction in May for $119,922,500, the most ever paid for a single work of art and cause for much celebration and copious media commentary on the art market, the value of art, and the attraction of the über wealthy-powerful-beautiful to this small and strange image. Since its inception, modern art has had to fight against the theologians of aesthetic glory: the art critics, dealers, and collectors who desperately wanted to make these strange paintings into instruments of cultural justification. Munch’s paintings suggest that modern art is something else, something that its defenders, promoters, collectors, and interpreters have overlooked because they haven’t listened.
Modern art is a lament. It recognizes that the world is not the way it should be. We’ve been sold a bill of goods by the theologians of aesthetic glory that modern art is about freedom, about l’épater les bourgeoisie, about optimism, about creativity, even about having fun. Do you know what Munch had to say about art, about the painting that a billionaire New York financier acquired to justify himself? He said, “art comes from joy and pain,” and then added, “but mostly from pain.”
And weakness. And impotency. And death. And yet.
And yet, the practice of painting itself, the strangeness and silliness of it, the futility of devoting one’s life to smearing smelly pigments around on coarse fabric, inexplicably—and sometimes in spite of itself—opens up a space in our suffocating forensic world to breathe, a space for grace.
Here’s the audio from the breakout session.