August 16, 2016
Here’s a photo of a painting at the Phoenix Art Museum:
Like all modern art, it invites thought. What is the connection between “oiled” and “dead”?
Is it statement about the way in which a piece of art, once painted (“oiled”), becomes something fixed (“dead”)? If so, what at what point is the work of art living?
Or is it a statement about the materiality of painting? That the canvas, which was once something living (cotton or linen) is now, having been oiled (painted), something dead? That while art may be living, it requires death.
In either case, this artist has used painting to say something about painting. Here, as in much modern art, the product is self-referential. The art is about itself, and not about an object lying outside itself.
If we meditate thus on the Bible, analogies emerge. Is the word of God, once written, something fixed (dead) in contrast to the living, spoken word? There were some second century Christian writers who emphatically preferred the spoken tradition over the written word. And as Paul said, the letter kills while the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6).
As well, like a painting scripture is a matter of laying marks onto a fabric from something formerly living–papyrus, animal skin, trees.
Theologians should study modern art more diligently. The Bible is, after all, a work of art–an artifice, an artifact. It is something made. The way in which modern artists use their art to point to the nature of art can help the theological community grasp the Bible’s character as something material, inscribed on other material. It can also help us see how the Bible, like much modern art, is self-referential–the ways in which it is constantly drawing attention to itself as something written.