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Tillich and Popular Culture

Tillich and Art

We all know the image, flowing light-brown hair gently caresses the contours of an effete caucasian male with striking blue eyes. His face is preternaturally calm, his gaze, penetrating to the depths of the human soul. The well-trimmed beard assures us of his penis, and the aureola of light speaks to his sanctity. This is Jesus in all his divine glory. Or perhaps we see Jesus surrounded by children and lambs, rolling verdant fields fading off into the horizon, the Sunday School Jesus. Increasingly common today, especially in the Evangelical movement, is the bloodily pornographic image of an eroticized Jesus hanging on a cross, his contorted countenance and writhing body reflecting a sadistic imaging of the crucifixion as an orgasmic moment of both agony and ecstasy, Jesus the masochistic suffering servant. Lastly, we have Christ the peaceful companion who carries us across the sand leaving only a single set of footprints... the invisible “Chicken Soup for the Soul” Jesus. For Protestants, following in the footsteps of our Reformation forebears has meant that we stick to Christ for our Christian imagery; casting out Mary and all those sanctimonious Saints as pure idolatry, we create religious art centered on the subliminal idolatry of the Christ contained and confined in a closed set of images and forms.

Paul Tillich, the prominent Protestant theologian of the middle decades of the 20th century, was a well-known critic of what he labeled “kitsch” in religious art. For Tillich, this meant art that was “pre-digested”: possessed of Gehalt, or content, that does not in any meaningful way interact with the form and thus reveals nothing of ultimate importance (read: nothing of the Divine); we are simply fed back the saccharine regurgitations of our lowest cultural common denominator. In a concise statement of his philosophy of art, a young Tillich writing in 1921 following his experience on the front lines of World War I succinctly states that art’s “immediate task is ... that of expressing meaning. Art indicates what the character of a spiritual situation is; it does this more immediately and directly than do science and philosophy for it is less burdened by objective considerations. Its symbols have something of a revelatory character while scientific conceptualization must suppress the symbolic in favor of objective adequacy.” Art is the medium through which we can come to know ourselves, our culture and the ultimate ground of our being more fully.

Against the backdrop of the destruction and even evil incarnate instantiated in the rise of the Third Reich, meaning is what Americans living in the 1950’s and 1960’s struggled to find. The old patterns no longer fit, but they were familiar and stable. The old content no longer spoke to people but it was easier to tolerate than to dispute. Witnessing first hand the horror of war and the impotence of an ossified theology in the face of such events, Tillich came to promote a “Protestant principle” that pushed for a living heart pulsing inside the Christian faith and encouraging a “prophetic judgment against religious pride, ecclesiastical arrogance and secular self-sufficiency and their destructive consequences.” Paul Tillich’s theology challenged the foundations of Protestant thought through the embrace of continuing protest against the inculcated and institutionalized. The old answers need not be our answers and in fact could not be. This flexibility and vibrant life-affirming theology gave millions of Americans the “Courage” to face the abyss that the horrors of war had made so concrete.

It is within this context that we can understand Tillich’s prominence in the American art culture of the 50’s and 60’s. As the church must be open to new revelation, so to, art, both content and form, must be open to new processes and revelatory expressions. Indeed, for Tillich the “courage to be” arises from the recognition of the ground of being (God), and art provides virtually unparalleled access to recognition of this ground of being; in the complex negotiations between form and content we glimpse ultimate meaning.

While not outright inconceivable, it is rather incredible today to think that museums as notable as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Chicago Art Institute would turn to a theologian to curate and give the keynote speech at the opening of an exhibit. We tend to separate art and theology, religious art and “high” art. Tillich, however, spoke on numerous occasions as an expert in both fields. His popularity served to legitimize modern art movement as he applied his theology to the field of art. From his address on the opening of new MOMA galleries in 1964, and lecture “Ultimate Reality and Art” (1959) to his “Masterpieces of Religious Art” exhibit in Chicago, Tillich sought to bring a recognition of art’s power to capture humankind’s search for the Ultimate. In this, Tillich once again captured the nascent spirit of his time; a mere two three years later Warhol would bring forth his iconic Campbell’s soup can with its withering critique of lifeless art forms and content. Against the voices lionizing the traditional, Tillich exalted the original and honest. In a testament to Tillich’s star power, the New York Times published a two-page spread covering his art exhibit (August 1, 1954). This article captures the essence of Tillich’s theology of art: great art reveals the questions with which a society struggles. The article contains eight prints ranging from the 11th through 19th centuries along with a note on Tillich’s speech and small descriptions of the artwork included in the article. We see Tillich’s theology of art reflected in descriptions such as this one: “The early northern painters saw God’s presence in each tiny object. For the seventeenth-century masters religion became humanized: with spiritual tones for Rembrandt, but, as in ‘Old Woman Praying,’ in a more bourgeois, stolid fashion for Nicholas Maes.” or this one: Jean-François Millet’s, ‘The Angelus,’ esthetically a splendid picture, seems laden with a self-complacent, mid-Victorian sentimentality — the humble peasants glorified by their sense of the Great Beyond. It is one of the world’s most popular religious paintings.”

Tillich recognized that art reflects the deepest stirrings of human culture and sought to free the expression of these deep insights from the intransigent forces of cultural inertia. Through his popular theology he gained a platform from which he could lend legitimacy to an artistic movement capturing the spirit of his time. When we oppose this ever-evolving expression of the ultimate, we become the Roman soldiers who bound the living Word to the cross; we ourselves crucify the Christ on the cross of our petrified institutional norms. Tillich’s theology of art sets us free and gives us the tools to paint a new religious landscape.

Shelby Condray
Boston University
Fall 2010

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