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Tillich and Popular Culture

Traces of Paul Tillich in the Art World

This brief sketch is not meant to detail Paul Tillich’s rich theory of art, but rather to discover details of the public perception of and reaction to Tillich’s participation in the cultural elite of New York and elsewhere. A search for contemporaneous accounts of his public influence amounts to a sort of Tillichian archeology. In lieu of potsherds and clay tablets, we have scraps of newspapers, quotes, and passing mentions of the Tillich’s influence in the artistic world. So I begin with the hypothesis that from whatever mundane objects we uncover, we may draw some modest conclusions about the public perception of the man during his time.

Tillich’s activities on the New York art “scene” are well documented. As a theologian he was never dismissed by the avant garde as some puritanical theologian (of course he was not, but the absence of the depreciatory term is telling) and even seems to have understood some artists more deeply and compassionately than art critics. For example, as Christmas approached in 1952, the Sunday edition of the New York Times detailed several exhibitions of religious art, which included crucifixion paintings of Salvador Dalí and an exhibit at Union Theological Seminary for which Tillich acted as faculty advisor. Art Editor, Aline Louchheim, opened the article noting that none of these exhibits contained “sweetly sentimental or sickly streamlined versions of religious themes,” which he or the readership may have expected. Louchheim framed the discussion of Dalí and others with Tillich’s four-fold artistic relationships, including creativity itself as “’the power of being, the ultimate potentiality of life,’” then noted with what seems to be a tone of mild surprise that artists, particularly expressionist artists in the Union exhibits, resonated with Tillich’s thought. Tillich provided a profound frame for Louchhiem, who closed otherwise rich piece with the line “[m]aybe spirituality, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder.” I wince as both Tillich and Dalí are gulped down a cliché’s gummy maw, even if it does contain a partial truth or show exactly what happens to pearls cast before swine.

Tillich’s consistent involvement in the art world earned him a nearly a perfunctory place in the aesthetic news of the post-war world. References to the man abound. Before me sits a 1962 Boston Globe notes Tillich’s presence on a panel regarding religious art during the Easter holidays. A 1964 New York Times notes first lady Claudia Johnson’s attendance at Tillich’s dedication lecture for the Museum of Modern Art’s expanded sculpture garden. Tillich’s obituary in the Boston Globe notes his interdisciplinary work, particularly his consistent commitment to the fine arts. Most of these references to Tillich are casual mentions with minimal explanation of his identity and station.

Tillich’s influence and reputation appears on a spectrum. In 1966, a year after Tillich’s death, New York Times art critic Grace Glueck reported on a dinner held by the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry. Glueck quoted an organizer of the event as saying, “[w]e’ve had everyone appear at these dinners, from Paul Tillich to Warhol…” The passing reference seems to suggest a spectrum spanning from the depth of an old standard in cultural engagement to a new, perhaps more bizarre era for the New York artistic world. If I were allowed to read a little more into the ephemeral comparison, I might sense an implicit contrast indicates a slight sense of nostalgia speedily ignored in the excitement and row of the middle sixties. Even so, a decade later, in the November 5th issue of the New York Times Gluck again mentioned Tillich as the late owner of a painting by Alfonso Ossorio featured in a New York exhibition of religious art. In a 1989, Jack Anderson wrote a review of spiritual choreography in which discussed one dance, which “…suggests humanity is forever on the brink of disaster” and presents a “’yearning for the wholly other: an ultimate reality.’” Is it surprising that Tillich, then dead for twenty-five years but whose affinity for dance was well documented, made an appearance in this context? One choreographed piece, which dealt explicitly with the problem of theodicy, prompted Anderson to include several lines from Tillich’s sermon “You Are Accepted” in his review. It is not clear whether or not the choreographers intended such a comparison, but a discussion of Tillich’s grace “’in spite of separation and estrangement’” certainly borrows Tillich’s living theological depth for an aesthetic discussion some years after his death.

If nothing else, the fragments give a sense of Tillich’s aura within the aesthetic community. Whether or not he ever made a transition from the avant garde to the rear guard in the popular consciousness is unimportant—that there was a popular consciousness of a theologian speaking seriously on art is remarkable. To be mentioned in passing does Tillich the honor of needing no explanation. Tillich seems to have been a ‘household name’ for those aesthetically inclined. Even so, a piecemeal collection of references begs the question—are these fragments only fragments or do they represent a legitimate positive regard for Tillich in the art world? Are they simply remnants, a modern pedestal of Ozymandias preserved in library archives? Or, are these small memorials to a significant contribution? This is difficult to answer. Of course Tillich’s influence faltered once his corporeal presence left the conversation, and it is not surprising that mention of the man in the news has also slowed considerably as we approach half a century since his passing. I suspect, though, that he would not be surprised or even saddened by waning influence. He lent is voice to an existential situation, an epoch of space and time and bore no illusions about the finitude of his voice. Were he here, though, what might disappoint the man is that no other theologian since has answered the call to speak meaningfully to the artistic community.

Josh Hasler
Boston University
Fall 2010

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