“Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.” Heraclitus, Fragments
N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, wanted the title of his new book to be “Life after Life after Death.” Harper Collins, his publisher, decided the title would be a bit confusing, so they re-named it as “Surprised by Hope,” surely more conventional, but an appropriate nod to C.S. Lewis’ classic book “Surprised by Joy.” I prefer Bishop Wright’s initial instinct; for the audacious reality of the resurrection claim does not invite easy, conventional titles. The claim of Christianity was, and is, a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth who redefined life, death and, the Life thereafter. The expression “Life after Life after Death ”invites us to a severe paradigm shift in our thoughts on life and death. What we think of as the end, is only a pause,: and the pause is only the beginning; a beginning of a new beginning.
N.T. Wright points out that the popular culture’s distortion of the idea of heaven has truncated the true message of the gospel. He notes, for example, Maria Shriver’s version of heaven, written in her book to children – “is somewhere you believe in… It’s a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk to other people who are there…If you’re good throughout your life, then you get to go to heaven…” (quoted in pg. 17) He argues that the language of heaven in the New Testament doesn’t work that way.” “’God’s Kingdom’ in the preaching of Jesus refers not to postmortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’” (Pg. 18) Heaven, in other words, is not our final destination (as in speaking of Life after Death) : but the biblical writers spoke of the New Heavens and the New Earth, a reconciled whole in which we will inhabit, work and create (Life after Life after Death). We are called to assist in the creation of this new reality through our earthly lives, bringing justice, mercy and beauty into our broken realities. Instead of people simply “going to heaven,” The Bible tells us that at a future point in history, Heaven comes to us, and earth will be re-birthed in one glorious fulfillment of hope someday. “Heaven,” Wright continues, “is the place where God’s purposes for the future are stored up. It isn’t where they are meant to stay so that one would need to go to heaven to enjoy them; it is where they are kept safe against the day when they will become a reality on earth.” (Pg. 151)
This view of the scriptures directly impacts how we are to view our calling as culture makers. Especially in evangelical circles, many will argue that earth is to be burnt up in the Judgment fire of God, and everything will be destroyed anyhow, so why worry about culture at all. Wright walks through this issue carefully in his book, noting and clarifying many theological nuances deftly, correcting the knee-jerk anti-culture stance of the “Left Behind” theology. Even if you do not fully agree with all of his theological conclusions, his arguments are worth exploring.
I’ve always wondered why, for instance, in 2 Peter 3:10, it is not the earth that is burned up, but heaven. (“The heavens will disappear with a roar.”) And why 1 Corinthians 3 passages give a resounding nod to the remarkable idea that even our works, and not only our souls, will remain after the Judgment. Further, as another theologian Richard Mouw points out in his wonderful book, When the Kings Come Marching in: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem, Isaiah 60 and Revelation passages seem to point to the final celebration of the coming of this new Reality, would have pagan Kings and secular ships sailing into the edges of New Jerusalem. In other words, cultural influencers of all types, whether classified as Christians or not, seem to end up joining the parade in some way.
This pro-culture stance, based on what theologians call common grace, makes sense because our effort to bring beauty, justice and peace into the world is a universal calling. Theologically, I am not a Universalist, one that believes that all roads lead to heaven. But scriptures points to a universalistic bent of culture making that bring beauty and empathy into the world. After all, don’t we desperately desire to know that our efforts to create, to administer justice and to bring mercy into the world, are not in vain. To this longing, N.T. Wright goes further than mere affirmation. He states;
You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are – strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself – accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. (pg. 208)
In other words, earth is connected to heaven NOW. Further, anyone can be agents of change, partake in Godly activities without even having the assurance of our eternal destiny (i.e., not be a church going person who does not confess to being a Christian). By God’s sheer grace, we are invited to generate the new Reality of the “Life after Life after Death” into our broken realities of all of our Wasteland. Common grace allows for competency to be universal as well. This is why I would rather have a competent plumber who does not share my faith than an incompetent one that tries to give me a Biblical reason why I should hire him.
Culture shaping is not an escapist activity from our current woes: instead it is breathing life into the very ashes from our present and our past, and finding, with T.S. Eliot, “the still point of the turning world.” Generative creativity flows out of not just Eden, but out of this reality of “Life after Life after Death.” We can begin to deposit our efforts into the future, rather than hope to escape into our Edenic past. Our earth, no matter how bleak, is full of promise on this side of Easter. Heaven can invade into our art of life, right in the midst of our ground zeros.
And if the earth acts as a conduit of heaven, then this yeast-like hope can be worked into the dough of culture. Naturally, as I pondered Wright’s comments, I began to ask what if art is infused with heaven, what would that art look like? If true understanding of heaven is not mere escapism, but the physical manifestation of the “substance of things hoped for,” (Hebrews 11:1) then art needs to echo this promise into tangible reality. If Wright is correct, then even ephemeral expressions done in faith will remain etched in eternal reality, and somehow earth, all of earth, is fair game for heaven’s invasion. And every act, done in faith, will count.
As I mulled over the enormous impact that Wright’s thoughts have had in recent days in my journey of faith, Jasper John’s recent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum kept on sneaking into my thoughts. Of course, you might rightly ask, what has Jasper Johns got to do with N.T. Wright, or ask what has Jesus got to do with Jasper Johns, one of the most enigmatic of contemporary artists? But the “Life after Life after Death” notion does force us to ask such surreal and surprising questions. This heavenly invasion creates a ripple effect into the details of art and life: and that power cannot be tamed by any of us, but will spill out into the general culture. Thus the true test of this radical premise would force us to ask whether works by a contemporary artist that seem contradictory to themselves, and are agnostic at best can teach us something about the resurrection? Indeed, I am convinced that Johns’ works do this, but the key to understanding this principle is linked to John’s admiration of a little known German artist named Matthaias Grunewald (1470-1528), whose altarpieces are in Colmar, France. Grunewald, in my creative journey as well, stands out as one of the greatest post-reformation artists.
Jasper Johns, a central figure in the contemporary art scene, became famous for his encaustic flag paintings, setting a record at a contemporary art auction in 1980, selling for one million dollars. This turned out to be a bargain: recently David Geffin sold a Johns piece for $80 milllion dollars.
He has been known for his cryptic, zen-like images of numbers, more flags, targets and more recently, works that what seem to address multidimensionality constructs while still remaining paintings. The current Metropolitan exhibit surveys the last 50 years of his work, but to call it merely “a survey of a leading post-modern artist” would do injustice to his works. Even in our post-modern reality, the art of Johns is far closer to the reality of the post-resurrection, mirroring what Wright calls Life after Life after Death, than many would dare to admit. It is far more profoundly refracts the new creation reality than, let’s say, Thomas Kinkade’s sympathetic, cozy paintings.
In Johns’ later paintings, which the Metropolitan exhibit gives considerable attention to, writers note their many visual connections to the Grunewald altarpiece in Colmar, France. Johns repeatedly visited the altarpiece, and was moved by the painting. This connection has proven irresistible to me over the years, and to see Johns’ paintings is to rediscover the many hidden references to the altarpiece. For me, it is impossible to see his later works without pondering the visual reference to Grenewald. Of course, commentators typically limit the nature of this affection, as in “he may have been moved by its aesthetic properties far more than its religious mythology.” But knowing how a creative mind works, and how a profound experience can alter and, even, haunt, an artist’s imaginative vision, I dare say that any profound aesthetic influence is, in the essential core, spiritual.
After my journey of faith turned to Christ, a Japanese dealer gave me a magazine with a pull-out of images of the altarpiece. He said, “You now need to study him.” I remember with fresh faith and fresh vision, marveling at the details of Christ’s sore filled body, and the triumphant reversal of that violence in the moment of the resurrection of Christ. The images out of the magazine opened up a new vista of creativity, and the resurrection panel, especially, leapt out at me. It was one of the few images of the resurrection that felt weighty, and not disembodied, like Dali’s image of an incorporeal Christ.
The monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim near Colmar, where the image was commissioned for, is known as a place where skin disease sufferers, commonly called “Saint Anthony’s Fire” or ergotism, was treated. “Annales Xantenses for the year 857: ‘a Great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death.’”
Thus, the artist embodied the sores and loosened limbs in the body of Christ. When patients, who were taken in by the monks, looked up at the image of Christ, they saw Jesus suffer with him. And as they looked beyond to the panel behind the crucifix, they saw his bodily resurrection from life, and from the pain and suffering. And it was this resurrection panel that Jasper Johns profoundly connected with.
Richard Shiff, in one of the essays contributed for “Gray” exhibit catalogue, states:
The aim of an artist as a creative individual, Jasper Johns suggested recently, is to do ‘something a little more worthwhile than oneself.’…To be worth more, you would need to change in a fundamental way – change your life – or, at the least, experience change and become a channel for its communication.
In other words, art can function to mediate transformative experiences, and to create a conversation around them. Jasper Johns suggests here that in order to do so, one must transcend oneself in some way. This humble premise, one that stands apart as an anomaly in today’s ego filled art making, opens a way for a conversation of art as a catalyst for transformation, not just for the artist, but for society at large. Humility can lead us to a higher vista of creativity, and Johns’ process of creativity stands out in an Island of the Misfit Toys called Manhattan. His idiosyncratic journey, though shared with Rauschenberg and other luminaries of his time, is unlike any other of his time. His creative approach may suggest even a paradigm shift in contemporary art toward our new century.
Johns’ works are intentionally obscured by negation as a premise, as much as the affirmation of a path of “The Road Less Traveled.” Thus even his personal connection to Grunewald is also made unclear in his own works. The idea of direct connection to meaning, intent with the content of an artwork, is being refuted by Johns, and it is precisely this disconnect that has become his signature style. By disassociating himself, and his works, from conventionality, he takes simple, common imagery and turns it, with a deft slight of hand, into a philosophical and aesthetic riddle. If art is about asking questions, and not giving pat answers, then Johns’ works are creating a labyrinth of questions, one that, somehow, end up invigorating us, rather than alienating us.
Take, for example, his famed Three Flags painting (the one million dollar painting). Upon first glance (especially in photographs or on the web), the work seems to be a facile rendition of a three US flags, with differing sizes, stacked on top of another. But as with all of Johns’ works, a simple image provokes so many questions. Why paint the American flag (he claims to have seen a dream of the painting)? Did he have a patriotic cause in mind? Or is he mocking the subject? Johns’ answer would be simply that the flag was a convenient vehicle for the act of painting, or to ask questions that he desires to deal with, and to do it with an object that he found immediate access to.
The flag paintings are done in a typical Johns encaustic technique, an ancient wax technique of painting that goes back to Egyptian times. In the surface of the Flag paintings are torn newspapers, covered by melted wax. Johns creates deceptively simple, and flat, but when you look closely, the gestures undulates, complicating the surface.
Critic and art historian Max Kozloff writes:
This [newsprint] would be a hidden collage…The “real” is whatever is underneath, partially withheld from sight. Art reticently covers up or shields life, instead of assimilating and triumphing over it as in traditional collage.
In the accumulated collage of newspaper and wax, Johns actually goes beyond copying the imagery, and manages not to make the image banal. Somehow, in the execution of his painting, he imbeds tension and history, and creates a precious object. There is even a sense that the act of painting has become a private ritual of sacred order: but, at the same time, by choosing known ordinary objects, like the American Flag, targets, a beer can, he intentionally reduces the impact, deceptively making us question the preciousness of the object. With lesser able hands, the same motif, even with same materials, most artist would not come close to creating such a tension; art is both in the execution and in the revelation of the extraordinary.
I’ve heard many people say of contemporary art: “my kids can do that.” I encourage them, then to try it themselves, don’t let kids have all the fun! Try to make drip paintings like Jackson Pollock. Or paint an object with encaustic, layering color upon color, like Johns. Try silk screening images like Warhol. You soon find out that in the ordinary gestures and materials, there are deceptively complicated and sublime twists. Our drips become unnatural and confined, where as Pollock’s drips dance, and form delectable edges that seem to undulate in front of our eyes. Our edges of encaustic strokes become unshapely, because If you try working with wax (as I have tried to in college,) you find out soon enough that it is unforgiving, making it very difficult to create a clean, sharp definition. The melting wax constantly oozes, and moves about, and the colors muddle,. If you are finally able to paint a stripe with bright colors, the stripes would not resonate, in ways that Johns’ Flags do.
And that is to speak only of the method of execution. Johns’ works not only collage materials, but they also synthesize concepts, culture, the zeitgeist of his day. One may be able to copy his technique, but it is impossible to mimic the complex layers of confluences that he is synthesizing as he mixes beeswax and pigments. To Jasper Johns, the medium of his art is not really encaustic, the medium of his art is Time itself.
I prefer work that appears to come out of a changing focus – not just one relationship or even a number of them but constantly changing and shifting relationships to things in terms of focus…I am concerned with a thing’s not being what it was, with its becoming something other than what it is, with any moment in which one identifies a thing precisely and with the slipping away of that moment.
Johns, like the Greek philosopher Heraclitus believes that “everything is in flux.” By “changing focus,” and dealing with “changing and shifting relationships,” his art focuses on what is not static. But then he intentionally uses objects and symbols of static fixture, like the American Flag and targets, to ironically remind us that even what the culture considers iconic as an American Flag is not a static construct, and targets can be, well, moving targets. His task is to force us to recognize “any moment in which one identifies a thing precisely and with the slipping away of that moment.” His use of encaustic, an ancient medium used in Egyptian times, makes sense in this emphasis on the ephemeral. The material itself is both vulnerable to heat and cold, but also remarkably stable, if kept in the proper climate,. Encaustic is a paradoxical emblem of change and stasis.
Thus, the art of Johns operates in “constant negation of impulses,” ( pg. 84) and therefore, his art cannot be simply “Pop” imagery, and is not readily digestible in the way Warhol’s paintings are. Johns’ creativity demands more of us, and his exhibits are full of maps (sometimes literally, in his series of American maps) that depict visual riddles swirling deeply in the currents of culture. The journey of a viewer on that river can be full of generative discovery. Good art gives birth, impregnated with meaning for future creative journeys.
But if the trajectory of his career only points to this paradoxical, and confounding “negation of impulses,” then it could fall short of providing a meaningful dialogue, and end up being just a game, or worse yet, an existential, and hopeless, end-game. What Johns found intriguing in the Grunewald panels, especially the resurrection panel, must have been a confluence of paradox, astonishment and transformative but also definitive, and static, reality. Therefore his later paintings, like “Untitled” 1992-95, which seem to irk the critics as they are less ironic, and more personal and dreamy, seem to me to be the most generative and inquisitive. They point to an ontological question (question of origins), rather than being stubbornly agnostic. As with all intuitive artists, such deep existential wrestling may release, in process, a deeper reality. Perhaps Johns found the greatest enigma of all; or perhaps he sensed that his art needed to point to the supra-natural enigma, not be trapped in a closed cycle of natural causes.
If so, Jasper John’s trajectory points to a generative reality that very few contemporary artists have dared to tread. The supra-natural enigma is the question of Time, and how we, as artists, deal with the eternal timeful questions. Something happened at the beautiful little village in France called Colmar to one of the greatest living artists of our time. We need to pay attention to this journey. Perhaps we can make that pilgrimage ourselves to Colmar, France, transfixed, looking up at the ascending Christ, in wonderment and delight.