We often forget that, despite Christianity's seemingly trenchant dogmatism, for the first few centuries of its existence the crucial questions of the faith had yet to be decided. And even when they were, the implications still took some time to really sink in. For example St. Athanasius, the early Christian bishop of Alexandria, in attempting to understand just what it meant for God in his infinite power and glory to become man was struck by the immense reach of the figure of Christ. The saint’s life and thought read as an exclusive meditation on the unbounded nature of the incarnation itself. This singular event, Athanasius thought, could not have left any part of the cosmos unchanged, untouched. At one time, the entire created order related to God by a tenuous thread -- man's active worship of the Creator. Once that thread was broken, not only man but all of creation fell. And so the Redeemer came not only to heal the breach between God and his image bearer but between God and all of creation. The healing touch of the God-man grazed everything akin to his flesh, extending to the furthest points of the cosmos. And so in response to mischaracterizations of the Christian faith by others, Athanasius wrote,
One must pity their sensitivity, because in slandering the cross they do not see that its power has filled the whole world, and that through it the effects of the divine knowledge of God have been revealed to all. For if they had applied their minds to his divinity they would not have mocked at so great a thing, but would have rather recognized that he was the savior of the universe and that the cross was not the ruin but the healing of creation.
The Body of Christ touched every point in the universe, and this was deeply felt in Orthodox Christianity. In this sense the presence of God and his saving power were to be found not only in sacred spaces or the eucharistic meal, but the redeeming work was everywhere, one only needed to move through the world to notice. Added to this, the Eastern communion believed that the Holy Spirit also spread God's love across the depth and breadth of the universe, proceeding directly from the Father and unmediated, as in the Roman Church, through the Son as well. "In that way, the spread of the Spirit was not centered in the Father and Son but was distributed across those facets of the Trinity and was de-centered; the western church would hold a stronger centrifugal action on the Trinity's part and thus a more narrowly dispersed spread of divine energy across creation."
Given this context, for the Orthodox believer the world is alive and throbs with the saving power of the incarnation and its constant renewal in the spirit. Even inanimate things and especially their material basis do not merely stand over against us indifferently and arbitrarily. Instead, things encountered in the world have a power and they impinge upon the believer, affect her, and what is more, they have a meaning that predates the encounter, a history before entering into the narrative of our lives.
This immense theological and devotional framework, only touched on here, is mined excellently in Byzantine Things in the World, an exhibition and accompanying book curated by Glenn Peers at the Menil Collection of Houston this past summer. Because of the Collection's large holdings of both early Christian relics and Orthodox iconography as well as its wealth of late-twentieth century art, this experimental installation has the resources it needs to pursue its goals. And the goals are lofty. Using the cultural and metaphysical background of Byzantine religious and devotional life, the exhibition asks nothing less than for us to question our basic orientation in the world as modern individuals. The questioning opens out on many fronts, but the crux of it is to defamiliarize ourselves with our isolated and disembodied individuality. In its place, Byzantine Things offers a vision of relationality that pulls us into our bodies and, once incarnated, draws us out into the things of the world in such a way that we may once again feel their draw.
The book is organized roughly into two parts, a long introduction by Peers, which lays out the main contours of the exhibition's argument, and a series of short micro-essays that compliment this argument and bring it into connection with other traditions and thinkers.
In the book’s main essay, Peers tries to undermine the priority of vision in modern museum practice by highlighting the materiality of the things displayed in the exhibition. Unlike many exhibits we are familiar with, Byzantine Things does not attempt to contextualize Byzantine art objects by erecting a historical and cultural scaffold around them. Rather, the aim is to liberate these things from their theoretical confines in order to let them do the work they do merely by being the things that they are. When seen in this light, they become less objects with meanings constructed within the gaze of the viewer--or, preemptively, for her by the curator--and more beings with a power to affect us in their pre-predicative transitivity. No doubt this is a laudable goal. How many times do we see museum-goers look at the description of a work of art before looking at the work itself? Its similar to the way tourists move through a foreign city without picking their heads up from a travel book. There is a certain security in this approach. We feel at home in our subjectivity, and the viewer feels confident that he knows what to think or what to say after being enlightened by the plaque next to the Modigliani. But this habit effectively cuts off the work of art from doing its work.
This practice is deeply underpinned by our modern self-understanding as isolated, disembedded subjects separate or at least separable at all times from our environment. Peers wants to argue against this by pushing the model of the icon beyond its genre to serve as the interpretation for all artistic production and perhaps all self-interpretation. The way we, as modern individuals, normally look at a painting or some other work of art is as a representation, whereby the painting points to something beyond itself. The painting, however, is neutral and has no real connection with the thing, person, or deity it seeks to represent. In this regard, all painting is metaphorical. However, in Byzantine art, again according to Peers, the icon is not so divorced from what is depicted. "Icons are indeed related in essence to their subjects, and their actions and treatment by human subjects enact a widespread assumption in the Byzantine world that divinity saturates all creation." The icon presences the saint, bringing him into a certain space and placing him before the faithful. Icons were thus more than reminders of the bygone saint or a faint echo of the Creator. They were an essential point of contact with saints and the divine. Throughout the book, we are reminded that Byzantine Christians engaged icons, tokens, relics and other sacred things beyond visually perceiving them, by rubbing them against their skin, hugging them, holding them, or even eating them. "Touch channeled holy energy among substances and persons, and pilgrims required touch to transmit God's grace." Touch is, in other words, the least theoretic and most immediate, embodied of all our traffic with things in the world. For a culture attuned to active and passive simultaneity of touch (one never touches without also being touched), individualism is no longer a viable option. Peers thus prefers to render people as dividuals, "porous beings, open to the world and its transformations."
Byzantine Things employs this non-representative approach to level multiple ancillary critiques toward our contemporary existential stance. A key example of this is Peers' attempt to revitalize animism in the process of arguing for the power of things. "Nature sought, in Christian cosmology, a proper balance between earth and heaven. Trees, rocks, and soil maintained a divine equilibrium, and scripture, hagiographies, and folklore all manifested this assumption." It's clear that Peers wants to move his argument in an environmental direction, claiming in fact that "anthropologists have returned to the subject of animism with real profit," and that "environmental degradation has led many to this thoughtful reinvestment in human interrelatedness with the world." Here, however, Peers seems to be in danger of overcorrecting. Regardless of its currency within certain sectors of academia, Byzantine culture was anything but animistic. It simply does not follow that because one sees the divine everywhere and in everything, that therefore everywhere and everything is divine. Furthermore, no individual or culture can be self-consciously animistic unless it presupposes a thoroughly modern scientific outlook. For animism is the rejection of that outlook, a retroactive injection of life into a universe of dead matter. It is a decision on the part of this or that individual. But this bifurcation of the world into two was not available to Byzantine Christians, and thus they could not have made such a decision.
As sympathetic as I am to the aims of the exhibition, I am not too sanguine about its real possibilities given the current state of things. For one, we have so ritualized the visual experience of the museum that it cannot really be overcome so easily. And for that matter, maybe it should not be. Museums develop out of the modernity Peers wants to overcome. Such a deconstruction of the museum would come at the expense of undermining an institution that has been refined over three centuries and is responsible for much of the preservation and understanding we have of our cultural heritage. We wouldn't want to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Furthermore, Peers' notion of the distant modern self standing in stark opposition to the pre-modern, embodied "self" is a bit too thin. There have been many attempts to complicate this opposition by tracing the various historical contingencies that led us to our modern subjectivity. For example, this is done excellently by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, which argues that our contemporary self-understanding in many ways draws motivation and resources from the very tradition Peers seeks to retrieve as an alternative to it. But also, in phenomenological terms, today the theoretical is prior in terms of our lived experience. We are, for better or worse, a largely disembodied society, and our materiality is mediated by a techno-scientific filter. Not completely, to be sure, but by and large the way we live bears this out. We may lament this situation, but I’m not sure we may argue our way out of it for the simple reason that you cannot argue someone out of a position he was not argued into.
Which raises the question, “If this exhibit fails as an argument, then what else has it accomplished?” What struck me after seeing Byzantine Things was less a renewed sense of the power of things and their meaning over me, less a feeling for the the way things can disclose hidden significances, and more a sense of the beauty that lay trapped within certain materials. I am well aware that to speak of beauty is passé and quite romantic for our post- and meta modernist sensibilities. But what you see in the (narrowly historical) Byzantine works is that they were produced in a context and culture within which beauty was a feature of things worth noting. To put it in today’s parlance, everything had an aesthetic value, and one which ultimately transcended itself. If you want to call this a “power” that has a transitive “meaning” that can impinge upon us, okay. But within a culture that is numb to such a description, I’m not sure this way of proceeding would fall on many receptive ears.
And yet, the beautiful may still have some hearers.
For one, it is a value that is not religiously specific. And neither does it need to be appended to concepts such as "animism" or "dividual," which many of us find either too unbelievable or too artificial. However, beauty draws us into the same relationality that Byzantine iconography achieved and that this exhibition highlights. One is reminded of a passage from Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition where she describes the origin of beauty as that moment when the form of a thing overflows itself.
To be sure, an ordinary use object is not and should not be intended to be beautiful; yet whatever has a shape at all and is seen cannot help being either beautiful, ugly, or something in-between. Everything that is, must appear, and nothing can appear without a shape of its own; hence there is in fact no thing that does not in some way transcend its functional use, and its transcendence, its beauty or ugliness, is identical with appearing publicly and being seen. By the same token, namely, with its sheer worldly existence, every thing also transcends the sphere of pure instrumentality once it is completed.
And yet, despite this inevitability of thingly beauty, it can largely or totally be ignored, which seems to be the case today. What rings true about this exhibit is that it calls us back to this quality, and insists that each thing, as Peers puts it, “is itself and more.”
This transcendence compellingly shows up in the modern pieces showcased in Byzantine Things, including work by Barnett Newman, James Lee Byars, Donald Judd, Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso and Yves Klein, among others. The proximity of these works next to the Byzantine things allows us to use the latter as a heuristic for seeing modern art anew. Peers tells us, in fact, that the organizational principle of the exhibit is analogy. This is what allows for imaginative responses between works. For example, “in the right setting where it is able to work with other things through analogical inflection, this small gold box creatively works with other cultures’ precious containers, like an object made by Robert Rauschenberg.”
And this seems to me to be the more natural move against the theoretic-heavy approach of modern museums and modern life. What is needed is an attention to the beautiful aspect of all things. Even in our ethical life we tend to forget that beyond doing what is right or good there is a way, a style in which an action undertaken can overflow itself and draw others into it because of its excellence. This is what allows us to collectively draw out the implications of such an action, work of art, or idea. We do this not because we are convinced through argumentation that our view was mistaken and obscured hidden meanings from view, but that, like Athanasius meditating on the Incarnation, we are enthralled by the overwhelming surplus of the beautiful.