Celebrity, Iconicity, and Drama: Some Preliminary Reactions

June 6, 2011 § 4 Comments

If you are interested in how religion (particularly the American Protestant churches) and the arts are rediscovering one another today, I highly encourage you to read Carole Baker’s fantastic post on celebrity and iconicity over at The Other Journal. (Supplemented by Matthew Milliner’s reflection on iconicity at his excellent blog.) It’s a bit of a dense read because of Baker’s multiple definitions and comparisons, but worth it for the challenge to those of us who love the arts and want to see our churches reconnect to them. Essentially, Baker argues that our current models of how art works are based on a celebrity model which is in fact diametrically opposed to a rich, theologically healthy Christian practice of the arts. Christians need, then, not just to “engage” or embrace the arts, but actually to articulate an alternative tradition of how to be an artist. For Baker, icons provide such a tradition.

Two things about this argument jump out at me, the first having to do with Baker’s methodology and the structure of her argument, the second being how closely it tracks with my work on medieval drama. The first item is kind of a minor point of theological observation, so if you’re not into that type of stuff skip the next paragraph and go straight to the good stuff.

The first thing I noticed is the formal similarity of Baker’s argument to some of those made about social theory, education, and other topics by theologians connected with the Radical Orthodoxy movement. Essentially, the “alternate tradition” move is the sine qua non of these thinkers: the Radical Orthodox theologian identifies problematic or anti-Christian assumptions within the mainstream (“secular” or “Enlightenment” or “modern”) narrative of how the given subject works, then argues that a thoroughly Christian alternate tradition provides a wholly coherent and competing metanarrative. Baker makes exactly this move; she is thus unique, as far my limited understanding goes, in bringing the perspective of Radical Orthodoxy to bear on art in a rigorous way. (Her employment and study at Duke Divinity School only strengthens my hunch here, as several of Duke’s most prominent faculty are connected to Radical Orthodoxy.) I bet there will be more applications of Radical Orthodox-style thought to art coming, however.

Secondly, Baker’s argument (and Milliner’s discussion of it) touched off some bells with regard to a couple of things I think about a lot: the place of theater in the church-and-the-arts discussion, and how medieval drama works into all this. In a past life I was pretty heavily involved in various ways with drama ministry, but as I’ve grown away from it I’ve come to be bothered by it in more than aesthetic reasons. (And trust me, there were reasons to be concerned.) A major part of the problem we have, it seems to me, in introducing any sort of performing art into the church is precisely this issue of the celebrity model that Baker identifies. Too often in my experience “liturgical drama” or “drama ministry” or “worship videos” seem to embrace the separation of image and likeness critiqued by Baker: Christian identity is constructed by these forms as being a kind of spectator rather than a participant, embracing the ideology of the artist as self-expressive, autonomous individual. There’s an issue of rhetorical economy here too (see my previous post on rhetoric): celebrity works on a market rhetoric, in which those making an exchange remain autonomous individuals and desire is invested only in transient goods.

In contrast, medieval cycle drama has no element of the celebrity model: the authors of the texts are anonymous, the community participates in the production (even audience members have a participatory role, I would argue), and Christian identity is thus constructed in a wholly different economy of performance. The rhetoric here is one of gift rather than market, in which the exchange builds up mutuality and desire is invested in the continuing good of the growing-Christlike community. Medieval religious drama is the alternate tradition for drama that icons provide for visual arts or hymns for music. But how to rehabilitate that tradition when the Reformation killed it nearly 500 years ago? Alas, I’m not sure it can be done.


§ 4 Responses to Celebrity, Iconicity, and Drama: Some Preliminary Reactions

  • Thanks Matthew. RO has been paving the art path for some time. First Phillip Blond’s essay on Christ and Painting in the original RO volume, some other essays of his on the subject, and also (more generally) Theological Perspectives on God and Beauty (2003) by Milbank, Ward and Wyschogrod. Still, I think this may be broader than RO.

    It happened in Protestantism with architecture: An old, suspected, and foreign form – Gothic – triumphed even for Baptists by the beginning of the 20th century. Consequently, I don’t see why old forms cannot be recovered (alongside developments of new ones) for art and drama as well.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Matt. Of course you’re right about it being broader than RO–some of the people working on the “turn to religion” in my field of literary studies make similar moves, and although they’re sometimes in dialogue with RO thinkers you couldn’t exactly call them RO. So what I probably should have said is that this seems to be a growing move outside RO.

      Thanks also for the hopeful note on the recovery of old forms. I would be very much interested in reading about how Gothic was revived, if you could point me to a text. Medieval cycle drama is not heavily studied even among lit scholars, so it would take some serious recovery for it to get in the eye of churches.

  • True about drama, but it caught on in Orthodox Cyprus! Check out the Cypriot Passion Play. Regarding Gothic revival, there are too many, but my favorite is a recent and relatively comprehensive study by Michael J. Lewis. More to the point of our discussion, check out this very helpful review of Ryan Smith’s book at B&C.

    • Matt, thanks for the resources. I’ve got some reading to do–I wasn’t aware of a Cypriot cycle, though I knew this type of drama was all over Europe. It would be fascinating to do (or read, if it’s been done) a comparative study of cycles across the Catholic-Orthodox divide, if somebody hasn’t done that already. Sorry I had to approve your second comment. I thought I had it set so it wouldn’t do that, but I am very much a WordPress novice.

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