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.