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Saving Leonardo: A Review

February 11, 2011

In her new book, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning (2010), Nancy Pearcey has produced the kind of text I want to write someday: deeply researched but accessibly composed, rooted in a vision of an integrated, wholistic Christian spirituality and aimed at helping the evangelical community – my theological community of origin – to see the “big picture” of cultural and spiritual orientations, and how these big pictures are expressed in the daily pictures of the academy, media, and the arts. She advances an understanding of the arts as rhetoric that deeply informs my own analysis and enjoyment of the arts:

The common stereotype is that art is merely a matter of personal expression. But the truth is that artists interact deeply with the thought of their day. They translate worldviews into stories and images, creating a picture language that people often absorb without even thinking about it. Leaning to “read” that language is a crucial skill for understanding the forces that are dramatically altering our world. [p. 4]

Pearcey openly acknowledges her indebtedness to the evangelical mover and shaker of the 70’s and 80’s, Francis Schaeffer. In many ways her book is a sequel and an up-dating of Schaeffer’s tome of 1976, How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. This indebtedness is evident in many ways, from the reliance on worldview analysis, to the familiar split-level diagrams of Western humanism (grace over nature; fact over value), to the identification of the current ideological competitor of the Gospel. In Schaeffer’s case, it was secular humanism. In Pearcey’s, it’s global secularism. Pearcey’s book shares many of the same virtues that Schaeffer’s does, such as the bracing wake-up call from an overly private, spiritually enervating pietism towards a publicly relevant and prophetically discerning Christianity, and how worldviews find practical expression and application in daily life. Pearcey reflects Schaeffer’s critique of various forms of compartmentalization and dichotomization endemic in both secular and religious thought, and the philosophically insufficient answers such dichotomies lead toward.

Pearcey’s text suffers, however, from the same wince-producing generalizations and overly simplistic analyses that make and mar most of Schaeffer’s books. One is the overly rationalistic account of human experience and religious conversion. The greatest obstacles to God, according to this book, are “false ideas” (I vote heart-break and hormones). Another is the analysis and characterization of the Christian community itself. It’s either evangelical Calvinism or global secularism. And there’s little awareness that globalized secularism is in part a product of the very European Reformation to which she otherwise ascribes so much good.

Perhaps more disturbing and unhelpful are the dismissive ways in which non-Christian, or non evangelical thought and expressions are dealt with. Take her analysis of Mark Rothko’s work for example. She hearkens back to Schaeffer’s critique of liberal theology, of a religion of “nobody up there,” and applies it to Rothko. Yes, Rothko’s works are ambivalent and toward the end of his life increasingly dark. Yes, he committed suicide. But maybe there is a kind of Jewish mysticism and prophetic denunciation of commercialized representation that his work expresses. Presented in diametric contrast is the work of the contemporary Christian artist Makoto Fujimura, who (ironically) unambiguously acknowledges his indebtedness to Rothko’s work. But this relationship between the Jewish-American and Japanese-American is not explored or even acknowledged, or of the hybrid and syncretistic character of all worldviews (including evangelical Christian) to which their lives and art bear witness. It’s this kind of over simplistic, good-guy/bad-guy kind of analysis that has weakened evangelical cultural analysis over many years.

Nonetheless, given the general readership the book is aimed at, Pearcey advances a Christian analysis of culture that both critically and appreciatively acknowledges the role the arts play in translating the abstractions of “worldview” into concrete term. I remain a strong believer in and practitioner of “worldview analysis” and Pearcey presents a good case for it, enhanced with an informed, if generalizing, engagement with the realm of the arts. “Art is a visual language, and Christians have a responsibility to learn that language” (p. 208). The book is worth its price for that one line alone, and Pearcey provides a beginner’s handbook toward such “reading” of the arts. I might simply suggest that in addition to a responsibility to learn the language of the arts, Christians have an opportunity to enjoy them. The arts might actually enrich human existence, as well as provide material for a coherent and compelling worldview analysis.

James McCullough is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. His research explores the relationship between works of visual art and spiritual formation.  He lives on a farm near St Andrews with his wife and four children.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2011 4:34 pm

    I am compelled to add to this review a strong rejoinder: here! here! This is a much needed, judicious, balanced review, and those who attempt to engage the discourse of art would do well to heed it. Why?
    Because I do not think Christians–of any stripe–will get very far in engaging the world around them, until they actually engage it – rather than stand back and engage in good guy-bad guy dichotomies, as is so well expressed.

    However, I have a far deeper concern, and that is with the stated idea of the book that artists take world-views and translate them into art, and commentators then come along and engage in a form of reverse translation. My long experience of working alongside artists and studying those of the past and present shows me that while “worldviews” do inform artistic thought and action, it is indirectly, and artists work first and foremost out of the nature of the materials and media, and how others around them, and before them, use, and have used, those materials and media, in short, they think and work visually, not “worldviewishly.” It it time for Christian commentators to engage the visual arts on their own discrete terms, however well-intentioned the effort among some Christians to consider the arts in the first place.

  2. Nancy Pearcey permalink
    February 12, 2011 3:22 am

    John, I think both you and the reviewer are misconstruing the purpose of the book. It is not primarily a book explaining what art is about. And as much as I want to encourage people to love the arts, that is not the book’s main theme. As I write:

    “There are many good books that discuss Christian aesthetics or a biblical justification for the arts. That is not my purpose here. The question I am asking is not whether these art works are beautiful or well executed, but how they give pictorial expression to a worldview. In a book review, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once commented that he enjoyed the novel, but disagreed with the novelist’s worldview. In his words, “I like his art, but I do not believe in his metaphysics.” In the following pages, you may or may not like the art. The goal, however, is to determine whether you agree with the artists’ worldview. To quote painter Anthony Toney, “Different approaches in painting or art generally are manifestations of different views of reality.”

    To focus on one aspect of art–how it expresses ideas–is not to deny its manifold other dimensions. As I write:

    “At a 2006 conference of the International Arts Movement, I had the honor of sharing a podium with the poet Dana Gioia, who at the time was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “All art is a language—a language of color, sound, movement, or words,” Gioia said. “When we immerse ourselves in a work of art, we enter into the artist’s worldview. It can be an expansive and glorious worldview, or it can be cramped, dehumanizing worldview.”
    Of course, none of these scholars is saying that a work of art can be reduced to the cognitive level alone. Aesthetic elements—style, color, texture, tone, plot, characterization—are the artist’s essential tools and have an impact all their own. The composer Gustav Mahler once said, “If I could condense my experience into words, I certainly would not compose music about it.” Yet ordinary people are rarely equipped to evaluate the technical qualities of a work of art. In the words of John Walford of Wheaton College, non-artists are interested mostly in the way art connects with “larger human issues and concerns.” An artist creates an imaginary world and then invites us to enter that world, to experience what life looks and feels like from a particular perspective. The audience does care so much about the technical skills used to accomplish the trick. Their central concern is the conception of the world that the artist is fleshing out.
    Moreover, as we will discover, even aesthetic elements grow ultimately out of worldviews. This can be a difficult concept to grasp. In popular music, for example, most people readily recognize that the lyrics express the songwriter’s perspective and experience. But they tend to assume that the musical style is neutral. That is a mistake. Artistic styles develop originally as vehicles for expressing particular worldviews. As painter Louis Finkelstein says, “The sense of all stylistic change is that the underlying view of the world changes.”
    What this means is that we can “read” the history of ideas through the history of changing artistic styles. This opens up a uniquely engaging means of interpreting worldviews—one that involves the whole person: mind and imagination, intellect and emotion.”

    In short, Saving Leonardo deals with one aspect of the arts–its the relationship with intellectual history. The methodology of art history has been so heavily positivistic through much of the 20th century that most artists are uncomfortable acknowledging how deeply the arts interact with other aspects of culture, from philosophy to politics to economics. But my experience is that ordinary people become far more interested in the arts when they see how, as you yourself put it, the arts connect with ideas they care about.

  3. Nancy Pearcey permalink
    February 12, 2011 3:41 am

    An additional point: Most readers do not see the book as standing back and engaging in good guy-bad guy dichotomies. A young woman writes in an Amazon review: “What you will not find in this book are cut-and-paste pat answers to objections to Christianity or a list of counter-attacks on a particular cultural trend. . . . She invites Christians to understand and to appreciate the culture around them. She helps the Christian to sympathize with the empiricist or existentialist or many other worldview products of the Enlightenment or Romanticism by helping the reader understand how these perspectives are ultimately trying to fulfill a need.”

    “Understand,” “appreciate,” “sympathize”. . . The book essentially chronicles my own search for truth in the years I was an agnostic, and while taking a strong position, it digs into history to help readers undestand why ideas arose and why they would seem plausible.

  4. Jim permalink*
    February 13, 2011 3:41 pm

    Nancy, thank you for your thoughtful and very extensive reply to James McCullough’s review of your book. I also read your book, and it was a very enjoyable experience. I like the way that you explain the central dichotomies that shape modern forms of thought. I think you are right to point out that dichotomies such as fact/value, feeling/thinking, body/soul etc. are related to many of the problems we face today.

    I must say that I sympathize with James’ response to your book, and I also find John Walford’s cautionary statement to be helpful. So, I was intrigued by your response to their critiques: specifically, that you think they have misconstrued the purpose of your book. I was quite glad to hear that you see worldview analysis as only dealing with one aspect of the arts, though, like James and John, this was not as apparent to me when I read your book as you suggest that it should be. I think it is quite interesting that books (or works of art for that matter) have a way of extending far beyond their creator’s intentions and taking on a life of their own.

    In light of your own desire to be clear to the reader that worldview analysis is only addressing one aspect of the arts (specifically, its connection to intellectual history), I have a positive and constructive suggestion for your consideration. My suggestion is that you divorce your worldview analysis from the language and philosophy of expression theory. It is fairly clear from what you have said in the above comment that the framework of ‘artistic expression’ is hovering behind your analysis of works of art. For example, you write quote Dana Gioia who writes, “When we immerse ourselves in a work of art, we enter into the artist’s worldview.” Further down you write, “Artistic styles develop originally as vehicles for expressing particular worldviews.” Also, you make reference to the world that the artist is fleshing out (I think, however, you may have conflated in this particular instance the imaginary world of a work of art and a worldview). In these examples, it would seem that you are assuming that the artist has a worldview that he or she is ‘expressing’ in an artistic media. John Wolford’s point, as I read it, is that this is an incorrect way of conceptualizing the way artist’s work.

    A hallmark of expression theory is that it sets the agenda for art criticism by making the artist’s intentions determinative. It makes the question ‘what was the artist thinking or feeling when he or she was making the work?’ a very relevant question for the art historian or critic. This, of course, is problematic because it is nearly impossible to answer that question in most cases. Your worldview analysis appears to present a way around this problem by proposing a ‘worldview’ for the artist in question. There are, in fact, particular examples in your book where the artist’s own words are referred to as justification for connecting a particular worldview with a certain kind of art. For example, you quote Duchamp and Man Ray as ‘authoritative sources’ for your interpretation of anti-art and dadaism. Also, you quote Courbet as an important source for your worldview analysis of 19th century realism. I am not suggesting that artist’s intentions, or their own philosophical musings, are irrelevant for worldview analysis, but that these form only one aspect of what is involved in interpretation.

    So my suggestion is really that you should let go of the intentionalism inherent in expression theory, and that you should instead emphasize the way in which your own worldview analysis is a construct through which we can interpret art. This view is in line with many today who emphasize what the viewer or reader bring to a work of art. Kendall Walton, for example, speaks of works of art as props that are ‘taken up’ into our own games of make-believe. Worldview analysis could be one important game that we play with works of art, and they would be helpful insofar they help us to understand our worldviews better. From this perspective, works of art could become insightful and helpful illustrations of worldviews. If you had stated (and perhaps you did, forgive me if I missed it!) that you are only using works of art as illustrations of worldviews, then the apparent misunderstandings regarding the purpose of this book might have been avoided.

    By suggesting that we emphasize that the viewer or reader constructs a worldview to fit the work of art, I do not mean to say that the connection between the work of art and the worldview is purely arbitrary. But by divorcing worldview analysis from expression theory one does not need to see the artist as the mechanism that connects a work of art to any particular world view. I cannot tell you why works of art bear an uncanny relationship to intellectual history, but I think that it must be more complex than expression theory allows for, and that it probably involves a variety of social factors influencing the artist’s work.

    Perhaps you will not find this constructive suggestion of any help, but I do thank you for your consideration (in the event that you return to this post again!).

  5. February 13, 2011 7:15 pm

    I think the one troubling element of Pearcey’s approach for any within the art world, including art historians such as myself, is the notion that art “illustrates” worldviews. While worldviews are certainly one element among others that clearly do inform the context out of which artists operate, no credible artist known to me thinks of him or herself as tasked with “illustrating” world views.

    Some artists do operate in the realm of illustration, as illustrators, but the type of fine artists of which Pearcey writes are not illustrators of something else, outside art, like philosophy, or religion (except in the context perhaps of ecclesiastical patronage). Rather they work with materials, to which they give form that embodies a complexity of human consciousness, visual, sensate, tactile, and conceptual, into which doubtless worldview feeds. But art by its very nature is its own entity, and embodies a certain way of seeing, perceiving, understanding, and responding to experience, and, so doing, characteristically manifests aspects of human awareness, in ways that are inextricable bound up with the chosen medium of the artist.

    To think, by analogy, to Dorothy Sayers Trinitarian model of creativity, by which she helps us to understand something of the nature of God, perhaps it would be helpful to remember that Christ does not illustrate the ideas of God, but rather embodies something of the essence of God’s being in the fullness of his personhood and embodied actions – not just the words he spoke. Art, analogously, if successful, incarnates aspects of human consciousness in ways in which form and content are inextricable bound up in each other.

    I think it is this awareness that makes any in the art world recoil from the notion that artists merely embody worldviews, or even that this is the best way to talk about their art – the problem is that it reduces the God-given entity of art to something else. Art calls out to be addressed on its own terms, and that means taking seriously the medium, as medium, as well as the way in which any given medium is physically manipulated by the artist, in all its tactile reality.

  6. Nancy Pearcey permalink
    February 13, 2011 8:55 pm

    Jim, John–

    You come at these questions from the perspective of art theory and practice. I come at them from the perspective of worldview. By definition, a worldview is a network of often semi-conscious or unconscious assumptions about the world and human nature, often absorbed more by osmosis than by conscious decision. Those assumptions about the world shape our choices and actions in every area of life, whether your special area of creativity is in the arts or running a business or writing computer programs or teaching students. I’m not wedded to any particular vocabulary for describing the process–expressing or illustrating or embodying human consciousness.

    Worldviews are not same thing as formal philosophy, but are influenced by them. Because of my philosophic background, I focus on anything that indicates the philosophical milieu in which artists worked. When art historians write, for example, that Mondrian was a rationalist who sought to reflect the underlying mathematical structure of the cosmos, that term “rationalist” may not mean much to most people. But I wrote two chapters in The Soul of Science on the historical development of modern science’s mathematical view of nature. So I find it tremendously exciting to discover that those ideas were picked up by artists as well and that it actually influenced their art. Mondrian would not have painted in the style of geometrical abstraction without Pythagoras, Copernicus, Galileo, & Newton, who convinced people that the cosmos actually does have an underlying mathematical structure.

    Or when art historians write that the impressionists were influenced by empiricism and positivism, those terms may not mean much to most people. But to use an anecdote, as an undergrad, I took a course on analytical philosophy in which we spent an entire year debating whether the ultimate source of knowledge is color patches (uninterpreted sense data). So when Monet writes that artists should ignore the object and just paint patches of color, or when Janson calls impression “the revolution of the color patch,” I recognize the philosophical origins of that phrase. I want to help people see the connections between what the scientists and philosophers were saying and what the artists then did with images.

    It’s exciting to bring these various fields together and show their interrelations. It helps us to move beyond compartmentalization and fragmentation, and to catch the larger patterns and directions of Western thought. In the classroom, my cognitive students (in engineering or computer science) discover for the first time that they actually like art once they see that artists were dealing with interesting and important ideas. And the creative students discover that in order to really understand art history, they need to get the bigger picture of the intellectual milieu in which artists were working. And both groups learn, I hope, to be more intentional and informed in their own creative work.

  7. James McCullough permalink
    February 13, 2011 9:15 pm

    I am so gratified by the kind of conversation my review seems to have generated, and all the more so to have the book’s author, Nancy Pearcey, join in. I read Nancy’s comments earlier today and wanted them to percolate in my mind for a few hours, and then discovered that my colleague Jim Watkins had joined in as well, providing what I thought was a great series of reflections on Nancy’s book. What more can I say?

    Let me just respond to a few things. Nancy seems to feel that both John Walford and I miss the larger point of her project by rendering hers a book about art. Now this brings us to the subtle and elusive complex of authorial intent, marketing presentation, and reader predilection. I thought I had acknowledged that primary aim in my review, but perhaps I didn’t express it clearly enough. I feel that Jim addresses the matters related to art and worldview quite sufficiently, and don’t feel that I have anything more to contribute.

    Nancy takes exception to what I characterize as the adversarial dynamic of the book, or at least the charge of oversimplification. I still stand by my critique, while acknowledging that Nancy seeks a more nuanced and textured account of the flow of ideas across time. I still believe strongly that the evangelical community is ill-served when we fail to acknowledge that at the level of theology and cultural life – which I identify as part and parcel of all worldview – we ourselves inevitably reflect the orientations and preoccupations of our age. Ours is not a purely and innocently “Biblical” worldview standing against the forces of darkness. It is a worldview shaped by prevailing arts and sciences which impinge on the way we read Scripture and walk with God. We can grow in our awareness of our cultural presuppositions and move increasingly toward a more Biblical perspective, but I believe we’ll remain children of our age (and race and gender and economic background) for good and ill, seeing in a mirror dimly awaiting the day of the Lord. It is at this level that I believe Nancy’s analysis remains overly simplistic.

    Let me also say how much I appreciated John Walford’s comments. He is entirely right to point out how we “worldview theorists” too quickly assign worldview labels to artists and their works and congratulate ourselves for having figured them out. While it is true and inevitable that artists reflect the orientations and preoccupations of their age in their work in conscious response or inadvertent reflection, I’ve come to learn that artists think with their hands. John’s comments are a welcomed rejoinder.

    It is the highest compliment to Nancy that her book has garnered so much thoughtful response. I applaud the way it places the arts at the front and center of an intellectual history of the Western experience, and maintain that her book provides what for many will be an indirect foray into art appreciation. I hope, in my life and research, to advance the conversation so that the Christian community can understand itself better and engage the world more faithfully and creatively.

  8. Jim permalink*
    February 14, 2011 2:39 pm

    John and Nancy,

    Thank you very much for this interesting discussion on art and worldview. My only regret is that it is taking place in a comment section and not in a more accessible place within our blog. John I have sent you an email, and Nancy I do not have your email, but I am wondering if both of you would be interested in writing 500-600 word posts on the relationship between works of art and worldview. Basically, I think it would be great if you would develop some of what you have said here for our readers, and then make comments on each other’s post. If you are willing to do this, send an email to transpositionstheblog@gmail.com. If you are happy to leave the conversation as it is, that would be fine as well, but I think that seeing your different perspectives next to each other could be of great value to our readers. Thanks for your consideration!

  9. Nancy Pearcey permalink
    February 15, 2011 2:45 pm

    Jim– Many thanks for your invitation. I am honored. But I am in the middle of relocating and do not have the time to craft a more formal statement.

    James–You are right: your review did convey well the book’s primary aim. And your concerns have to do mostly with the simplifications necessary in covering such wide-ranging terrain for a general audience (though it is heavily footnoted to support the generalizations and point readers to more academic sources.)

    A quick response to your follow-up: Where in the book do I define “THE” pure and unadulterated biblical worldview? I don’t. Though I indicate certain broad themes (Christians will reject determinism and reductionism), I praise Christians repeatedly for working within a variety of intellectual and artistic paradigms–in both the analytic and Continental traditions, for example, and in virtually every artistic style. In fact, I have been faulted by some reviewers for being too generous in allowing that Christians can and do work redemptively within various traditions, enriching them with a transcendent perspective–as Mako does. (By the way, just because I find Dooyeweerd’s analyses helpful does not mean I am a Calvinist.)

    On the vexing relationship between art and worldview: Ultimately, I wanted to show that artists interact at some level with the ideas “in the air” in any given age–that they contribute to the great conversation. Which is merely to say, they are part of the human community. I do not see how that can be construed as a negative thing.

    Thanks to all for an invigorating discussion.

  10. March 7, 2011 5:23 pm

    As for the relationship of art and worldviews, I suspect that fundamentally Nancy and I are not so far apart, after all, I was trained in that whole worldview context of the Dutch Reformed Free University, with Rookmaaker as my mentor. But I have worked alongside artists for over thirty years, and that has taught me a lot from the artist’s perspective and also shown me the need to revise my understanding of the artistic process, both past and present. I mostly balked at the idea that an artist “illustrates” a world view, and that art provides a useful “illustration” of world views. While Pearcey does not use that term, that is clearly the impression left on the reviewer, McCullough, and on anyone who reads his review. That language is very loaded from my perspective, and ill-serves the nature and worth of artistic practice, as I have attempted to say in my comments.

    That world views inform the context and discourse out of which art is born, I believe as strongly as does Pearcey. But I understand that influence as being more like the chlorine in the water we drink; and most of us are only subliminally aware of how much we absorb from the surrounding culture, and how that shapes our art.

    Follow up with Pearcey, in another forum, suggests to me that she would likely agree. My major concern is that art be addressed on its own terms, and for its own inherent merit, as art, and not be reduced to merely the “chlorine in the water” absorbed by the artist.

  11. Nancy Pearcey permalink
    March 9, 2011 5:47 pm

    Thanks to John Walford for clarifying his views. I benefited much from his Great Themes in Art, and it could be said that what I do is show that those themes are often linked more closely to the science and philosophy of the day than most people realize.

    As John mentioned, we talked briefly in another forum where he wrote: “I mostly balk at Nancy’s use of the word ‘illustrate.” However, as he noted above, I do not use that term in the book. In fact, ironically, it was Jim who recommended the use of that word in his first post above (“If you had stated . . . that you are only using works of art as illustrations of worldviews, then the apparent misunderstandings regarding the purpose of this book might have been avoided”). If this is what John “mostly” balked at, then much of what he said is more accurately directed at Jim’s statement, not at Saving Leonardo.

    I wrote this book for the general public, especially the Christian public, to help them understand their world better. I discovered that modern thought has divided into two major traditions: the analytic and Continental (the first inspired by the Enlightenment, the latter by Romanticism). When you encounter a new thinker–e.g., when a college student is assigned to read some scholar–you will find it much easier to interpret their writings and recognize their worldview assumptions if you can place them within one of those major traditions. You do not have to start over from scratch but can quickly pick up the concerns, motivations, themes, and worldview commitments they share with that larger tradition.

    When I turned to the arts, I was not looking for or expecting the same pattern, but was intrigued to discover that historians sometimes talk about a parallel division–especially cultural historians like M.H. Abrams and Jacques Barzun, who are more aware of how the arts interact with broader cultural history. Even on a strictly stylistic level, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., pointed out that modern art split into “two main polarized currents”: one current inspired by Enlightenment themes–rationality, logic, mathematics, geometric (leading to geometric abstraction) and the other inspired by Romantic themes (in Barr’s words, intuitional, emotional, mystical, spontaneous, irrational, organic–leading to biomorphic abstraction). As Barr quipped: “The shape of the square confronts the silhouette of the amoeba.”

    I realized that this, too, could be helpful to non-artists trying to understand their world. Once again, if you recognize the broader motivations and themes of these two “polarized currents,” that gives you invaluable tools for making sense of modern works that the public often dismisses and even ridicules (“my little sister could have painted that”). My own students often come to me after class and say things like, “I never even liked art before I took this class.”

    On the other side, after my lectures, people often come to me and say, “I never really understood those philosophical ideas until I saw them encapsulated, made concrete, in an image.”

    I am not interested in trying to explain *how* art and ideas interact–or what John calls “the artistic process.” That’s a task for specialists, like many of you associated with this blog. What I am passionate about is equipping Christians to live out their convictions and communicate more effectively in a world that no longer speaks their language.

    After all, the first rule of effective communication is Know Your Audience. To get a message across to people, you must address their assumptions, questions, objections, hopes, fears, and aspirations. In short, their worldview. Loving one’s neighbor means caring enough to enter into their minds and speak to them in their own terms. Saving Leonardo is a field guide to the worldviews that have shaped the modern (and postmodern) mind.

  12. March 9, 2011 7:19 pm

    What Nancy Pearcey has stated immediately above makes sense to me as a valuable method for educating an often suspicious and frustrated public — and/or student audience — wondering about what is at stake in those various discourses to which she refers.

    I also find, in introductory courses, such a basic, general education art survey course, that it is useful to lay out the long-term implications of the oft opposing forces of Classicism, Enlightenment, and Romanticism, as well, though, of Realism, or Naturalism.

    This three-fold opposition works well, at a College or University introductory level, as an overarching framework for the period roughly 1760-1960. Thereafter, at least in American art, the wide-spread implications of the Civil Rights movement, Postmodernity, and notions of Multicultural Pluralism play out with notable impact in the art world.

    In short, for the nineteenth and early twentieth century, I see, at least in the visual arts, less of a bi-polar opposition of Enlightenment and Romanticism, that Pearcey sets out, but rather a three-fold conflict between Classical Idealism, Romanticism, and Realism.

    Of course, I also recognize that Classical Idealism is, in this period, tpically inflected through the lens of Enlightenment principles; the Romantics are at times spiced by Realism; and that Realism, in its variant forms, always functioning in opposition to Classical Idealism, may be treated variously as a step-child of aspects of both Enlightenment and Romantic tenets. So, if one enfolds Realism within the cloak of facets derived from both of Enlightenment and Romanticism, this could allow, in such a formulation, for Pearcey’s reduction to a binary opposition, which otherwise stands out to me as too reductive – the opposition of Apollo and Dionysus all over again.

  13. Nancy Pearcey permalink
    March 9, 2011 8:44 pm

    We’re getting down to details–and while it is fascinating, I’m guessing none of us can afford much more time for this exchange. So just a few quick points. There is no denying that the major traditions, whether in philosophy or art, have cross-pollinated and borrowed from one another, so that any schema is necessarily simplified. (I am somewhat skeptical of reading the same division back into the ancient Greeks as Dooyeweerd did–he is sometimes accused of overapplying the Apollo/Dionysus opposition.) But philosophers do agree that since the rise of modernity, Western thought has split into analytical versus Continental. And that includes postmodernism and deconstructionism. They are not completely new–they are heirs of Continental thought, and hence of the Romantic movement. As I tell my students, if you understand Hegel, you understand deconstructionism. Here’s the quick and dirty version:

    One of the implications of Hegel’s pantheistic philosophy was that culture is not a product of individuals so much as it is the product of the collective Mind in its current stage in the evolution of consciousness. In fact, individuals do not really *have* original or unique ideas of their own. They simply absorb the customs, language, beliefs of their community. They are mouthpieces for social forces–race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.

    Hegel’s pantheism has fallen away, but it left behind the idea that we are all unconsciously following the scripts of the various groups we belong to. In literature, for example, an author was said to be unwittingly voicing the scripts of his race, class, gender, etc. At times, of course, those scripts will contradict one another. So the task of the literary critic is to disentangle the contradictions—this is called deconstructing the text. Hence: deconstructionism. The assumption is that there is no unified storyline, no master narrative—that a piece of literature is merely a collection of conflicting quotations from the surrounding culture. Similar themes inform deconstructionism in the visual arts (and here in Saving Leonardo, I quote from Great Themes).

    Once you understand Hegel, it’s amazing how the entire Continental tradition snaps into focus–from German idealism to phenomenology to existentialism to postmodernism (with its offshoot, deconstructionism). Each step is a logical progression from what went before.

    When I first became a Christian in college, I struggled to understand the secular ideas I was encountering in the classroom (many of which I had held myself, simply by osmosis). I felt that, to be intellectually responsible, I had to memorize each “ism”–an overwhelming task. Now I realize that it is much easier if you recognize overarching traditions that encompass several schools of thought.

    Thanks again to all who participated in this exchange.

  14. Jim Watkins permalink*
    March 9, 2011 8:49 pm

    Since it was brought up again, I thought I would just quickly clarify my use of the word ‘illustrate.’ I actually suggested it as a way that Nancy might avoid making statements about the artistic process (something she evidently wants to do). In ‘Saving Leonardo’ the word ‘expression’ is often used in reference to the relationship between artists, worldview and works of art in statements I assumed were describing the artistic process. By ‘illustrate’, I did not mean to suggest the idea that artists ‘illustrate’ a worldview in a work of art. What I meant was that the viewer or reader might consider a particular work of art to illustrate a worldview. In this way, the word ‘illustrate’ refers to the way the work of art is used and not to the way it is made. Using ‘illustrate’ (or perhaps a word with less baggage would be better) in this way, it would be easier to alert the reader to the educational purpose of using works of art, and that the main concern of the book is to understand worldview (not to provide a history of art).

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