The Legacy of Hans Rookmaaker: ‘So What?’
Dr. James Romaine is a New York based art historian. He is the co-founder the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA). Dr. Romaine is an Associate Professor of art history and chair of the department of art history at Nyack College.
Although I never met Hans Rookmaaker, who died in 1977, I am the student of his student, John Walford, and see myself, to some degree, as Rookmaaker’s vocational grandson. Rookmaaker’s example gave Christians permission to explore vocations in the field of art history. While that is certainly important, I wouldn’t be here otherwise, it may not be the most significant or lasting dimension of his legacy. In fact, Rookmaaker’s insistence that art, as well as the vocation of the art historian, need no justification deftly avoided a potential trap that could have limited the potential consequence of his work to one of permission giving. Rookmaaker’s impact on my own sense of vocation has more to do with articulating, for the Christian scholar, artist, and viewer, a specific sense of purpose rather than just blank permission.
Toward the conclusion of his landmark book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, Rookmaaker titled a section “Questions of aesthetics and morals.” He argued that aesthetics is not just an abstract theory of color and form, as if art were a type of interior decoration; it is something tied to the “whole of life.” This connection that he drew between the work of art and human flourishing is probably the dimension of Rookmaaker’s method that has most directly affected my own work as an art historian.
For Rookmaaker, art has moral consequence. While I differ with some of Rookmaaker’s conclusions in Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, I agree with him on this fundamental point, which underlies the book’s purpose. Rookmaaker wrote about art, even art that he disapproved of, as if it were of profound importance. This is not a small accomplishment. When one thinks about the various methodologies that have been applied to art, and to modern art in particular, many of them reduce the work of art in one way or another. (This may be because they are often premised on paradigms which reduce the person, artist, viewer, and scholar.) These methods, whether rooted in formalist, iconographic, Marxist, or other materialist presuppositions, treat the work of art as simply another cultural object and ignore the religious, spiritual, and/or philosophical dimensions of art. Even those scholars who are interested in the “sacred in art” often describe the work of art as some form of spiritual escapism from reality. Rookmaaker, as I read him, saw art as having a moral and religious consequence, even if that religion was one antithetical to Christianity.
In my own scholarship, especially in writing about contemporary art, I try to always keep one question in mind, “so what?” This question asks, “what is ‘at stake’ in this work of art?” Or, “how does this work of art, in its content and form, materially realize the urgency of the human condition?” Rookmaaker would be the first to say that works of art do not, and should not, be looked to for the answer to the human dilemma. However, since these works of art are, at once, material and immaterial, visible and invisible, they participate with us in shaping and being shaped by the unfolding history of creation. Although the artistic process is pursuit of a unity of content and form to create meaning, it is marked by both suffering and grace. Works of art are manifestations of as well as agents for personal, cultural, and spiritual transformation, either renewal or ruin.
Rookmaaker has been criticized for his sometimes-reproachful reading of 20th century art. Nevertheless, he took this art seriously, perhaps even more seriously than some of its most ardent champions. While some art historians were writing about the modern artists’ use of color and form and other art historians were writing about the shamanistic aspirations of the modern artist, Rookmaaker dared to ask the question, “What is at stake in 20th century art?” As the title of his book suggests, Rookmaaker regarded modern art as a matter of life and death.
Rookmaaker’s concern for art as a material manifestation of goodness and brokenness evidenced within the history of the human condition gave purpose to his careful reading of art objects and consideration of their social context and consequences. Yet, he kept his focus on the metanarrative of creation from eternity to eternity. Rookmaaker demonstrated that the vocation of the art historian was more than a distraction from this narrative; in fact, by raising the “so what?” question the art historian continually focuses the reader/viewer’s attention on what is most important.