- Top of page
- I. IMAGINATION AND IMITATION
- II. ON THE COUNTER-INTENTIONALITY OF ART
- III. THREE ILLUSTRATIONS
- IV. CONCLUDING REMARKS
What place do imagination and art have in Christian existence? This paper examines this question through the writings of Kierkegaard's pseudonym Anti-Climacus: The Sickness Unto Death and Practice in Christianity. I focus on the latter work in particular because it best illustrates the importance of imagination in following after (Efterfølgelse) Christ in imitation, which Anti-Climacus presents as the proper task of faithful Christian existence. After outlining both his critique and his affirmation of the imagination, I then consider what role the notion of ‘Christian art’ might play in his account of the imitation of Christ. Anti-Climacus gives a severe critique of Christian art, insofar as it disposes the viewer to detached observation and admiration – rather than imitation – of Christ. However, an earlier passage in the same text gives a provocative yet cryptic indication of the sort of art that would not succumb to this danger. Taking a cue from the phenomenology of Jean-Luc Marion, I draw out this suggestion and argue for the important role that visual art can play in imitating Christ. The final section illustrates this point briefly with three paintings: Matthias Grünewald's Crucifixion, Hans Holbein's The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, and Albrecht Dürer's Self-Portrait (1500).
I. IMAGINATION AND IMITATION
- Top of page
- I. IMAGINATION AND IMITATION
- II. ON THE COUNTER-INTENTIONALITY OF ART
- III. THREE ILLUSTRATIONS
- IV. CONCLUDING REMARKS
According to Kierkegaard's pseudonym Anti-Climacus, the fundamental task of human existence is to become, and continue to be, a Christian. As he writes in Practice in Christianity, this is ‘the greatest examination a human being has to take, to which his whole life is assigned…’1 Central to his conception of Christianity is following after and imitating Christ, who is the prototype. Imitation is a crucial category for becoming a Christian, because the life of Christ ‘was designed to require imitators …’ (PC 245). This distinguishes imitation from two ways of mis-relating to Christ: The first is observation, which takes an objective, impersonal posture; to ‘observe’ is to draw near to something, yet in the very same movement to move away from it personally – to become ‘infinitely distant’ subjectively. In the words of Anti-Climacus, ‘by observing I go into the object (I become objective) but I leave myself or go away from myself (I cease to be subjective)’ (PC 234). The second mis-relation is admiration. An admirer is drawn to the object of his admiration but ultimately remains ‘personally detached’, unaware that it makes any claim on him or that he should strive to become like it. The imitator, by contrast, ‘is or strives to be what he admires’ (PC 241). He recognizes the unconditional claim that Christ makes on him, and follows in obedience.
How does the imagination fit into this? According to Anti-Climacus, the imagination is the fundamental human capacity, on which other human capacities such as emotion, intellect, and will depend. It is not one capacity among others; ‘it is the capacity instar omnium’– the capacity for all capacities. Thus ‘whatever of feeling, knowing, and willing a person has depends upon what imagination he has …’ Anti-Climacus defines the imagination as an ‘infinitizing reflection’, in which the self renders an image of itself and its possibilities.2 This movement of infinitizing is crucial given his definition of the self as a synthesis of the finite and the infinite. If the self lacks either finitude or infinitude, it falls into despair. Lacking the infinite, the self succumbs to the despair of apparent necessity; rather than venturing everything in order to become a self before God, the self plays it safe and spends life imitating others, lost in the banality of popular opinion. In short, this despairing self never imagines that life could be anything other than it is depicted in the mundane and mediocre mind of the secular world; it assumes that existence simply has to be the way ‘the others’ represent it (SUD 33–35). The infinitizing reflection of the imagination is therefore vital to break up the calcifications of finitude and introduce the power of the possible. Imagination is the vessel of possibility, of hope, of the ‘What if…’
That said, it is equally vital that the self bring these imagined possibilities back into its concrete, finite existence. Otherwise the imagination [Phantasie] can give way to the fantastic [Phantastiske], whose infinitizing movements lead the self away from itself and its concrete, existential tasks (SUD 30–31). And just as the imagination gives shape to feeling, knowing, and willing, so the fantastic distorts these capacities with its deviant infinitizing: Feeling turns into ‘abstract sentimentality’; knowing becomes inhuman, since it no longer contributes to self-knowledge; and willing likewise becomes abstract, which causes the self to be ‘gradually volatilized’. The will must maintain the appropriate correlation between the infinite and the finite, becoming ‘proportionately as concrete as it is abstract, so that the more infinite it becomes in purpose and determination, the more personally present and contemporary it becomes in the small part of the task that can be carried out at once, so that in being infinitized it comes back to itself in the most rigorous sense’ (SUD 31–32). The fantastic is dangerous because its imaginative reveries never translate into the actual existence of the self.
With this analysis in view, we can understand why Anti-Climacus maintains a dialectical posture regarding the imagination – both affirming and denying it. In Practice in Christianity, he affirms this capacity of capacities insofar as it is ‘the power that is the first condition for what becomes of a person’ (PC 186). The imagination presents us with possible choices, possible actions, and possible ways of being in the world. This is not to say that the imagination lays out an array of existentially neutral possibilities, which an indifferent will can survey in order to make a selection. The transition from possibility to actuality is not a sheer act of the naked will.3 Rather, the imagination reflects one's possibilities in a way that engages the whole person. In the words of Paul Ricoeur, the possibilities given by the imagination give us a world that we might inhabit; through them we glimpse possible ways of being-in-the-world.4 And just as we inhabit our world with our full being, so our imagination of existential possibilities engages our human being in its entirety.
But if there is reason to critique the imagination, we can only appreciate this negative word by recognizing that the second condition of becoming a self is the will. The will, Anti-Climacus argues, is ‘the decisive condition’, and therein lies the basis for his critique of the imagination. Anti-Climacus, like Kierkegaard and other of his pseudonyms,5 is keenly attentive to the great temptations of the imagination, which arise from our propensity to linger in the realm of possibility without making the transition to actuality. For example, it is one thing to imagine the possibility of donating a sum of money to charity; it is quite another thing to actually make the donation. Imagination can be misleading because it allows me to enjoy the possibility of making the donation, without actually doing so. I can cherish thoughts of being a generous, beneficent man, yet neglect to actualize this possibility in the real world; in the meantime, I have moved on to imagine some other possibility. Imagination allows us to jump from possibility to possibility, pretending to be something that we really are not.
This tendency becomes especially problematic in the matter of Christian faith. Anti-Climacus is highly critical of the tendency to imagine a fantastic figure of Christ, to whom we then relate at a distance (PC 100). Anti-Climacus sees this fantastic imagination writ large in the so-called ‘Christian nation’ of Denmark, in which offense had been abolished (PC 99) and replaced with an image of Christ that is ‘only a fantasy picture’ (PC 97). One can poeticize Christ and admire him for working miracles, for being such a wonderful image of humanity, divinity, for his wisdom, etc. – yet all the while neglect the requirement of actually following him.
Here Anti-Climacus reveals a criticism that is common throughout Kierkegaard's writings – pseudonymous and veronymous alike. Kierkegaard was highly critical of Romanticism, which apotheosized the imagination as the vessel for the Infinite and the means of achieving a poetic/aesthetic wholeness that would reconcile nature and spirit, self and world, humanity and divinity.6 According to Kierkegaard, it is also too easy to grasp a poeticized Christianity in the imagination, but the religion of Romanticism lacks the decisive condition that characterizes Christianity – namely, the earnestness of actually following after Christ.7 The Romantic imagination cultivates all the exalted feelings of religion, but without requiring the self to suffer the hardship that accompanies genuine faithfulness.
Anti-Climacus is right to highlight this danger of the imagination, but if his critique is necessary to guard against religious dishonesty or awaken us to self-deception, we must also recognize Anti-Climacus's affirmation of the imagination in faithful Christian existence. In The Sickness Unto Death Anti-Climacus argues, contra Hegel, that ‘actuality is the unity of possibility and necessity’ (SUD 36).8 Thus the actuality of genuine personhood (SUD 40) – i.e. of Christian faith – requires the power of the possible. Although possibility is not a sufficient condition for actuality, it is a necessary condition. As we have already seen, it is the imagination that lets us catch sight of the possible rather than being locked within the confines of apparent necessity. In so doing, the imagination leads us out into existence – into decision, commitment and action. In a journal entry from 1854, Kierkegaard writes that ‘(i)magination is what providence uses to take men captive in actuality, in existence, in order to get them far enough out, or within, or down into actuality. And when imagination has helped them get as far out as they should be – then actuality genuinely begins' (JP 1832).9 Following on this point, I would like to suggest three related roles that the imagination plays in Christian existence.
1. First, the awareness of possibility is given to us through the imagination. Thus imagination plays a vital role in presenting the possibility of following Christ. The call of Christ engages the imagination by presenting an existential possibility – in this case a call from beyond me – that confronts me. As we have seen, it is not enough to savour abstract possibility by imagining myself as a faithful disciple; this possibility needs to take hold of me concretely, so that I embody it subjectively. But since possibility is a necessary ingredient in actuality, we must insist that the possibility of Christian faith requires the initial (and initiating) engagement of the imagination.
2. The imagination continues to serve a vital role in following Christ, since this is an ongoing task, begun ever anew. The reader might get the impression that the imagination is superceded in the transition from the possibility of faith to the actuality of faith, but it would be a mistake to assume that imagination disappears from Christian existence. Anti-Climacus illustrates this with the story of a youth who perceives, in his imagination, the image of Christ's life. Providence uses this image to draw the youth out, presenting this possibility as something to be actualized. Of course, the image he has in mind is an idealized portrait of what the Christian life will be. This is what the imagination does: it idealizes, it envisions perfection. The youth is aware that following Christ will involve suffering, but his image of suffering is an idealized one because the imagination simply cannot grasp the concrete suffering and hardship that the life of faith will bring (PC 192). Thus the youth goes out into the world to realize this image, and the image ‘exercises its power over him, the power of love, which is indeed capable of everything, above all making alike’. As a result the youth's ‘whole deepest inner being is transformed little by little, and he seems to be beginning to resemble, however imperfectly, this image that has made him forget everything …’ (PC 193). The image has a transformative potency, which gradually conforms the youth to the image of Christ. As he begins to embody this image, the youth begins to face the suffering that only actuality can deliver. But he will not abandon this image. As Anti-Climacus writes, becoming a Christian is a matter of holding to this image and being continually transformed into it (PC 193). Thus the further the young man follows Christ, the more acquainted he becomes with suffering. Yet he continues to hold to this image, because this growing image of Christ enables him to persevere despite his abasement (PC 198).
What is interesting about this story is the way God uses the imagination not only to draw the young man out, but also to help him persevere. The imagination is not simply the means of relating to Christ in a poetic, admiring, or abstract way. It is also crucial to the continuity of a faithful life, because the task of becoming a Christian is given to us ‘little by little’ (PC 186). The being of the Christian is, after all, in becoming. True, the transition to faith is a decisive qualitative transition, but we cannot live a lifetime in a single moment. Faith involves continuity over time, and the imagination helps to establish this.
3. There is also an important sense in which imitation is an imaginative act in itself. The task of imitation is a task of interpretation. The image of Christ as prototype is a rupture in our being, because Christ represents perfection – that which is infinitely and qualitatively beyond us. How is it possible to respond, given this diastasis? In Armed Neutrality Kierkegaard observes that the prototypical image of Christ is historically situated, and therefore subject to ‘modifications’ and middle-terms that articulate and clarify its meaning for a particular context. Kierkegaard is not suddenly espousing a correlational theology here, à la Paul Tillich, in which faith is refigured according to cultural norms. However, just as legal documents from the past need to be modified with the addition of middle terms to protect them against the deliberate misinterpretations of ‘rascals’ and ‘swindlers’, so Christianity needs modifications and middle terms to prevent religious dishonesty. In other words, the answer to bad interpretation is better interpretation.
But even more basically, the imitation of Christ is inescapably hermeneutical because Scripture does not gives step-by-step instructions regarding the imitation of Christ in the ‘becoming’ of mundane life. Anyone who has undertaken this task knows that ‘the middle terms are lacking’.10 In order to mediate between the being of the prototype and the becoming of everyday existence, we need interpretive wisdom. In an 1849 journal entry, Kierkegaard observes:
The whole thing is really a metaphor: to rise and dress (put on Christ).
Life is compared to a day. One awakens (night is past – day has come). So one gets up, dresses (puts on Christ).
With regard to the atonement, to put on Christ means, for one thing, to appropriate his merit (in the parable of the king who prepared his son's wedding feast there was one without a wedding garment), and for another, to seek to be like [ligne] him, because he is the prototype [Forbilledet] and example [Exemplet]. This is essentially an expression directed toward inwardness. Just as the expression he uses of his teaching, that it is food, is the strongest expression for appropriation, so the expression of putting on Christ is the strongest expression of resembling [Efterligningen] must be according to the highest possible criterion. It does not say of Christ that you shall try to resemble Christ (to say this implies indirectly that the two still remain essentially unlike); no, you are to put on Christ, put him on yourself – as when someone goes around in borrowed clothes (this is satisfaction vicaria) – put him on, as when someone who looks strikingly like another not only tries to resemble him, but re-presents [giengiver] him. Christ gives you his clothing (satisfaction) and asks you to re- present him (JP 1858).
This passage is helpful insofar as it helps to clarify Kierkegaard's view of the relation between justification and imitation.11 Justification is given to the self, who is passive in the event of atonement. But then Christ also calls the self to action, to actively re-present him – and this involves the imagination. The subjective appropriation of atonement is a matter of putting on12 and re-presenting Christ. Yet this re-presentation is not the work of a merely re-productive imagination. We cannot simply copy Christ, and Kierkegaard rejects the attempt to do so as blasphemous presumption, because no human being has the right to try to copy or perform Christ's salvific work. But the attempt to copy Christ directly is also problematic because the irregularities of everyday existence require the ‘rigor of personal responsibility' (JP 1922), and this requires the creative activity of the productive imagination. What does it mean to love the particularly difficult neighbour I met on the street outside of my apartment this afternoon? What does forgiveness look like in concrete terms? What does it mean to lay down my life for my friends? I cannot simply read the answers directly off the biblical accounts of Christ's life. When it is a matter of envisioning possibilities in these concrete tasks, the imagination allows us to glimpse possibilities for Christian ways of being-in-the-world.13 These are not possibilities that a purely active self dreams up and projects onto the world; rather, these possibilities are engendered by Christ's transformation of reality, and are given through the imagination. As we noted above, the image of Christ is efficacious in transforming the self into the image of Christ; the self begins to resemble Christ as the image works in the self, and as the self follows after Christ in obedience. Thus while atonement is a gift received passively, the subjective appropriation of atonement involves an active as well as a passive dimension. Likewise, there is an active and a passive dimension involved when the imagination allows us to see the responsibilities and irregularities of life as occasions to re-present Christ. As the imagination is transformed, the self begins to understand these circumstances as calling it to responsibility.
II. ON THE COUNTER-INTENTIONALITY OF ART
- Top of page
- I. IMAGINATION AND IMITATION
- II. ON THE COUNTER-INTENTIONALITY OF ART
- III. THREE ILLUSTRATIONS
- IV. CONCLUDING REMARKS
However important the imagination might be for the imitation of Christ, the Kierkegaardian account of imagination has its limitations – one of which concerns the place of art in faithful Christian existence. On this topic Kierkegaard's explicitly Christian writings have little to say, which is disappointing given the rich reflections on the arts in ‘aesthetic’ texts like Either/Or and Stages on Life's Way. Although these earlier works abound with insights regarding literature and the arts, Kierkegaard's later works do not give these expressions of the imagination a very prominent place in the life of faith.14 A certain, more Hegelian reading of his theory of the stages might lead us to expect art to continue to figure into Christian existence: If the truth of the aesthetic is not simply abolished, but lifted into and transformed by the ethical, then this ethically-transformed aesthetic truth should also be preserved when the ethical is aufgehoben in the religious. Moreover, one would also expect the aesthetic to continue to be transformed and refined through Religiousness A and B – and perhaps in Religiousness C, as Merold Westphal has outlined it.15 To some extent, Kierkegaard does offer indications in the direction of a ‘second aesthetics’,16 and the appeal of this strategy is clear, since it rounds out Kierkegaard's ‘second authorship’ and makes it more human by affirming the importance of the poetic and the imaginative within the religious. My concern at this point, however, is the more specific issue of art. Although Kierkegaard provides valuable insights regarding the place of the imagination in Christian existence, the place of art is a slightly different question, since it is possible to affirm the imagination and images while denying a place for art.
At first glance, this would certainly seem to be the case with Anti-Climacus. In spite of his critical affirmation of imagination, he also makes comments that suggest he is ready and willing to slam the door on the idea of ‘Christian art’.17 The question of ‘Christian art’ comes to the fore in section No. III of Practice in Christianity, where Anti-Climacus questions the propriety of the artist painting a portrait of Christ, or the sculptor rendering Christ's image in marble. How can the artist work with such indifference, working on the depiction of Christ with the same seriousness as when he paints, for instance, the goddess of sensuality? This sort of relation runs entirely contrary to the holy. The religious is dislocated – not only for the detached painter, but also the viewer, who evaluates the composition, the play of colours, the use of shadows, etc. Even the realism of the blood and the suffering expression on Christ's face become an occasion for aesthetic admiration rather than an invitation to follow after Christ. At one point Anti-Climacus even draws a parallel between the calm composure of the artist and the murderer calmly sharpening his knife, planning to kill in cold blood. The calm of the artist is just as incomprehensible as the calm of the murderer. Thus Anti-Climacus wonders how the artist could maintain his composure rather than suddenly throwing out his brushes and paints, the way Judas threw away his thirty pieces of silver. He does not insist that this is what the artist should do, nor does he call for a categorical dismissal of Christian art. But he finds its production incomprehensible nonetheless (PC 254–57).
As we have seen, the problem with admiration is much like the problem with observation: Both modes of relating remain personally detached. Anti-Climacus illustrates detached admiration by describing the artistic admirer's fascination with the paint, colours, and shadows in the painting. The admirer might even find its religious themes inspiring or praiseworthy, yet he fails to see beyond the painting to the ultimate significance of Christ, since he never finds ‘the invitation to imitation’ (PC 256). Anti-Climacus uses a similar illustration earlier in the chapter, where he describes the detachment of the observer: When the person ‘observes’ a painting, he moves toward it, but in the very same movement he moves away from himself. He forgets himself; he loses himself in his observation of the painting. The painting is the object in question, but the observer forgets that he himself is a subject, that he is an existing human being. Much less would he suspect that he might be put in question by the object of observation.
Anti-Climacus argues that although it may be possible to approach a painting in this way, it is not possible to grasp Christian truth in this objective manner. Then comes a striking suggestion: Christian truth cannot be reduced to an object of observation because it has, he suggests, ‘its own eyes with which to see; indeed, it seems to be all eyes’ (PC 234). When I attempt to observe Christian truth in a detached, objective way, I suddenly find it looking back at me, observing me, asking me ‘whether I am doing what it says I should do’. As a result, I am unable to observe Christian truth impersonally. Insofar as I make contact with the genuine claim of Christ, I find myself called into question; I am pulled out of my objectivity and called into subjectivity – not the subjectivity of an epistemic subject-object relation, but the subjectivity of responsibility. I am responsible, i.e. answerable, for what I do with this truth. And try as I might, in this moment I can no longer take refuge in detachment.
In reading this passage it is difficult not to think of recent phenomenological discussions regarding counter-intentionality and counterexperience, as described by such thinkers as Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jean-Luc Marion. Most notable here is Marion's analysis of the icon, in which the subject's gaze is met by the gaze of another, resulting in a reversal and ‘crossing’ of gazes. Marion has written extensively on the icon as one of the primary types of the ‘saturated phenomenon,’ in which the constituting subject encounters an excess of intuition that ‘saturates’ any intention she might use to comprehend the phenomenon. In Husserlian terms, this intuitive fulfillment overflows any intending signification, such that the ‘I’ cannot unify the phenomenon according to a single univocal meaning, let alone constitute it as an object.18 Consequently, the constituting ‘I’ gives way to the witness, who experiences herself as constituted by this phenomenon.19
Concerning the icon more specifically, in The Crossing of the Visible20 Marion argues that it ‘inverts the modern logic of the image’ (CV 61), since it undoes our usual way of thinking about the relation between the visible and the invisible. The ‘modern’ logic in question is one of mimesis, in which the visible image copies or doubles an invisible original (CV 83). On this view the image would seem to be inevitably idolatrous, because it tries to establish a visible duplication of the invisible. As Marion observes, this is the concept of the visible image that iconoclasm presupposes (CV 67). There is something correct about the critique of the idolatrous image, which never truly carries the gaze to an invisible beyond. Instead, it reduces the invisible to the plane of the visible, giving the viewer an objective image on which to fix his intentional gaze. The idol is actually quite adept at this reduction, but it ultimately cannot be more than a mirror, reflecting the viewer's gaze back onto itself.21 The idol is therefore only capable of achieving a faux transcendence.
With the icon, by contrast, the invisible is not reduced to a visible spectacle. This visibility offers no objective image for me to fix in my gaze. Much to the contrary, when I approach the icon ‘it is a matter not so much of seeing a spectacle as of seeing another gaze that sustains mine, confronts it, and eventually overwhelms it’ (CV 57). A crossing of the gazes takes place, in which my intentional gaze is met by a counter-gaze – the invisible gaze of another person passing through the icon,22 frustrating my desire to be the unseen seer who can observe the icon in detachment. As John Manoussakis has observed, the counter-intentional gaze of the icon is due to the ‘inverse or inverted perspective’ in which it is painted. Whereas the Renaissance mastered the technique of creating the impression of depth in the background of the painting, the icon inverts that remote horizon and projects it ‘outwards, behind and beyond the viewer toward whom it always extends itself’. The horizon is exteriorized on our side, such that we are now the object observed by the subject in the icon.23 Thus the gaze of another crosses mine, and instead of it being an object that I constitute, I suddenly find myself constituted by it. As Marion writes:
Before the profane image, I remain the viewer unseen by an image that is reduced to the rank of an object (the aesthetic object remains an object) constituted, at least in part, by my gaze. Before the icon, if I continue to look, I feel myself seen (I must feel myself thus in order for it to function effectively as an icon). Thus the image no longer creates a screen (or, as in the case of the idol, a mirror) since through it and under its features another gaze – invisible like all gazes – envisages me. The original thus does not belong to the objectivity (confiscated or not by the image) that it would reduplicate. The original intervenes, through the imaged objectivity, as a pure gaze crossing a gaze (CV 59).
As a result, the counter-gaze coming from the icon prevents me from reducing the image to an objective target of vision, and it calls me to respond to the claim it makes on me.24
The similarities between Marion and Anti-Climacus on this point are provocative, but it would be a mistake to gloss over the differences between their respective accounts.25 Deeper comparison and differentiation are in order, particularly concerning what Anti-Climacus might make of Marion's analysis of the interplay of the visible and the invisible, since Anti-Climacus's critique of art recalls Luther's distinction between the theologia gloriae and the theologia crucis.26 In outlining the theology of the cross in his Heidelberg Disputation, Luther insists on the falsity of any theology that purports to see the invisible things of God as though they can be perceived or demonstrated in the visible.27 The truth is hidden under the appearance of its contrary; rather than appearing directly in glory, it is given indirectly, as ugliness, weakness, and shame. The indirect appearance of Christian truth is of course a central theme for Kierkegaard, and it guides his critique of art. Hence his remarks in Judge for Yourself!:
There was a time when art tried to portray the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. It was no doubt a misunderstanding, since he cannot possibly be portrayed in this way, since his glory is in the invisible, the inward, and he, the sign of contradiction – what a contradiction to want to paint this! – concealed in a contrary exterior. Consequently art will in vain try its hand at this.28
With regard to Christian truth, the project of ‘Christian art’ is a vain misunderstanding, and it seems that even when art tries to depict the suffering of the via crucis, it inclines toward the via gloriae. The problem with art is that it tries to render the invisible directly visible. But Kierkegaard's complaint against the ‘visible’ is not, N.B., concerned with visual art alone. This is why he proceeds to critique the attempt to use ‘the art of words’ to portray Christ directly.29 His complaint targets all efforts to render the truth of Christianity directly present – whether it is through artistic, linguistic, or conceptual means, because they nurture the detached, objective posture. Christianity cannot be understood as an object by a detached observer; it must take hold of and transform the life of the subject.
Given the indirect, paradoxical nature of Christianity, Kierkegaard insists that Christian truth must be communicated indirectly, so that it reaches to the inwardness of the reader's subjectivity. Kierkegaard's voluminous pseudonymous authorship attests to his hope that language might serve the work of indirection, and that it might undermine its own drive toward objective, conceptual presence. But if he is willing to pursue this possibility through writing, we might also wonder if other forms of art might also serve the cause of indirection. In that case, visual art would not be essentially or inevitably condemned to serve the detached, objective gaze, but could potentially confront the viewer in her subjectivity. Anti-Climacus does not suggest this possibility explicitly, but in Practice in Christianity we can glimpse something that approximates Marion's distinction between the idolatrous and the iconic image. This comes as a surprise, since Anti-Climacus does not explicitly distinguish between different types of artistic images, and we might not expect his rather severe critique of ‘Christian art’ to be nuanced enough to support such a distinction. After all, he does not mince words in wondering whether Christian art is a ‘new paganism,’ and even possibly sacrilege (PC 254, 256). But on the other hand, while Anti-Climacus maintains that any attempt to make Christ directly recognizable – whether in language, concept, or visual image – is idolatry (PC 136, 143), his objection to ‘Christian art’ is not primarily concerned with artistic attempts to bring the invisible into visibility. First and foremost, he objects to the way art encourages observation and admiration and thereby obscures the call to follow after Christ. In this regard his critique is an extension of the earlier critique of imagination, insofar as art and the imagination can both hinder the tasks of faithful existence.
But just as we found reason to affirm the imagination after working through Anti-Climacus's critique, I want to suggest that there is a basis for a retrieval and affirmation of ‘Christian art’ (however ambiguous this notion might be in its own right) on the far side of his critique. First of all, we need to recognize that Anti-Climacus does not reject Christian art categorically, nor does he assert that it is necessarily oriented toward observation and admiration. In fact, he expresses his hesitation in venturing his criticism, however vehement it might be. Twice he states that he has no desire to pass judgment on anyone, lest he commit an injustice (PC 254, 56), and at times he even seems to be inviting a counter-argument. Rather than calling for the abolition of Christian art, he is trying to highlight the problematic status of such a phenomenon. Secondly, although Anti-Climacus does not explicitly articulate an account of genuinely edifying art, the text does contain some provocative clues regarding this possibility. This is where Marion's distinction between the idol and the icon is helpful: Anti-Climacus recognizes the dangers of an objectifying, detached aesthetic admiration of Christ, but the text also hints at the possibility of another type of artistic image, more akin to Marion's description of the icon.
We have noted the likeness between Marion's description of the icon and Anti-Climacus's description of Christian truth, since both phenomena counter the subject's gaze with a gaze of their own. According to Anti-Climacus, Christian truth reverses my detached, observational gaze, calling me to account and asking me about my relation to the truth. But what exactly does he mean by ‘Christian truth’? How do we encounter it? The Kierkegaardian answer is that Christian truth is given first and foremost through Scripture, which reveals Christ to us authoritatively. But beneath the Word of God appears the human word, and while the latter does not have divine authority, it can attest or witness to that authority. This is the space in which Kierkegaard's pseudonymous authorship operates – in which he writes as a religious poet, without authority but nevertheless about authority, trying to communicate its claims indirectly. The problem of writing about Christian truth is of course a central problem in Kierkegaard's thought, and we could consider numerous examples of the way written text reverses the objectifying gaze.30 But what about visual art? Is visual art necessarily committed to the modern logic of mimesis– as though the visible is a direct expression of the invisible? Could the visible point beyond itself, and allow the invisible to appear indirectly? I want to press these questions, and suggest that although Practice in Christianity does not give us a full-fledged theory of the visual image (let alone an iconology), the text does open itself to the possibility that visual art is one way in which the call of Christ might confront us.
Christ does not call us to admiration, but to imitation. This is why Christian truth overturns my detached gaze and asks me if I am doing what I am supposed to do. When I truly encounter the truth, I find that it is ‘all eyes’. However, given the critique of Christian art that Anti-Climacus will make later in the same chapter, it is intriguing that he chooses to illustrate this counter-gaze with the example of a painting. At this point Anti-Climacus is discussing observation: We can observe a painting in a detached, objective way, just as we can look at and feel a piece of cloth to examine its qualities.
But it would be very disturbing, indeed, it would be impossible, for me to look at a painting or a piece of cloth if I discovered while looking at it that it was the painting or the cloth that was looking at me. And this is the case with the Christian truth; it is Christian truth that is observing me, whether I am doing what it says I should do (PC 234).
Christian truth reverses my gaze, pulling me out of my detached, observing posture into responsible subjectivity – asking me to give an account of myself, calling me to respond, to follow after Christ.
Is it significant that Anti-Climacus illustrates this encounter with the example of a painting? On the one hand, we might equally ask why he uses the example of a piece of cloth; perhaps the only significance is that paintings and cloth are objects of observation, whereas Christian truth will not permit observation. Or maybe Anti-Climacus uses the example of a painting (or piece of cloth) looking back at me simply as a sort of thought experiment to illustrate the way Christian truth actually does confront me. Whatever the case, the painting example is intriguing because it suggests a counter-example to the critique that Anti-Climacus raises shortly hereafter. We cannot determine what intention Anti-Climacus (or Kierkegaard) might have in using this example, but speculation about authorial intent is precisely the sort of questioning that Kierkegaard's pseudonymous authorship forestalls. Instead, Kierkegaard's authorship turns us away from the author to grapple with the text for ourselves. In this case it may even be necessary to read the text against itself – to read Anti-Climacus against Anti-Climacus, for the sake of Anti-Climacus. The painting example creates an internal tension within the text, since it indicates the sort of artistic phenomenon that would avoid the critique Anti-Climacus is about to offer. In such an encounter the artwork would be unavailable to the objectifying gaze; instead it would envisage me, constituting me as a subject responsible for the claims it sets forth. And is this not what the best art does? Obviously we can take a detached approach to Christian art, observing it, admiring it, but we can take the same approach to icons, Scripture, or even Christ himself.31 Yet when the object of such observation shows itself to us, we find ourselves in a very different relation to it. We find ourselves in question. We are responsible for what we do with this truth.
We can now discern something analogous to Marion's distinction between the idol and the icon: According to Anti-Climacus, the artwork can tempt us to ‘admire’ Christ; by cultivating aesthetic appreciation, or even by nurturing religious or spiritual feelings, we sidestep the requirement of following Christ. Similarly, art can mirror the desires and expectations that we bring to it, confirming the fantastic projections of our religious imaginations. But art can also call us into question; it can ask if we are doing what Christ demands. Like the icon in Marion's analysis, art can counter our gaze and call us to responsibility. This is not to suggest that Anti-Climacus's iconoclastic tendencies actually conceal some sort of iconophilia. Nevertheless, his description of the counter-intentional painting does provide the basis on which we can retrieve and affirm artistic expressions of Christian truth – in art that addresses us as viewers, and will not let us rest in detached observation or admiration.
Furthermore, this understanding of Christian art is entirely consistent with Anti-Climacus's earlier affirmation of the imagination and its crucial role in Christian existence. Recall his story of the young man, who begins his life of faith with an image of Christ to imitate. Through this image Providence engages his imagination, and continues to draw him out further in following Christ, and through this image he continues to be transformed in his imitation of Christ. It would be a mistake to overlook the way the faithful imagination can be challenged and nourished by works of art, including artistic depictions of Christ. In order to illustrate this point, in the final section of this paper I want briefly to consider three examples of paintings that can function in this way.
III. THREE ILLUSTRATIONS
- Top of page
- I. IMAGINATION AND IMITATION
- II. ON THE COUNTER-INTENTIONALITY OF ART
- III. THREE ILLUSTRATIONS
- IV. CONCLUDING REMARKS
Since it would be a stretch to present Anti-Climacus (or Kierkegaard) as a philosopher of icons, I have chosen three paintings that illustrate the transformative and edifying power of art while fitting more convincingly within Kierkegaard's philosophical and theological sensibilities.32
1. My first example is the crucifixion scene from Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece. Grünewald's painting is one of the most famous works associated with the theologia crucis, and for obvious reasons: It is a stunning witness to the divine hiddenness in the event of Christ's crucifixion. There is little here to suggest glory, nobility, or triumph; instead we see the suffering and ignominy of the cross. There is no attractive form or majesty that we might desire this despised and forsaken man (Isaiah 53.2–3), let alone conclude he is God. Only faith can see God's glory hidden within this visible scene.33
Grünewald's painting highlights the offense of the cross rather than presenting any fantastic image of Christ in glory, and it overturns the viewer's desire to cultivate admiration and observation at the price of offense. In this regard it pronounces the meaning of Christ's call in a resounding way.34 But in addition to the gruesome depiction of Christ, which is challenging in itself, there is also great significance in John the Baptist's pointing finger – something that fascinated Karl Barth: ‘can anyone point away from himself more impressively and completely (illum oportet crescere me autem minui)?’35 John's hand, so pronounced in its act of transcending itself, points not to himself, nor his own agenda or ideas, but to Christ. This hand, Barth suggests, exemplifies the proper task of the theologian, which is why he kept a copy of Grünewald's painting at his desk throughout his career, as a reminder.36 I would add that John's finger also points in the way of all Christian faith, as a following after Christ: He must increase; I must decrease (John 3.30). In an essay on Grünewald's Crucifixion, Roy A. Harrisville writes of the copy that hangs over his bed –‘like the scriptures more of a challenge or even a judgment than of something known or understood’.37 Grünewald's painting confronts me with the question of whether my own existence is similarly oriented toward Christ.
That said, there is nothing in this painting – nor any painting – that will make it impossible for me to observe and admire it in a detached way. I can admire John's remarkable hand, or even marvel at the sublime anguish of Christ's suffering – after all, horror and ugliness can be beautiful in their own paradoxical way.38 Anti-Climacus's critique could apply to this painting as easily as any other, because the visible remains the visible, and can therefore always be objectified.39 Yet that is Luther's point in emphasizing divine hiddenness: We cannot conclusively demonstrate Christ's glory with anything visible – whether sensibly or intellectually visible. This requires a hermeneutics of faith, because it is not available to demonstration.
2. We find an even more striking instance of the divine hiddenness in Hans Holbein's horrifying The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. In a famous statement from his Letters of a Russian Traveler, Nikolai Karamzin writes: ‘In Christ deposed from the cross nothing divine can be seen; instead he is depicted thoroughly naturally as a dead person’.40 This description aroused the curiosity of Dostoyevsky, who later saw it with his wife Anna. Anna reported that while the painting horrified her, Dostoyevsky was deeply impressed with and full of admiration for it, and ‘proclaimed Holbein a wonderful artist and poet’.41 At a later date she wrote about the viewing further:
The painting overwhelmed Fyodor Mikhailovich, and he stopped in front of it as if stricken. For my part, I was unable to keep my eyes on it. It was too painful, especially in my delicate condition, and I went into another room. When I returned about fifteen or twenty minutes later I found Fyodor Mikhailovich still standing there as if rooted to the spot. On his agitated face was the sort of frightened expression I had often noticed during the first moments of an epileptic seizure. I quietly took my husband's arm, led him to another room and made him sit down on a bench, expecting him to have a seizure any minute. Fortunately, it did not come. Little by little, Fyodor Mikhailovich calmed down, and when we were leaving he insisted on going to take another look at the painting that had made such an impression on him.42
We cannot say what Dostoyevsky's response to Holbein's painting meant, nor what sort of ‘admiration’ he held for it, but the influence of this viewing was borne out in his novel The Idiot. Prince Myshkin is dumbstruck by Rogozhin's copy of the painting, and later cries out that ‘some people may lose their faith by looking at that picture!’43 It would seem from this painting that death is the final reality of human existence.44
Is it correct to speak of the ‘anti-religious significance’ of Holbein's painting, as Leonid Grossman does in his biography of Dostoyevsky?45 Or does it depict the culmination of the theologia crucis? (Perhaps both points are true, insofar as the cross pronounces the decisive critique of human religiosity). Holbein's painting brings to the fore the historical, physical reality of the man Jesus Christ. Here we see the abasement of Christ at its end, when the divine is most fully hidden. This is the incognito46 at its furthest extreme. It is the offense of Christ's lowliness. As Julia Kristeva suggests, Holbein's painting captures ‘the point at which glory is obliterated by means of graphics’.47 It undermines any fantastic conception in which Christ, in Anti-Climacus's words, ‘is not the individual human being who stands face to face with one’ (PC 103). It will not make itself available to poetic admiration, nor detached observation. Instead, I find myself confronted with Christ's question: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (Matthew 16.15). Do I believe that this is only the decaying corpse of a human being, or do I believe that this is the body of the Word made flesh, who was resurrected from this state of decay?
3. My third example is Albrecht Dürer's Self-Portrait (1500), which stands in marked contrast to the first two illustrations. In this work Dürer makes the bold move of painting himself in the likeness of Christ. As Jean-Louis Chrétien observes, ‘Dürer follows the iconographic type of the Salvator mundi, and represents himself full face and frontally, in a gesture of blessing’, while remaining at the same time ‘perfectly recognizable’ as Dürer.48 The result is something quite different from Grünewald and Holbein: The Christlike Dürer is handsome, composed, and dignified, which is in keeping with Dürer's conviction that art should glorify God by emphasizing the beauty of Christ, Mary, Samson, and other biblical figures, much like pagan art gave its gods ideal human shapes and proportions.49 On one level Dürer seems to be a prime target for Kierkegaard's critique of the ‘paganism’ that replaces the incognito with the ‘recognizability’50 of an attractive, aesthetically pleasing Christ. But on another level the practice of painting oneself in Christ's likeness expresses an idea that is central to Kierkegaard's thought – namely, the imitation of Christ. Chrétien suggests that this practice, which is not unique to Dürer, is not the fruit of narcissism, megalomania, or blasphemy among painters, but ‘an act of offering their own features so that Christ may come and transfigure them and bring them into conformity with himself’. This artistic practice is one of religious submission, inviting the face of Christ to take shape in one's own face. For this reason, Chrétien argues that the vision that results from this practice ‘is not a spectacle. It is transformative, and it transforms us in our inter-relations with others’.51
Chrétien's insight regarding this practice is an important one because it shows, contra Anti-Climacus, that the artist is not necessarily a Judas painting Christ with the same feeling with which he paints pagan goddesses. Instead, the work of painting becomes a submissive act of imitation, of following after, of being conformed to the likeness of Christ. Could it be that this practice embodies what Kierkegaard describes in his journal as rising, dressing, and putting on Christ so as to re-present him?52 In this practice the artist opens himself to the transformative exchange of gazes with Christ. As Chrétien writes, ‘we see ourselves, in truth, in Christ … gazing towards Christ and allowing him to gaze at us, with that creative gaze that, literally, envisages us’, all the while preserving and even nurturing our individuality.53
Dürer's Self-Portrait also provides a response to Anti-Climacus's objection that Christian art evokes observation or admiration, but not imitation. More specifically, this painting gives a remarkable expression to the way faithful existence involves my response to the call of Christ as well as my response to my neighbour. When I turn toward Dürer's self-portrait, I find myself facing Christ as well as my neighbour – the other human who bears Christ's likeness, whom I am commanded to love. In this image, Christ and the neighbour confront me together; they are not identical, they do not directly coincide, but neither are they clearly separable. As I look at Dürer's face I initially see the likeness of the painter, but I then begin to recognize the likeness of Christ in this face, as well – what Wittgenstein calls ‘noticing an aspect’.54 Wittgenstein illustrates this ‘dawning’ of an aspect with Jastrow's famous duck-rabbit. The recognition of a likeness in a face is phenomenologically more complex than alternating between seeing a duck and seeing a rabbit; the difference between the duck and the rabbit allows me to see only one at a time – never both at once, because these alternating aspects are incommensurable. But with the face of Dürer-Christ, it becomes quite difficult to isolate a single aspect –either Dürer or Christ. The longer I gaze at the portrait, the less decisive the boundary between the two personae appears. The threshold between the two aspects is less clear because of the way the two faces unite. This is not to deny that there are alternate aspects, and it could be that it is easier to recognize the likeness of Dürer. But eventually I cannot see Dürer without glimpsing a trace of the likeness of Christ. For instance, Dürer's face recalls the icon of Christ Pantocrator;55 on his left side Dürer's face is darker and has a sterner arched eyebrow, and his hand is raised to evoke the gesture of blessing.56 But neither can I see Christ without Dürer's likeness coming along (e.g. the northern European features and clothing, and the likeness he shares with Dürer's other self-portraits). It may be that my recognition of each aspect alternates very quickly between the two. However, when I cease trying to isolate a single persona – when I cease trying to determine if the hair, the beard, or the hand more closely resembles Dürer or Christ – and let my attention rest on the gaze of the person facing me in this portrait, Christ and Dürer are not competing for my attention. Instead, I discover that I cannot fix this gaze; I cannot grasp it or control it. As Marion observes, ‘(t)he look of the other person remains unable to be looked at.’57 I find myself envisaged by this gaze, and called to respond.
It is not immediately clear what my response might look like in concrete terms. Is this call a prohibition against violating this other person? Is it a command (or perhaps an invitation) to love? Perhaps it even prompts me to joy over the image of Christ that I see here, transforming my brother. Marion is right to insist on the impossibility of reducing all that is given here to a single univocal meaning. But through all of these injunctions, I am acutely aware that my response matters. I am responsible for what I do with this gaze.
Finally, the difficulty of separating these two personae (Dürer and Christ) clearly and distinctly from each other also attests to the biblical idea that what I have done for the least among my neighbours, I have done for Christ.58 It may be the case that my intending gaze can only serve the duck or the rabbit at any given moment, but this is not the case with my concrete response to Christ and the neighbour. The command to love God with all one's heart, soul, and strength is distinct yet inseparable from the command to love one's neighbour as oneself – particularly in those instances when my response to my neighbour is my response to Christ. Dürer's painting attests to the inter-facing of three persons: Christ, my neighbour, and I.
This raises the difficult problem of determining how Kierkegaard understands the relation between one's duty to God and the neighbour.59 That is a question for another paper, though I do not say that simply to elude the problem; at some point we need to ask whether Anti-Climacus has a sufficiently social conception of imitation. How does the neighbour enter into the relation between the individual and Christ? Christ calls us to imitate his invitation to the weak and downtrodden, those who labor and are burdened, and it is no accident that Anti-Climacus devotes the first three meditations of Practice in Christianity to Matthew 11.28. It is less clear, though, how the other Christian enters into the picture. Of course, the fellow believer is also my neighbour, but as we broach the question of ecclesiology, we bring up the usual old criticisms of Kierkegaard's individualism. Despite the fact that Kierkegaard scholarship has done much to neutralize these objections, the fact remains that his conception of the church and Christian fellowship is significantly underdeveloped. Thus Dürer's portrait poses an important point: As I catch a glimpse of my neighbour, my brother, being transformed into the likeness of Christ – an event that is similarly hidden and invisible,60 I experience this as a source of joy, as a reason for thankfulness and celebration. Anti-Climacus (and Kierkegaard) was right to attack the false imitation so rampant in Christendom, in which I become a Christian simply by acting like ‘the others’. But it would be a mistake to overlook the way in which the transformation of one's brothers and sisters can encourage me to follow after Christ. Consequently, we also need to consider whether there is a place for a genuinely faithful imitation of other Christians (Hebrews 6.11–12; 13.7). When I glimpse this transformation in others – in my everyday life, but also in artistic images – it initiates a desire for that possibility to transform my own existence. And that, it seems to me, is an immensely important role that art can play in faithful Christian existence.