Representational Art - Ydi Coetsee
With opened eyes - representational art
by Ydi Coetsee
A few weeks ago I was at the first South African L’Abri week on the Arts, a shared dream to live out something of Francis Schaeffer’s vision for Christians to engage critically with culture and to share life in community.
One of the greatest blessings of the week was to have both conceptual artists and figurative artists present, having robust conversations about art and appreciating each other’s work. In the local (secular) arts community ‘conceptual’ and ‘representational’ often aren’t mentioned in the same sentence.
It was discouraging to hear that there are still South African churches opposed to figurative art in the church because of its perceived Old Testament stance towards image making and idolatry. This was particularly relevant as I had prepared a talk on representational art and faith.
I argued that whereas in western history the stance against representation usually came from religious groups, today it is, ironically, the secular theorists who oppose it. A quote often used to demonstrate this is one by W.J.T. Mitchell, Professor of English and Art. He writes that “instead of providing a transparent window on the world, images are now regarded as the sort of sign that presents a deceptive appearance of naturalness and transparency concealing an opaque, distorted, arbitrary mechanism of representation, a process of ideological mystification (1986:8).”
In the department where I studied fine arts, representational art was something to be suspicious of, ‘a dubious form of artistic expression’. Those who were competent in drawing and painting were encouraged to ‘unlearn’ their prior art education (often gained at respectable art schools) and to engage in more contemporary methods. Just as in the 19th-century West the only perceived way to practice fine arts was with paint and canvas, non-representational art was now offered as the only alternative.
So why this great shift in the arts?
The theoretical answer is of course manifold. In the West post-structuralist theory shook the foundation of semiotics and in the East representational painting was used as propagandist tools for communist China and Russia. Stefan R. Landsberger from the Chinese Posters Foundation explains that “subjects were represented hyper-realistically, as ageless, larger-than-life peasants, soldiers, workers and educated youth in dynamic poses. Their strong and healthy bodies functioned as metaphors for the strong and healthy productive classes the State wanted to propagate.”
In 2003 a culmination of the literary and aesthetic theories dealing with representation was published under the title The Abyss of Representation: Marxism and the Postmodern Sublime. One reviewer describes it as "a strong elaboration of the failure inherent in representation and that failure’s relevance to a cultural and political theory."
In retrospect I believe that what theorists called the ‘failure of representation’ was in reality the ‘failure of theory’. Critical theory and practice lost its grasp on one another. The theoretical world no longer described the reality of making art but started dictating to it. The artist could no longer understand or engage meaningfully with theory but felt inhibited by it.
I’m happy I later engaged with artists from other backgrounds and other generations (especially in other African countries and abroad), because it gave me perspective on the confusing and often contradictory set of values promoted by the post-modern university. By listening to L’Abri talks and reading apologetics books I realised that the worldview from which I was creating art and the worldview proposed by the institution were completely different.
So how do we respond to the ‘lost innocence’ of representational art? Four things surfaced in my thinking so far.
Firstly, seeing is powerful.
The question of power (who gets to see what) goes all the way back to the garden. When the serpent offers Eve the fruit from the forbidden tree he explains that “when you eat from it your eyes will be opened”. Satan suggests that God is concealing something from them. God’s power is something they desire for themselves.
Secondly, seeing isn’t always the artist’s responsibility.
To some extent postmodernism holds the artist responsible for what they create rather than placing the responsibility on the viewer for what they see.
In his ministry proclaiming the kingdom of God, Christ explains that he alone cannot be held accountable for his listener’s seeing or lack of seeing. In the parable of the sower in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples ask him why he speaks to the people in parables. He replies with Isaiah’s prophesy; “For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.”
Thirdly, as Christians we need conceptual seeing
Most South Africans worship in churches where stock images, vectors, digital projections and clip-art make up the only visual forms of art. Whereas stock images aren’t in themselves wrong, they accustom us to easily consumable images, images primarily created as (western) commodities to buy and sell online. Futhermore, although some forms of hand-drawn images are employed by church community, these seem directed primarily towards children, leaving little space for mature Christians to engage imaginatively and poetically with scripture.
Postmodernism’s characteristic scepticism (at best) and cynicism (at worst) can be valuable even to the Christian communities. Instead of simplified pictures, God invites his people to rich and complex engagements with art and artmaking. Consider this passage in Ezekiel 4. God asks the prophet to take a block of clay, put it in front of him and “draw the city of Jerusalem on it” (i.e. representational art). Ezekiel then has to lay siege to the city, lying first on his left side and later on his right (i.e. the conceptual part). “You are to bear their sin for the number of days you lie on your side.” I could not help but think of performance art as I imagined Ezekiel lying on his side. After the performance of more than a year God asks him to make bread "in the sight of the people". Kneading dough or sifting flour “in the sight of the people” are pieces of drama I have often seen in South African contemporary galleries.
Inspired by this interesting combination of figurative and conceptual art in Scripture, I imagined a church community where creative performances or interventions pointed to God, rather than watered-down PowerPoint versions of the truth.
Fourthly, representational art has pitfalls
Representational art is just as capable in dealing with the complexity of contemporary life, yet it needs to be up for the challenge and beware of the pitfalls. “Art isn’t at all like dogmatics", Robin Jensen explains. "It isn’t even very much like constructive theology. Visual art, like poetry, doesn’t restate propositions or even directly parallel them. It projects a vision, one that we must see to understand, and whose truth lies outside of verbal explanation (2004: 146)”.
Figurative art can become dogmatic or kitsch so easily. In the enacted dramas of the prophets and the metaphorical parables of Christ, the artist does not merely restate propositional truth, they cast a vision that seems simple at first, even deceptively simple, but in reality requires deep and thoughtful contemplation by the viewer.
Fellow South African and theologian Johan Cilliers explains how 'kitsch' in Christian art can hinder believers in their search for true wisdom.
Kitsch simplifies and trivializes complex ideas by reducing them to stereotypes. It in fact oversimplifies life, glossing over paradoxes and therefore also flattens out the hard edges of Scripture, trivializing and domesticating it... In the process it becomes untrue and unfaithful to life, handing out recipes and how-to-do-it’s instead of wisdom and discernment (2010:4).
Thinking back on how deeply the theoretical stance against representation impacted my identity as figurative artist, I was lucky to have gained new perspective. My Christian community pointed out the limitations of critical theory and the need to ground myself back in reality. Both representational art and conceptual art have its limitations, but both can engage with the complex world we find ourselves in. The challenge is to embrace in our artmaking both the playfulness of the child and the shrewd discernment of Jesus Christ.
Yda Cornelia Coetsee (b. 1990) is a young South African artist who holds a MA Fine Arts from the University of Stellenbosch. Her art practice centers on representational painting and includes landscapes, portraits and interior themes hinting at the social milieu of the SA context. After her studies Ydi spent a year working at a contemporary art gallery and spent a few weeks at L'Abri UK. Since 2016 she has been painting and doing freelance work. In 2017 she was included in the top 40 of the Sanlam Portrait Awards, and in May 2018 had her first big solo, titled "Stay/Bly". Ydi is interested in the intersection between Christianity, culture and the arts and enjoys history, adventure and mountaineering. Her own work is shown at www.ydicoetsee.com and on facebook (Ydi Coetsee Art)
You can read more about L’Abri Fellowship at www.labri.org.