Austin Explorations

Michael Austin, Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination, Equinox 2005

This book rewards careful reading and can be viewed from two perspectives. On the one hand, it offers an interesting set of arguments about the nature of art and the way in  which the appreciation of art can encourage new ways of doing theology. On the other hand, it offers a fascinating guide into various discussions about art theory, with citations and references to a wide range of literature reflecting the thoughts of critics and artists.

The author makes a strong pleas for understanding ‘imagination’ as something far more than ‘make-believe’ and to see it as an important instrument of human understanding. His discussion of ‘vision’ includes an examination of the writings of Baron von Hügel and Evelyn Underhill, as well Cezanne and Matisse. He explores intuitive ways of ‘seeing’ and knowing as the basis for a radical critique of the notion of doctrine. While this reader cannot follow to Austin’s conclusions with regard to the way in which doctrine limits and tames the biblical revelation, there is much here to stimulate conversations about theological method – or perhaps conversations about the nature for theology.

In particular, he explores the intention of the Cubists and sees in their multidimensional approach an analogy which can inform theological method. He argues that the principal challenge which the Cubists sought to address was how to construct the object as it is rather than as the painter sees it, or in the words of their contemporary critic Jacques Rivière ‘that is to say, in the form of geometric volume, set free from lighting effects’. I have some sympathy with this approach. Over twenty years ago I delivered an all-age talk on a Trinity Sunday using the image of Picasso’s Weeping Woman.

However, when Austin talks of ‘mere dogma’ he seems to be following a liberal agenda rather than following through the implications of his Cubist discussion for theological language. He doesn’t discuss the use of rhetoric in doctrine or the poetic nuances of theological language which can provide an inherent ambiguity of expression, and therefore vision. This which would actually strengthen his advocacy of imagination as a theological tool. He does, however, offer an interesting sketch of what a ‘Cubist Theology’ might look like.

All in all, I ended up reading this book twice, which in some ways is a resounding commendation. However, this reviewer found the discussions of art and art theory more persuasive than the discussions of theology. I would commend it to anyone who is interested in the relationship between art and theology or who wishes to questions of meaning and expression in art and spirituality.


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