Spiritual Moderns: Twentieth-Century American Artists and Religion
(University of Chicago Press, 2022)
In 1927, when the pioneering modernist poet T.S. Eliot converted to the Church of England, his friend Virginia Woolf made no attempt to hide her disdain: “I have just had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Eliot,” she wrote. “He has become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality, and goes to Church. I was shocked…. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”
Woolf’s sneering comments are representative of the broadly canonical view that modern art is essentially and necessarily irreligious. In Spiritual Moderns: Twentieth-Century American Artists & Religion, Erika Doss cites a wealth of similar comments. Rosalind Krauss, for example, describes how “indescribably embarrassing [it is] to mention art and spirit in the same sentence”; James Elkins is less condescending, but still certain that “art that sets out to convey spiritual values goes against the grain of the history of modernism.” The list of statements insisting on a “dissonance or opposition between religion and modernism,” as Doss puts it, goes on.
Through case studies investigating the role of religion in the lives and works of four twentieth century American artists—Joseph Cornell, Mark Tobey, Agnes Pelton, and Andy Warhol—and through a short closing chapter discussing Christian imagery in more recent art, Doss demonstrates how reductive this dismissal of spirituality really is. She never says explicitly that an exclusively irreligious art world impoverishes itself, but she does not have to: Doss’s analyses of her subjects’ paintings, informed both by art history and by religious studies, show that an attunement to religious traditions can deepen the power and meaning of even ostensibly secular art.
Andy Warhol, for example, was raised in a Byzantine Catholic community. Rather than jettisoning this faith in adulthood, he attended mass regularly, often more than once a week, and kept a crucifix and prayerbook beside his bed. Doss argues that Warhol’s Eastern Christianity was not just a biographical quirk, but an essential influence on his art. In Warhol’s sequences of reproduced, near-identical images and portraits, Doss sees the appropriation of “Byzantine Catholicism’s iconic sensibility.” His portraits of Marilyn Monroe “illustrate how practices of seeing and believing sanction celebrity and sacrality in modern America,” just as Byzantine icons invite viewers into a sacred and embodied practice of sight and belief. For Doss, Warhol’s pop art prints become spiritual meditations on America’s implicit religion of celebrity and consumerism.
The particulars of Doss’s claims about Warhol are mostly not new, but in placing them alongside discussions of very different artists, all within the broader context of “the significance of religion in the making and meaning of modern American art,” Doss successfully demonstrates that the story of American modernism is not as secular as it is often presumed to be, and shows without telling that art criticism and history that disregard religion are necessarily shallower than a discourse open to religious thinking and concerns.
Along the way, however, Doss raises more questions than she answers about the categories of identity, belief, and aesthetics that form the basis for her argument. As she explains, “Spiritual Moderns focuses on modern American artists who were religious, not religious artists who lived in modern times. This distinction is crucial,” Doss emphasizes. “To be ‘religious’ is to believe in a transcendent reality and, for some, to follow the tenets of a particular religion […. Whereas] to be a ‘religious artist’ is to illustrate, affirm, and proselytize on behalf of certain religions.” Though this distinction may be “crucial,” her own arguments show that it is not as clear as these categories suggest.
Consider her profile of Mark Tobey and his relationship to the Baháʼí Faith. Tobey formally converted to Baháʼí, a universalist and humanist religion that originated in mid-nineteenth century Iran, in 1918. “Despite his protestations that he was ‘not’ a Baháʼí artist,” Doss writes, “Tobey painted a large number of canvases […] illustrating Baháʼí historical figures and events.” She interprets his 1939 painting Retreat from Civilization as an illustration of the “horrifying consequences for a world that refuses Baháʼí’s spiritual guidance,” and concludes her section on his life and art with the summarizing statement that “Tobey never stopped searching for stylistic means of conveying his faith.”
Tobey is best known for his “white writing” paintings, a style of abstract expressionism involving densely interwoven white, calligraphic brushstrokes. These, too, were expressions of his faith: as Doss explains, “Tobey unequivocally linked his white writing with his religion’s prophetic designs,” and understood them in a lineage of Baháʼí writing that saw it as a “prophetic act of releasing the word of God.”
According to Doss’s own definitions of a religious artist, it is not clear why this category excludes Tobey. Doss’s own account, after all, describes the ways that Tobey’s paintings express and celebrate his Baháʼí beliefs. Doss cites, and disagrees with, Theodor Adorno’s claim that “the dichotomy between art and religion is irreversible.” But by maintaining the seemingly rigid distinction between religious art and the art produced by her book’s subjects, she reifies Adorno’s binary, a binary which her book otherwise argues convincingly against.
Why not describe Mark Tobey as a religious artist? Or Agnes Pelton, whose paintings illustrate her occultist belief system; or Joseph Cornell, whose idiosyncratic assemblages, in Doss’s analysis, reflect his faith in Christian Science? Her study of Cornell is another highlight, as she interprets his surrealist collages through the lens of Christian Science’s teachings on the fundamental unreality of the material world. Critical condescension towards his faith has continued into the twenty-first century, and Doss writes that this “suggests the endurance of critical assumptions today that modern artists cannot be religious.”
Her description of her subjects as “spiritual moderns” rather than “religious artists” also suggests the endurance of these same assumptions. She resists a full-throated affirmation of the idea towards which her book points: religious art can be modern art, and religious artists can be modern artists, without the need for equivocation.