The Hereafter in Contemporary Art

By Dr. Jonathan Anderson
Kris Martin, Mandi XLV, 2019.; Kris Martin, Life After Death, 2012.; William Villalongo, Holding it Down, 2018.
Engaging an Ontology of Peace in Eschatological Questions

From the first page of his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo addresses God as both source and end of all human desire: “You made us with yourself as our goal, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” [1] The rest toward which all such restlessness pulls has nothing to do with the eradication of desire, nor is it a condition of absolute inactivity or oblivion—as though understood solely in negative terms. Rather, it is an absolute positivity, in which the depths of human desire and need are met with a Fullness that heals, reconciles, and fulfills. For Augustine, and for thinkers across various philosophical and theological traditions, this is the rest toward which all dimensions of human restlessness, and in fact time itself, are ultimately oriented—the fullness of love which is “in” God.

“Paradise” is a concept often used to designate this rest. The etymological roots of the term denote an enclosed royal garden—a protected, special place set aside for cultivating ideal conditions for the flourishing of plant and animal life. In this sense, paradise is a limited, isolated domain, existing in a qualitatively heightened state of life in relation to the world around it. In many ancient religious frameworks, however, the entire point of such a place was to figure what all the earth was capable of, and even meant for. As a limited site of creaturely flourishing, the garden thus embodied a longing for and a foreshadowing of an eventual—eschatological—flourishing of all creation in all its dimensions: ecologically, physiologically, socially, spiritually, and so on. Cultivating the life of the enclosed paradise (i.e., the temple, the church, etc.) was ultimately embedded in a hope for the life of the world on a more cosmic scale.

While some vision of paradise is found in almost all religious traditions, these visions are of course widely diverse (and divergent) between and within traditions—especially regarding the character and comprehensiveness of this cosmic scale. At the center of the Christian tradition, to which Augustine belongs, is a trust that the Love who is the source and end of all creation is reconciling “all things” in, through, and to himself (Colossians 1:15–23; cf. Romans 11:33–36, Acts 3:21), spanning garden (Eden) and city (Jerusalem), earth and heaven, and “a multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9). Indeed, in its most comprehensive articulations, such as the “showings” of fourteenth-century English mystic Julian of Norwich, this reconciliation somehow (incomprehensibly) will extend to the bottom of all things, such that ultimately “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” [2]

Contemporary Art and the Reconciliation of All Things

Though it seems counterintuitive, all of this remains vitally in play and at stake in modern and contemporary art, as both a constellation of yearnings and an arena of contestation. Even as many artists distanced themselves from religious communities (church, synagogue, etc.), they often have continued to wrestle with deep forms of restlessness that (in one way or another) remain linked to eschatologies of rest. Sometimes this linking is explicit, but more often it operates implicitly in artistic treatments of time, mortality, injustice, and other themes.
For many nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists, the enclosure of the artwork itself became a space for articulating the nexus of hope and doubt surrounding human restlessness. The nineteenth-century American painter and Quaker pastor Edward Hicks insisted that paradisal longings are coherent only insofar as they produce acts of peace and concern for the flourishing of others, including all people, animals, and the natural environment. Over the course of three decades (1820–49), Hicks painted at least sixty-two versions of The Peaceable Kingdom, depicting a child leading an array of animals (both predators and prey) in peaceful coexistence—imagery (and sometimes inscriptions) drawn directly from Isaiah 11:6–9. Inflecting the sociopolitical dimensions of this peace, Hicks often portrayed in the background an imagined scene of William Penn’s 1681 treaty with the Lenape Native Americans—a glimpse of eschatological peace that has remained painfully unrealized in American history. A century later, the African-American painter Horace Pippin employed a similar theme in his four Holy Mountain paintings (1944–45), situating his peaceful array of animals against a background that subtly includes racist violence at home (in the form of a lynched man hanging from a tree) and World War II abroad (in the form of soldiers and white-cross graves).

Indeed, eschatological visions of reconciliation and rest are intimately linked to articulations of moral restlessness in the face of everything profoundly wrong in the world. Or put the other way round: acts of protest and lamentation are intimately and necessarily linked to some strong sense (even if implicit and unarticulated) of what justice and peace (i.e., true rest) in the world might mean. In other words, artworks capable of pronouncing a deep and sustained No to that which violates the goodness of life—injustice, sickness, war, ecological degradation, and so on—necessitates and implies a more fundamental Yes to a goodness and aliveness that should be the case.

In this way, the profound restlessness of lamentation (the No) always includes, in some obscure sense, a negative print of paradise (the Yes). Powerful acts of lament have been fundamental to modern and contemporary art, from the searing agonies of Kathë Kollwitz or Frida Kahlo to, more recently, the haunting examples of Gillian Wearing’s Trauma (2000), Teresa Margolles’s Muro baleado (Culiacán) (2009), or Doris Salcedo’s A flor de piel (2013)—all of which depend upon some implicit concept of the (violated) good. In Here After, the works of Gyun Hur, vanessa german, and William Villalongo operate in this vein. These artists offer no explicit vision of redemption or reconciliation, but they implicitly demand one.
In some cases, this demand is more explicit. In the most devastating years of World War I, Max Beckmann worked away at his huge, never-finished Resurrection (1916–18)—a painting that expresses the corruption and deathliness that had overtaken Europe while remaining deeply ambivalent about any ultimate redemption. This pressurizing of religious hope in the midst of terrible loss is similarly explicit in the work of Marc Chagall, Anselm Kiefer, or, in Here After, Patty Wickman’s Raised Bed (2020) or Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn’s The Boat People (2020). All such meditations on disaster, breakdown, barrenness, and deathliness also harbor profound longings for something else, something more alive to the goodness and beauty of creaturely life.

For many other artists, the arrival of rest must imply severe historical discontinuity, rather than continuity. In these cases, the hereafter is imagined as a domain of radical otherness, interruption, or disembodiedness—requiring a transforming or transcending of current orderings of space and time. Indeed, abstract painting through much of the twentieth century often comingled a metaphysical beyond with an eschatological one, wherein nonrepresentational painting might open human consciousness to the eternal and immutable. Eschatological imageries recur throughout Vasily Kandinsky’s turn to abstract painting, as seen in his numerous paintings of the apocalyptic resurrection of the dead, including Sound of the Trumpet *(1910–11), *All Saints II (1911), and his landmark Composition V (1911). And similar impulses are identifiable in the abstraction of Hilma af Klint, Piet Mondrian, and others.[3] In Here After, works like William Kurelek’s *Farm Boy’s Dream of Heaven *(1963) envision an eschatological beyond in figurative form (wherein souls of the departed rise into luminous heavens), while the works of Zarah Hussain or Bonita Helmer, for example, do so in more abstract terms.

False Paradises

If conceptions of paradise have implicitly or explicitly circulated through modern and contemporary art as frameworks of human desire and hope, artists have tended to be more preoccupied with contesting, parodying, and dismantling such conceptions. Indeed, contemporary art has been highly sensitive to the strong propensity of paradisiacal visions to breed violence, manipulation, self-indulgence, and/or sentimentality. Paradises (of whatever sort) have a structure to them—an ordering of spatial and temporal relations—which visual artists have persistently sought to clarify and undermine. The twentieth century alone was full of the most horrific examples of how violent paradisiacal political visions can be—whether religious or secularist. For each of its imagined utopias, the modern imagination abounds with histories of cruelty, projections of dystopic dread, and manifold idolatries.

Beyond politics, technology has consistently been a domain of pseudo-eschatological dreams. As the technologization of modern life has become increasingly dominant—transforming nearly every aspect of labor, leisure, agriculture, medicine, and communication—so too have the powers of instrumentalization that enable the construction of heavily managed paradises. Marc Quinn’s The Garden (2000), first installed at Fondazione Prada in Milan, is, according to the artist, about a desire to actualize “all the flowers in the world all coming up at the same time, in the same place, an idea of a perfect paradise.” This paradise is a feat of technological control, in which huge vitrines display an array of plants that are suspended in full bloom by being immersed in silicone oil constantly refrigerated at –20° Celsius. In Here After, similar themes of a technologically or economically realized paradise are evident in the work of Tatsuo Miyajima or Regina Mamou, each inflected with dystopic anxiety.

Other artists have focused on the ways that notions of heaven and the hereafter have been sucked up into the machinery of mass-media entertainment, marketing, and advertising. Indeed, “paradise” has become a facile spectacle in popular culture, often operating as a cipher for self-indulgence, uninhibited consumerism, and disregard of social consequences—or as a domain of sentimentalism and cliché. Artists like Ed Ruscha and Jeff Koons toy with the cheapening and sloganeering of “paradise” or “heaven” as conspicuously packaged to fuel restlessness. In Here After, the works of Amir H. Fallah and Xu Zhen ® present a paradise of consumerist marketing and accumulation.

In the end, these various dystopic visions and the suspicion of any impulse to project one’s desires into a “paradise” might not entail a rejection of eschatological reasoning as such. Indeed, many artists’s intense distrust of sham paradises is more anti-idolatrous than anti-religious. Religious imaginations often suffer from visualizing an unrepresentable hereafter, which many artists confront not by abandoning all such notions but by accusing them of falsity—which implies and necessitates some truer (even if ineffable) possibility. Contemporary art regularly features a renunciatory or apophatic retracing (or untracing) of paradisaical representations—whether visual, verbal, or conceptual—for the sake of a rest that cannot be constructed or comprehended but can only arrive. In Here After, Kate Ingold’s Apophatic Quilt (2021) powerfully performs this retracing, as do the works of David Wallace Haskins, Kris Martin, Greg Lookerse, and Lynn Aldrich.

Being at Home in the World

An enduring problem with notions of the hereafter is their propensity toward otherworldliness, escapism, and other (often sectarian) refusals of creatureliness and history. In his book Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come, art historian T. J. Clark resists all this by arguing for a way of reading early modern painting that recognizes its various eschatological orientations but reroutes these through a “tragic conception of life”—one that renounces any future redemption in favor of “a way of being earthbound—fully and only here in the world.”[4] This “modest materialism” thereby wants to entirely transpose the energy of Augustine’s restlessness from an eschatological register into a sociopolitical one.

A weakness of this approach (one Clark seems to recognize) is that this transposal risks relinquishing the very resources one needs to sustain the notion of tragedy, which demands some (unavoidably metaphysical, teleological) frame of reference from which to say No to the way things go. Otherwise “tragedy” becomes a fairly arbitrary description for sheer mechanical causation. As we’ve said, this tragic No implies and demands some profounder Yes to the goodness of what gets ruined, violated, and degraded. The deeper the No, the deeper the Yes—and the open future of that Yes—implicitly is.

Clark is right to seek a profounder sense of being at home in the world—and with it, a deeper sense of the world’s tragedy—but this would seem to require some kind of theological horizon. Admittedly, many eschatologies revel in a gnostic, antimaterial detachment. But any eschatology worth its salt includes a fundamental affirmation of the goodness and integrity of creatureliness. Our manifold restlessness for the reconciliation of all things—including all adam, who are made of adamah (earth) (Genesis 2:7)—is concerned precisely with the world in all its givenness, including its everyday realities of joy, pain, peace, violence, vitality and mortality. For this reason, C. S. Lewis suggested that we are better off imagining the reconciliation of all things not in celestial, ethereal terms but in terms of all things becoming more material, more enduring, more fully and peacefully themselves—heavier with the glory of God in them.[5] In this way, a creatureliness that fully belongs to the world might be inextricable from some kind of eschatology, and vice versa.

In any case, Clark is absolutely correct that painting (and art more generally) is capable of recognizing—in visual, spatial, and bodily (rather than verbal) terms—this at-homeness. In Here After, works such as Andrea Büttner’s and Claire Curneen’s point us to an awkward, vulnerable, fragile, sensual bodiliness, embedded in the surface of the world where all things come to pass.

An Ontology of Peace

Ultimately, all questions of the hereafter are rooted in questions of what the world is. In the simplest terms, much turns on whether we see being itself, at its most primordial level, as constituted in violence or in peace. Obviously, there is appalling cruelty and injustice in the world, but does this violence go ontologically “all the way down,” so to speak? In many ancient creation myths (from Mesopotamia to Rome, for example), the sheer fact of existence—that this world exists rather than nothing at all—emerges in and through violence, in the rending of primordial oneness (or nothingness) into a multiplicity of beings and domains. From this then ensues an endless struggle between gods and between all other beings in a violence of “differencing.” In this general ontology—which finds contemporary articulation in the theorizing of difference by Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze, and others—creaturely difference and otherness is constitutively violent, and thus all strivings toward peace and justice are (perhaps valiant but ultimately self-interested) attempts to constrain, manage, and transform what being-in-the-world fundamentally is.

By contrast, other ancient creation theologies (most prominently those of the Abrahamic religions) regard existence as emerging in and through peace, in God’s giving (speaking) of being into a multiplicity of beings and domains—from which then ensues a “teeming” of life forms that fill the temple-cosmos with a generative differencing that God deems “good” and “very good” (Genesis 1:3–31). In this view, the interdependent differences that constitute the world are created in and for peaceful flourishing, into which violence is an intrusion and a disordering of what being-in-the-world fundamentally is.

This idea—and with it the notion of rest embraced by Augustine and others—entirely depends upon recognizing the infinite ontological difference between beings (creatures) and the Source of all being (Creator). In other words, God is not a being among other beings but is the giver of being itself, in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:31). And thus all forms of being—glimpsed in the sheer hereness and thisness and otherness of things—are intelligible as gift, founded in the peace and in the love that is God. Opposed to an ontology of violence, this is “an ontology of an original and ultimate peace.”[6]

These ontological questions are thus directly relevant to eschatological questions concerning hope and the hereafter. In the Christian tradition of Augustine, with whom we began this essay, the love of God is the final causality that gives all things into being, and it is this same noncoercive love that draws all things to itself. For this reason, the hope of eschatological peace is not merely an imaginative projection into the future—an escapist tidying up of whatever causes unhappiness. It is a claim that the world is founded in love rather than violence.

Admittedly, these concluding thoughts are fairly abstract, but they are live questions in contemporary art, and they deserve further thinking by art historians, theorists, and critics than they have received. In concrete terms, these questions play out in artists’ orientations toward questions of power, violence, difference, and the possibility of love, peace, and justice. At the center of all notions of paradise is a conviction—or wager—that ultimately Life is deeper than death, that Peace is more primordial than violence, and that Love gives all things into being and calls all restlessness into its rest.

[1] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions (c. 397–400 C.E.), trans. Sarah Ruden (New York: Modern Library, 2017), I.i (p. 3).
[2] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (c. 1393), trans. Barry Windeatt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 74–75; cf. 20, 40, 78, 80, 136, 164.
[3] For further exploration of examples in this paragraph, see Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness, Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), chaps. 4–5.
[4] T. J. Clark, Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come (London: Thames & Hudson, 2018), 242, 8.
[5] Lewis plays on the idea that the Hebrew word for glory, kavod, means weighty or heavy. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1945), 321–22. See also Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1949).
[6] For a development of this topic, see David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), here 4.

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