Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Barry Moser, “God, Posterity, and the Well Made Object." Lecture: Graham Hall in the Brown Fine Arts Center, Smith College, 12 October, 8 p.m.

Barry Moser lectures, and, after his talk, sketches on the blackboard and explains wood engraving technique to an enthusiastic member of the audience (future artist?)

Artist Barry Moser--wood engraver, painter, printer, and cultural commentator—spoke on themes for which he has been best known in recent years, deriving from his Pennyroyal Caxton Bible (1999), the first Bible completely illustrated by one artist since that of Gustave Doré (1865).

The figure looming over and inspiring the talk was Flannery O’Connor, whom Moser admires and calls one of the greatest but most underappreciated American authors. His point of departure for this explanation of both his aesthetic vision and his views on religion and society was her declaration that God and posterity are served only by the well-made object.

What if that object is the Bible and one wishes to illustrate it? Moser, the former preacher turned enemy of all dogmatism, was in classic form as he contrasted the richness and complexity of the religious tradition with the intellectual poverty and oversimplifications of fundamentalists of all stripes. His lecture recapitulated many themes that he had addressed before, but with greater scope and in a more philosophical framework.

Moser cited an observation by religious scholar Martin Marty to the effect that the Bible presents two pictures or ways of viewing life: the vertical, dealing with relations between God and humans, and the horizontal, involving relations between humans. His focus in illustrating the Bible was on the latter, what he called “the overarching drama of humanness.”

Had he tried to depict the “vertical” relationship, he said, he would have had to turn to abstraction, as Josef Albers did in the Washburn College Bible (1979). The problem in that case, however, was that such an art would either call excessive attention to itself or perplex the viewer, or both. An art that requires specialized knowledge would only distract the reader from the text, which must remain the real focus. For that reason, Moser prefers to work in what he calls the artistic vernacular, worrying less about the “innovative” formal character of his work than about the innovative thinking that he hopes to inspire. His constant goal has been to peel away the accretions of saccharine piety, sanctity, and sanctimoniousness.

For him, the Bible is a book that should pose tough questions rather than provide pat answers, and open rather than close minds. The chief commandment for art is therefore “that it should not be boring.” He detailed the characteristics of his wood-engraved illustrations that had won him fierce hostility from some and plaudits from others: nudity; the frank and unsparing depiction of violence and tragedy; the depiction of Creation in an African setting; the insistence on the Jewish character of Jesus and other New Testament figures; troubling allusions to contemporary social issues.

In some ways, Moser reminds one of descriptions of Spinoza, who struck contemporaries as both heretical and “God-intoxicated.” Moser focused on the humans and human relationships in the Bible he said, “because I don’t know what God is.” That remains for him “an unfathomable mystery.” Citing O’Connor: “A God that you can understand is a God that is less than you.” He therefore remains humble about his work. Again, citing O’Connor: “Honesty is only honesty, not truth.”

Moser’s remarks were based on a piece in his In the Face of Presumptions: Essays, Speeches & Incidental Writings (David Godine, 2000)

1 comment:

Christopher Luna said...

I was very sad to have missed this talk, because illustration in the Bible is so fascinating to be. I have a copy of Doré's Bible illustrations, and it has prompted a great interest in why various artists choose to portray the scenes they do, and how they do them.

It seems that there's a whole history of taciturn Biblical interpretation and emphasis written into the illuminations and illustrations of Bibles almost as long as they've been made.