Jeffrey Kosky, professor and head of the department of religion at Washington and Lee University, has received a major award from the American Academy of Religion for his book, "Arts of Wonder: Enchanting Secularity—Walter De Maria, Diller + Scofidio, James Turrell, Andy Goldsworthy" (University of Chicago Press, 2012).
Kosky's book won a 2013 Award of Excellence in the "constructive-reflective" category. The award honors books of "distinctive originality, intelligence, creativity and importance that affect decisively how religion is examined, understood and interpreted." The American Academy of Religion (AAR) is the world's largest association of religion scholars. The award will be presented at the AAR's 2013 Annual Meeting in November.
In his book, Kosky focuses on a handful of artists — De Maria, Diller + Scofidio, Turrell and Goldsworthy — to discuss the connections between modern secularity, disenchantment and religion.
Social scientist Max Weber popularized the term "disenchantment" for understanding the modern world and its increasing rationalization and intellectualization.
Kosky recalled a story popular among students of modern secularity that holds that "to be modern is to share in the disenchantment of the world. This is not just a thesis about our psyche or a matter of saying that we moderns are jaded or bored, frustrated of uncommitted. It's also a thesis about the world and the dismissal of the notion of 'mystery' from our encounter with the world and ourselves."
This story, Kosky said, goes on to suggest that a good modern is disenchanted and neither comes under the spell of mysteries nor is held in thrall "by the charm of unspeakable wonders."
Kosky uses clouds as an example of disenchantment in his book and cites the work of René Descartes, a founding figure of modern enlightenment who opened his scientific treatise on meteorology by observing that because we must look up to the clouds, they are often depicted as seats and thrones of gods. Descartes went on to suggest that this form of wonder and admiration blocks men from investigating the causes of things and thereby impedes human mastery of nature.
"What Descartes proposes instead," said Kosky, "is to follow a methodical procedure of intellectual inquiry that will 'bring the clouds down to earth' so that we 'no longer have occasion to admire anything that we see in the sky.'"
In Kosky's view, one "increasingly feels the limitations of the disenchanted world. A lot of artists and scholars are becoming disenchanted with modern disenchantment and are seeking a new story to tell about modern secularity."
In the case of the clouds, for example, Kosky explores "Blur," a project of the architectural firm Diller + Scofidio that involved building a nearly 300 by 200 foot shifting cloud over Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. Visitors to the site were invited to enter the cloud on architectural scaffolding and enjoy the wonderful vision inside — reversing the movement of disenchantment proposed by Descartes.
Kosky described his book as an academic work intended for a general audience and drawing on multiple disciplines — theology, philosophy, and art, chiefly, but also some anthropology, and even a little cultural history of science. In the book, he poses questions regarding the nature, or lack thereof, of humanity, the world, and even God in the wake of modern disenchantment, by approaching them through his intimate encounters with particular works of art.
Kosky conceived the idea for his book while he was looking for pictures to illustrate difficult conceptual material to his students at W&L. "I came across these mostly avant-garde works of art from the second half of the 20th century and wanted to go see them and write about them," he said.
In his introduction, Kosky writes that the works of art he encounters are most often thought to be representative of secular modernity and therefore to share in the disenchantment of the world. However, when he encountered these works in person he found that the vocabulary he was drawn to in order to speak about his experiences was not the vocabulary of disenchantment.
One of the artists whose work Kosky discusses is James Turrell, an American artist concerned primarily with light and space.
According to Kosky, critics love Turrell's work because of his mastery in controlling light to produce sculptural effects. "The critics do an excellent job describing the technique and the science that produces the work of art, but our account of the work still needs to account for the wonder that is essential to its appearance." he said.
"My question was how to talk about Turrell's work in a way that doesn't turn on the lights in a dark room so that the thing disappears. The other-worldly light in Turrell's work is clearly beautiful, and it has a certain spirituality. But, after the critics described it that way, I found that their language no longer resonated.
"How could I prolong the experience with the work of art and increase its power to come over me? In my efforts to understand this emblem of avant-garde culture I was drawn to the theological texts that I have been trained in. With this particular work of art, I found I could articulate the experience of standing before it by referencing Pseudo-Dionysius' account of the cosmos in terms of light. He is one of the most important sources of Christian theological reflection, so the move of describing the secular experience of an emblematic work of secular modernity through references to his texts and themes is very pregnant—for both the art and the theology."
Kosky also explores British artist Andy Goldsworthy, who produces site-specific sculpture and land art in natural and urban settings.
"Goldsworthy is really interesting because he makes ephemeral and fragile works of art using natural materials," said Kosky. "In his work you see a human being whose creative activity is not about building something that's going to last, but making works that are transient and passing. He's committed to beauty and very comfortable using the language of beauty in ways that many modern approaches to art are not."
Kosky examines the "snow throw," in which a cloud of snow is thrown into the air. It can be seen in the closing scene of "Rivers and Tides," a popular documentary movie about Goldsworthy , and it forms the coda to Kosky's book.
"The creative act resides not in laying hold of something, seizing it and setting it in place, but in letting go. The snow is a shape shifter: its form changes as it blows away. The creativity lies not just with Andy Goldsworthy but also with the wind and snow with which he creates. And by creating with the wind and snow, I mean not just as raw material but as partner. That collaboration with nature strikes me as a different way to work than building the disenchanted world," he said.
A subtext of the book concerns the relationship between art and religion. According to Kosky, many art critics are wary of offering a religious interpretation of a work of art. "I think that has to do with concern about the autonomy of the discipline," he said. "This book ventures to say that these secular works of art might make up places where some of what we think of as religious longings are played out. I want to say to the secular art critics that they are actually selling themselves short by not having recourse to religious texts, themes, and figures in order to understand the works of art before them. And I want to say to the religious that these works of art make sacred places worthy of their spiritual concern."
Kosky's book has been described as appealing to those who "feel the absence of charm and wonder as deeply enervating." Another reviewer calls "Arts of Wonder" stimulating and provocative and "an academic page-turner that represents an emerging intellectual movement and will be influential to scholars drawn to this area of inquiry."
Kosky received his B.A. from Williams College and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School.
"Arts of Wonder: Enchanting Secularity—Walter De Maria, Diller + Scofidio, James Turrell, Andy Goldsworthy" is available at the University Store and through its website at http://bookstore.wlu.edu