This is the forty-second interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.
Notice some of the themes of integration, context, and cross-disciplinary work that are becoming common in this series.
Interview with Alissa Wilkinson
Feb 21, 2011
IA: It’s a little hard to know where to start asking you questions, because your work covers such a wealth of categories, and you have always been an amazingly interdisciplinary person (I might mention your two degrees, a B. S. in Information Technology and Communications from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, then an M.A. in Humanities and Social Thought from New York University) You are (at least!) a teacher, writer, and editor. You’re also the only person I know who has ever said “zeitgeisty,” which alone qualifies you for a star-studded role in this interview series. Let’s start with your teaching, then we’ll move to writing, then we’ll talk about larger observations you have been able to make in your many spheres.
You now teach at The King’s College, which has been occupying space in the Empire State Building since 1999. This school is distinctive in its approach to core classes and to interdisciplinary majors—it seems like a perfect fit for you. What courses have you taught there? How do these classes differ from their counterparts in other schools? Do you think King’s unique vision is making a difference in academia, in the Christian subculture, and in the world at large? If so, how?
AW: Currently I teach in the college writing sequence, which begins with learning to write a coherent sentence (surprisingly lacking among today's high school graduates), then a variety of essays – personal, persuasive, expository, and analytical. In the second semester, we teach research writing. These courses are unusual in that they are extremely demanding (our first-year students write an essay each week in the first semester) and have a high standard of excellence; very few students earn an A, and earning a grade below C means repeating the course (earning a grade below C twice in the same course means dismissal from the college). We do that because nearly every class at King's is writing-intensive, so we're not doing a student any favors if we allow him or her to pass without basic competency in writing.
Each writing professor – there are five of us on the full-time faculty who teach writing at present – is given the freedom within the classroom to use the methods and subjects we're interested in to teach the class. So my research writing students right now are also learning about and writing about film. It's fun for me and them. I'll also be teaching classes on cultural criticism and the humanities in the future.
King's is unique among Christian colleges in many ways, so I'll just mention two. First, its curriculum is extremely rigorous, with an expansive core curriculum in politics, philosophy, and economics for students in every major. The students are reading and discussing (and arguing about) the foundational documents of our civilization very early in their education, supplemented by instruction in writing, formal logic, and other subjects that help them learn to think well. I find that they quickly gain the ability to reason and think for themselves – which I believe is part of a good education.
Second, King's is situated in the Empire State Building, which means the students are able to take advantage of all the learning opportunities and cultural experiences available in New York City. This is the best sort of college town, for those who can learn to navigate it, and they will most certainly not be isolated. They're therefore shaped by the city and by their education to be thinkers.
IA: You are also teaching "History of Christianity in the Visual Arts" at New York Center for Art & Media Studies. How far does that course go—i.e., does it include what is going on in the arts right now? Can you give us the tiniest snapshot of the history of Christianity in the visual arts in the last decade or two?
AW: The course focuses particularly on how Christian theology shaped and continues to shape the arts, so the content might surprise some people. The very, very brief arc of the narrative is this: from Christendom onward, Christianity (in various permutations) was the understood fabric of life. It was difficult to imagine not being “a Christian” - whatever that meant. Belief was default. Modernity eradicated that and now it's not impossible to imagine having all sorts of ways to view the world. But because art is shaped by its cultural context, it was shaped by ideas from Christian theology. And because artists are always working under the weight of history and tradition, today's artists cannot help but also be shaped by the traditions that were shaped by Christianity.
So the first half of the course focuses on a very, very broad look at the arts from the early church to today's secular age; the second half deals with how themes from art in the past pop up today. So, for instance, we'll talk about the theology of the icon, and then we'll talk about Bill Viola.
In the last decade or so, I think the Western Protestant church has been coming to terms with art and artists in its own way; other denominations have already had the theology in place to be comfortable with art.
IA: Now, you are also a writer, and your writing comments on contemporary culture through a variety of topics (Tara Donovan at the Met Museum, plays on Broadway, music at Southpaw, MOBIA, American history, NYC apartment kitchens, postmodernism, tiny magazines, politics…), but what they all seem to have in common is that you are open-eyed in the realms of contemporary American culture. What is our zeitgeist?
AW: People tend to be down on postmodernism, whatever that is – I tend to be fairly positive about what postmodernity has done for culture. A generation of intentional exclusion of religion from the public square (in its various forms) has left a vacuum, I think – not a wall. So the pluralism postmodernity makes possible coupled with that vacuum means that artists and culture-makers of various sorts have the opportunity to re-enter the public square, provided they do it with a spirit of humility and the desire to seek the common good, not as a way to “get a voice” or “make a place” for themselves. When people of faith are hoping to say something useful in their various disciplines, it will serve them well to think more of how the religious sense will benefit their discipline than of trying to “be heard.” Love must motivate.
In a broader sense, I think there's a genuine love of play in culture today. Tara Donovan's a good example; her work is obviously serious art with something to say to or about culture (or she wouldn't be in the Met), but it's also just genuinely fun. The sense of wonder is back.
IA: What ‘schools’ or ‘movements’ can you identify in contemporary literature, visual arts, theater, or film?
AW: I'm not an expert here. But there is one thing that strikes me in particular: the love of storytelling that's erupting everywhere – personal stories, especially. I'm thinking here of NPR's shows such as This American Life and The Moth, that bring the first-person perspective back into journalism and let us be entertained, enraptured, and delighted by non-professional storytellers. First-person narrative has also snuck back into pockets of mainstream journalism. We want to be reminded that people are behind stories.
I think this may go back once again to the sense of play. It's also just a reminder that human beings love stories. They love telling them, and they love hearing them. And though films and books and music and theatre all tell stores, there's something really fun about listening to someone tell their own story. That's why stand-up comedy continues to endure despite the relatively high rate of unfunny comedians. We just love rooting for someone standing on stage telling their own stories.
It's also a way of reminding ourselves – as machines take over more and more (I'm looking at you, Watson) – that we as humans are unique among beings, because things happen to us that we turn into narratives. Memoirs help us remember this as well, which may help explain why they've become so popular.
This also helps account for the re-emergence of radio as an art form. It's going through a real renaissance. I hope it continues.
IA: How do you think the arts (your own or others’) are responding to present and potential world-movements, such as postmodernism, the looming “post-human” phase, and the possible artistic effects of the Eastward orientation of economics and Christianity? (readers: Alissa has an written important article on this topic entitled: “As Far as Postmodernism Goes: Navigating Postmodern Theory”).
AW: Artists are always very good at responding to, and often anticipating, world movements. As I mentioned above, I think the turn to story is evidence of this, and something we see in many art forms.
That said, we have to be reminded that we're human in ways other than hearing and appreciating others' stories (or even identifying with them). Though I am by no means an expert on this, I know that some philosophers like Heidegger postulate that what makes us human is the intentionality of our consciousness – that everything we do is directed toward something in the world, and that our selves interacts with that thing. Being able to recognize and ponder this fact is what makes us human.
And so I think it's important for us to also continue to create and interact with art that demands that we, the viewers, put something of our own selves, our own stories, into it in order to form a full object. Plenty of seemingly esoteric or standoffish contemporary art demands this of us. People shy away from looking at this sort of work because it requires an investment of time and mental energy to even understand. But good art rewards us richly for that investment.
I'm quite hopeful about the future of culture-making and the arts. I don't know if we're on the cusp of something new, or if we're seeing the fulfillment of some older idea, but I see much to celebrate and enjoy in art of all kinds these days. And if we can learn to take delight in it, I think we're learning how to interact with the built stuff of the world in ways that honor our Creator – who, after all, made us, made our story, and then didn't just walk away, but continued to invest Himself into us, entering our time and going so far as to literally join His story with ours.