Interview with Bruce Herman
Part 5: The Global Picture
IA:We were talking earlier about titles and labels and what critics might call your work a hundred years from now. Well, let's not go there with your work; let's look at what is happening in North American art right now. So we've gone through what we called the postmodern period; some theorists say we're in the posthuman period now. Economically, a lot of the strength of the economy is going out of America and manufacturing is heading to Asia. Christianity is coming to life in Asia. What do you see happening in American arts right now? Do you see the arts responding to these economic and theoretical movements? What big changes do you see going on in North American visual arts right now?
BH: Two things come to mind in response to that question. First, a disclaimer: I don't think I can answer that very well. I'm not the most hip, the most current person on the planet. The older I get (and I think this happens to a lot of us as we get older and more deeply involved in what we're doing) we don't always pay attention to what is going on. You get rather focused, in other words. I am kind of focused these days. I am not paying attention to every last new thing that's being explored in the visual arts. On the other hand, I noticed a couple of things that I can comment on.
One very positive thing in my view, is the so-called “postmodern turn,” which looks at history with a certain kind of suspicion about metanarrative. Let me tell you why I think that's positive. I think history is always a whole lot more complicated, messy, wonderful, and complex than anyone could ever report on accurately. A number of filmmakers are representing this, such as P. T. Andersen’s work. He did Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love--he's done a bunch of great films. Magnolia is a great film, because it shows a day in the life of a about a half-dozen people who are apparently totally randomly chosen, supposedly, but in the end you see that their lives are deeply interwoven in a mysterious fabric. I think there are a lot of filmmakers who are exploring that technique: trying to look at narrative from the standpoint of a multivalance, rather than a univalent narrative. In other words, instead of having one story taking place, multitudes of stories are happening at once. And that is the way life really is.
When you write history, or art history in the case of the question you've raised, when you write art history as if there is only one linear narrative of growth and development and you end up with the Great Artist theory of history where you have someone like Pablo Picasso being called “The most important artist of the 20th century”—I am very skeptical of that. Skeptical, not that Picasso is a great artist, but that he is the greatest artist, or that someone one can even make that pronouncement about anybody! Or write a linear art history that seems to inevitably lead to someone like Picasso. Because while Picasso is making his paintings, there are any number of artists who are still working in what could be considered retrograde or traditionalistic modes by the art historians who are trying to make the case that art history moves only in one direction: forward. It can move sideways, and backwards, and it may sound silly but it can move is spirals. It's all over the place. In a round-about way, I'm trying to respond to your question about “What is the most important art that's being made right now?” My simple answer is; I haven't got a clue! But I want to say, I don't think anyone else does, either. It's a mess, and that's what's so wonderful about it. History and life are a lot more wonderful and complex than anybody could ever adequately and accurately record. As a case in point: walk into a room of, say a hundred people. If you had the time to look at their faces carefully the way a portrait artist would, you would be astonished at the fact that no two faces are anything like each other. The histories behind those faces are in every wrinkle on every face. The stories of those lives and the lives they have affected, their family history—it's just unimaginably complex. To just decide arbitrarily that one person in that room of a hundred people is important and the rest of them are unimportant! It's just silly! So I have a hard time with the whole–I'm not jumping on your question, but I think it's a question that has to be examined from the standpoint of, well, who determines what is important? What criteria does one use? I can't begin to impose my criteria on the current art world to decide what is important.
I hope that what I’m doing has some validity and that someone a hundred or two hundred years from now might look at it and say, “Wow! Bruce Herman was trying to communicate with this person, that person. Oh, I see Rembrandt, here; yes, I see Pierre della Francesco. Oh, I see Picasso! I see T. S. Eliot!” I would love for people to be able to see those things, because I am constantly in arguments with Picasso. I'm constantly in conversations with T. S. Eliot.
IA: I love that, and I love that you are able to find something so positive in the postmodern turn, because a lot of Christians are still feel threatened by everything postmodernism offers.
BH: This is going to sound really bold. I think postmodernism opens us up to a much more humble hermeneutic that actually allows us to see Christ more accurately.
IA: That is bold.
BH: When He washed the feet of His disciples and He said, “Don't be like the Gentile overlords who stand over their subjects in a domineering way. This is how you lead people; this is how you become great.” And He took off His clothes and He washed their feet. What He was doing was dethroning the “Great Man” theory of history. He was completely unraveling that hermeneutic, which says, “We understand history by looking at the great men.”
IA: That's brilliant! Wow! I love that.
Now, you said there was a second thing? You said you had a second point besides the suspicion of metanarrative?
BH: I guess I would say, this is my hunch, it's just a hunch, mind you: I think what may come out of this confusing period of globalization, as people are calling it, the multi-cultural, multi-valent, multi-narrative approach to art and knowledge and human life: what might come out of it, and I hope that the Holy Spirit is behind this, is a new kind of humility being exercised towards one another. When I saw “one another,” I mean Christians towards Muslims, and Muslims for Jews, and etc. Where we might actually learn from one another. It's not that I don't believe in the preeminence of Christ: I do. But i think His love and His humility reaches out to heal the nations. It doesn't reach out to become a nation. I don't think Christ leads us to become a kind of chauvinistic group who decides what goes and who writes the history books. I think it's quite the reverse. I think if we really followed Christ, we would be more interested in other people than we are in ourselves, and maybe that will be the outcome of the postmodern period, that we will say, “Enough, enough, enough!”—Of this beating of the tom-tom and beating of one's chest and making a big deal out of your nation, saying “America the beautiful.” America is beautiful, but so is Islam. So is Sri Lanka.
IA: So how does, or how will, that express itself in art?
BH: One way that it is expressing itself right now is a profusion of possible styles all being honored, all being accepted, all being appreciated. Modernism or Abstraction doesn’t have a dominant role. There are a many kinds of art as there are people. And that's fine. Just do it the best you can, and do it without using it as a means of making yourself feel important, but do it as a form of service. Do it as a form of foot washing.