Religion, Design & Material Culture

Metahaven (graphic designers Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden) on two ideas about truth, from their project The Sprawl (Propaganda About Propaganda):

From Medium Religion: Faith, Geopolitics, Art (New York: DAP, 2011)

Boris Groys: “Previous forms of religion are inadequate because they stick too strongly to content, whereas in the future, the form of religion is what will count. Religions have moved from the private sphere of personal belief to the public sphere of visual communication.”

Groys is a Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, a Senior Research Fellow at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe, and a professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School (EGS).

On “The Obligation to Self-Design”

It is often overlooked that in the Christian tradition ethics has always been subordinated to aesthetics—that is, to the design of the soul. Ethical rules, like the rules of spiritual asceticism—of spiritual exercises, spiritual training—serve above all the objective of designing the soul in such a way that it would be acceptable in God’s eyes, so that He would allow it into paradise.

Where religion once was, design has emerged. The modern subject now has a new obligation: the obligation to self-design, an aesthetic presentation as ethical subject.

Source: Boris Groys, “The Obligation to Self-Design,” e-flux Journal #00, November 2008. See also: Boris Groys, “Self-Design, or Productive Narcissism,” in Nick Axel, Beatriz Colomina, Nikolaus Hirsch, Anton Vidokle, and Mark Wigley, Superhumanity: Self-Design (University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

On the Material Culture of Evangelical Christianity

Reducing evangelicals to caricatures does not help us understand their spiritual, political, or cultural agendas. . . . Scholars such as Colleen McDannell, David Morgan, Diane Winston, and Leigh Schmidt transcend caricature in their studies of the material culture of Christianity.

Rather than critiquing religious commodities as evidence of how commercialism dilutes faith, these researchers explore “the subtle ways that people create and maintain spiritual ideals through the exchange of goods and the construction of spaces.”

Research on material culture takes seriously the artifacts (mass-produced pictures of Jesus, religious trinkets, etc) that many non-evangelicals laughingly dismiss as kitsch.

source: Heather Hendershot, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

As a consequence of the First Amendment’s disestablishment clause and the growth of market culture in the early nineteenth century, religious groups were forced to compete with commercialized entertainment, resulting in innovations such as Dwight Moody’s use of modern business techniques and the Salvation Army’s affinity for street shows.

from: Eileen Luhr, Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Similarly, Colleen McDannell argues that:

during the second half of the twentieth century, independent Christian bookstores catered to a growing evangelical population that believed  Christianity was a “lifestyle” as well as a belief system.

compare to: Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

pictured: Warner Sallman, Head of Christ, 1940, oil on canvas, 28.25 x 22.125 inches. David Morgan, Icons of American Protestantism: The Art of Warner Sallman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996; The Reverend Charles Haddon Spurgeon, earthenware figure, about 1855. Museum no. C.78-2001, Victoria & Albert Museum; Bible covers, Christian Bookstore Journal, 1992, reproduced in Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995 (chapter 8, “Christian Retailing,” p. 260).

On “What’s Wrong with TED Talks?” (could this critique of the rhetorical techniques used in TED talks also apply to contemporary homiletics?).

Benjamin Bratton, above, is Associate Professor of Visual Arts at University of California San Diego and Director of The Center for Design and Geopoltics at CALIT2.

Thomas Frank on the end of creativity

In his early book The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counter Culture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (University of Chicago Press, 1997), Thomas Frank explains why creativity is dead. His central thesis is updated in the excellent “Getting to Eureka” (Harper’s Magazine, 2013).

Creativity, novelty, and unique forms of individual expression have been co-opted by the “culture industry.” It’s no longer counter-cultural to dissent, or to be “cool” or deviant, it’s just good business practice.

Thomas Frank is founding editor of The Baffler. He is perhaps best known for his book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt, 2004).

See also

Timothy Gloege on D. L. Moody, business culture, and the design of modern evangelicalism:

Stephen Bayley on “taste”:

Ann Taves on “The Camp Meeting and the Paradoxes of Evangelical Protestant Ritual” (in Teaching Ritual. Oxford University Press, 2007):

Taves addresses the problem of seeing the presence of rituals in the context of historically anti-ritualistic traditions.

Evangelical Protestantism, for example, developed ritual forms (like the camp meeting, or revival meeting) despite being one such historically anti-ritualistic tradition.

Ann Taves is a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.