On Writing Great Themes in Art

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					On Writing Great Themes in Art

                         On Writing Great Themes in Art
               (For Wheaton Women (Intercessors) Group, Feb. 2006)

The Larger Context: The Redirection of My Life after Conversion to Christ

My thanks to you, Carol, for the invitation, and the excellent lunch. You asked me to
speak about the experience of writing the textbook, Great Themes in Art, and what lay
behind it. The short answer is: Quite a lot!

As I pondered what could be most engaging, and perhaps even inspiring, for all of you, I
thought I would focus primarily on how this endeavor fits into the larger picture of my
sense of vocation, and how I have experienced—sometimes amidst great trails—the
guiding and provident hand of God. For that, surely, is something to which we can all
relate, and with which we all still contend. But I will also speak about the broad
conceptual structure of the book and how and why I came to that, as well as something
about the process from conception to publication.

Before I became a Christian, in my early twenties, I was something of an Epicurean--
seeking pleasure where I could, yet wondering why I still felt so empty inside. I also
asked myself, over and over, what is the purpose of life, and why am I made as I am?
What am I to make of my given being? I was outwardly going through the motions of
training to be a lawyer, but inwardly I felt useless and ineffective. I covered this over by
becoming a party-animal, and putting on a good show of bravura. But I never convinced
myself. Thus, in my solitude, I prayed to a God I did not know that if He had created me,
then could He also please show me the purpose of my life.

Over the course of a year, God answered that prayer, as the resurrected Christ made
Himself known to me, and, as a result thereof, I stand before you today. From then until
now, nourished by the Word of God, and the preaching of his ministers, I have looked to
Christ as my savior and intercessor, to the Holy Spirit as my sustainer, and to God to
guide my path. It has turned out to be an unusual path—one I could never have
anticipated, or sought.

I grew up proud and British, was trained in London to become a lawyer, and at the same
time, by instinct, was strongly attracted to the visual arts. Now, for 25 years, I have been
a professor of art history at Wheaton College, serving as Chair of the Art Department for
21 of those years. The key to these transitions was conversion to Christ. The change was
so radical that it has affected everything I have done since, also as a scholar, while taking
me on a path from London to the Free University, Amsterdam, and thence to the
University of Cambridge, England, and thence to Wheaton College, where I have taught
ever since. I was deeply afraid of leaving Europe, where I had a rooted identity, and of
taking my family to the USA, where I feared we would become anonymous ciphers on a
vast continent. But, here we are!

On Writing Great Themes in Art

Prayer and Guidance

Given that my conversion experience turned on the issue of life purpose—vocation—I
have been sensitive to the words of the Psalmist: ―As the eyes of servants look to the hand
of their master, … so our eyes look to the Lord our God…” (Psalm 123:1-2).

Indeed, conscious of my human frailty, and that without His sustaining grace, I am ‗as
nothing,‘ I have sought to follow hard after God, and to discern His calling for me. For I
trust that in pursuing God‘s calling for us, He will provide grace sufficient for the task.
Thus, if I am faithful to the given task, I trust he will not fail me, or forsake me.
Nevertheless, over the years, in this very area, I have found myself sorely tempted to
doubt God’s ongoing presence and provision, and hence have experienced the burden as
oppressively heavy.

I can attest that it was prayer and providence that led me from London to Amsterdam,
from Amsterdam to Cambridge, and thence to Wheaton. Once at Wheaton, I began to
discover how God’s making and shaping of me had prepared me for the task I here
encountered. I was amazed to discover how well-fitted I am to the job—which capitalizes
on my strengths, while my inherent limitations are less of an issue in the context of what
Wheaton asks of me. Of course, the job has stretched me, but that is healthy and normal.

This brings me to the story of Great Themes in Art.

Why written by me?

   When I started teaching at Wheaton, it wasn‘t long before the local Prentice-Hall
    rep., Mary Choi, grilled me about why I wasn’t using a Prentice Hall text for my
    Introductory Art Survey class. I replied that the standard formalist approach then
    used in their books—that is, introducing non-art majors to the historical evolution of
    style or a survey of artistic media and techniques--simply left them bored, at best
    asking the same question I had posed as a student….‖So what!?‖

   Her question, “Then how would you do it differently?” led to laying out the basic
    structure of the book as now written.

I recall HRR turning down the opportunity to write a textbook, and thinking, firstly, what
a lost opportunity to introduce a Christian voice to the discourse, and secondly, and
perhaps foolishly, thinking that this was something I believe I could do. But I knew one
needed to acquire a firm command of a great range of material, before one could write
briefly and cogently across the entire spectrum of art history. Hence, it would require
many years of teaching before I could accomplish this effectively.

I also considered an introductory textbook as something I could do within my working
context. Turning the constraints of my job at Wheaton into an opportunity.

On Writing Great Themes in Art

Mary Choi’s prodding. Needing to extend my knowledge base. I had been working on
another book (Jacob van Ruisdael and the Perception of Landscape, Yale, 1991), and I
had begun considering what to tackle next.

Signs of God‘s Providence and Leading

I was praying to God to guide me clearly as to what task to take on next, when Mary Choi
finally brought me to the task of writing this book by bringing her art acquisitions editor
to Wheaton—a man whose distinguished reputation I had known of for years. She went
behind my back, making an appointment through the department secretary, and he was
sitting in my office before I could say, once again, that I was not yet up to the task!!

But, as it so happened, I had submitted the index for the Ruisdael book the day before, so
that job was finally done, and I had no real excuse for not discussing this project.

It was also the second time in my life that the initiative of a woman who believed in me
prodded me into taking on more that I believed possible for myself---the first being the
Fellowship I held at the University of Cambridge. I see God‘s providence in the
intervention of these two women as critical turning points in my career. And to them
both, I remain eternally grateful. Ladies…remember this critical role that you can
sometimes play!

Why write about art?

I was first attracted to art because it opens windows to worlds beyond my own. Art
serves as a window to the human heart. Art draws me like a magnet, and lets me see
what people from our own and from other times and places think and dream.

I would like others to discover some of the same satisfactions. As a professor in a liberal
arts college, I think of the opportunity, within the general education curriculum, to open
up the world of art to students who have had almost no previous exposure to the arts. But
it‘s clearly not enough to show students art, one has to provide a framework to place it in,
and that‘s where an introductory book can be useful, if not indispensable.

But what I would like a textbook to do for students is to open the way for art to function
for them as it has for me, as a window into our world as well as worlds beyond our own.

Ways of writing about art? Why this book?

Introductory art texts have typically followed one or other of two dominant models: a
chronological survey of stylistic evolution, or, alternatively, an overview of the media
and techniques of art, coupled with a brief style survey. Both models are essentially
formalistic, in the sense that they focus on artistic form and technical matters—rather
than art‘s content or social context.1
 Some existing texts and their limitations: Rita Gilbert‘s Living with Art, Albert Elsen‘s Purposes of Art,
1962, 1981, Jack Hobbs‘s Art In Context, Laurie Schneider Adams‘s A History of Western Art, John

On Writing Great Themes in Art

What are the Perceived Limitations of Existing Introductory Texts and How does Great
Themes in Art answer to these limitations?2

Firstly, for several years professionals have expressed dissatisfaction with the stylistic
approach to introducing students to art. It is not only outworn, but it doesn‘t connect with
the larger human issues and concerns that students bring to the classroom. While a
potential art major has a natural attraction towards style and its changes, this focus means
less to the non-art student. Their response is a disinterested: so what?

One cannot assume that art has relevance to the non-artist, when much contemporary art
is widely perceived as alienating and incomprehensible, and older art is seen as part of a
long-forgotten world of irrelevance. Therefore, art—both of the past and present--must be
introduced in ways that connect with larger human concerns.

Secondly, a media and techniques approach has a similar limitation. It makes sense to
makers and potential makers of art to focus on such matters, but why try to introduce
non-artists to art through its grammar rather than its substance?

Thirdly, a thematic approach is increasingly being discussed as the best alternative to
traditional ones for such introductory courses, because it forefronts such larger human
concerns. But there is a lack of suitable textbooks to serve this end.
Why I wrote the book

Why then did I write this book? What problems in existing texts does it solve AND how
does it solve those problems?

Kissick‘s Art, Context & Criticism, William Fleming‘s Arts & Ideas, Larry Silver, Art in History, 1993.
Since my book came out: Margaret Lazzarri & Dona Schlesier, Exploring Art: A Global, Thematic
Approach, Wadsworth, Thompson Learning, 2002, 637pp (mine is 528pp).

  Elsen‘s Purposes of Art, 1962, 1981, met this need for an earlier generation of students. It is a book of
commendable substance, but it is too dense and wordy for the current generation, and its themes are
somewhat idiosyncratic, not consistent from period to period of history. Furthermore, its design is now long
outdated. By contrast, Hobbs‘s Art In Context is too selective and limited in its range and extent. Schneider
Adams‘s A History of Western Art follows a traditional stylistic approach; it is also about 60 pages longer.
Kissick‘s Art, Context & Criticism attempts to connect art with its contexts, but puts more emphasis on the
theories of art that dominated academic discourse in different periods than the human concerns that come
through the art. The limitations of the many books that focus on either style or media & techniques, such as
Rita Gilbert‘s Living with Art are discussed above. William Fleming‘s Arts & Ideas – excellent approach,
but at 650pp. a bit too long, and as a Humanities text, devotes too much space to philosophy, literature and
music. Larry Silver, Art in History, 1993, in reaction against formalist approaches, attempted a contextual,
socio-economic approach, emphasizing economics and patronage rather than the artistry or quality of art.

On Writing Great Themes in Art

    The problems it seeks to solve are that—as we’ve mentioned--such introductory texts
           typically focus on stylistic development on the one hand, or media and
           techniques on the other. Both approaches may leave the reader wondering so
           what--with respect to the significance of such changes in style, or of
           manipulating media in the ways discussed.

    By contrast, a combined chronological and thematic approach, as adopted by this
           book, attempts to answer the question: So what? It focuses on art’s
           expressive intent, on its meaning and symbolic significance. Thus I approach
           stylistic change in terms of changes in expressive intent, reflecting fresh
           vision, insight and understanding of human experience and aspirations, as
           these arise in changing social contexts.

    My goal is to make art more accessible to the non-specialist, as well as the potential
          specialist, at an introductory level, by drawing the connections between
          universal human concerns and the rich insights offered from the perspective
          of the visual artist. My approach also introduces the reader to how art
          embodies such meaning and insight.

    In short, a chronologically-structured, thematic approach attempts to engage the
            reader not in terms of the grammar of art, but its expressive intent, as this
            changes according to the historical context.

Why write thematically?

   Art’s recurrent themes, drawn from the larger questions of human existence—I
    believe--provide a bridge between the shared humanity of the reader and that of
    the artists and patrons who poured their humanity into their art.

   My goal is to make art more accessible to the non-specialist, by drawing the
    connections between universal human concerns and the rich insights offered by the
    artists and their art, showing how art embodies these human concerns.3

  So the book is based on art’s “Great Themes,” while chronologically structured. The book‘s themes
are grounded in the idea of examining artistic responses to the questions that humanity encounters across
the generations and across cultures. These questions focus on Spirituality, the Self, Nature and the City.
Each theme is revisited in each historical period. It struck me that these themes provided an obvious
bridge between the experience of the non-artist and the world of art, and that a book built around them
would help the non-artist to relate better to the art world. Let‘s look at the themes individually:
 The question of God: How art evokes transcendence. A wide range of works introduces readers to
     artists‘ changing responses to the spiritual dimension of life, and how religious art reflects the
     changing role of the Christian church in Western culture. (The spiritual dimension is understood as
     including questions of transcendence and the ultimate meaning or possible meaninglessness of life)
 The question of Self: How art projects a public image of ourselves. The sections on the Self
     introduce readers to works that encompass political, social and domestic values, so providing
     opportunity to compare them with our own. (This theme embraces issues of human status and identity,
     the projection of a public image, the expression of our values, aspirations, identities, and gender roles.)

On Writing Great Themes in Art

In summary, this approach attempts to open up for the reader the wealth offered by
art and architecture not only to our eyes but also to our whole selves.

The Process

There was a lot to learn from the process, as well.
 Constraints of level and length were excruciating, cramping my style at every turn.
   It was also galling to see my carefully-developed manuscript cut down by a whopping
   forty percent. It was hard to see major sections massively cut back, and continuities
   between chapters put in constant jeopardy through the process of cutting.
 Style: Some reviewers objected to what they described as Walford‘s English cultural
   formality and its impact on the writing style, language, etc.
 Style: For the publisher part of that problem was my penchant for a narrative style
   that builds to a climax. The publisher wanted a more Cartesian approach, with a
   simple, clear thesis statement launching each paragraph, from which every other
   component unfolds.
 The consequence: I had to re-write the entire text to Americanize it, and also
   transform the narrative into strict Cartesian logic. It was, in any event, a good
   exercise in developing conceptual clarity.
 Ideological constraints: On top of this, there were significant ideological constraints.
   The publisher commissioned a book that would stress the links between art and
   human values, but he made clear that a textbook is not a pulpit, nor a venue for
   advancing one‘s own idiosyncratic ideas.
 A textbook will only succeed if its approach and judgments make sense to a wide
   spectrum of people, across the entire nation. One could not afford to be narrowly

   The question of Nature: How art evokes our responses to the natural world. The sections on
    Nature show readers how artists have responded to nature‘s power both to sustain life and to destroy it,
    to soothe and to terrify, inviting reflection on the significance of the natural world to us. (By Nature we
    mean nature in the sense of the world around us, the physical as opposed to the cultural environment—
    landscape, the associations and feelings it provokes in us, the uses we make of it.)
   The question of The City: How what we build projects the values of civic leaders and signifies
    civic power structures. This section introduces readers to how communities of people shape cities and
    the built environment, and will help readers become more observant travelers and more aware of the
    significance of their own environment. (The sections on the City raise questions such as: How do we
    relate to one another in a civic context? How does architecture and urban design shape our sense of
    those relationships? What values and power structures are projected through what we build and how
    we shape the built environment?)
   Parallel Cultures: This brief section, concluding each chapter, opens windows for the reader through
    which to glimpse contrasting perspectives on art‘s Great Themes from non-Western cultures. It is a
    constant reminder that the Western tradition is but one among many diverse cultures, and invites cross-
    cultural comparisons.
   Boxes within the text highlight the changing roles of the artist within society and explain the media
    and techniques they use, at their points of first encounter.
   Other boxes also explain the belief systems and symbolism that makes art‘s subject matter more

On Writing Great Themes in Art

    partisan, and I assured the publisher that I would seek to be fair-handed, representing
    all faiths and ideologies in terms of the nature of their impact on the art discussed.
   I had also to accept that an author—especially one writing about art, with its
    extensive program of illustrations--is dependent on the resources of a publisher. Both
    parties have the need to protect their vested interests, and create a credible product.
   This taught me a lot about collaborative ventures, that need to work for all parties,
    even at the price of compromise on all sides, especially that of the author. Of course,
    a writer is inevitably possessive of their text and ideas. But I had to understand that,
    from the publisher‘s point of view, given the large size of their investment, they
    viewed it as their book.

Some of the Human Drama and Dimensions of the Production Process

A project of this type and scale initially moves very slowly as the text gets sketched out,
written, reconfigured, and re-written, and then moves into break-neck speed when it
comes to the final edit and production. Amidst this process I faced many challenges, and
also saw God‘s provident hand.

To mention a few examples of this, when I was told that my writing style was too British,
and that this was my problem to solve, not theirs, I was at a loss as to how to rectify the
perceived problem. Karen Halvorsen Schreck, a creative writer, came to my rescue, by
providing a close critical reading of a few chapters, and telling me what jarred to an
American ear. This guided my revisions. When she could no longer do this, I felt really
lost, and prayed for someone to take over her role. Shortly thereafter a rather unusual
student walked into my office. She said that she had heard that I was looking for someone
who could critique my writing style. Her manner was really off-putting, but I sensed that
she was God‘s provision for my need, so I agreed to work with her. It turned out that she
was a forthright and biting critic, who gave no quarter, and as a result, we worked
through many chapters together, that ended up the better for her sharp eye and tongue.

Then I needed someone to compile a first draft of a glossary of terms. This needed
someone with great linguistic precision, and knowledge of art. I found a student who had
been educated in Germany, and as a result, had the requisite precision. And knowledge.
Her work spared me weeks of work that I could not have found amidst my teaching

Once the acquisitions editor decided that the book was fit for publication, a whole new
phase of work began. A development editor was assigned to the book, her task being to
reshape the book to the exact way the publisher wanted it. I had no idea what I was in for.

She started out by telling me that she was a secular Jew who grew up hating Christianity
and Christians, and still did. She did everything she could to smother the Christian voice
and perspective that percolated the text, and to cut as much of the material that pertained
to art commissioned by the Church. While she allowed me a page to explain the
Enlightenment, she deemed one sentence sufficient to explain Christianity: She asked that
I reduce several pages to one sentence, namely that Christianity was another mystery

On Writing Great Themes in Art

religion emerging from the East. I asked her what then were today‘s uninformed students
to make of a painting entitled The Virgin & Child. How would that make any sense,
without some explanation?!

Everyday, for an entire year—barring Christmas day, New Year‘s day, and a few other
holidays—text revisions went back and forth between us—starting at 9.00am, for me to
respond to before 2.00pm, with a last check back around 5.00pm—all the while I was
also teaching a full load. Early on, there was one paragraph that we fought over for an
entire week, neither of us willing to accept the rewording of the other. At issue was her
desire to have my words saying that man was merely another animal, and my refusal to
accept such language. Such battled raged daily, and were quite stressful, if also
intellectually exhilarating.

By the time we reached Postmodernity, we had become good friends and creative
partners, willing for a lot of give-and-take. She also found my comments about
Postmodernity thought-provoking, stirring her to re-think her own belief-system, or lack

Meanwhile, due to a series of tragic family events, the acquisitions editor was going
through a nervous break-down, which made the decision-making process tortuous for all
parties, and, as a result, what I judge to have been some poor editorial decisions were
made. But it did allow me the opportunity—as a Christian—to extend compassion to him
as best I could.

As we reached the final stretch, there was the added tension that my mother, who was
living in England, was slowly dying of cancer. Every time there was a three-day week-
end, I felt the need to fly to England, to be with her, yet as the end approached, we were
at the high point of production, with piles of page proofs to correct at break-neck speed.
So much detail to keep under control: Not only the text, but 500 image captions and
credits, which needed control of the size, medium, location, and correct spelling of
hundreds of works and museums. Maps to be detailed—some of which I did on the plane
between England and the USA. Printing errors. Images printed too large or too small;
Inconsistency in the dating of diverse Egyptian or Chinese monuments; Disputed
attribution of a Latin quote, and so on. I had to do my bit before others down the
conveyor belt could do theirs, with the clock running for everyone and my mother slowly
fading. She told me not to come to England until I had completed my obligations, and the
presses could finally run. I turned in the last proof sheets, boarded a plane for England,
reached her bedside, and she slipped into a coma and died just as I walked into her room.
To just from the way she briefly raised her eyes, when the nurse told her that I had
arrived, I think that she was just aware of my presence before she died.

Once this process was over, I felt mentally exhausted. I told friends that I felt as if I was
experiencing the equivalent of post-partum depression. The process was highly
stimulating, and a great challenge, but now that it was over I felt flat and empty.

On Writing Great Themes in Art

The End Result: Did it come out as I hoped?

   Of course it‘s hard to accept all the compromises that have to be made in such a
    process. It was particularly galling to see the sections on non-western art cut back
    from approx. 10% to 2-3% of the text. It was even hard to accept the choice of cover
   On the other hand, receipt of the first color proofs was very exciting. It was
    immensely gratifying to see the reproductions of images and buildings one had
    chosen to discuss come together, all reproduced so well.
   Also, to have had the opportunity to shape a fresh way for students to be introduced
    to visual art and architecture was a rare privilege.
   Its also a marvel to me to think that it was only the probing questions and persistent
    prodding of our local Prentice Hall representative that goaded me to write a text along
    these lines. Hopefully, some will find its approach refreshing and useful.
   Finally, as in all projects, the one who gains most is the one who undertakes it, the
    writer, not the reader. I learnt a lot in the process, and I came away conscious that the
    constant demand for precision had ground a greater clarity into my own thinking.
   If students don‘t always like the book, I am at very least a more lucid instructor for
    having written it. For that, I am grateful to God for sustaining me, and to the
    publishers for proving such a rigorous testing ground for my mind.

E. John Walford
Wheaton, January 26, 2006                     XNART/On Writing Great Themes in Art


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