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The Unspeakable Art of 
Bill Viola

A Visual Theology

Ronald R. Bernier


A Visual Theology

Copyright © 2014 Ronald R. Bernier. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical publications or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher. Write: Permissions, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 199 W. 8th Ave., Suite 3, Eugene, OR 97401.

Pickwick Publications

An Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers

199 W. 8th Ave., Suite 3

Eugene, OR 97401


ISBN 13: 978–1-62032–471-4

eISBN 13: 978–1-63087–268-7

Cataloging-in-Publication data:

Bernier, Ronald R.

The unspeakable art of Bill Viola : a visual theology / Ronald R. Bernier.

xiv + 86 p. ; 23 cm. —Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN 13: 978–1-62032–471-4

1. Viola, Bill, 1951–. 2. Art, Modern—20th century. 3. Spiritual life—Christianity. I. Title.

BV4501.3 .B47 2014

Manufactured in the U.S.A.

For Michael I. Podro, CBE, FBA



This project is the result of countless iterations and reconsiderations over the years, and many individuals have been tremendously helpful and generous with their time, guidance and editorial acumen along the way. Its first outing was as a graduate thesis in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Scranton, in Scranton, PA, under the able direction of Dr. Maria Poggi Johnson. Her support, encouragement and insight shepherded the project from a vague spark of an idea to its first stage of completion. Also influential along that route were Drs. Charles R. Pinches and Will T. Cohen, also at the University of Scranton. From there various chapters and portions of chapters were presented, in various stages of (in)completion, at several professional academic meetings in recent years, including the Association of Art Historians annual conference in Manchester, UK in 2009, the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art in Paris in 2010, the Museum of Biblical Art in New York in 2011, and the American Academy of Religion in San Francisco in 2011. At each step, thoughtful questions were raised and astute suggestions offered that helped to make the argument more cogent and focused. Support for travel to many of these professional venues was made possible by the generosity of the Provost’s and the President’s Offices of Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, MA, where as faculty I’ve also received supportive and perceptive feedback from students and colleagues.

For the editorial and production assistance in the final sprint to publication I wish to thank Christian Amondson and the wonderful—and patient—staff of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

And finally, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for the kindness and warm spirit of Bill Viola, Kira Perov, and their assistant, Christen Sperry-Garcia of Bill Viola Studio LLC, who gave generously of their time and insight as this project reached its final (for now) form.

1 Introduction

Towards a Visual Theology

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

—Romans 8:24–25

The estrangement of art from religion is one of the many unhappy legacies of Modernism. There was a time, however, when the aesthetic and the theological were of a piece. This study of selected works by American video artist Bill Viola1 considers the possible re-emergence of a theological dimension to contemporary art, a re-enchantment of art some have called it, which means “stepping beyond the modern traditions of mechanism, positivism, empiricism, rationalism, materialism, secularism, and scientism—the whole objectifying consciousness of the Enlightenment and the materialistic disbelief in interiority—in a way that allows for a return of the soul.”2

Long estranged from symbol and sacrament, artists seem to have turned once again to a vision rooted in the soul, where “soul” may be understood, in a Hegelian sense, as that which transcends individuality and bonds us with other people and communities—art as a way of re-humanizing us, summoning us to a rekindled humanity and a social instinct of empathy with others, what Viola himself has described as an “awareness” that may counter the “anti-human” tendencies in today’s world.3 Something on this order may be what philosopher Henri Bergson had in mind in his lesser-known treatise of 1932, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, in which he characterized human life has having two tendencies, “closed” and “open.” While the former tends toward boundedness, exclusivity, self-preservation, individuality, group solidarity, and stability, the latter inclines to openness, love, inclusion, and care that reach beyond the limited bounds of the individual or group.4 Soul, or spirit, understood in this context, is ultimately social, one’s sense of participation and membership in a shared humanity or community, a social instinct of sympathy with the Other—a “yearning” the artist calls it.5 Viola has himself remarked, “One of the greatest dangers in our lives today is the objective eye . . . Rational objectivity is distancing us from the moral, emotional responsibility that we have towards other human beings. The detached eye is a dangerous instrument.”6 In an era marked culturally by world-weary cynicism and solipsistic and self-conscious irony, a new paradigm may be emerging within an artistic practice that has grown increasingly uncomfortable with its inherited condition of “unbelief” and has re-committed itself to a project of restoring theology to aesthetics.

Quite to the contrary, however, contemporary theorist Thierry de Duve has argued for a continued faith in the Enlightenment project that others have generally agreed has failed us; de Duve’s hope is that artists not engage lingering interests in spirituality, maintaining that “the best modern art has endeavored to redefine the essentially religious terms of humanism on belief-less bases.”7 “Belief,” as it is invoked here, is understood as the modern notion of intellectual assent, with onto-theological implications; that is different, I shall contend, from an understanding of belief as faith and faith as trust, as the substance of things hoped for, as we are reminded by Paul in his letter to the Romans in the epigraph to this chapter. Postmodern religion scholar Marc C. Taylor, goes further, and identifies what he calls a theoesthetic “in which art and religion join to lead individuals and society from fragmentation and opposition to integration and unification.”8 Clearly the matter is not resolved. “Art and faith,” arbitrates William Dyrness, “both strain at the boundaries in which they are placed. They slip out of our grasp because they both deal in wonder. Maybe our conversation,” he continues, “ought at least to remember this fact, and acknowledge that both are, ultimately, not within our control. That would be a start. All sides, it would seem, have much to gain from such humility.”9

In the introduction to his popular 2004 study, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, art historian and theorist James Elkins succinctly describes my own sense of professional unease in pursuing this topic: “For people in my profession of art history,” Elkins confesses, “the very fact that I have written this book may be enough to cast me into a dubious category of fallen and marginal historians who somehow don’t get modernism or postmodernism.”10 The art world, he claims, “can accept a wide range of ‘religious’ art by people who hate religion, by people who are deeply uncertain about it, by the disgruntled and the disaffected and the skeptical, but there is no place for artists who express straightforward, ordinary religious faith.”11 There is, the critic is saying, a general tendency within the art world to see art that invokes religion in any but a critical or sardonic way as retrograde and reactionary. “[T]he absence of openly religious art from modern art museums,” Elkins further contends, “would seem to be due to the prejudices of a coterie of academic writers who have become unable to acknowledge what has always been apparent: art and religion are entwined.”12 Yet, as John Walsh, Director Emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, has argued, Bill Viola “stands outside the tight embrace of critical theory and art production. His art has little or no irony, does not refer to other contemporary art, and is unabashedly devoted to the ‘great themes.’”13 Viola is, I would add, one of the few artists today willing to reaffirm the spiritual in a world in which it is increasingly difficult to gain a critical distance from the tyranny of the material and to think of transcendence at all.14



2011 - 2018