This month Image journal celebrates its 25th anniversary. Recently, The Curator’s Brett Beasley met up with Gregory Wolfe, Image’s founder and Editor-in-Chief, at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, MI. They had the following conversation about culture, beauty, and the difficulties of sustaining an artistic vision today.
Brett Beasley: Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with us in the midst of this busy festival.
Gregory Wolfe: The pleasure is mine.
BB: Dickens, Dostoevsky, T. S. Eliot — these are people we consider to be great writers, but we often overlook the fact that they were also editors who started journals because they saw it as part of their mission to their culture. What did you see as your mission to the larger culture when you founded Image 25 years ago?
GW: Well, to be accurate and just, I came up with the idea to start Image in conversation and partnership with several friends and colleagues, including my wife. I tend to get the credit because I’ve been the day-in/day-out guy and maybe the driving force on a daily basis, but I think it’s really important, particularly when people are passing around congratulations, that I take a moment to say it hasn’t been all me.
The conversations we had came out of a period of time many people called the “culture wars.” The “culture wars,” included … famous incidents like debates over the National Endowment for the Arts’s funding of photography by Robert Mapplethorpe, which involved homoerotic sexual depictions and depictions of violence, or, for example, Andres Serrano’s famous photograph Piss Christ (of a cheap crucifix submerged in a container of his own urine). We became concerned that the relationship between art and faith in the public arena seemed to only surface when there was a debate or a political controversy. We noticed that people from vastly different perspectives — say, elite secular intellectuals on the one hand and millions of Christians on the other — seemed to agree, oddly, on the proposition that great art that grapples with the Judeo-Christian tradition could no longer be produced in this day and age. But we were convinced that such work could be created in the present time, and we were determined that there should be a space that wasn’t politicized — a space where it could simply be witnessed. Our models were writers like T. S. Eliot and Flannery O’Connor who, while deeply Christian in their convictions, were absolutely contemporary in terms of their artistic styles, their language, and the forms they used to mediate their visions to the world.
We wanted a place where this new work could be experienced without controversy and without debate, where the creative was the primary voice—not the critical voice, not the political voice, and not even the theological voice. We believed that these other forms of discourse were crowding out the creative imagination … But we also recognized that [this voice] needed to be heard in the larger public square, since another core conviction was that if religious faith and religious institutions are continually in need of renewal, one way that renewal comes about is through the effort to reimagine that faith in the context of the present time.
BB: Do you still encounter the sentiment that great art that grapples with questions of faith is no longer being produced? Certainly an event like this one seems to testify to the opposite, but what is your current sense of the public’s dominant assumption?
GW: There are plenty of holdouts in various sectors. And there are even religious people like critic Paul Elie … [or] poet Dana Gioia, who have questioned the quality of the work that’s being produced today that engages faith. But I do believe that a much larger space has been carved out both within the community of faith and within the larger culture. That’s due partly to Image, but we have not been the only guys out there. Certainly an event like the Calvin Festival is evidence of change … [it’s] a venerable institution in its own right.
I would even argue that the high-water mark of intolerant secularism was somewhere in the 1980s. I’ve said this before, but many people see 1989 as a watershed year because one of the creators of the secular master narrative of modernity, Karl Marx, took a pretty big tumble that day. But I think Sigmund Freud did too. I don’t want to belittle Freud’s achievement, but let’s just say his attitudes toward religion weren’t his strongest suit. His notion was that religion was escapism or wish fulfillment; therefore, since great art has to deal with reality and has to reflect it seriously, it could not possibly be made out of that escapism. But I think that argument began to wither away. The world is now more porous and open to expressions of religious experience in art. Reviews in the New York Times won’t automatically condemn a work because it engages faith. If they feel that the artistry and craft are of world-class quality, they will … treat it seriously.
I think it’s an important change to remember because Christians are always tempted into what some people have called a ghetto mentality, or a “catacomb” mentality — the view that we are oppressed, hated, and persecuted. That view is not only unhealthy spiritually but it is also a direct contradiction of my understanding of the gospel, which seems to say that the public square is … where we belong.
BB: Something I’ve always valued about Image is its focus on beauty. Do you feel that your focus on beauty rather than a particular ideology has helped you avoid getting drawn into these debates?
GW: Absolutely. One of the key dimensions of beauty that theologians and philosophers consistently refer to is beauty’s disinterestedness. The very nature of beauty is that it escapes our attempts to turn it into an instrument for the benefit of the group or tribe to which we belong. There’s something both gratuitous, elusive, and yet attractive about beauty. That paradox is essential as a kind of leavening or balancing force in a world where there are always people with axes to grind, cases to make, and interests to promote. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says that in a fallen world questions of truth and goodness will always be heavily debated, and people will always invest these debates with their interestedness, their parties, and their political leanings. He argues that beauty has the capacity to sail right under the radar of those interested parties. So, while truth and goodness are also “transcendentals,” beauty has the possibility of coming at us with a purer ray from the beatific vision itself.
We have felt the need not to raise beauty above goodness and truth but to bring the three into proper alignment with one another. We looked at the culture, including the culture of the church community — especially its moralism and rationalism, sins committed in the name of truth and goodness. [They] were dominant. We hoped that imagination and beauty could leaven the conversation and make space where space had disappeared as warring parties took over the whole territory. The value of apologetics and politics had been so overstated that they were becoming caricatures of themselves.
BB: Has it been hard for Image to balance maintaining this vision of a space for beauty and disinterestedness in the face of the tough realities of a changing publishing market and other challenges? In other words, how do you balance the search for beauty with sustainability?
GW: We have gone on faith that the artistic languages we speak — and those spoken in the journal — continue to have relevance, even when they’re competing in a marketplace with languages that are much more easily spoken and often seem more enjoyable and consumable than long short stories, complicated, multifaceted essays, or layered, nuanced paintings full of allusions and historical references. So, we’ve always braced ourselves for accusations of elitism. But that’s always been the case with high art. There are important ways to try and refute that accusation, among them the reminder that somebody like William Shakespeare could play to the groundlings in the cheap seats with bawdy jokes as well as to the Oxford graduates in the nicer seats.
But the attempt to uphold more demanding art forms has been tough. The technology itself favors the sound bite, the blog rant, and the infographic over these more demanding modes of human communication. It is challenging to compete against that material. I’ll put it this way: there are still people who love music enough to buy music on vinyl, and, in some sense that is what we are like. The rewards are tremendous for people who are willing to put in the up-front investment in learning how to appreciate those modes of discourse. We certainly believe there remains a place for the thing we do … [and] in some ways there’s currently a backlash against the sound bite and “instant” culture. People of faith are becoming aware that certain modes of human communication are essential to living a mature spiritual life. If you don’t develop the attention, discernment, and awareness of ambiguity and irony that great art can help educate you to, then you will live a more superficial, isolated existence. We’re always going to brace ourselves for being a tough sell, but we’re secure enough … to believe that our audience will find us.
BB: And recently you’ve been able to do something that almost seems impossible in the current publishing market, which is start a print publishing imprint, correct?
GW: Yes, that’s a Greg Wolfe personal project — Slant Books through the Wipf and Stock publishing company. But it certainly grows out of the community and experience that Image has provided for me other the years. Wipf and Stock is a dynamic company that sensed something of this backlash, the desire for the “vinyl” in the literary sense — meaning hardcover fiction. So, interestingly enough, right now our books are released in hardcover and Kindle versions, but not in paperback. It’s very counterintuitive, but we’re going to continue the experiment. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback.
BB: Given that there are hundreds of journals that are born and then fold every year, Image’s level of success is rare. What advice would you give to writers and editors who are struggling?
GW: To use a phrase that my friend, the poet Scott Cairns, has been making his battle cry lately: we’ve always attempted to “raise the bar.” When we started the journal we looked at earlier efforts, particularly among people of faith. We found that many of them were allowing themselves to become publications that featured a particular group of friends or denominational members. The bar was set low enough that the publication was offered to anyone who was a member of the community. Often, that meant that the bar had to be pretty low indeed.
From the beginning, we felt that we could not go that way, in part because religion is always likely to present itself as a shortcut to the hard work of mastering a craft or creative discipline. I think people have been struck by Image because they respected that choice. There is a danger with new technologies and short print run books that the bar is going to be set lower and lower. It is not the most popular thing to talk about discernment and judgment. But we believe that precisely these days, when technology enables anyone to instantly declare themselves an author, that the act of discernment is even more important and necessary.
We’re going to continue to do that work. And that is why I launched an MFA program at Seattle Pacific University, because I felt that it was important that people who were interested in writing in the context of faith be held to a very high standard of discipline. That’s why the program is staffed with an exquisite bunch of writers and why the curriculum is demanding. It’s a process with a moral and spiritual dimension to it, and it’s not to be dismissed as simply elitism or exclusiveness. It is about challenging one another to develop the talents we’ve been given. I think there might be a parable or two in support of that sort of vision.
BB: Where does Image go from here? What changes and challenges are you currently excited about?
GW: The first thing I’ll say is that when we were planning our 25th anniversary issue and we asked ourselves, What should we do?, the first thought we had was the thought you would think we would have: “Let’s look back over what has happened over these past 25 years.” But the more we thought about it the more we thought, “No, that’s kind of a bummer; that’s looking back and this is a journal of contemporary art about what’s happening now, and we should be looking at the present and at the future.” We realized we had accepted so much material from young artists over the past months, and so we put two and two together: we would only have to ask for a few more pieces [to] have a full issue. So our 25th anniversary issue is, in a way, our “youth issue.” There is a symposium in that issue in which we’ve asked several writers, all under the age of 35, to tell us, “What do you want image to be, what can it be?”
There are many ways in which we have to strive to do better. We try to be a class act, but our limits mean that we always have to be ready to ask ourselves what we could do better. We need to always try to be more inclusive. We need to be more aware of what’s going on in the world, and especially in the Islamic tradition, which is a blind spot for many Americans. We need to be aware of what is going on in new art forms so that we’re able to not only cover things like painting and sculpture, but also video art, performance art, and conceptual art. We need to stay hip in that sense — not that we’re willing to take whatever comes down the pike, but rather, whatever is well made. We’re happy to have “Good Letters,” a blog running short pieces — but even there, each post is 1,000 words, a crafted mini-essay — to remind people of the larger vision of Image. We’re willing to go into any forum in which the imagination can go, and I think that our anniversary issue is a signal that in the next 25 years we want not to grow old, but to grow young with what the culture is experiencing, with what new artists are discovering, and with the new media they pioneer and use to great effect.
BB: Thanks again for talking with us, and we hope you enjoy the rest of the festival.
GW: Thank you.