I am an Art Historian. And one way of making a “history” of art is to trace a history of gesture. The Abstract Expressionist painter Barnett Newman summed this up in his 1947 manifesto, The First Man Was an Artist.1 For Newman, the thing we call “art” originated from a sort of primal, manual “cry,” like a slash – a spontaneous, gestural response to the challenges of existence. It was rather like shaking one’s fist at the heavens, or “flipping off” the cruel forces of nature. But it didn’t have to be angry; it could also be reverent. It could be like upraised hands during a worship service, or a head flung back to receive a gentle rain.
“Gesture” isn’t the only lens through which to understand the thing we call “art” – but it’s a helpful lens. And it embraces human expressions that often get ignored in art-historical discourse. Of course, the American abstract painters of the twentieth century were all about gesture. In this, they had been preceded (and inspired) by Zen Buddhist artists (and monks!) whose spontaneous, monochromatic brushwork was thought to capture the movements of the soul. The great masters of the Italian Renaissance – Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael – were so revered partly because their raw, gestural sketches were every bit as powerful as their “finished” works. (This seemed to indicate deep, intuitive genius.) And throughout the history of visual culture, there have been traditions of repetitive ornamentation that raise the ritualized hand gesture to levels of profound import. This can be seen especially in the decoration of sacred books by anonymous scribes: consider the celestial vinescrolls of the famous Book of Kells, or the dazzling “arabesques” of royal Qu’rans.
A gesture binds and communicates meaning. When it is recorded in paint or stone, it is preserved for posterity, to be interpreted and empathetically traced by succeeding generations. Yet other kinds of gesture cannot be preserved and must be reenacted. This often leads to the development of liturgies and other pious behaviors. It is expected of Roman Catholics, for example, that they genuflect when entering a church, honoring the Body of Christ (in the form of the Eucharistic Host) that abides there. This habitual gesture, when practiced with attentiveness, can instill a feeling of tremendous humility and reverence. Similarly, gestures of blessing or handshaking that occur in many Christian worship services, when done with intention, can instill feelings of togetherness, the overcoming of division, and union in a common cause – regardless of background or personal taste.
Indeed, so many of our daily choices, conscious and unconscious, involve gestures. Do we yield to passersby on a narrow sidewalk? Do we nod and smile, or do we stay focused straight ahead? Do we greet security guards and cashiers at places of commerce, or do we get on with our business? Do we “stand up straight” at moments of ceremonial importance, or do we affect nonchalance? We make many of these choices automatically and unreflectively, depending on how we conceive of our social roles. Further, we may often distrust the gestural choices of others, finding them stuffy, threatening, “superstitious” or simply impossible to understand. The social fabric – the fabric of human reality! – is so densely and complexly textured that we struggle to navigate it in empathy and truth. Truly, we still live in a “Babel” of different languages that are not only verbal but involve the back, the eyebrows, the knees, and the hands.
American culture, I think, has in part been founded on the belief that one must constantly discard old gesture-systems (including rituals and traditions) in favor of newer ones. Innovation and constant reinvention are part of the American way: we must never get bogged down in ossified systems, but instead return to elemental sources and forces that allow new departures. American culture is intrinsically experimental, and perhaps even iconoclastic, in a way. Certainly, that is the story of American art, which is almost unparalleled in its successions of short-lived movements, its eclectic “sampling” of other cultures, and its impatience to innovate.
But we can also learn from the time-honored gestures handed down by traditional communities, still practiced because of their strange, visceral power. Maybe this includes genuflecting in an ancient church centered on a shining, centuries-old tabernacle where resides (it is believed) the very Body of God. Maybe it includes bowing our faces clear to the ground, nose touching, in studied, conscious reverence before the God of the Heavens. Maybe it includes washing the feet of an enemy.
It is January, and this evening my family is preparing to do an Epiphany blessing over our front door. It involves certain brief and tender prayers, recited after inscribing on the lintel (in blessed chalk) the numbers of the year and the initials of the Three Wise Men.
The legend of the Three Wise Men is, in many of its popular manifestations, of dubious historicity. (Were there really three? Were they really there right when Jesus was born? Do we really know their names?) But the point here is not historical analysis, but gestural offering. The Magi left everything and traveled to Jesus, creating a turning point in their lives. They commended themselves to God and sought His signs. In the New Year, my family does the same. Moreover, the traditional names of the Three Magi (Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar) conveniently also evoke the phrase “Christus Mansionem Benedictat” (“Christ Bless This House”). When we pass beneath this symbol on our front door, my family remembers that we are pilgrims on this earth, going forth to seek Jesus wherever He may be found.
Pre-literate societies, or at least societies not totally dominated by verbal language, understood the texture and meaning of gesture better than we do. Yet paradoxically, in our postmodern, image-saturated media environment (which could be understood as “post-literate!”2) we are rediscovering this power. And as we do, we will see that ancient faith communities, indigenous communities, and communities of the poor and oppressed have preserved a rich wisdom to which we had inadvertently been blind.
In the New Year, I pray that our heavenly Father will continue to open our eyes to the riches of our global, historical inheritance – in both word and image, speech and gesture, mind and heart.
- This essay was first published in the art magazine Tiger’s Eye (1947, issue 1) and can be found in various anthologies, including Theories of Modern Art, ed. Chipp, Selz and Taylor, University of California Press.
- The notion of a “post-literate” society awash in recorded or digitally-generated stimuli was hypothesized by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s (e.g., his Gutenberg Galaxy of 1962). Shortly after, theologian Harvey Cox’s Secular City (1965) also addressed the challenges of evangelism in a “post-literate” world. The term remains useful in current discourse. See, for example, Michael Cuenco, “America’s New Post-Literate Epistemology,” Palladium, April 17, 2021.