With the Word, in its Poor Fleshiness

Nicolas Poussin, Eucharist, c.1637-40, Dulwich Picture Gallery

Paper presented at a Sacred Traditions and the Arts Seminar Series, titled “The Art Museums, the Sacred, and Theology,” organised by The Courtauld and King’s College, London, on Monday 6th November 2023

This paper is a response to Daniel A. Siedell’s paper “Theology as Curatorial Practice: An Experiment.”[1] I will focus this response on the overall intention of Daniel’s project, paying particular attention to the performative verbs in the enunciation of his thesis.

Daniel tells us that he wants, “to think theologically with works of art, that is… to wedge open enough creative space and imagination from which to think and practice ‘theology.’”[2] This wedge is clearly driven against two institutions: “the church” and “academia.” This regularly comes back in the outline of his project.

However, this is not a mere refusal to engage with “the church (‘faith’) or academia (‘understanding’).” It is also a refusal to not abide to their practices. He indeed writes: “This would also include dislodging them from the particular practices of attention they intend, whether ‘devotion’ (church) or ‘close reading,’ commentary, and critique (academia).”

With Daniel’s project, theology thus becomes free, free of both its institutional confines and their practices, including prayer and study. But where does Daniel lead us? In what he calls the “broader and messier” remit of the museum. He writes: “The aim of the project is that of allowing theology to become dislodged from its original context of either believers or specialists and enter the messy, bustling, loud and gawking audience that is the museum-going public.”

But what rationale does Daniel gives us to operate this shift away from the millennial-long sacrosanct remit of the church and the centuries-long quiet halls of academia? It appears that Daniel wants to infuse theology with a renewed creative vigour that appears to be missing in church and academy. He writes: “The museological experiment that this project performs is an attempt to find a way to emphasize the creativity, the inventiveness, even the poetic and imaginative dimension… of theology.”

So, Daniel’s rebellious gesture appears to be an attempt to infuse creativity, inventiveness, and imagination into theology by performing it in the museum. But how does this play out in reality? There appears to be two distinct strategies.

The first one is a shift from the written, spoken, and heard remits of church and academia to the aesthetic one of the museum. As he writes: “The museological gesture that this project develops experiments with shifting the display apparatus of theology from ‘science’ to ‘art,’ from reading to viewing, from critique to affect, from word to image, from diagrams to shadows, from certainty to ambiguity, from depth to surface.”

But this is no mere return to the occularcentrism of the western tradition. Because Daniel is a curator, he takes theology not just to the visual register, but to the one displayed in museums. He writes: “This experiment wagers that the spatial relationships that are generated among [museums] artifacts might reveal new ways to experience theological concepts, images, and ideas, which foregrounds its insatiable desire for the infinite and the unsayable, a reckless creative capacity to conjure intense and seductive images of faith, hope, and love, and exhibit an unshakable confidence that it has the potential to liberate thought and empower action.”

So, this is not just a call to dislodge theology away from the institutions of church or academia, stop listening to the priest or the academic, or help focus on the visual register of art, with its hordes of iconic religious paintings and sculptures.

This is a call to reinvigorate theology by placing it, to use a Lyotardian vocabulary, amidst the visual and conceptual linkages offered by museological and curatorial displays. It is a way of finding theology in the provocation of an artwork against another, in the shift of the gaze between painting and sculpture, artefact or object, etc.

With Daniel, the curatorial remit of the museum thus becomes the locus of theology.

I want to pause here and highlight something which I think is unusual. In the papers that were sent to me in preparation for this response (and in the paper itself), the term God strangely only appears twice. Daniel’s focus is not how to make God more present in the confines of the museum, but how to do theology in it.

The aim is not indeed proselytism or a desire to recruit museumgoers into the fold of Christ post-theology. The aim instead is to do theology without imperatively positing God. The theos (of theo-logy) seems here inconsequential in relation to the way that the logos (the logy of theology) is dragged outside of its expected confines and performed anew in the museum. How can one make sense of this?

As a way to respond to such an unusual provocation, I feel I ought to contrast Daniel’s strategy with one of my own. This strategy is obviously purely speculative, a simple response to the provocation that only aims to kickstart a conversation.

The title of my response is “With the Word, in its Poor Fleshiness.” The title brings together two obvious terms: On the one hand, the word is flesh and on the other, poverty. I will start with the former to properly start my response to Daniel’s project.

The expression “And the Word became flesh” is obviously taken from John 1:14, where John resumes the entire argument from the beginning. As is well known, this is the incarnation of logos. The logos which was prior to becoming, now becomes.

I will take this in a Spinozist sense, namely, that God has become life, is the life-principle. Life is henceforth the mode of God’s existence, or a state or condition into which He passed. It is thus the incarnation of the logos in every living entity.

The word “flesh” is therefore used to denote all that is alive, with a particular reference to that part of life which is the region of sensibility and visibility. It is indeed not said that the Word became man or woman, but flesh and therefore something sensed and seen.

But what is meant by “became” as in “became flesh”? Again, in a Spinozist context, the “Word” becomes “flesh” is understood not in the sense whereby one is absorbed into the other, but in the sense of an inextricable tandem, where flesh and Word occur as two sides of a same reality.

So, when it comes to the act of creation, from God’s creation of the world to human artistic creations, the Word manifests itself as the flesh in all creations. In one swift expression, all is logos, all is flesh without one being distinguishable from the other. This obviously includes both objects and their naming and interpretation, and therefore their curating.

This means that no “body” can occur without an idea of such a body, no art can occur without an idea of such art. The human, to take one example amongst all living creatures, is therefore the corporeal joining together of the material and the semiotic as Donna Haraway says.[3]

This means that any attribution of sense to the world, artistic, curatorial, theological, or philosophical, is a way of being in, of, and with the world in its fleshiness, in its expression as Word, sign and flesh together.

So, if I am asked to reflect on the theological in museological and curatorial contexts, I can then make no distinction between all that which is exhibited as flesh and Word and I who is also body and sign. All is one in the eventness of the curatorial as body and sign, Word and flesh, viewer and object, all in their joint becoming, if you will.

The question is obviously how to then interpret that which is exhibited, how does Word and flesh interpret Word and flesh? Before proceeding with my response, I want to recall here the way that Daniel answers this question. Daniel wagers, Q: “that the spatial relationships that are generated among [museum’s] artifacts might reveal new ways to experience theological concepts, images, and ideas… i.e., foreground theology’s insatiable desire for the infinite and the unsayable.”

If I read this correctly, this means that, for him, Word and flesh are separated. The Word, or more precisely, the logos arises in the encounter between the artifacts that the curator has exhibited. In other words, museums, like the Church and the Academy provide the Word to flesh. The theological is therefore, according to Daniel, the revelation of the Word (or logos) amidst the flesh of curatorial displays.

He wagers on the museum and therefore the curator to foregrounds, as he says, Q “this reckless creative capacity of the theological to conjure intense and seductive images of faith, hope, and love.” The curator, and the viewer in tow, replace the priest and the academic in the revelation of the Word in the flesh exhibited.

This implies that through the prism of theology, the logos or the Word creatively and curatorially empowers flesh, liberates the body of both the exhibited and of the viewer and spurs the latter into thoughtful action. The theological is here eminently transcendental, external to the object as sensed, to flesh as interpreted whether by the curator or the viewer.

But even if I renounce my immanental Spinozist take on the Word becoming flesh and embrace Daniel’s transcendentalism, is the museum or curating truly able to partake of the logos of theos? Is curating truly capable of revealing the Word in (or, in my case, as) flesh, of exposing logos in (or as) artefacts?

I’m not so sure. Contrary to Daniel, I would wager instead that museums and curating only help us, with their endless storytelling, their profusion of explanation and exposition, to further new sets of stories and interpretations that tirelessly lead us astray from logos, away from the theo-logical, and therefore, away from theos.

My response would indeed be that the curatorial cannot bring the Word and flesh together. The curatorial might transform flesh into more promiscuous flesh, into texts, wall panels, discourses, conversations, provocations of linkages between artworks, and therefore into endless semiotic proliferations; it very rarely reveals the Word of flesh, or, as I have argued, the Word as flesh.

Just to insist on this point, for me, curating always moves towards an invisibility already devised in the present, towards a future already determined now as “new.” Displays are always “new,” unseen, to be seen, etc. The viewer is thus always dazzled and frazzled by the razzmatazz of curating. That’s what curating does: it invites us to scroll from newness to newness, it fosters the tireless merry-go-round of semiotic play.

In this way, curating really caters to our endless propensity for titillation, for the dopamine effect produced by the unexpected, by the transitory, by the exceptional, by the unique object, by the bizarre and the eerie. Since 1851, the exhibited must impress for otherwise it is not worth exhibiting. What curator does not aim to impress, provoke, satisfy, feed the dopamine reaction?

By contrast, the theological in the way that I understand it here, namely as Word becoming flesh, moves, I think, toward a different kind of invisibility, towards a different kind of future, hard to see because close, present, and persistently resistant to all forms of economy. In other words, the theological brings us right up to flesh as Word, to what suffers no forms of display, artistic or aesthetic, and therefore to no trading in newness.

Instead of catering to the impressionable with the visibly impressive as curating so often does, theology caters to the sensorium of the flesh, its epistemic and bodily advent. This means that the Word as flesh is not restricted to the ear, vision, or writing. All the senses are engaged in this epistemic embodiment that cannot be absorbed by any form of trading.

So, against all the barrage of spectacles of the curatorial, the showing-off of the museum, the excesses of displays, the overabundance of curated objects, and above all, the seemingly inexhaustible economies at stake in its daily business, I think we need to think the theological in relation to museums in a way that emphasizes precisely the opposite to what they tirelessly do now.

The reason I am suggesting this is because at the moment by only seeking to impress, provoke, and trigger further thoughts and affects, by only abiding to economies of need and satiation, curating does not seek a transformation of its viewers. Curating only needs viewers to remain hooked to its ever-renewed displays.

By contrast, for me, theology’s aim is really to transform the persons who senses (in both meaning of the word) in order to dance so far into the Word made flesh that they finally become the Word itself. This is an aim that barely occurs in the eucharist or the communion performed by the priest, the exegeses of the academic, and practically never in the exhibitionary performances of the curator.

It is for this reason that I suggest the second expression in my title, namely poverty.

Against the insatiable proliferation of curating, including all online endeavors, against the ceaseless economies of need and satisfaction, of exposure and exposition, of distraction and reflection, there can only indeed be, if there must be a theology in the museum, poverty.

Now, the call for poverty is obviously not new neither in the West nor the East. I am not suggesting an ascetic or mortifying practice to obtain salvation as it is the case in the monastic tradition or of sannyasins in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.[4]

The call for poverty is here altogether different. It consists in a poverty of knowledge. In this, I follow Meister Eckhart’s second understanding of poverty (the first is material and the third is a mystical fusion with the eternal), for which Word and flesh, sign and body, i.e., the material and the semiotic finally come together as theology.

Meister Eckhart writes: “We have said on occasion that man… must be bereft of all knowledge to the point of neither knowing nor recognizing nor perceiving that God lives in him… Hence, we say that man should be so devoid of his own knowledge as he was when he was not yet. He should let God accomplish whatever God wills, and man should stand void.”

Further down he writes: “The activity proper to man is to love and to know… there is a oneness in the mind whence flow knowing and loving… This oneness has neither before nor after, and it is in want of nothing additional, for it can neither gain nor lose. Thus, we say that man shall keep himself rid and void so that he neither understands nor knows that God works in him. Only so can man possess poverty.”[5]

The message is clear. To do the theo-logical properly, in order to embody Word and flesh, sign and body, the material and the semiotic, it is not possible to seek it in crowded and noisy spheres (such as the museum) because one would only find further multiplication of knowledge and affect that lead nowhere except more of the same.

It is only in the recognition of being bereft of all knowledge, that the activity proper to man, namely, to love and to know, embraces what was already occurring “when he was not yet,” this incarnation that stand void in the face of all human creations and their many economies.

So, if I follow Daniel’s lead, for me it would be a theology of museological or curatorial practices of a poverty that is neither totemic nor iconic, neither aesthetic nor conceptual, neither formal nor figural. Such a theological practice is one that withstands the endless propensity of curators to create more contents, more exhibitions, more expositions and for the viewers to consume them avidly.

If this can at all be made into a practice, then such a sensory and knowing curatorial theology can then meet the true purpose of the Word become flesh, which is for me, its ability to transform ourselves out of our insatiable need for entertainment and distraction and our status of hear-say believers or museum-goers into sensorial seekers capable of acknowledging the Word as flesh in all its poverty.

Word made flesh or theo-logy in act is the groaning and crying of an impoverished being, whose fervour or prayer is the cry of a threatened and difficult coming into and out of being, the Word as flesh. In such poverty, the insatiable desire for the infinite and the unsayable vanish in the face of the void that always was and always will be.

If museums and curators care about anything at all, then its care is precisely to reveal such a poor theo-logy, one which does not pay heed to newness, or the tireless visual and conceptual linkages offered by museological and curatorial displays with their loud and gawking audiences but emphasize instead how the Word became flesh.

Easily said than done, of course. However, this is precisely, for me, the theological and curatorial challenge of Daniel’s project. How is one to curate this difficult coming into and out of being, the Word as flesh, irrespective of all human authorial, aesthetic, conceptual, museological, and curatorial registers?


[1] I would like to thank Scott Nethersole and Ben Quash for organising this event and Daniel A. Siedell for the invitation.

[2] All quotes from Daniel A. Siedell’s project are taken from private correspondence.

[3] Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 16.

[4] See Giorgio Agamben who analyzes this “highest poverty” as a form of bare-life that begins when all the designed forms of life have been exhausted. Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Forms of Life, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), p. 143.

[5] Reiner Schürmann, Wandering Joy: Meister Eckhart’s Mystical Philosophy (Great Barrington: Lindisfarne Books, 2001), pp. 212-3.

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