Editorial Note: It was in 2014 that I first came across the work of Cornelia A. Tsakiridou, a year after the publication of her major contribution to the current discourse on icon painting, Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity (Ashgate, 2013). It was quite an unexpected treasure to find at the time. Challenging indeed—breaking the mold of most representative texts of the 20th century icon revival—but refreshing in its theoretical creativity and breadth. This encounter precipitated an engaging correspondence with the author, which continues to this day and currently gave birth to the following interview.
Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity is a text that continues to deliver illuminating insights, rich in philosophical and theological erudition, encompassing both modern aesthetics and traditional patristic thought, addressing convergences between the icon, modernist painting, and the Zen painting tradition, among other things. It’s a book which opens up its profound insights gradually to the patient and thoughtful reader, requiring multiple and continuous readings, but definitely worth the investment.
More recently Tsakiridou has published Tradition and Transformation in Christian Art (Rutledge, 2019), which continues to explore, as in the previous book, aspects of the aesthetic implications of St. Maximos the Confessor’s thought, while looking at the image of the King of Glory (Man of Sorrows), as this iconographic type was variously handled throughout history in both East and West. At the moment she’s writing a forthcoming book on The Neptic Icon and Postmodern Art. This last volume should be kept in mind and given serious consideration once it becomes available, since it will be addressing critically how some aspects of poststructuralism and contemporary art are in fact relevant to the icon, while still finding new ways of thinking which resonate with patristic theology.
The following interview, which will be posted in two parts, explores aspects of Tsakiridou’s development as a philosopher, the importance of St. Maximos the Confessor to her thought, the concept of beauty, the role photography has played in her journey, and other of the most salient ideas addressed in the aforementioned books, in particular the concept of enargeia.
C.A. Tsakiridou is Professor in the Philosophy Department at La Salle University. Her research specializes in aesthetics, focusing on Christian iconography’s intersection with Orthodox theology, metaphysics, and the visual arts. Tsakiridou was born in Thessaloniki, Greece and completed her PhD dissertation on G.W.F. Hegel’s Aesthetics at Georgetown University.
Fr. Silouan: If I’m not mistaken your Ph.D. dissertation focused on Hegel’s Aesthetics. What specific aspects of his aesthetic theory did you explore? Does his thought continue to be influential in your work?
Cornelia Tsakiridou: Yes, I wrote my dissertation on Hegel’s Aesthetics. Although I dealt with the death of form, the most significant concept for me was that of Darstellung. The concept means display and presentation and, in Hegel specifically, the work’s projection of a sensuous appearance of a certain kind that brings to the surface an inner idea that is active inside it. I started thinking in the direction of the work of art as actualizing concepts and the rules by which these concepts become individuated in figures and compositions. I think this became the foundation of my later work, although at the time, I was not at all thinking about icons and Orthodox theology. This also led me to think of the work of art as being livelier in certain ways or more enduring than actual persons or at least as having the capacity to actualize certain human types in a diachronic way—a sort of visual shorthand of various idealities (and myths) embraced by human communities. For instance, take Homer’s “Helen.” She is more enduring than the woman that was Helen since in her (type) are distilled qualities that may have been visible in Helen over time. Similarly, a painted portrait may gather the distinctive qualities of a person that may not be visible all at once in real life. Looking back to that Darstellung study, I can, in hindsight, see the beginnings of thinking about enargeia and the self-actualizing dimension of icons and other images. So, yes, overall, there is a Hegelian influence in my work, and behind it an Aristotelian influence that approaches individuals as carrying and articulating their being and existing on this trajectory of self-actualization that is also important for Christian anthropology. Another thing I learned from Hegel is to hold the concept (or the meanings in a work of art) in view—in other words, to look for it and observe it in action (and not lose sight of it as it morphs into different moments in a work or performance). This form of intellectual “nepsis” became very helpful when studying the icon from a theological standpoint. Hegel, of course, is a monumental thinker, synthesizing on the grand scale, but there is also a subtlety about him, in the way that he presents concepts working through experience and history, maturing, and gradually passing into a tenuous oblivion—until the concept rediscovers them as its past and brings them to life again (as in the aftermath of the “death of art” which in many ways is the “postmodern” moment).
Fr. S: It could be said that there is a “death of art” component to Hegel’s realization of Absolute Spirit that seems quite prescient of recent developments in contemporary art. Not just in terms of a post-mimetic model of art, but in particular, since the 60s, of a post-aesthetics and post-historical moment, where there is neither a coherent master narrative to frame the development of the current pluralistic state of art, nor the dominance of a purely “retinal” approach to it, as Duchamp would put it. Arthur Danto has explored this in depth. How do you approach this issue of the so-called “death of art”? And how do you see the icon fitting into all of this?
CT: This is an excellent question. If I remember correctly, Danto notes the resistance of this “post” syndrome to its own (inevitable) historical determination and I think he is right to point that out. The notion that history can be suspended by simply turning it into a “menu” from which the artist can select anything that appeals to her sensibility, fits in some way the ethos (and aesthetics) of a consumer society that equates eternity with the unlimited choices supposedly available to individuals that wish to reconfigure (or re-imagine) their world and themselves. There is a tacit narcissism in this notion that resonates with the concept of subjectivity that is fashionable in our time: a subject that refuses to recognize its own limitations and ultimately its finitude or mortality, and escapes into imaginary constructs of all sorts. In a sense, ours is a Gnostic mentality. In Hegel, the death of art is the departure of the concept—by this I mean the transcendent and invisible, as Lyotard would put it, that is at work in art—from its lived, concrete realities, as seen, for example, in the cultic and ritual role of art works in past times—a role that is still relevant to the icon. The release of the concept is a liberation, but it does result in the fragmentation of the art object—since the concept (or its idea) is ultimately what guarantees the unity of the work (and its self-actualizing energies). So, once that is gone, the bits and pieces left behind are up for grabs and anything goes (or so it seems). The illusion is then created that history has ended, because it is so clear to us that it is constructed, and we can now take part in its deconstruction and demystification. Maybe we have Hegel to blame for the notion that the only way to have clarity about one’s past is to live through it and then leave it behind—like a worn piece of clothing. Against this notion, I would like to suggest that there are still works of art that resist this kind of reduction (and dissolution). That continue to partake of the invisible in ways that resist total translation and do not release all their conceptual modalities to thought. Instead, there is an exchange between their sensuous and noetic dimensions, a kind of synergy or partnership, that cannot be dissolved.
Fr. S: When did you begin to explore the aesthetic implications of the icon? And how does this relate to your former focus on Hegel and your development as a philosopher?
CT: I was always interested in the two-dimensional image, as well as the visuality of texts, especially poetry. I also had a side interest in Christian theology and the intersection with philosophy. Icons came into the picture, so to speak, when I became more familiar with Orthodox monasticism and the hesychastic tradition. That happened in Greece during my summer trips and here in the US. The discovery of the Athonite liturgy and certain ways of venerating icons that I had not seen before, together with the sense that images in some ways come alive or partake of what transpires in the liturgy, got me thinking about their aesthetics. Meeting monastic iconographers (men and women) was also pivotal in bringing the icon and the spiritual life together. At some point, I came to the realization that one can do theology without God and aesthetics without art (without being vitally, existentially engaged with God and art respectively), and thought that doing that would be a waste of time. By that I mean that I started seeing theology as prayer, life, and practice rather than theory alone and thought of getting to the icon that way—from practice and life to aesthetics (rather than the other way around). Zen was also an influence since I had been fascinated by the unity of consciousness and nature in sumi-e painting and began seeing the icon as an instance of deified or theotic life (analogous to enlightenment in Zen but with clear differences as I showed in Icons in Time).
Familiarity with the work of Jacques Maritain and his attempt to bring Thomism to modern art and engage avant-garde artists of his time, also got me thinking in that direction. I thought that one could turn to Patristic theology and find an ontology of the art object there. I thus came to this project from “outside” Orthodoxy only to discover that my sensibility when it came to religious art was Orthodox all along. From that point on, what I had learned about aesthetics from a philosophical point of view, the analytical and critical perspective, was transferred to the study of Orthodox theology. Gradually I came to see that our theology, and particularly its hesychastic, practical aspects (such as the sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Philokalia) and its hymnographic forms (especially in Syriac poetry) were largely unexplored for their aesthetic possibilities. Something else needs to be mentioned here. Having been familiar with Zen koan practice, I found analogies in the sayings of the Elders (including contemporary Elders) where terseness and clarity easily turned to iconicity, and where, unlike perhaps the koan, the saying remained and took root inside one’s mind and heart, with a striking energy and life.
Fr. S: You’ve also been involved with photography for many years. How much has this influenced and helped to amplify your theoretical formulations concerning icon painting?
CT: Yes, it is a medium and art form that I still love and to some extent practice, although I was trained as a film photographer (through part time studies many years ago at the Corcoran), and digital photography is a totally different experience. Yet, for almost a decade, I did not think much about photography and the icon. This came in the last five years or so, once I noticed how icons have lasting and yet transient lives like photographs, and that they both partake of the world and yet never reach the fullness of their subjects. Apparitional dimensions present in both art forms are also an element that drew my attention. The play of light and darkness, the sense that the frame opens to life in both photographs and icons, although in different ways, and other points of convergence (and difference) that I have discussed in a paper recently in Analogia, are some aspects of that comparison that fascinate me.
Fr. S: One of the refreshing things about your book, Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity, is how you explore similarities, convergences and differences, between the aesthetics of the icon, approaches to painting in Modernism and the Zen painting tradition. There’s surely more to this than mere formalism. But how would you describe your methodology in analyzing and elucidating the convergences that exist between these seemingly irreconcilable traditions? What strings it all together?
CT: I think, as I mentioned earlier, that I found in the Zen emphasis on doing and living the Dharma a way of cutting through conceptualist tendencies in art and philosophy. Few words, silence, gesture, presence, eternity in the uniqueness of the moment (and the reverse), paradox etc. I think that the same elements, but configured to a different ontology and anthropology, are present in Orthodoxy. Zen was thus a gate that opened a pathway. You take it and wonder if your own Orthodox experiences (or viomata) have something analogous to show, and if they do, where the two ways part and how exactly that happens. The philosopher’s disposition is to distinguish between ideas or forms of thought, and that was very attractive in this case. In some ways, this is still an open project that others, interested in Zen and Orthodox Christianity, may pursue.
Fr. S: I recently bumped into a reviewer describing your perspective on art as “neo-modernist,” rather than “post-modernist.” I found it to be a curious assessment. The specific features that presumably make you a neo-modernist, according to this reviewer, are the following: the unique individuality of the artwork that stands above the individuality of the artist; artworks are neither reducible to the social conditions of their time, nor particular theological interpretations. I’m not sure if these features make you a so-called neo-modernist, but do you think they are an accurate summary of your position concerning the autarky of the artwork?
CT: Labels come natural to human beings and are understandable. But they are there to serve a purpose and give us a measure of reality without exhausting it. This applies to the world and to what we write or paint. We want to use categories where they are helpful and then put them aside. Give them some rest. I don’t think “neo-modernist” is helpful here. As my later work shows (including a forthcoming book on The Neptic Icon and Postmodern Art), autarky or autonomy is something that some (but not all) artworks have, but with qualification. Of course, they also have ties to their historical time and the social conditions that characterize it. They are immanent beings, they live world-lives (something that I discuss extensively in The Neptic Icon), like persons (by analogy), and they do that qua images. In a Christian universe, autarky or autonomy do not mean immunity to the contingencies of one’s time. Think of how the saints suffer (like St. Nektarios of Aigina or St. Luke of Crimea), how immersed they are in the vicissitudes of their world and at the same time, how they are not ontically exhausted or crushed by them. Likewise, some icons partake of their world but also keep their distance. They have a depth, a vitality that other icons do not. It is the same with some persons. They have a presence, an inexhaustible interiority that others can see (it shows). Let me propose the open, dynamic notion of participation as an alternative to the reductionist temptations of labeling. There are moments when the icon (as an art form or genre) touches on modernism, touches on mannerism, on futurism (as I show in Tradition and Transformation in Christian Art) or expressionism or postmodernism (as I show in The Neptic Icon), etc. How can we take one stance in studying them (lock our minds into this or that category)? I think we need to see and recognize that plasticity in our categories and talk about it. I think we also need to paint it. Orthodox iconography has become too complacent. It has forgotten the polyphony (and plasticity) of its tradition.
Fr. S: Two key, interrelated concepts that you bring up as pivotal to your aesthetic theory is exemplarity and enargeia. These are qualities independent of stylistic matters, yet inevitably interrelated to form. In other words, there are no stylistic formulas that would guarantee an exemplary image, replete with enargeia. Hence, through these concepts the formal possibilities of icon painting are liberated from stylistic dogmatism. So what constitutes an exemplary image? What, in your opinion, contributes to an image full of enargeia?
CT: I think your point about stylization and enargeia is very well-taken. In my view, that is exactly what happens. The same with the neptic icon, which adds to the concept of enargeia, by tapping into the eschatological dimensions of certain icons. You and I have discussed this matter in different settings and noted the problems of stylization in contemporary iconography. I think of stylization as the icon within the icon. In that sense, to go to your previous question, it seems to me that we are still reacting to modernism, its primitivist interest in the icon (like the masks that many modernist figures are wearing, as you pointed out in connection with Modigliani), and the (forced) rediscovery and reification of tradition in that context—a reification that often obscures the dynamism and diversity of Byzantine and post-Byzantine iconography. Enargeia (an ancient concept with a theological presence), with its emphasis on the vitality of the image and its capacity to project itself beyond the frame and into the viewer’s space, but also to draw the viewer inward by opening its space to her—a space that is therefore agapetically oriented toward viewers—liberates us, as you say, from the tyranny of style. It does that by shifting the emphasis from form to event (better, perhaps to form as event), by making it possible to witness aesthetically what we see (analogically) in the acheiropoietai.[i] The figure looks, breathes, moves, is ready to speak, attends, waits, stands in silence, participates in its world, is open to participating in ours, and so on. We have examples of Byzantine and post-Byzantine art where this happens. This is not anything new. These exemplary icons are not the norm, but they exist, they are there. By contrast, so many icons today (on panels and walls) are flat, lifeless, and decorative. It is as if the iconoclasts have won.
Fr. S: The writings of St. Maximos the Confessor feature prominently in your work as a major influence and guide in your pursuit towards a more theologically nuanced and ontophanic approach to aesthetics. What aspects of his thought in particular have you found as aesthetically suggestive? Would you say that his doctrine of the logoi plays a major role in this?
CT: St. Maximos is indeed a major influence. I was fortunate to take my first steps in that direction with the lectures of Elder Maximos of St. Dionysios Monastery, Mt. Olympos, Greece, and the counsels of Archmandrite Agathonikos Nikolaides (now His Grace Bishop Agathonikos of Arousa and Central Tanzania), an iconographer who once gave me a hand-written copy of a passage from St. Maximos’ Chapters on Knowledge (PG90: 1108AB) on the concepts of crucifixion and burial that impressed me with its difficulty and depth. The studies of Fr. Andrew Louth on Maximos were foundational. Some of his inspired observations have guided my work. I think especially of his characterization of Maximos’ thought as lateral and iconic, and the notion that it should be approached meditatively—something that in my mind became an invitation to explore the aesthetic and visual dimensions of Maximian theology. In that context, the notion that beings enact or actualize (with various degrees of accomplishment) their rational principles or logoi, through which they partake of the divine philanthropy and providence, suggested that any attempt to depict them must focus on actualization. In other words, instead of imprints we need life-incidents and events, or hypostatic realities. Presence is a function of actualization, of the surging, so to speak, of a being’s logoi that we may perceive in a person (but not only in persons). I think in Icons in Time, I called this “exuberant actuality.” An icon, then, is called to reach out to that dimension of being, to this actuality. It is not there principally as a substitute for speech (a storyteller), or as a visual record (a document of faith)—although it could also serve these functions—but as a participant in the life of a being. In my forthcoming book on The Neptic Icon, I show how this idea is present in the Treatises of St. John Damascene about icons. In other words, that painting is not representation but participation (as I mentioned earlier) in the life of that which is being painted. My earlier reading of Damascene in Icons in Time had not identified and explored these dimensions in his thought. Another concept that also impressed me in Maximos is that of eusebeia, in its ontological meaning. This relates to the notion of participation since it takes an intellectual and perceptual humility to allow beings to become known, or to reveal themselves to the viewer. Pious encounters with beings, are characterized by receptivity and thus eusebeia extends to aesthetic encounters, where things previously unnoticed are gradually welcome into one’s field of vision, and one’s life (it is not only vision but all the senses that are involved).
To be continued…
Acheiropoietai: Greek for icons that have come into existence miraculously—not made by human hands.
Eusebeia: Greek for piety, reverence, respect, awe, and the act of showing these to a person or object.
Hagiopneumatic: Greek for “holy-spiritual,” or that which is informed by the Holy Spirit or in which the Holy Spirit is present.
Nepsis: Greek for sobriety, watchfulness, an attitude of attentiveness, alertness or vigilance.
Plerotic: Greek for that which fills, completes, or perfects, or the condition of being in such a state or being affected in that respect.
Ontophanic: manifesting being or the manifestation of the unique characteristics of a being.
[i] In Icons in Time Persons in Eternity, Tsakiridou says, “The image that has enargeia possesses a form of liveliness similar to that of the miraculous icon. It does not bleed myrrh or sweat tears. Instead it brings forth its own form, as if to make an offering of it” (p.8).