The Legacy of Hans Rookmaaker: ‘So What?’

Dr. James Romaine is a New York based art historian. He is the co-founder the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA).  Dr. Romaine is an Associate Professor of art history and chair of the department of art history at Nyack College.

Although I never met Hans Rookmaaker, who died in 1977, I am the student of his student, John Walford, and see myself, to some degree, as Rookmaaker’s vocational grandson. Rookmaaker’s example gave Christians permission to explore vocations in the field of art history. While that is certainly important, I wouldn’t be here otherwise, it may not be the most significant or lasting dimension of his legacy. In fact, Rookmaaker’s insistence that art, as well as the vocation of the art historian, need no justification deftly avoided a potential trap that could have limited the potential consequence of his work to one of permission giving. Rookmaaker’s impact on my own sense of vocation has more to do with articulating, for the Christian scholar, artist, and viewer, a specific sense of purpose rather than just blank permission.

Toward the conclusion of his landmark book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, Rookmaaker titled a section “Questions of aesthetics and morals.” He argued that aesthetics is not just an abstract theory of color and form, as if art were a type of interior decoration; it is something tied to the “whole of life.” This connection that he drew between the work of art and human flourishing is probably the dimension of Rookmaaker’s method that has most directly affected my own work as an art historian.

For Rookmaaker, art has moral consequence. While I differ with some of Rookmaaker’s conclusions in Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, I agree with him on this fundamental point, which underlies the book’s purpose.  Rookmaaker wrote about art, even art that he disapproved of, as if it were of profound importance. This is not a small accomplishment. When one thinks about the various methodologies that have been applied to art, and to modern art in particular, many of them reduce the work of art in one way or another. (This may be because they are often premised on paradigms which reduce the person, artist, viewer, and scholar.) These methods, whether rooted in formalist, iconographic, Marxist, or other materialist presuppositions, treat the work of art as simply another cultural object and ignore the religious, spiritual, and/or philosophical dimensions of art. Even those scholars who are interested in the “sacred in art” often describe the work of art as some form of spiritual escapism from reality. Rookmaaker, as I read him, saw art as having a moral and religious consequence, even if that religion was one antithetical to Christianity.

In my own scholarship, especially in writing about contemporary art, I try to always keep one question in mind, “so what?” This question asks, “what is ‘at stake’ in this work of art?” Or, “how does this work of art, in its content and form, materially realize the urgency of the human condition?” Rookmaaker would be the first to say that works of art do not, and should not, be looked to for the answer to the human dilemma. However, since these works of art are, at once, material and immaterial, visible and invisible, they participate with us in shaping and being shaped by the unfolding history of creation. Although the artistic process is pursuit of a unity of content and form to create meaning, it is marked by both suffering and grace. Works of art are manifestations of as well as agents for personal, cultural, and spiritual transformation, either renewal or ruin.

Rookmaaker has been criticized for his sometimes-reproachful reading of 20th century art. Nevertheless, he took this art seriously, perhaps even more seriously than some of its most ardent champions. While some art historians were writing about the modern artists’ use of color and form and other art historians were writing about the shamanistic aspirations of the modern artist, Rookmaaker dared to ask the question, “What is at stake in 20th century art?” As the title of his book suggests, Rookmaaker regarded modern art as a matter of life and death.

Rookmaaker’s concern for art as a material manifestation of goodness and brokenness evidenced within the history of the human condition gave purpose to his careful reading of art objects and consideration of their social context and consequences. Yet, he kept his focus on the metanarrative of creation from eternity to eternity. Rookmaaker demonstrated that the vocation of the art historian was more than a distraction from this narrative; in fact, by raising the “so what?” question the art historian continually focuses the reader/viewer’s attention on what is most important.


  • Dr. James Romaine is a New York based art historian. He is the co-founder the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA). Dr. Romaine is an Associate Professor of art history and chair of the department of art history at Nyack College.

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  1. says: Bruce HErman

    Dr. Romaine’s respectful and insightful commentary on H.Rookmaaker’s methodology models for the rest of us what makes for true conversation — honest engagement and interaction, not eisegesis (which much art theory amounts to). Good to see a “grandson” speak well of his pater (even when he disagrees) 🙂

    1. says: James Romaine


      Thank you for your kind words.

      I’m interested in your thoughts on how we can apply this model, of asking of the work of art hard questions about human consequence, to contemporary art. I think that you and I would agree that as contemporary art is passed through this test of fire much of what is celebrated both in the contemporary art market as well as in our own Christian community may, for various reasons, fall short of the mark. Few artists are really running the race as a marathon.

      1. says: Bruce HErman

        Yes — I think you’re right of course, that few contemporary artists are making their work with a view to the long term. The one-offs and clever gamesmanship of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and others are just that — clever “ideas”. Installation and earth-works artists like Wolfgang Laib and Andy Goldsworthy are, contrastingly, making art that deals with temporariness in a very different manner, and with a very different motive I think. They (Laib and Goldsworthy) seem to be after meaning found in a celebration of natural beauty where human interventions merely “frame” the beauty. All that said, I am not arguing that Koons and Hirst are somehow fakes. I simply feel that their work is temporary in the sense that fashion is temporary — not in the sense that Laib and Goldsworthy aim for — namely, the evanescence of nature’s color, texture, and formal qualities that are constantly in flux.
        This opens, I know, a whole other level of conversation…

        1. says: Jim Watkins


          Thanks for this interesting comment regarding temporary works of art. I like how you have contrasted Laib and Goldsworthy with Koons and Hirst. Another that might fit well in the Laib-Goldworthy camp could be Felix Gonzalez-Torres. His candy spills speak profoundly to the interesting relationship between the ephemeral and the permanent because they are constantly in a state of depletion and re-filling.

          It seems to me that temporary works like the ones produced by Laib, Goldsworthy and Gonzalez-Torres can point towards a lasting and permanent significance. This makes me think in an analagous and rather imaginative way of Christ’s miracles, some of which were also ‘one off’ or unrepeatable events, but that point us toward the fulfillment of all things that will be permanent. In other words, like miracles, the temporary works of Laib, Goldsworthy and Gonzales-Torres are interesting because of their significance, and notsimply because they are sensational or spectacular (as is often the case with Koons and Hirst). It might be strange to connect the work of these artists to miracles, but I wondered if making this connection might open further ways of thinking about the distinction you are making between two different types of temporary work.

  2. says: Jim Watkins

    Also, James thank you for this wonderful reflection on the way that Rookmaaker has influenced your own work. I wondered if you receive any resistance from other art historians when you emphasize the ‘so what?’ question. In other words, do other art historians view this question as reaching outside the bounds of proper art historical work? Perhaps they might argue that the ‘so what?’ question should be considered primarily by philosophers and theologians.

    1. says: James Romaine


      Yes, I have received resistance. In graduate school I had a professor who referred to my writing on Anselm Kiefer as “dreaming.” At the same time, her writing mainly used works of art as props for writing about political issues. When I said that I thought that the art object should be the final arbitrator of its own meaning, and not the art critic, she just laughed. As my own method has developed, I have tried to keep this “dreaming” in check by continually referencing back to the art object.

      I am surprised by how many very intelligent people get a fixed idea about something (often based on something they read or heard) and refuse to let looking at the actual art object dissuade them from what they already think. They actually refuse to let the art object speak for itself. As an art historian, I try to be the voice for the art object. I do this by carefully describing what I see in the object and what significance it might have.

      A classic example of this sort of imposition on to an art object is Francis Schaeffer. For example, in How Should We Then Live (illustration #55) he makes a claim that Pollock would hang cans of paint an let them swing over his canvas in order to demonstrate that all is chance. Schaeffer even has photographs of his (Schaeffer’s) assistants setting up a sort of cage prop from which five cans of paint hang, swing, and drip. Next to this is a postage size, b/w, image of a work by Pollock. This is a ridiculous set up. 1) Pollock’s method has been, and had been by the time Schaeffer was writing, meticulously documented in photographs and film. There is actually no evidence that Pollock used the technique that Schaeffer describes. 2) If one looks carefully (heaven forbid) at the “painting” that Schaeffer compared to the Pollock below, they are nothing alike. Because Schaffer’s cans swing from a fixed point, they create patterns of circles and ellipses that repeat over and over and over. This type of patterning and mark making is never found in Pollock’s work. This is because Pollock’s technique was one in which his own body was in motion. But Schaffer never let the facts or the work of art get in the way of a persuasive argument. He knew The Truth and The Truth had set him free of all other responsibility.

      Unfortunately Schaeffer set a precedent that I find to be wide spread in Christianity circles of art appreciation. This precedent is the proposition that “if you bring the word of God to looking at art, the looking is really secondary.”

  3. says: peterS

    It is interesting to see Art Historians talk about HRR because in him you had a someone operating in the same field and are able to see his approach as an art historian. In the nature of the case an art historian has to wait until the art work has been made. This means that the relationship between artists and HRR was some what different. As young art students there was that tendency to want an older, respected figure to “tell you what to do.” I will always be grateful to HRR because that is what he always refused to do. To be ‘the Pope in art’ as he called it. First, he was reluctant to talk about possibilities on the ‘abstract’. ‘Show me what you have done- then we can have the conversation’. And he was always pleasingly unpredictable. Second -his stock advice, ‘Paint what you love,’ became such a helpful driving force. That and great letters of encouragement made it possible for me to continue.

  4. says: Ruth Olsen (Allderige)

    Hello James! You may not remember me, but we were contemporaries at Wheaton together under EJW. How absolutely wonderful to see you here and read your good thoughts on Rookmaaker and on viewing/approaching the art object.
    The illustration about Shaeffer and Pollock’s method is particularly interesting to me (I had not known of this before). I remember being *new* to the study of art (under Professor Herman’s watchful eye at GC) and found myself utterly perplexed if not somewhat annoyed by Pollock’s paintings–or, rather, photos of his paintings in text books or on slides. It all just seemed so affected and, dare I say, random. I could not answer “so what?” with anything but “So what!” And all the theorizing in the text books was not satisfying me any further.
    Then, I had the opportunity to visit the Guggenheim for the first time. I walked around a corner and found myself face to face with a large Pollock canvas. Of course I knew what it was right away, and just about as quickly, I was overcome with tears. This depth, this texture, the effects of this man’s movements with this paint…it was all so stunning to me. It took my breath away.
    The painting meant something to me, with a rather ineffable meaning; and while I won’t belabor you here with more of my impressions, I recount this to affirm your very point: the value of the art is within the object itself; it is therein sufficient and, moreover, often quite satisfying.
    So good to know that you have taken this route, James! Congratulations.

  5. says: James Romaine


    It is great to hear from you. I’m thrilled that you had that encounter with the work by Pollock.

  6. says: Peter S

    Dr Romaine, Thank you for all this – I have been off line for a couple of days and find the conversation has begun to get really interesting. I had a similar experience with Jackson Pollock to the one Ruth describes. Now I have to tread carefully here because I am not an academic. I appreciate your care with the ‘art object’ – one shared with HRR. But is the Art Historian ‘the voice’ for the art object? Maybe ‘a voice’ as part of an ongoing discussion? No number of essays can replace a Jackson Pollock painting, though, hopefully they will make us think. Patrick Heron once said that ‘Paintings are silent’.
    But as we get round to Pollock I wondered if you were not being a little unfair to Schaeffer?
    The remarkable thing, to a young Christian art student just in Art School in the mid 1960’s, was that any ‘Rev.’ of any sort not only knew the names of the most contemporary artists, but that he talked about them and took them seriously. He never claimed to be an art historian though I know that does not absolve anyone from the responsibility to be careful in what they say. Perhaps we could look at it from another angle? I imagine that you are from a generation who has never known a world without Jackson Pollock – not only that – but Jackson Pollock’s nicely domesticated in museums and catalogues surrounded by endless imitations of various kinds including school primary school drip experiments and lovely drip backcloths as part of window dressing in expensive stores. I bit like looking at tigers in the zoo. To come across a Jackson Pollock painting for the first time was more like coming across a tiger face to face. He achieved what he wanted. Amongst other things a genuine American contemporary way of painting which undermined the whole Western European Art way of doing things. It was so new it was difficult to see what was going on. I think you may still agree that, as we look into Pollock now, from a calm distance, that there are aspects of his thinking about the nature of creativity, of painting, of what it means to be human in this world that we might still want to challenge. Is it possible to sense those challenges at the time while still missing the mark a little in what was actually happening. It certainly looked like a random chance procedure when first observed. Compared to the familiar ways of painting it looked ‘out of control’. “We see what we know” – another of HRR’s favourite phrases. Our current incredulity that other things could not be seen in Pollock reminds me of the difficulty I have in understanding why a generation who saw the French Impressionists for the first time could be so shocked by such ‘sweet’ landscapes. They were, I suppose, because they were the ones who experienced the ‘shock of the new’ first hand. That doesn’t mean that because we don’t feel ‘threatened’ any more that serious implications in Impressionism remain – alongside the wonderful sensous, painterly language of coloured light. So – how does this relate to Ruth and Jackson Pollock? Well we all get used to things and Pollock ‘lived’ in his neat category until I went to the large Pollock exhibition at the Tate a few years ago. I kind of remembered a little of Schaeffer’s thoughts but now had some 30+ years of my own painting and teaching experience. I deliberately tried to go with an ‘open mind’, wondering what I would find. Did I find anarchy, chaos, blind chance?
    What I was confronted with was control, structure, an affinity with human gesture – yes there was vigour, aggression even but it was a different Pollock. Or was it? It was certainly difficult in a 1960’s art school where this was seen as THE way to paint and no other. I still find myself at odds with Pollock’s views on the painter and creativity but do I find the paintings negative in the way they once were perceived? If I am honest I say no. I now love many of them. I wonder if Schaeffer ever went back to look at them again? A similar thing happened with HRR and the Cobra Movement. We understand why back in the late 1940’s early 50’s, after a Europe devastated by two world wars that their revolutionary solutions to a future was viewed with extreme caution, but it took the next generation in Graham Birtwistle to help us look again at Cobra and see all that stuff – yes – but in a calmer context. I suppose one thing we learn is that even the most desperate attempts at visual destruction still need God’s structures to exist in the first place. Amongst other things that may mean that even if the intention is ‘destruction’ something positive is there to be redeemed. I trust that Dr Romaine won’t have his Schaeffer moment in 30 years when his students look back on the voices he gave to some works of art. I would bet that he will, like us all, have some blushes ahead. I hope they are not too painful. This is too long a ramble so time to stop.

  7. says: Bruce Herman

    Good to read the responses to your piece James.
    Also very interesting to me that Francis Shaeffer’s attempts to engage and critique modern art are still generating some attention — if only because his reactions now seem so wrong-headed to us. As you implied, James, there is a certain arrogance there (though no one would fault Shaeffer’s pastoral intentions). But the Inquisitors were also, in their own minds, attempting to defend the Truth. Shaeffer was not alone in his confident stances relative to modernism in art and lit and philosophy — and there are plenty of confident evangelicals today who dismiss films, music, art, and literature without really following your “so what?” And this is a shame to us. It’s heartening in this blog to consistently encounter irenic, thoughtful engagement with a host of cultural products — and encouraging as well to find HRR and company just as thoughtfully handled.
    Peter S. asked the rhetorical question that goes to the heart of the considerations in this conversation, it seems to me. And I’d frame that same question this way: if we want our attempts at meaning-making to be handled carefully, we need to do the same with that of the other — particularly those with whom we disagree. It amounts to a kind of intellectual golden rule I think. But behind that “rule” is really something even more pivotal, I believe — and that is something like cultural empathy or charity.
    James — you might push back on my characterization of Koons and Hirst as analogous to “fashion” versus Laib et al being more centered on celebrating nature’s beauty and evanescence. And I’d be eager to think with you about these two. In fact, I just wrote and delivered a paper on Hirst’s “For the Love of God” — and I took it very seriously in that piece. My take is that it is a brilliant evocation of the hollowness of the art market. Be that as it may, I do very much appreciate your larger point about art of all kinds being a bid for meaning — and “unity of form and content” and marked by “suffering and grace” — well said.
    Perhaps a real antidote to our “uncivil discourse” these days in all sectors is just this — a charitable imagination that reaches out to envision the “other” as a carrier of meaning(s) that might just prove important to us. (Rather than a threat to our certainties.)

  8. says: James Romaine


    Thank you for your thoughtful response.

    Perhaps it would be better for me to say that the art historian is “a” voice, not “the” voice for the art object. My experience is than most people are not visually literate. The reasons for this is something for another time but, still, many interested viewers benefit from having the work that they are looking at described to them. This is what I mean by being a voice for the work of art.

    I don’t think that I am being unfair to Schaeffer. In fact I think that I am being generous to him. It is one thing to have an opinion or theory. It is another thing to make up facts to fit your opinion or theory. Unless someone can produce an image on Pollock using the type of contraption that Schaeffer illustrates than he is guilty of worse than I have said about him.

    You make a good point that contemporary art often has its critics who later turn out to be mistaken. The “shock of the new” might well describe some critics reception to the development of perspective space coming out of the gothic aesthetic as wall as to the destruction of perspective space in Pollock’s work. Still, I don’t know if Schaeffer, writing several decades later, can be excused on these grounds.

    You also make a good point that scholars can, and often do, find themselves reevaluating their previous positions on something. After only a few decades of work, I already have at least one regretful essay that I wish to take back. (I was, I now think, too generous in my praise of a particular artistic movement.) However, since I have never made up facts to support an argument, I hope not, in the future, to have a “Schaeffer moment.”

    I like this phrase “We see what we know.” It is a variation of the famous “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like.” I will shortly be posting an essay on the website that addresses this type of “looking.”

  9. says: peterS

    Thank you so much for your kind response. Of course, you are perfectly correct, making things up to ‘fit’ your theories is always a non-starter.
    I am sure it is not something you would do – I was only teasing re:blushes etc. The bit I think I wad refering to in HRR was a moment, when talking about how complex and loaded with meaning the world is he compared three or four different specialists looking at the same stretch of woodland eg a farmer, an army general, an ornithologist etc. Each see the same woodland but in a different way. In that sense, they see what they ‘know’. Anyway – next priority is to read more of your work – and interested to see how the discussion on Damian develops. Will check out Cardus too. Blessings on your work.

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