Friday, April 08, 2005

The Struggles of Christian Art: Part Two.

In my last post I briefly discussed the importance of understanding modern movements in art and also modern philosophies and ideals in general. It was my assertion that we must not be ignorant of the struggles of humanity in our works of art. Here I will continue in that vein as I attempt to explain why we must understand the times.

It has been the downfall of many Christian artists that they create works which seem to exist completely outside of the world in which the artist himself lives. In an attempt to glorify God, some have created works that paint a distorted picture of reality. An example of this might be seen in that particular type of religious painting which focuses on landscapes and rustic settings. One can imagine this type of painting, where a cottage or something similar is shown in the midst of an ethereal landscape. The theme(s)-if there is one-of these paintings seems to be portraying the natural world as God’s creation. I must clarify here that I am not suggesting that themes such as these or works such as these have no value for the Christian artist; they surely do. The problem has been that many will exclusively focus on themes such as these. The result is that we are not realistically dealing with the world we live in.

Should the Christian artist be a realist then? I would suggest the answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we cannot ignore the fact that we live in a fallen world. No, in the fact that we are free to explore the creative capabilities of our imagination, as it is a gift from God. If we only create art similar to those paintings which I have just given as examples, we are doing a great disservice to our fellowmen. While God did make a profoundly beautiful world, and while there are a great many joys to be found in following Christ, we are still subject to the sufferings and crises of this life. And it is for this reason, in part, that we must look at current artistic movements, because these movements are not created in a vacuum. Major movements in thought and art happen in response to specific problems that have arisen throughout history. We can look at the Romantic period of literature as an example of this.

The Romantic poets on both sides of the Atlantic were compelled to write poetry expressing the importance and value of man as a spiritual being (some spoke of humanity as part and parcel to God), in response to the scientific and rationalist philosophy of the age that preceded them: the age of Enlightenment. While this is a gross reduction of the causes of the Romantic period it is useful in the sense that is shows how movements are created: not only the intellectuals and artists, but even the common man was concerned about the affects of the Industrial Revolution, Darwinism, and Rationalist thought because these forces affected the common man (although many times the common man did not have access to or understand the poet’s response to these forces). When the Romantic poets began to write about the dangers of these things and the importance of man’s spirituality, this was something that spoke to the crises of the time. In a very similar way, we are in the midst of another intellectual crisis and Post-Modernism is an artistic result of that crisis.

I have neither the ability, the time, nor the space to discuss Post-Modernism in any significant way, but for the sake of this discussion I will quote a useful definition:

“Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one's own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.” (

With this in mind it is not difficult to see how this movement arose out of the modern world where data seems to be both infinite and often inaccurate, and the value of the individual seems to be less and less important. If “interpretation is everything” the importance of any one interpretation is greatly reduced and this is the crisis we find ourselves in.

If, as Christian artists, we create art that does not speak to any of the current concerns of humanity, then we are failing. I am not saying here that Christian art should be Post-Modern; rather, it should be in dialogue with it. Both the believer and the unbeliever are subject to the causes of Post-Modernism: the devaluing of human life, the devaluing of universal “truths”, the chaos of the data explosion (see the internet), and the affects of globalization. Therefore, if you as a Christian artist desire to write a poem relating the beauty and complexity of nature, please write. But, do not exclusively write of the beautiful and the good in life, for this amounts to an intellectual lie. Speak also to the problems that grip all people; paint the ghetto as well as the field. If as Christians we truly have answers, then our art should reflect that instead of denying that there are problems to be solved. However, this must be done with a great empathy for humanity (notice that I say humanity here, because, as I have said before, these problems affect all people.). The world does not need more people forcefully asserting that they are right and everyone else is a fool. Rather, we should seek to genuinely understand the struggles and crises of our time and create art which addresses these struggles.

I must add a strong caution here, for it has been the way of some to deal with the crises of their time by simplistic portraying them and then unsympathetically providing an unrealistic solution (not to say that Christianity provides an unrealistic solution, but that the particular way that some art shows this solution reduces the struggles of humanity to an absurd level). This sort of didactic art is not becoming of a Christian because it is not truly empathetic. An example can be seen in that branch of Christian fiction (typically teen fiction) that vilifies an unbeliever in sin and shows how much better the Christian life is. This is not what I mean when I say we must sympathize with the struggles of our time. Instead we should consider ourselves as Paul did, as chief among sinners and then, in light of the sufferings of humanity, write of the world from a Christian worldview.

So then, why should the Christian artist understand the philosophies and art movements of his/her time? Because these movements are a response to the specific problems of the times, and although as Christians we will view these problems differently, to ignore these problems is foolish and inhumane.


sanpadros said...

Deep Questions here, That reminds me of a neighbor I used to have when I lived in South Holland. Jake was his name and he lived across the street. He used to create lawn sculptures out of scrap metal he got from the scrap yard he worked in, anyway, he would be out there on a Sunday doing the metal work. Well the neighborhood would not have it. The funny thing is that Jake was a Christian and he would do this stuff. I didnt care, I thought the people there were a little wacky anyway, i moved due to work. But when confronted Jake just said his metal work had nothing to do with Jesus and he didnt think Jesus cared when he made his art. Thanks for your insightful blog!

Tim Fields said...

I think that your thoughts about post-modernism and creating art that says something about current values, and not only stressing upon the good (nature, etc.) somewhat contradict eachother.
However, this is the post-modern paradox--if we are to create art which reflects our interpretation, then aren't we going to act in a behavioristic fashion and interpret things in the way society has molded our thought?

If Christian art is too full of heavenly presence, then is there not some archetypal view of heaven, which makes all of the pictures similar? If an artist's intentions were to portray their own view of heaven, and they paint light pouring through clouds over a meadow that fades into a forest at the foot of a snow-topped mountain, are they simply recreating the thoughts put into their minds by previous artists, or are they reflecting the archetype of parallels between light and good, and adversely, darkness and evil?
I know that you are stressing that the world is not without evil or darkness, and so they should include that into their art, but for the same reasons even the artists stereotype Christian art as mainly intended to perform the task of showing the good. And since darkness is just the absence of light, perhaps evil is just the absence of good, and therefore should not be emphasized in Christian form?

noneuclidean said...

Remember, my point in bring up postmodernism was not that the Christian artist should be one, but rather that they should understand the causes of the movement and address those. I agree that if I had said that the Christian artist should work within modern art movements this would be contradictory. But as I am assuming that the Christian artist rejects the concept of relitive truth, then this is not a contradiction.
I think my reasoning for saying that Christian artists should not exclusively show the good in the world was not so much based on a philosophical reason as a practical one. That is to say that when art is made in such a way as to speak to the stuggles of the intented audience, often that art is more affective. This can be seen in the Christian art of that last few decades which has only found an audience in Christian circles, specifically among those who refuse to question the artistic merit of the works. In this art there is an odd overlooking of the problems of this world, and when they are acknowledged it is done in a reductive way. And while showing the good is a way of challenging and perhaps condeming the evil in the world, it is not as affective at communicating and empathizing with an audience. I can say this personally having listened to and see these works of art, even though I am a Christian, they have little to say about my life, with the thoughts that frighten me, with the crises that haunt me. Instead, they offer simplistic messages which more often then not have no affect upon me as a work of art. (Sometimes they do, there are some great works that touch at the core of being a fallen sinner, and the desire and need for redemption, however, these are not the majority). So, to conclude, I still say that Christian art must not exclusively deal with "light" issues because to do so is to ignore the great sufferings that are currently going on in humanity, socially, politically, intelectually, and most of all, spiritually. If you fail to acknowledge the spiritual crises in humanity how can you offer a solution?

Deborah said...

Insightful post. Especially like what you said about Christian art not being postmodern, but being in dialogue with a postmodern age. We have to be careful to maintain that distinction, no? Also, I'm not sure well many Christians have dealt with how modernism has colored their perceptions.

Beverly said...

I need help. I'm looking for one or two Romantic pieces that would express Christian thought. Is there any such thing? Can you point me to an artist or two?

Good and thoughtful article. I really appreciate it.