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.” (pbs.org)
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.