What has the Christian response to the art world, modern and postmodern been? Two responses follow, one from a rising critic/historian and the other from an art historian who contributed to an idea that received some notice (in the Christian art world). Dan Siedell, author of, God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art, opens his book with a very odd understanding of St. Paul at Mars Hill:
[Paul] argued that what he knew and worshiped, they were already worshipping, although as “something unknown” (Acts 17:23). Furthermore, St. Paul quotes their own poets in support of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, thereby baptizing pagan poetry in the Scriptures, enabling the Spirit to work through those very words (Acts 17:28).[xx]
This leads him to conclude: “This book is the result of choosing the way of St. Paul: to take the cultural artifacts and to reveal and illuminate their insights into what they are only able to point to, not to name. But point they do, and they should be examined and celebrated as such.”[xxi] What is it, exactly, that we are celebrating? What is it that Christians ought to celebrate and is it the same as what the artists held up for example celebrate. St. Paul advises us: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. (Phil 4:8)
Let us see if there is anything noble, lovely, and praiseworthy about one of the modern artists discussed, Mark Rothko. Siedell quotes him: “Maybe you have noticed two characteristics in my paintings; either their surfaces are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces contract and rush inward in all directions. Between these two poles you can find everything I want to say.”[xxii] Influenced by Nietzsche, Rothko certainly wants to say something, but what? This pushing and pulling is thought by some to figure the spiritual. Of the disturbingly named Rothko Chapel outside of Houston, and its massive black canvases, Siedell states that it demonstrates that abstraction has legitimacy.[xxiii] Why? He quotes Kuspit who describes the room as, “…hovering…the muscle of consciousness,” and Ryman, “His paintings deal with real light.” And then states: “As Christians we can name this “real light” even if, tragically, neither Rothko nor his paintings could.”[xxiv] Siedell continues quoting other scholars: “The chapel paintings are a testament to Rothko’s faith in the power of art – ‘imageless’ art – to meet, create, and transform an audience one by one, to place each person in contact with a tragic idea made urgent by the contemplation of death.”[xxv] Transform then to what? Connect them with what tragic idea? Christians do indeed contemplate death; we do so in order that we may live rightly. Rothko embraced tragic ideas and contemplated death and then engineered his own.[xxvi]
Siedell desires to make clear that many modern and contemporary artists were/are struggling with trying to understand the world. Quite so. All art reflects the values and hopes of its makers. The question is, are they correct in their view of the world or not? Siedell aspires for us to, as he puts it, walk around like St. Paul and “look carefully at these objects of worship.”[xxvii] What is presented as worship in Rothko’s work, or any work? The “spiritual”?
Siedell continues: Both [Christians and non-Christians] have faith; both require belief. The difference is in the nature and kind of belief. [Graham] Ward argues for a new “politics of believing” as a means to develop a “softer Christian ontology.” “Rather than talk about what is more truthful, talk about what is more believable, what is more compelling for belief.”[xxviii] And we have arrived at a denigration of God as Being, as the Logos, of an ontological hope.
A second example follows from this slipping, or slouching. It is found in something referred to as Broken Beauty. Some of the ideas for Broken Beauty are argued by art historian John Walford in an essay in which he explores an alternative to Platonic idealism’s focus on ideal form, and the Aristotelian focus on order.
“We may ask which serves as a more fitting vessel to turn our thoughts toward the Creator? Does ideal beauty really serve as a Christianized Neo-Platonism supposes? Even if to some measure, it does, shouldn’t our theology of art more fittingly grow out of a gospel of redemption? And aren’t artists better placed to represent the human condition and the world around us, then imagine that they can manipulate an idealized beauty to conjure truth?”[xxix]
His questions raise more questions not the least of which is how artists are better placed for anything, however, more to the point: from what does our gospel of redemption grow? It springs from the Perfect coming down into imperfection, and making real the possibility for us imperfect beings to capture glimpses of the timeless, the perfect, and the divine.
In a telling comment, Walford writes, “It is hardly surprising that with the Christianization of the Roman Empire, such Greek notions of beauty, truth and goodness were recast into terms that appeared to fit well with Christian faith and practice.”[xxx] This comment rather begs the reply that, “it is hardly surprising given the secularization of the west that an attempt was made to make subjectivity and romanticism fit with Christian faith and practice.” Not asked is if the platonic model makes more sense.[xxxi]
Is it a coincidence that at the same time the contemporary world is embracing shattering skepticism towards, well, everything, that some in the Church suggest we ought to play down the Ideal? And yet, surely this is what the world hungers for most. In an anchorless, directionless, hopeless world, is not the Rock what is most needed? Paul writes, “Since we consider and look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are visible are temporal (brief and fleeting), but the things that are invisible are deathless and everlasting.” (2 Cor. 4:18) We do recognize our fallen nature and the goodness of redemption, but towards what? Paul, and all Christians, place hope in what is beyond the brokenness. We look to Hope as a source of, the source of, perfection and Beauty, and thus the source of our hope. To weaken this Beauty is to call in question God as Being.