Many are the voices suggesting there has been a failure of vision by the intellectual class, that there is currently a lack of vision to guide culture forward, out of this period of intellectual and cultural chaos. Towards what might one direct one’s efforts in pursuit of a renewed embrace of the True and the Good? Neither theory, nor paradigms, nor assertions will alleviate, provide, or save us. We must direct our attention to Hope itself.
Our greatest hope is in knowing that death isn’t the end, that what awaits on the other side is love, goodness, the embrace of the Divine. But there is also hope for this life, right now. It is one that provides meaning, direction and purpose, and thus avoids chaos. And yet what could that meaning and direction be founded upon that makes sense? It is not too much to say that the past few centuries (some say since the eighteenth, others suggest the Renaissance) have been the attempt to ground hope in something other than the transcendent. All failed. Only a transcendent Ideal can be a lodestone, can provide ontological direction, can give grounding for Hope: the Unbroken Beauty.
Beauty, tragically, was rejected at least two centuries ago; the story of that rejection has brought about a culture that looks chaotic. How bad is the chaos? Pick up any collection of essays by Theodore Dalrymple, an inner-city and prison psychiatrist. Dalrymple evidences again and again stories of horrific tragedy and vapid indifference. Perceptively, he seeks links between ideas and actions. Dalrymple repeats several themes: in cultures of choice, choice is king; Ignorance is evil and reduces the possibility of even being able to grasp alternative choices; foolish ideas promoted by the intelligentsia have tragic results.[i] Dalrymple cites Havelock Ellis as an example of a “sexual pagan” who wrote, “I foresee the positive denial of all positive morals, the removal of all restrictions. I feel I do not know what license, as we should term it, may not belong to the perfect state of Man.”[ii]
What Dalrymple sees, in part, is a familiar story, a part of the Modern worldview. The past is rejected for the new with an implicit confidence that the new is better. When the tragedies of that rejection surface, few suggest retreat. Notably, he often writes on art and literature and finds, as one would imagine, the same trend. He examines the long-standing value among some artists to break taboos, to abandon restraint and standards; what Dalrymple brilliantly exposes is that when artists call for the breaking of taboos in art, it leads to the breaking of taboos by everyone. “A taboo exists only if it is a taboo for everyone and what is broken symbolically in art will soon enough be broken in reality.”[iii]
And indeed things are broken and chaotic. Many Christians would suggest that this brokenness has spilled over into the church.[iv] From whence this tragic and chaotic outlook on life? Chaos is but the manifestation of a flawed understanding in regards to the source for the unbroken, for Hope, which is also the source of Truth and Beauty. A lack of ontological clarity leads to error; a lack of understanding that there is anything transcendent towards which one might aspire can only lead to chaos and hopelessness. The only way out is Unbroken Beauty; the only source of hope is Unbroken Beauty. Hope presumes something in which one may hope. What is the perfect thing to hope in: transcendent beauty and goodness. Plato suggested that love is the desire to possess beauty. Christians call this Beauty by name, Christ.
What happens when any notion of perfection, this Ideal, the Logos, what Lewis referred to as the Tao, is corrupted, rejected, or ignored? That is the long story of the decline of the west and many are the voices that have cried out. Architectural historian Li Shiqiao, writing on seventeenth and eighteenth century English architecture, sets up the debate:
At the core of their intellectual disputes were standards of credible knowledge: whether they consisted in observable and measurable data which would lead to useful applications, or whether they were to be found in innate ideas of virtue and beauty perceptible in great literary and artistic works.[v]
Li goes on to suggest there are two camps, those empiricists who sought new forms that fulfilled practical function, and the humanists who desired to make a clear link between virtue and practice. And thus we have set up that dualistic bane of western culture from then till now: the classical versus the romantic, or the head versus the heart, or any other number of ways to divide. What they share is a denial of the transcendent. Eighteenth century neoclassicism sought to emulate the styles and uphold the rules of classical world, if one may put it that way, but without the appeal to a transcendent Ideal. Romanticism sought something more meaningful than mere quantity but equally rejected the transcendent. We ended up here: “In the absence of that great philosophic tradition with its insistence upon an objective, rationally explicable Good, there is left a great gaping hole in any imaginable intellectual conception of the world, and objective grounds for any and all conduct, including intellectual endeavour, are completely ruled out.”[vi]
Where then, may artistic, and indeed intellectual, endeavour go? Many are the authors in recent years who have explored the effects of such thinking on, for example, education. Thomas Molnar suggests that, fuelled by John Dewey’s theories, education is now about progress but one without direction.[vii] Much like Harold Bloom, Anthony Kronman, sees the problems in the Academy, this lack of direction among them, as linked to the denigration of the classics, or Great Books. Kronman is particularly frustrated that the research model won out over the study of humane learning. His solution is where we can also see the problem; he aspires to return to secular humanism, something he recommends as, apparently, there is no going back to transcendent theology. But he desires his humanism be more substantial than mere existentialism:
Secular humanism neither reaffirmed the religious dogmas of the old order nor embraced the most radical doubts of the new one. It refused to endorse the idea that human life has meaning only in a world created by God and directed towards His ends. But it also rejected the notion that we are able to create for ourselves, as individuals, whatever structures of meaning our lives require in order to have purpose and value. Instead, it emphasized our dependence on structures of value larger and more lasting than those that any individual can create.[viii]
The empirical model doesn’t answer the questions that need to be asked. But where are those answers? Not with God but with our combined human experience? It does not require much thought to consider how well that worked out in the twentieth century.
Richard Weaver has this problem squarely in his sights. “The issue ultimately involved is whether or not there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind.”[ix] Weaver finds the problem a result of the shift to nominalism, the attempt to “banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect” and only accept that perceived by the senses.[x] Note that this has a direct connection to the fine arts. This empirical shift leads to art no longer interested in the divine nor eternally perfect but in the lower regions where the sensuous reigns supreme. When the objective and the Good are removed what fills their places are the subjective and the aesthetic both in life and in art.
Examples of this trivialization in the art world are legion beginning with nineteenth century realism and culminating with, say, Mark Rothko. While the artists in this period vary wildly in form, medium and technique, they share a few things in common: a denial of the transcendent and an obsession with the self. The pedigree for this can be seen with comments like those of the architect Louis Sullivan, the father of Modern architecture and a transcendentalist:
It is of the essence of Democracy that the individual man is free in his body and free in his soul. It is the highest form of emancipation – of liberty physical, mental and spiritual, by virtue whereof man calls the gods to judgment, while he heeds the divinity of his own soul. …the individual man should stand self-centered, self-governing – an individual sovereign, an individual god.[xi]
Jackson Pollock is right there, claiming “… painters do not have to go to a subject matter outside of themselves”[xii] Art Historian Wilhelm Worringer suggested: “Aesthetic enjoyment is objectified self-enjoyment.”[xiii] Critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell: “Art is a religion. It is an expression of and a means to states of mind as holy as any that men are capable of experiencing. It is towards art that modern minds turn, not only for the most perfect expression of transcendent emotion, [sic] but for an inspiration by which to live.”[xiv]
Artist and critic Barnett Newman wrote in 1948:
I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it…We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.[xv]
What about what we might hope are more thoughtful thinkers? Kronman says art matters as it distracts us from the distraction of technology so we can get in touch with our mortality.[xvi] Critic Donald Kuspit suggests much the same depressing theme: the humanities, and art in particular are good because they help us forget our mortality, the source of all our pain.[xvii] Widely published critic Jed Perl says good art is about a work having “internal logic.”[xviii] Would any thoughtful person wish to built art, or a life, on these grounds?
The problem is, if we look at art for the aesthetic, we can accept anything. However, if we look, for example, for an orderliness that is connected to the Divine, or wisdom, or hope, then suddenly a lot of art looks pathetic. Fred Ross, Chairman of the Art Renewal Center explored this in a public lecture he gave in ’01 at the MET. He skewered the cult of originality that can lead to whatever one wishes. Here is one of his suggestions for “brilliant” and “original” artwork:
I could imbed into the walls, ceiling and floors of a small room, pieces of neon lights, parts from broken machines and engines, and broken pieces of structural building materials like bricks, beams and cinder blocks. Then I could glue between everything millions of nails, nuts and bolts, and have clever writers and critics point out how this room (which could be installed at MOMA or the Guggenheim) is the quintessential statement of the effects of the industrial age on human psychology.[xix]
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.
Perhaps the fear is that we should retreat towards some Hellenic thinking, that by focusing upon the perfect Forms, or Ideals, we may think we can reach perfection, a la Aristotle’s Magnanimous Man.[xxxii] But then we need merely recall what our Ideal is, who our Ideal is, and that we can never reach it but also that someday, that towards which we aspire will ripen completely in us. We see our Logos, yes through a glass darkly, but we get to enjoy it, in small doses, this side of eternity. We revel not in our failings, our corruption, our sin; we rejoice in the tastes of perfection occasionally given but always sought after. To let slip on this is to court disaster. To give an inch on the Ideal is to reduce God as Being. To reduce God as Being is to replace Him with the only other option, God as becoming. Once God is removed as Being, reduced to becoming, the inevitable outcome is an immanent theology and self-deification. That is the tragic story of the West. We must engage our part in its redemption.
[i] One of the more disturbing trends Dalrymple notes is the inability of his patients, and indeed intellectuals, to even grasp there are alternatives. Bloom notices this too and with similar urgency: “…the crisis of liberal education is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization. But perhaps it would be true to say that the crisis consists not so much in this incoherence but in our incapacity to discuss or even recognize it.” Allan Bloom. The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Touchstone, 1987) 346.
[ii] Theodore Dalrymple. Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005) 243.
[iii] Dalrymple 147.
[iv] An example of this, besides wretched contemporary architecture, and as we will see below with some art criticism, is the thinking of something called the Emergent Church. See D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) for a critique of the movement. Although one can never be quite sure what he is saying, Rob Bell seems to be adding to the problem when he writes about the Bible: “[The statements in New Testament letters] aren’t first and foremost timeless truths.” See, Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) 62. John Sanders, one of the voices in the Open Theism movement, when asked if God is Absolute Being replied, “no.” Personal conversation with John Sanders, September 2009.
[v] Li Shiqiao. Power and Virtue: Architecture and Intellectual Change in England 1660-1730 (London: Routledge, 2007) 9.
[vi] Michael Aeschliman. The Restitution of Man: CS Lewis and the Case against Scientism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983) 74.
[vii] Thomas Molnar. The Future of Education. (New York: Fleet Publishing, 1961) 86. Of course, the problem is much worse as Molnar notes: “It is often claimed today in the name of “science” and “scientific objectivity” that education should remain neutral in regard to philosophic and moral issues. But if such a condition is permitted to exist, then the young men and women who do not live in a vacuum will not elaborate their own philosophy of life but absorb a crude and simplified concoction derived from the prevailing mood around them. In other words, if the schools (and the parents) do not assume this responsibility, other social forces will.”
[viii] Anthony Kronman. Education’s End: Why our colleges and universities have given up on the meaning of life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) 81.
[ix] Richard M. Weaver. Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948) 3.
[x] Weaver, 3.
[xi] Hugh Morrison. Early American Architecture: From the First Colonial Settlements to the National Period (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952) 256. Quoted from The Young Man in Architecture, 1900.
[xii] Jackson Pollock. “Interview with William Wright.” Art in Theory: 1900-1990. Harrison and Wood, eds. (Oxford: Blackwells, 1998) 575.
[xiii][xiii] Wilhelm Worringer. “Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style.” Blackwell Anthologies in Art History: Post-Impressionism to World War II. Debbie Lewer, ed. (Oxford: Blackwells, 2006) 79. “Modern aesthetics, which has taken the decisive step from aesthetic objectivism to aesthetic subjectivism, i.e. which no longer takes the aesthetic as the starting point of its investigations, but proceeds from the behavior of the contemplating subject, culminates in a doctrine that may be characterized by the broad general name of the theory of empathy.”
[xiv] Gertrude Himmelfarb. Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986) 31. Himmelfarb is quoting from J. K. Johnstone, The Bloomsbury Group, 1954.
[xv] Barnett Newman. “The Sublime is Now.” Art in Theory: 1900-1990. Harrison and Wood, eds. (Oxford: Blackwells, 1998) 573. He continues: “The impulse of modern art was this desire to destroy beauty.”
[xvi] See the conclusion in Kronman, Educations End (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
[xvii] See the conclusion in Kuspit, The End of Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 2005.
[xviii] See Jed Perl. Eyewittness: Reports from an Art World in Crisis (New York: Basic Books, 2000) 4.
[xix] Fred Ross. “Pulling Back the Curtain.” Address to the American Society of Portrait Artists at the MET, 2001. http://www.artrenewal.org/articles/Philosophy/PullingBacktheCurtain/pullingbackthecurtain.php
[xx] Daniel Siedell. God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008) 11. Paul writes in Acts 17: “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said.” It seems reasonable to assume that God worked through these words. It is odd to think that because Paul quoted them that somehow baptized this pagan poetry, as Siedell claims.
[xxi] Siedell 11.
[xxii] Siedell 47.
[xxiii] The building itself was designed by Philip Johnson, one of the first promoters of Modern architecture in America, and situated in front of the chapel is an abstract sculpture, Broken Obelisk, by Barnett Newman. Originally conceived as the chapel of a Catholic university the connection with the university was dropped soon after opening. It “was dedicated in 1971 as an intimate sanctuary available to people of every belief.” www.rothkochapel.org. Perhaps one struggles in referring to this structure as a chapel, but it is a religious building indeed, one dedicated to the worship of anything but a transcendent God.
[xxiv] Siedell 49. Donald Kuspit is a widely published critic and Robert Ryman is an artist and writer on art.
[xxv] Siedell 48.
[xxvi] Siedell 48. There is, of course, much more to be said in regards to Rothko. “Now, it is to bring about this uncertainty, as well as to preserve it from, or to prevent it from degenerating into, a mere oscillation of perception, which could, if I am right, be highly inimical to Rothko’s expressive purpose, that he uses the surface as he does. For the use of the surface, or the way it manifests itself to us, simultaneously suggests forms within the painting and imposes unity across the painting. It suggests light falling upon objects and light shinning through a translucent plane. Wherever a definitive reading begins to form itself, the assertion of surface calls this in doubt.” How can we value an unintelligible work of art? If there is no definitive reading then what is left other than aesthetic response and our own reading. For the Christian this is troubling. Quote from, Richard Wollheim, “The Work of Art as Object.” 1970. Republished in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Art in Theory, 1900-1990 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992) 793.
[xxvii] Siedell 106.
[xxviii] Siedell 46.
[xxix] E. John Walford. “The Case for a Broken Beauty: An Art Historical Viewpoint.” The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts. Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin, eds. (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Il, 2007) 100.
[xxx] Treier, Husbands, and Lundin 87. Sometimes Walford and I seem to be in agreement: “Given the traumatic nature of modern experience and the widespread rejection both of Christian and humanistic thought, perhaps it is a little more surprising that a Christianized version of these Greek concepts has endured to the present…” What follows in his essay is not an explicit rejection of platonic (or aristotelian) thinking but his alternative model for broken beauty. My argument is that an embrace of broken beauty is a rejection of ideal beauty. You can’t have it both ways.
[xxxi] See Arthur Pontynen, For the Love of Beauty (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2006) and Arthur Pontynen and Rod Miller, Western Culture at the American Crossroads (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2011). Both works argue for an platonic/augustinian understanding of beauty as a spectrum rising from the mundane physical towards the Ideal in the hopes of a glimpse of wisdom.
[xxxii] This appears to be the position of painter Bruce Hermann. In his essay, “Wounds and Beauty”, Hermann finds troubling the seeking out of nostalgia, for a “golden age” that never existed, for the sort of a world he finds portrayed in paintings by Thomas Kinkade. But he also seems to miss out on how to understand the Ideal, associating it with Victorian Romanticism. See Bruce Hermann, “Wounds and Beauty. ” The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts. pp 110-120.