Modern Art and the Dearth of Culture

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A number of decades ago, around the time of some of my first forays into public discussions (e.g. letters to the editor), I noticed that there were two topics that would cause other members of the general public to come unstuck in their responses. Those two topics were homosexuality and modern art.

It was hard not to notice a high level of defensiveness when it came to both topics. There seemed to be an inverse relationship between the volume of defensiveness and the quality of the defensible.

One time, when the University of Idaho opened up an art gallery on our Main Street, using it to display the contributions of art students being trained in who-knows-what, I wrote a letter to the editor on that occasion. I said something like “the art gallery was a fine addition to our community, and that we should all be glad for it. And yet, most of the exhibits appeared to have been vandalized, and I wondered if anything could be done to beef up security.”

There was a response from one gent, and I paraphrase, but it was something like *&^*%fritzinonthejimjam!  

Already Assumed

Let me proceed to the conclusion, and then come back to demonstrate how I get there. Our culture is a diseased ulcerated boil of subjectivism and relativism, and modern art is the scab.

In order to understand the disaster that has happened to the world of the arts, in the realm of aesthetics, we have to understand something about human beings, and this is a characteristic of people that is not necessarily related to art. Here it is. Whenever any task is challenging and difficult, it is much easier to cop a pose than it is to rise to the challenge of whatever that tough thing is. Buying a Stetson is easier than driving the cattle to Abilene.

This is obviously a behavior that deserves to be laughed at, and so—the best defense being a good offense—it is a behavior that has fine-tuned the defensive art of scoffing in preemptive return. And therein lies a tale.

Biblical Christians know that we are not supposed to sit in the seat of scoffers, but we sometimes ignore how scoffing actually works. It is not scoffing to notice that something is objectively risible, and laugh accordingly. Scoffing occurs when it is simply assumed, without any basis or argument, that something is dated, or passé, or clichéd, or hackneyed, or predictable—and all these words plus a few more are used—before a posture of superiority is simply assumed.

C.S. Lewis describes, using the example of flippancy, how this process works in his wonderful book Screwtape:

“But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.”

What I am talking about here is actually the very same process, only the thing that is assumed to have been done (when it hasn’t been) is the arduous work of aesthetic theology, the practical disciplines of training and applying talent, and the related work of the critic, analyzing what has been done—all within the framework of a biblical worldview. All of this work is sneeringly assumed to have been done already, when it hasn’t been at all, and the coterie of critics arising from the self-appointed guild of aesthetes, heaps scorn on the Philistine bourgeoisie. But the real Philistines are actually elsewhere. They are the ones running this scam.  

It is the quiet assumption of aesthetic superiority without ever having to demonstrate any superiority whatever. And after many decades of policing this all with a sneer, we have gotten to the point where the works of art are demonstrably inferior, and yet they continue to get away with this scam.

I said just above that a biblical worldview is necessary to this process. It is necessary in order to keep the whole endeavor from floating off into the fog of relativism. When there are no standards for any aspect of life, then how can there be any standards for the artistic aspect of life? Nothing remains—nothing that is, except for the sneer. The sneer becomes a permanent fixture.   

Two Ways:

There are two ways for the artist to go, and one ends with the destruction of all artistry. There are two definitions of art, in other words, and one of them is a death trap.

The death trap approach makes everything depend on the will of the artist. Art is defined as whatever an artist does. If an approved member of the guild produced it, then it is a work of art. Nothing determines what is or is not art apart from the intention of the artist. And however reluctant this community of artists might be to pour out accolades on others for this kind of thing, it is the price they have to pay in order to get their accolades when it is their turn.

And this is why the layman’s critique—“my five-year-old could do better than that”—falls on deaf ears. That five-year-old, whatever his other merits, is not a member of the guild. The layman is appealing to a standard that was abandoned by the illuminati over a century ago. The standard is no longer how good you might be (for good is a meaningless term now), the standard is rather what group you belong to. Are you a member of the union?

The second definition of art, the Christian definition, requires a work of art to conform to an external and objective standard of beauty. That objective standard is grounded in the nature of God Himself—who is Himself arrayed in the beauty of holiness—and when the artist, in grateful imitation, reflects, captures, mirrors, reproduces, and holds something of that glory, the result is a work of art.

So . . . Does God Like It?

So the test for every aesthetic endeavor should be this: does God like it? The standard that every critic should apply is the same. Does God like it? If not, then I shouldn’t either. If He does, then I may throw myself into lawful appreciation.

The immediate reaction to a statement like this among the soft evangelical hipsters—who are engaging with culture by surrendering to it—is to recoil, fully appalled. Does God like it? How are we supposed to know something like that? Are we supposed to assume that God wrote a book or something?

Yes, He did write a book, and much of it is poetry. It was my father who taught me to expect that when you read a phrase like “thus saith the Lord,” what follows that phrase is likely going to be high and lofty poetic expression. God is the poet. He is the painter. He is the musician. And He reveals the characteristics of His work in everything He does.

So when we study the examples of God’s aesthetic accomplishments, if we really study them, we can derive the basics of a sound aesthetic understanding. We see that skill is involved, and balance, and symmetry, and repetition, and complexity that does not exclude simplicity, and simplicity that does not exclude complexity, alliteration, depth of wisdom, and so on.

God inspired the book of Romans. We know what truth is. God gave us the Ten Commandments. So we know what goodness is. Now to beauty. If you want a balanced life, you want it to reflect truth, goodness, and beauty, and you must ground it on the character of God, as represented in His artistry in nature, and as represented in His artistry in Scripture. If someone complains that this is all too inadequate—because it is inadequate for rebels—I will only reply that this approach already built one artistic civilization in Christendom 1.0 and I see no reason why we cannot build another artistic civilization, even more glorious.

But there is no glory in the swamp of subjectivity that is our current artistic scene.

So I Circle Back Around:

You have a favorite band. Does God like your band? You have a picture hanging over your mantelpiece. Does God like it? What does Jehovah think of the photograph you selected for your computer’s wallpaper?

I mean, God either likes your stuff, or He doesn’t, or He doesn’t care. That about exhausts all the options, right?

If God doesn’t care about it, where do we get off caring about it? If God dislikes it, what business do we have liking it? But if God likes what we have done, then we may proceed with joy and exuberance.

One other thing needs to be mentioned. We do not get to make aesthetic judgments in a void, in a relativistic world—because that is a world where the only possible judgment remaining is the sneer. Because of this, we want to throw up our hands in relativistic despair because “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

We do this because if two friends start to discuss whether “God likes” something or other, and one of them is absolutely certain that God likes the Thomas Kinkaide painting that he has displayed prominently in his living room, we want to shrug and say there is no accounting for taste. But if that is the case, then he is not wrong about the kind of painting he likes. A Christian critic should be able to explain what is objectively wrong with such paintings. If he can’t explain it, with that explanation grounded in Scripture and natural law, then he has no right to a sneer.

And keep in mind that even a Thomas Kinkaide painting can be vastly improved with just few small embellishments, just a little tinkering with the clouds. Keep that in mind, as you glance over to the right.

When God evaluates a painting, let us stipulate that He likes it because of 10 million virtues He sees in it. Let us consult two critics who also like it, one with 75 reasons, and one with 28. Their lists have some areas of overlap, both with God’s lists and with one another’s. This is not relativism—it is simply what it means to be a finite creature. It is enough to establish artistic humility. But complete relativism ends in a morass of pride.

Conclusion of the Matter:

Once we have removed the scoffer from our midst, once we have removed the stand-alone sneer as any kind of authority, once we have eliminated the spurious distinction between high brow and low brow, we can begin the work of rebuilding.

We will have to mortify our pride. We will have to crucify our disdain. We will have to admit that Norman Rockwell was a better painter than Jackson Pollock. It will get easier after that.

I Was Told There Would be Free Books:

Not surprisingly, the free book today is Angels in the Architecture. There are many challenges in rebuilding a Christian civilization—obviously—and this book seeksto address them. We did an inadequate job—also obviously—but I believe we were pointing in the right direction. So Angels in the Architecture is free here.