Saturday, 10 January 2009

Modern Art and the death of ...

Here is another great piece by 'Theodore Dalrymple', this time on modern art:
The successful modern artist’s subject is himself, not in any genuinely self-examining way that would tell us something about the human condition, but as an ego to distinguish himself from other egos, as distinctly and noisily as he can. Like Oscar Wilde at the New York customs, he has nothing to declare but his genius: which, if he is lucky, will lead to fame and fortune. Of all the artistic disciplines nowadays, self-advertisement is by far the most important.

This is reflected in the training that art students now undergo. Rarely do they receive any formal training in (say) drawing or painting.

[...] It is true that they are sometimes taught just a little art history. I had what was for me a memorable conversation with an art student when she was my patient. She was in her second year of art school, and told me that one of the things she enjoyed most about it was art history. I asked what they taught in art history.

‘The first year,’ she said, ‘we did African art. But now in the second year we’re doing western art.’

I asked what particular aspect of western art they were doing.

‘Roy Liechtenstein.’

As satire would be impossible, so commentary would be superfluous. The task is not so much to criticise as to understand: that is to say, to understand how and why this terrible shallowness has triumphed so completely almost everywhere in the west.
I am reminded of the thesis of the late, great Hans R Rookmaker, put forward in his seminal Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, that the history of art shows us both the rise and the decline of Western civilization, at the heart of which lies the rise and decline of Protestant spirituality.

Although he eschews a spiritual analysis, Jacques Barzun also identifies a decline in the Western 'spirit', in his From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.

One of the (several) tragedies of recent evangelical history is that in the 1970s some attempts were being made to integrate theology and artistic culture.  This relied, however, on what might be called a 'confident Calvinism', which on the one hand recognized that every area of life could and should be brought under God's sovereignty, but which, on the other hand, also had a very particular theological perspective.

Unsurprisingly, this has now largely ceased as some branches of evangelicalism have given up on the (Protestestant) theology and others have given up on the culture.

Perhaps there is still time for a reawakening. Personally, I have long been struck by the fact that the first result of someone being filled with the Holy Spirit in the Bible is that they are gifted with artistic endowment (Exodus 31:1-5).

A quick Google took me to this website for Christian Artists, but I wonder what happened to that earlier promise? (And also what happened to the old members of the CYFA Arts Workshop - now thereby hangs a tale!)

10 January 2009

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  1. Ah, great minds etc - I was reading the same Dalrymple piece today - & I fondly recall reading Rookmaker's book nearly 30 years ago. But maybe not all is lost. Maybe the deep thinkers of Redeemer Presbyterian Church or Mars Hill can give some theological heft to Christian artists to evangelicals. Otherwise, thinking about 'icons' seems to have dominated a lot of discourse.

  2. For an alternative point of view you might like to read 'God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art' by Daniel A. Siedell (Baker Academic 2008, ISBN 978-0-8010-3184-7), which I review in the next edition of 'Art & Christianity'.

    Siedell makes the claim that “remarkably beautiful, compelling, and powerful” ‘altars to the unknown god’ are “strewn about the historical landscape of modern and contemporary art.” Such altars are artworks whose insights point to, but do not name, Christ. Siedell argues that such cultural artifacts and the insights they reveal and illuminate should be examined and celebrated by Christians and ultimately bent toward the gospel, making them work “as a means of apologetic grace.”

    As a result contemporary culture does not need the “Christian artists,” for which Protestant writers such as Francis Schaeffer and Hans R. Rookmaaker have argued, instead it needs “critics and curators who have a rich vocabulary from which to revive the sacramental and liturgical identity of human practice and to demonstrate that this identity finds its most complete and profound embodiment in the Nicene Christian faith.”

    Those stimulated by your post may also be interested in commission4mission, a new arts organisation formed by artists and clergy within the Chelmsford Diocese, which is to be launched in March 2009.

    commission4mission aims to encourage the commissioning and placing of contemporary Christian Art in churches, as a means of fundraising for charities and as a mission opportunity for the churches involved.

    More information can be found at: