Saturday, May 28, 2005

Christianity and art -- take one

Michael Foster, in his blog post yesterday, posed a very simple and very good question “Why do Christians with conservative theology give so little attention to the arts?”

A fine question indeed. After all, we believe in the lordship of Christ over all areas of life. Abraham Kuyper, in his monumental Lectures on Calvinism, given at Princeton Seminary at the turn of the century, outlined an understanding of Christ as lord of all spheres of endeavor: science, arts, theology, politics, etc. (as an aside, Kuyper makes clear the church isn’t sovereign over these spheres – only Christ. It is up to the Christian artist, the Christian scientist, the Christian politician to work out with the theologians how to submit to Christ in these realms). When the author of Hebrews tells us “…in these last days, [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word,” we get a sense of Christ’s rule over all things. God, in creating the universe, created the very concepts of truth, beauty, justice, goodness, proportion, and all other things that are pleasing and right. And God has placed all of creation under Christ’s lordship, meaning that all that is true and good and beautiful belong to Him as well.

Thus it seems, that as Christians, we should care about the arts and sciences – not simply in an obstructionist sense that we block applications of the arts and sciences that are dangerous and immoral. We also must engage positively to provide the compelling, life-affirming alternatives that come from knowing the true Lord of the arts and sciences.

Consider these quotes from Marshall McLuhann’s famous book The Medium is the Massage. He cites composer John Cage, saying of art "…one must be disinterested, accept that a sound is a sound and a man is a man, give up illusions about ideas, order, expressions of sentiment, and all the rest of our inherited aesthetic claptrap. The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord w/nature in her manner of operation. Everyone is in the best seat. Everything we do is music. Theatre takes place all the time, wherever one is. And art simply facilitates persuading one this is the case. They (i ching) told me to continue what I was doing, and to spread joy and revolution. "

Simply said – there is no meaning. Everything is music, therefore nothing is music. There is no purpose. McLuhann applies this concept by finally concluding "art is anything you can get away with."

These people are deadly serious – they look into the abyss and see nothing, and they conclude that art must champion this void. This is the absolute best they can do – they would put ink on the feet of a running centipede and make the result a museum piece. (Indeed, one of Cage’s compositions was an extended period of nothing but silence – beyond the audacity of such a composition, there is a heart crying out about its own internal meaninglessness – dare we sneer?).

Surely we as Christians can offer something more compelling. Surely there is a reason we gather in art museums to see the great masters. There is something that draws us to hear music – something beyond the music itself. If you’ve ever felt the palpable energy in a concert hall as the musician keeps the audience enthralled, or the actors lull the theatre into a hush, then you know what I mean. If there is no meaning, then somebody has a lot of ticket refunds to offer.

So, I propose that we as Christians must engage Michael’s question – perhaps not all of us – it’s not everyone’s calling or interest. But some of us ought to wrestle with it, and so I offer these initial reflections, not as a polished and finished piece, but simply a conversation starter to draw in sharper minds than my own.

It seems that there are at least three questions involved:

1) What is art? (a whopper of a question)
2) How is the Christian artist to approach the creative process?
3) How is the Christian viewer to approach the interpretive process?

I don’t have a lot of insight on any of these, but I’ll be working through the last one as I prepare a study for the upcoming Cincinnati Art Musuem Exhibit: Brush Strokes of the Master: Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens. This will be a significant challenge because Rubens was both a sensualist and a pietist. The very qualities that make his sacred paintings electrifying are the same qualities that arouse more carnal passions as we view his mythological scenes from pagan antiquity. How is a Christian viewer to make sense of all this – I’ll need to sort this out within the next couple of weeks. I hope you’ll join me in the conversation (especially you artists – Mom: I’m hoping you have some wisdom here).

Soli Deo Gloria