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Art: Christian and Non-Christian
© 1996 by R.J. Rushdoony

Without a Christian perspective, art drifts into a passion for the disconnected and the isolated

Art does not become Christian because its subject become, for example, paintings of Biblical themes. Our Faith, like our language, is the expression of our total lives; if English is our native tongue, we speak it naturally whether or not we are awake or talking in our sleep. It is our native tongue, and we best express ourselves in it.

To illustrate, Matisse, when working on the chapel once, said to a nun, "I am doing it for myself." She said, "But you told me you were doing it for God." Matisse answered, "Yes, but I am God." 1 Matisse was honest about his art: as his own god, he was a creator more than a painter, and his importance is in part due to the self-conscious nature of his art.

Art develops in terms of its presuppositions. It becomes epistemologically self-conscious, more and more aware of the premises that underlie its conception. Art is a perspective on life. When John Milton wrote Paradise Lost, for example, or Samson Agonistes, he was intensely concerned with understanding the collapse of the Puritan commonwealth, and his own blindness, from a Biblical perspective. His was a theological attempt to understand the events of his lifetime. Whether or not his effort was theologically sound does not alter the Christian framework and motivation. Quite the opposite is true of Ezra Pound's Cantos. Pound, like Matisse, does not seek to understand history but rather to remake or create it. He writes largely in English but not in the English that Christians can readily grasp.

Glorifying madness

Thus, art, Christian and non-Christian, begins and ends with differing views of the artist and his art. The artist in the non- or anti-Christian begins and ends with differing views of the artist and his art. The artist in the non- or anti-Christian perspective is not only a creator but he is in process of creating himself. He will not be someone made in the image of God but "must" be someone who has undertaken the "agonizing" task of creating himself. In my student days, I found that more than a few professors correlated psychological pathologies with artistic achievement. I briefly knew a talented young artist who believed that he needed every kind of experimentation, beginning with sex and drugs, to attain artistic stature; he died as a result of his experimental living.

Such thinking is now commonplace. Joel Conarroe, editor of Eight American Poets (1994), sees "derangement of the senses" as necessary to the artist. The Romantics glorified madness; Conarroes' poets accept it as a price paid for creativity. He asks, "Was it inevitable that the Holocaust and Hiroshima, central horrors of the age, should become metaphors for a poet's inner torments and sense of guilt?" 2

Sadomasochism as "atonement"

Now this is a remarkable statement. First, the "Poet's inner torments and sense of guilt" are compared to the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Guilt over what? From the Christian perspective, all men are sinners and carry a burden of sin and guilt until they find atonement in Christ. The alternative to Christ's atonement is sadomasochism. With masochism, the man of guilt endlessly punishes himself to make atonement. With sadism, he punishes others and makes them his sin-bearers. What Conarroe describes means that art now requires a pathological condition in the true artist. Conarroe cites the sculptor Augustus Sant-Gaudens, who said, "What garlic is to salad, insanity is to art."

Some writers seem to revel in their chosen isolation. Robert Lowell (1917-1977) was called Cal in school, for Caliban, although he preferred Caligula.3 John Berryman (1916-1972) said in one poem, "I'm cross with god who has wrecked this generation".4 For some, astrology is part of their rejection of God's reality.

For more than a few, it is homosexuality. Homosexuality means a shorter life expectancy and exposure to more diseases than is the case with heterosexuals. Since the onset of AIDS, and the penchant of many to carry it as a badge of honor as against an indifferent to hostile world, one at times gets the impression that, if AIDS did not exist, the homosexuals would work to invent it.

Strong sense of isolation

There is another aspect to non-Christian art. Turning from the avant-garde to the mainstream artists, we find some interesting trends in some prominent figures. Two examples of one facet can be seen in the very able twentieth century artists, Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. A startling aspect of their world is the strong sense of isolation. Wyeth strips a scene of a variety of things to give us not only a concentrated view but also a sense of the isolation of persons and things. The result is a very lonely world, and a bleak one. His paintings belong in galleries, or in extremely modem homes and offices where life is depersonalized.

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was even more given to this bleakness. In urban scenes, the streets are deserted, restaurants virtually empty, and his figures of men and women show us people radically alone in a depopulated world. It is almost as if a giant vacuum cleaner has sucked up most people and things. What remains is a world without speech or communication, empty of meaning and empty of human relationships. The viewer becomes a spectator to a nearly empty world, and he is an outsider to it. The world of Hopper is fully familiar in its images, but it is eerily empty of life and action. Hopper's world is full of models and settings, but barren of life. When Hopper visited New Mexico, its beauty dazzled him but left him ill at ease and unable to paint. After days of search, he finally found what suited him, an abandoned locomotive.5

Forsaking God, meaning

To forsake God is to forsake meaning and standards, but the descent into the abyss does not occur at once except in a few individuals. Culturally, the Western world went from God and His law-word to Nature and natural law; after Darwin, Nature was replaced by the state or the anarchic individual, or by various causes. For example, feminism has become for many a paradigm, and a work such as Linda Nochlin's The Politics of Vision (1989) is at times perceptive but still severely limited. Limited causes, whether or not valid, cannot give meaning to a cosmic void.

And this is the problem. When man abandons Faith in God. he abandons meaning. Dostoyevsky was right: If there is no God, then all things are possible. An over-all binding meaning and law having been abandoned, we are in a totally meaningless world - the world of the Marquis de Sade. Justice is then impossible because there is no God, and evil becomes man's expression, the manifestation of his freedom from God.

Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1925) saw this clearly: the only meaning without God is self-created and self-ordained. In a telegram to Iris Clert, an art dealer in Paris, he said simply: "This telegram is a work of art if I say it is."6 Precisely. And this is the problem of modern man which artists face more clearly. This perhaps makes their mental problems and suicides more explicable. Rene Magritte (1898-1967) saw no reason for living or dying.7 Standly Spencer said, "In my painting I owe nothing to God and everything to the Devil".8 William de Kooning (f. 1904) left quickly after glancing at Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, saying, "You know I'm no art lover".9 Alberto Giacometti's (1901-1966) waking dreams were happy dreams of rape.10 Robert Matta (b. 1911) saw fatherhood as a form of "half castration".11 And why not? Responsibility is a step back into God's world. Artists have in our time been much given to irresponsible acts, whether drunk or sober. There is the well-known incident when Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) walked naked into a party and urinated in the fireplace.12 Quite rightly John Cage has been described as "chance's apostle".13 Chance, meaninglessness, and emptiness are the heart of contemporary art's gospel. Art reformers like Leo Tolstoy have failed over the generations because their concern is moralistic and not theological.

Art: a theological exercise

Art is a theological exercise and a form of communication. The hostility of the modem artist to communication is intense. His attitude is, "Choose your own meaning." He rejects any over-all meaning in art or in life, whereas, for the theologically astute Christian, we live in a universe of total meaning, so that man can never escape meaning in any way. Francis Thompson's poem, "The Hound of Heaven," very ably sets forth this cosmic and total scope of meaning, the personal meaning of the personal and triune God. If the Christian artist seeks to limit meaning to a moral content, he is reducing the implications of the Faith to the human realm. A faithful theological expression will be inclusive of the ethical and aesthetic, among other things.

Without this Christian theological content, art drifts into a passion for the disconnected and the isolated. It drifts into a man-centered focus; it begins, for example, with romantic love, then it stresses dirty love, whether heterosexual or homosexual. (The homosexual plays a major part in contemporary art because his stress is so anti-Christian.) Random observations replace meaning in poetry.

When man is not governed by God and His realm of total meaning, he substitutes purely personal impulses and demands for God's law. The men of Sodom (Gen. 19:5), and the men of Gibeah (Jud. 19:22) demanded as a right the freedom to sodomize strangers.

The "death of God" in a culture leads steadily to the death of man because it destroys God's justice in denying His law. Man then is, as set forth by the Marquis de Sade, simply something to be used, abused, sodomized, raped, and killed by those who can do it. Anti-Christianity in due time is the death of art and of man.

No one has yet answered Robert Rauschenberg's telegram: "This telegram is a work of art if I say it is." Meaning is gone, and art and life with it.

1. Janet Hobhouse, The Bride Stripped Bare, p.102. New York, NY: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988.
2. Joel Conarroe, editor: Eight American Poets, p. xx. New York, NY: Random House, 1994. 3. Ibid., p. 68.
4. Ibid., p. 150.
5. Donald Hall and Pat Corrington Wykes: Anecdotes of Modern Art, p. 145. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1990.
6. Hall and Wykes, op. cit., p. 348.
7. Ibid., p. 260.
8. Ibid., p. 240f.
9. Ibid., p. 310.
10. Ibid., p. 275.
11. Ibid., p. 322.
12. Ibid., p. 327.
13. Ibid., p. 345.

First published in The Chalcedon Report March 1996. Reprinted by permission.

Last updated: 12 April 2006
Updated by: Matt Bynum