The Meaning and Greatness of Christian Art
© 1993 by R.J. Rushdoony
Art is the making well, or properly arranging, of anything whatever that needs to be arranged
A major American seminary issued a bulletin on the arts in the Summer of 1983. Entitled "Christianity and the Arts", the lead article, co-authored by the faculty adviser for the arts issue, dealt with "Meaning with the Arts: Implications of Polanyi's Epistemology for the Arts." The article began thus:
In other words, every viewing of a work of art is to be a humanistic born-again experience whereby the viewer of art surrenders his selfhood to the artist's work to be reconstituted or remade by it. We are given a practical demonstration of what this means:
This method, we are told, alters "the tacit dimension of the viewer in order to realize explicit new integrations with more comprehensive entities." 3
What this pretentious language tells us is that we must submit ourselves totally and uncritically to a humanistic work of art and allow it to remake us and to integrate us into the world of the artist. Basic to this perspective, among other things, are two facts. First, the work of art is by an Artist, i.e., a religious prophet. We are to suspend judgment and enter into the work of art with a radical submission in order to be remade: "In the perceptive moment, the selfhood of the beholder is reconstituted by the work of art." Not only is the artist viewed as a religious prophet but as some kind of humanistic messiah to reconstitute or remake us.
Artist as skilled practitioner, artisan
This is a radical departure from an older and Christian view of the "artist" as an artisan. The older and basic definition of an artisan is a skilled and trained practitioner of a liberal art, i.e., a professional man in field of the arts. With this perspective, artisans were men of the world, competent and able men in their fields, such as painting, architecture, literature, sculpture, and the like. This concept of the artisan was basic to the medieval era, and it lingered into the modern age. Thus, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) could serve as a competent business man, maintaining an assembly-line of trained assistants in his painting, and also distinguish himself as a diplomat. His keen mind, polished urbanity, and mastery of languages made him an outstanding diplomatist. At the same time, he was a highly moral man, a devoted husband and father, a religious man, and an international figure of note. He was, like Bach, very highly productive and everywhere respected. In the 1200 paintings we have of Rubens, it is difficult to tell where his work ends and that of his staff begins, because Rubens so clearly shaped the perspective and workmanship of all. A very great gulf separates Rubens from the Romantic and post-Romantic artists.
Art is communication
Second, basic to the modern perspective in the arts is a reduction of meaning to something purely subjective. Adams and Mullin, in asking viewers to imagine themselves as colors, shapes, and sounds in a "painting" were thereby calling for a do-it-yourself meaning. In a meaningless world of brute factuality, only a subjective meaning can exist. Art then ceases to be communication and becomes a purely subjective expression to produce purely subjective response. This means a rejection of the world of purpose and meaning in which most men live and work, so that art thereby separates itself from reality to become occult and esoteric. As against the disciplines of reality, art then glories in its rejection of discipline. The result is a drift of the artist away from the real world. Medieval art was intensely practical because it was Christian. It was by faith linked to the meaning of life and hence to the central acts of man's life, his worship and his work. The artist as avant garde is a product of a divided culture, one in which the artist is going in a direction contrary to that of most men. As art became humanistic, it also became avant garde. The gap between the artist and his culture widened, because too many people failed to take the course of humanism adopted by a self-styled elite. However, even with its humanistic audience, the modern artist has had to maintain his avant garde status. If the world is brute factuality, and meaning is denied to the cosmos, it then follows that the artist has nothing to communicate. If he is logical, like Marcel Duchamp, he will abandon art, because the logic of meaninglessness renders all artistic endeavors meaningless. Suicide, however, is not too appealing! As a result, the modern artist seeks a continually new way of saying nothing.
Culture: religion externalized
Art is inescapably a religious activity. Man, in all his activities, manifests his faith. Henry Van Til, in The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (1959), defined culture as a religion externalized. Man expresses his faith in his daily life, in his art, music, work, and play. In every sphere, the comment of Cornelius Van Til holds true: "There is no alternative but that of theonomy and autonomy." 4
Each vocation often imagines itself to be a special province with its own special privileges which somehow exempt it from the rules which bind other (and ordinary) men. The clergy, civil authorities (especially judges), doctors, lawyers, and others see themselves as an area of specialized talents and hence special privileges in the sense of exemptions from responsibility. Artists are no exception to this belief. The Biblical doctrine, however, is that the greater the privilege, the greater the responsibility and the accountability. Our Lord says, "For unto whom much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12:48). The responsibility of the artist-artisan is thus very great; it is a theological responsibility.
Seeking God's glory
Cornelius Van Til has set this forth tellingly in his discussion of man's summum bonum, man's highest good:
The implications of this are far-reaching. The highest good is not sought by flight from the world. In neoplatonism, the world is an alien realm from mind or spirit and a limiting and corrupting one. The life of the mind is the virtuous life because the realm of ideas or spirit is the higher and truer realm. In this perspective, holiness is not seen as separation from sin to the Lord but as separation from matter to mind. Paul says, however, "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God" (I Cor. 10:31). Where art is influenced by the neoplatonic faith, it can only be religious when it depicts a cross or a religious scene. Instead of faith governing and informing the artisan's total perspective, it is ascribed only to certain subjects. In terms of this, the Holy Family is a religious subject, but a painting of contemporary families cannot be, unless a cross is introduced. In other words, Christianity becomes a limited sphere of life instead of being the total condition and framework of all things. Van Til says that "man's whole personality was to be a manifestation and revelation on a finite scale of the personality of God." This means that, to the degree that man grows in grace, to that degree he will manifest God's nature and power.
Van Til says further, "both ethics and religion deal with historical mankind as genuinely revelatory of God and as genuinely significant for the development of God's purpose with the universe....We seek God in everything, if we look at the matter from the most ultimate point of view." 6 Because all things were made by God, all things are revelational of God. When viewed and developed in terms of God's law-word all things find their place in His purpose for creation. This means, Van Til tells us, that
Bach's solemn obligation
The more a man grows in this Christian self-realization, the more both spontaneity and necessity operate in his life. This fact makes understandable Saint-SaŽns' well-known remark, that he composed music the way a pear tree bore pears. Of Johann Sebastian Bach, who came of a musical family, Gurlitt has written:
Bach viewed his own life as a repetition of the existence of his ancestors. For that reason mastery in his art appeared to him not so much as a gift but as an assignment and a demand; he felt that he was confronted by something in which he was to achieve proficiency, to acquire expertness, and which he was to put into action. "Occasionally he was asked what measures he had undertaken to reach so high a degree of skill in his art. He usually replied: 'I have had to be diligent. If anyone will be equally diligent, he will be able to accomplish just as much.' He did not make much of, even as he did not depend on, his superior native endowments." (Forkel) 8
Right way to do a thing
Art is most certainly a form of communication. This is why the media and the arts belong together. My wife, Dorothy, once defined art in passing, in nine simple words: "Art is the right way to do a thing." No definition is more than an indication of the meaning of the thing defined, but, with this disclaimer in mind, let us examine this statement. I can, at a piano or organ, pick out notes to put together a crude tune; I can, with pencil, draw an even cruder echo of a picture. Neither effort is even remotely art because I lack both the technical skill and the thing to communicate. In both music and drawing, I have nothing to say, and I do not know how to say anything.
For modern artists, art is self-revelation; it is humanistic self-expression. Art has, as a result, lost its hold on the masses and become the esoteric cult of the self-elected elite. For these people, the manner rather than the content of the work is the essential element. Art in this sense can have neither a popular appeal nor a continuing appeal. Instead of being art, it becomes instead faddistic mannerisms.
As against this, Coomaraswamy reminds us, we have another and now forgotten view of art,
In other words, Christian art stresses an objective frame of reference: communication, use, and the ablest possible expression. Modern art stresses self-expression, whereas Van Til's description of man's highest good has reference to self-realization. Between the two, there is a vast difference. Christian self-realization has reference to the objective world of God's creation and His law-word. The only alternatives, Van Til points out, are autonomy and theonomy. Humanistic self-expression has autonomy as its goal. Christian self-realization is set within the framework of theonomy. There is thus an objective reference, standard, and context.
Geoffrey Scott, in The Architecture of Humanism, called attention to humanism's worship of power. 10 This led very early to the imposing and monumental style. Whether in architecture, painting, music, or literature, the grandiose and the imposing was stressed. In this sense, art self-consciously sought greatness from the Renaissance on. With Romanticism, art became sensitive instead to things remote and different. We see this still in the quest of professional tourists for the untouched, remote, and out-of-the-way places. Romanticism, said Scott, "identifies beauty with strangeness." 11 In time, even beauty dropped out of the Romantic quest, which still dominates our era, and strangeness remains. Essential to avant garde art now is something new, a perpetual strangeness, a love of innovation for the sake of innovation.
This is a logical consequence of the emphasis of humanism on self-expression and autonomy. The universe and man are in effect recreated by each new school of art, because private experience is imperialistically presented as an instrument of being. Remember that humanism worships power. As soon as the autonomous experience commands public attention, a new art experience is created, because autonomy cannot sustain a more than momentary expression of itself. Having no objective standard, it is incapable of maintaining one internally or artistically. By its radical subjectivity, it denies communication in favor of expression and thus cannot maintain continuity.
Communication and a common faith
Attention has been called to the relationship of art and the media: the concern of both is communication. Humanism in effect denies the need for communication. Its fundamental premise is Genesis 3:5, "Ye shall be as God (every man his own god), knowing, (or determining for yourself) good and evil (every man as his own lawmaker and universe)." For a god to communicate is an act of grace; necessity is not a condition governing deity. The failure of humanistic art to communicate has led, over the past few centuries, to the withdrawal of art from the mainstream of life to a role as the means of enhancing the cultural pretensions of the self-styled elite. By becoming itself elitist and refusing to communicate, humanistic art has served to exalt the ego of the elite as the people who are "in the know."
The words communication and communion are essentially related. Without communion, there can be no communication. A common language is required. We have all heard of the amusing adventures of travellers abroad who have found themselves stranded suddenly among peoples who could not understand a word of English. Some years ago, one such person described to me the rather strange mishap he experienced in trying to tell people in an out-of-the-way place in Japan that his baggage had gone astray, and that he wanted to go to the toilet. No one understood him! The communications gap proved very trying.
Humanistic art has a communication problem. It has no common language for men, because autonomy is the essence of Babel, not Pentecost.
Basic to communications is communion, and the fact of a common language. This is another way of saying that there must be a common and governing faith. The word common is related to communication and communion; all three words come from the same Latin word. A Biblical doctrine of communication must reckon with what Van Til has discussed with reference to common or creation grace. As Van Til points out,
Man's activities are never performed in a vacuum: they are the actions of a being, however fallen, who is created in the image of God and whose being, in spite of himself, is revelational of God. As man separates himself by sin from God, he denies his Creator and himself as well, because he is God's creature and image-bearer. Hence, Van Til says, "Either presuppose God and live, or presuppose yourself as ultimate and die. That is the alternative with which the Christian must challenge his fellow man." 13 "Taken properly, the idea of common grace...presupposes as it expresses the universal presence of the revelation of God." 14
This means that, whatever good men may accomplish in any area of life and thought, whether the arts or the sciences, for example, they must accomplish on borrowed premises. They must presuppose a world of one God and one common law and meaning. They assume a given order and truth. Marcel Duchamp recognized this and went from art to being an anti-artist; he embraced a logical autonomy as against theonomy. As a result, Duchamp found it "intolerable to put up with a world established once and for all." According to him even gravity is a coincidence or a form of politeness since it is "by condescension that a weight is heavier when it descends than when it rises." He set forth as a basic proposition of his humanism "to lose the possibility of recognizing, of identifying two similar things." The common element would presuppose a given, God-ordained order and meaning. According to Robert Lebel, "In his statement that 'right and left are obtained by letting drag behind you a tinge of persistence in the situation' he advances still further toward deliberate disorder and disorientation." Duchamp sought also to create a new alphabet and a new language "having no concrete references," but he gave up this impossible idea. 15
Duchamp sought to "desacralize" art. 16 His logic led him to abandon art, because, however avant garde his work, it was still a witness to design if not order, and thereby a witness to God. He abandoned sex, and refused to procreate, because to have anything in common with any other person was a denial of autonomy, and, given this perspective, the sexual act became "onanism for two." 17 While still working at art, according to Lebel, "His work was meant for no one but himself, and he took every precaution to see that nothing of it should be intelligible to an outsider." 18 At times Duchamp departed from this premise. 19 It was, however, his essential position. For him, the common ground in art was replaced by the autonomous experiences of the artist and the artist's audience.
In such a perspective, art denies the validity of communion and communication. The artist rejects the assumption of any necessary common element of experience, faith, or purpose. If a goal remains in art, it is to provide people with a prompting to autonomous experience and reactions.
Not an outsider
In no other civilization than in the Christian world has art gained a higher status and
function. The artisan has been a member of a communion, and his function therein has been
to enable man better to attain self-realization in the framework of theonomy. It is the good
use of things, the right way of doing something: it is communication, and it presupposes a
communion in a common faith. Without the presuppositions of the God of Scripture, there
can be no art. With that presupposition, every artisan in the arts has the function of bringing
forth a common self-realization under God. He externalizes, develops, and gives voice to the
growth and awareness in his day of God's glory and grace as it is realized in and through
man's world and experience. Instead of being a lone outsider, he is the concert violinist in a
great concerto, because he is the high realization of a common life and experience. This is
the greatness of truly Christian art. It is a media of communication, communion, and an
enhanced common life.
Updated by: Matt Bynum