The Christian and Contemporary Art
If you walk into the contemporary section of an art museum, you will usually see three types of people: the Mindless Acceptor, the Perplexed Observer, and the Haughty Dismisser. These people may find themselves fascinated, confused, or dismayed, but they are not engaging the art well. As Christians, we have been called to engage the culture well and art is culture made visible.
The Mindless Acceptor
The Mindless Acceptor finds themselves completely enthralled and in awe of the profound artwork in the room. We cannot be mindless acceptors because contemporary art should not be blindly consumed, rather it requires thought and discernment.
Contemporary art must be taken seriously because it is the result of a massive shift away from the belief in the enthroned Christ. As Christians, we should not fear contemporary art, but it is unwise to ignorantly accept it fully. We must engage it both thoughtfully and critically, as we do the culture around us.
The Perplexed Observer
The Perplexed Observer is someone who is utterly lost and confused, with brow furrowed, unable, or perhaps unwilling, to understand why these paintings are significant. We cannot be perplexed observers either, who are entirely uninformed about the subject, or at least we cannot be content to stay in that place.
Contemporary art has gripped the art world of today. This must be worth engaging, as it communicates the values of our culture. Art is worldview made tangible and visible. What a helpful resource to engage our culture well. However, studying art requires some knowledge and understanding, and we must be willing to put in the work.
The Haughty Dismisser
Lastly, the Haughty Dismisser is completely disgusted and appalled as to why something “that a kid could easily do” would be hanging on a museum wall. We also must not be apart of this third group, who looks upon contemporary art with disdain and disgust. We do not have to like every piece of art we come across, but we do have to remember that each piece of art we see has been made by someone who was created in the image of God.
God has made us creators like Him. We can be sure that each piece of art we come across will display, in some form or fashion, that the human heart was made by and for God, which makes it worth our time to examine. Someone made in the image of God took time and thought to create a piece of art that some find completely ridiculous. Remembering this inevitably changes how we view each work of art we encounter, and this mindset makes each piece of art worth our time.
Entering into the Gutter
First, it is important to note that you are in this room in the art museum at all. Many people avoid this room entirely. Why should we, if we are pursuing Christ, even walk through those doors? Gustave Courbet, a painter who marked a major shift toward unredemptive art, remarked that “art must be dragged into the gutter.” And so it has been. We must venture into the gutter and name the glimmers of God-given longings and desires that drip from each canvas.
The contemporary art room is a room where the inner despair and confusion of today’s mainstream culture is put on display for anyone to see. After all, Jesus entered into this world that we had dragged into the gutter. If we are to be image bearers of God, who sent his son to enter our brokenness, then we must also enter into places that seem hopeless and unredeemable to us.
We enter in and begin to translate the language of culture into the language of the gospel. We must remember that translators must be familiar with both languages. We engage the culture with the intention of sharing how Jesus fits into it.
The Problem with Beauty
Jerram Barrs, author and professor at Covenant Theological Seminary, says that modern artists were the first ones to figure out the implications of taking a belief in God out of the prevailing worldview. Many attribute this shift to the work of french philosopher, Descartes.
Descartes wanted certainty and certainty alone. He doubted everything, and wanted to be left with only what was certain. He ended up with nothing. It is as if all order and wisdom and beauty were “dumped out onto the floor” and the artists began doing their best to scrounge up the broken pieces and make something. Art like this should break our hearts, and it is worth our time to examine it.
What is fascinating, however, is that this kind of art is, in fact, on the walls. Art like this would never dream of seeing a museum wall in the 1800s. Yet somehow, a urinal on its side with a few scribbles on it is thought of as profound and challenging and makes it on a museum pedestal.
Are we to ignore such an alarming shift in art? Art has become art for art’s sake. This has never been the case until recent years. Art was to make spaces beautiful, to tell a story. Now art is considered ineffective if it is not shocking or offensive in some form. This is because beauty, without the belief in the God of the Bible and His promise of restoration, is painful to encounter. Existentialist writer Albert Camus sums this up well as he writes, “Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a moment that which we wish would stretch on for eternity.”
In contrast, Sinclair Ferguson beautifully states, “The Christian life is wonder upon wonder and every wonder true.” While this may seem like a sweet sentiment, it is profound in this day and age where every wonder must be labeled as untrue.
Everyone lives in this tension of beauty, including Christians. We long for, crave, and seek out beauty. We were made for it. We were made to drink in the grandeur and majesty of our God’s creation. When we encounter genuine beauty, however, we are met with two conflicting emotions.
We feel a taste of what is to come for us if we are in Christ, and yet we also feel the gap between how earth is now and how it will be when God makes all things new. In every glimpse of beauty, we are given a delicious foretaste of our forever home, coupled with a bitter reminder that we are not there yet.
The Understanding Weeper
The fourth way, then, and the way we are called to enter into the contemporary art section of a museum, is to be an Understanding Weeper. Weeping must be a product of understanding. The more we know about the artists and why they do the art that they do, we should be grieved.
In order to be grieved, we must be able to understand. This takes time. This means staring at a basketball in a fish tank and not dismissing it, but rather, seek out explanations. What moved Jeff Koons to make the art that he did. What happened in his life? How does he view the world? Yes, you also could have put a basketball in a fish tank, but you do not have to, because you can see glimpses of order and beauty of the coming new heavens and new earth.
For others, this inner longing for beauty is coupled with a demand for brutal honesty of the despair and chaos that a godless worldview inevitably brings. This kind of art should make us weep and should drive us to prayer. We are called to weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15)
This includes those who are grieving the absence of a worldview they find ancient or unnecessary. We can weep that they do not know the truth that we do, and we can weep that it has driven them to make unredemptive art. Understand, weep, and pray.
As you walk through the contemporary art section, be like Paul in Athens. Surely Paul did not enjoy everything he saw as he walked and thoughtfully observed the culture, but he entered into the darkness and the messiness, found an altar to an unknown god, and proclaimed the gospel. He noticed that the idol was actually a visible display of the nagging on their hearts that they felt for the one true God.
Art can be the same way. Philip Graham Ryken in his book, Art for God’s Sake, writes,
What is happening in the arts today is prophetic of what will happen in our culture tomorrow…when Christians abandon the artistic community, we lose a significant opportunity to communicate Christ to our culture.
Art is worldview made visible. Let us then look with great fascination and thoughtfulness.
How are we to do something about contemporary art? The possibilities are endless. Being familiar with art gives us a common language and commonalities with our culture. “You liked that piece of art? I did too, because it put on display what I believe to be true about who God is and how he created us.” We are called to remember that every artist is a created creator. We can thoughtfully enter into discussions of their creations and show how they point to their Creator. Proclaim the gaping God-shaped hole that is made so evident in these works of art and use it to point others to the Fulfiller of all.
Creating Good Art
One final way we can respond to contemporary art is by creating good art. This includes visual arts, performing arts, musical arts, and literary arts Christian art historian Hans Rookmaaker writes in his helpful booklet, Art Needs No Justification,
Christ did not come to make us Christians, or save our souls only, but he came to redeem us in the full sense of that word. To be new people means that we can begin to act in our full, free, human capacity, in all facets of humanity, the freedom to work in God’s creation and to use the talents God has given to each of us, to his glory and to the benefit of our neighbors. So, if we have artistic talents, they should be used.
We must be art makers, and we all can be, even by how we live our lives.
Francis Schaeffer in Art and the Bible writes,
No work of art is more important than the Christian’s own life, and every Christian is cared upon to be an artist in this sense. He may have no gift of writing, no gift of composing or singing, but each man has the gift of creativity in terms of the way he lives his life. In this sense, the Christian’s life is to be an artwork. The Christian’s life is to be a thing of truth and also a thing of beauty in the midst of a lost and despairing world.
Christian, restore truth and beauty to a world that is starving for it. Restore it through every aspect of your life, including art. In this sense, the restoration of art can be happening through any means; that includes you. Engage art thoughtfully, and make beautiful art by how you live that ultimately points to an even more beautiful Creator.