We’ve all met that guy. He’s the one you avoid at parties, the one with a philosophy degree who can’t wait to debate the metaphysics of the chair you’ve just offered him. Maybe he broods in corners, flipping through pages of Being and Nothingness, waiting for someone−anyone−to recognize his unique brand of genius. He exclusively listens to NPR (or so he says). He watches only Indie films (or so he says). He’s into [insert fad New Age practice here]. He takes many forms, but his demeanor never changes. Don’t you know he’s seen more than you, done more than you, traveled to Nepal and back with nothing but the sustainably-sourced sweater he’s wearing?
Now give this man a paintbrush. Suddenly he’s Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko or−dare I say−Banksy. His talent is minimal, but he has just so much to say. The problem is, in many cases, the art isn’t saying anything. Instead, we are fed a heaping serving of moral relativism with every paint-splattered canvas. The contemporary artist’s manifesto is this: If you don’t get it, you’re simply not enlightened enough. Otherwise you would understand that art doesn’t have to express any discernible meaning. And even if it does, it doesn’t have to be done with any depth of skill. Like everything in our secularized world, art is being stripped of its deeper meaning.
So how should we, as Christians, understand the aesthetic? Why should we care about art? When God, the definitive creative being, exercised His artistic will, the results are said to be “good” (Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 25) and “very good” (Genesis 1:31). With those words, the aesthetic became inextricably linked to the moral. What can we learn from this profound creational pronouncement? Has God, the ultimate artist, given deeper meaning to his workmanship?
God has the authority to make moral distinctions. It is implied in the creation narrative that God, as the Creator, has the ultimate right to deem something “good” or “bad”. Morality does not exist apart from God. There is no moral relativism or social constructivism at the beginning of time, no Lord of the Flies consensus-driven ethics. God is the moral standard. His is an eternal, unchangeable nature of perfection and holiness (Numbers 23:19, Malachi 3:6, Psalm 102:27). His is the only truth, and it is absolute.
God has given moral value to aesthetic creation. In Genesis 1, we read that “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good…” (Genesis 1:31, NASB) In this, God was not passively observing the external appearance of that which He had created. God’s sight is not man’s sight. Instead, creation is marked with a blessing. God bestowed creation (including man) with all it needed to thrive and fulfill the purpose for which it was created, to exist in accordance with God’s will. Christians, in contrast to our pagan culture, understand there is value beyond the material fleshiness of existence. And this value finds its source in the One True Creator God.
In Adam, we have fallen from this creational blessing. It is in our Adamic nature to revel in the rebellion of disorder. We are inclined to use images for evil. One needn’t look further than the prevalence of pornography to see this is true. In contemporary art, senselessness masquerades as transcendence. Often, shock and scorn are the motivators, profanity and propaganda the primary subjects. In this misuse of the image, we make a mockery of true beauty, of God’s creation, undermining it with absurdity and blasphemy. We appeal to the flesh by eschewing contemplation, meaning, and truth. We pretend the visible image is the whole, elevating sensation above reason. In the beginning, God’s creation was ordered and good in that it was both aesthetic (material) and invested with moral meaning (immaterial).
The dumbing down of art−be it in the mindlessness of color field painting or puerility of shock art−is really the celebration of moral relativism. There’s no truth, no meaning, no order. Take David Salle’s pastiche works. He’s not even trying to feign enlightenment:
“I’m thinking of an art that functions as an accidental trigger rather than a logical one…Like, ho ho, maybe we really are morally bankrupt. And maybe it’s fun.”David Salle in Art of the Postmodern Era by Irving Sandler
I write this not as a rally cry to tear down the abstract art in your guest bathroom, but as an encouragement to be mindful of how we are interacting with our culture. There’s nothing inherently immoral in enjoying a variety of art movements, but beware of an intelligentsia who pontificates on the lofty philosophical virtues of contemporary art. Should we value a Rauschenberg over a Rembrandt? What about a randomized string of letters over Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment? The artist’s ability to convey beauty and truth through skill and contemplation is what distinguishes great art from incoherent scribbling.
As we gaze upon the canvas of culture, let us assess the images we survey. Consider the propagandistic underpinning of Banksy’s The Walled Off Hotel, the vulgarity of Serrano’s Immersion, or the affected meditation of Vir Heroicus Sublimis. There is an important distinction between the artist who seeks to convey truth, and one who wishes only to ignite the senses.