Art and Modern Art

by R. Wesley Hurd


My mother always liked my art-even my “modern” art. After all, it was her very own son’s expressive, if strange, enigmatic, and amateur, creation! In point of this unsurprising fact, to this day, some twenty- five years later, she has not found it in her heart to remove some of my most abstract work from the walls of her home!

But do we all have to be “mothers” of someone’s art-someone’s modern art-to find some common ground for appreciating its often puzzling forms and abstract character? Perhaps you have walked through a museum displaying some modern art. If you happened to have been near children with their parents, undoubtedly you enjoyed mom and dad “shushing” their kids’ natural, inquisitive, and often loud assertions: “What is it?” “What does it mean?” “Mom, Dad, this stuff is weird!” You were as humored as the parents were embarrassed by the children’s forthright verbal exclamations about the silliness of such art. In all honesty, however, you shared their bewilderment over what to make of these paintings-some of them so simple you thought four-year-olds could have done them, others so outrageous they bordered on offensiveness.

Beyond this kind of experience, you might once or twice have actually entertained seriously the question of how to make sense of art in the modern world. You know you can appreciate the old classic pieces- the Da Vincis, Michelangelos, and Rembrandts-for they are “realistic”; that is, they exhibit at least something “commonsensically” recognizable in their depiction of the subject matter. For those in the world like my mom (who are most of us), the modern movement in art appears alien because those who don’t speak in its strange visual vocabulary remain unaware of the details in philosophy and the history of ideas that underpin the world of art. Put briefly, modern art mirrors the bewilderment that has overcome the mind and psyche of modern man.

If I am beginning to make art sound a bit philosophically pretentious, there is good reason for your intuitive apprehensiveness. Art can be and very often is something much simpler: a playful, fun, expressive experience of making things both useful and joyfully pleasant to listen to and look at. Edith Schaeffer has written a wonderful book on this approach to understanding art titled “Hidden Art.” I recommend her thinking very highly. However, that approach is not my concern in this little essay. I believe that art is also a powerful human phenomenon capable of telling us much about ourselves and our contemporary world.

WHY IS THERE ART?

The often asked question “What is art?” can be put in another perhaps intriguing way: “Why is there art?” I believe we can answer this question from two different frames of reference. First, from out of our own humanness we can examine our own experience, thoughts, and intuitions and from this inductively derive a definition of what art is. Second, as Christians we can ask for important, foundational clues from the Bible. Both are legitimate because the Bible gives us accurate insight on being human and so does our experience of reality. God is the author of both the Bible and the way the world works, so there can be a “fit” between the Bible’s ultimate explanations and definitions for being human and my own, which are derived from thinking about my experience and the real world as God has created it.

First, I experience: I look at myself and the world around me. Then I try to make sense of both my philosophical interpretation as well as my strong feelings about the circumstances of my life. This order-of thinking about our experience then interpreting it in order to survive it physically and meaningfully-seems to be the way all people, Christians and non-Christians alike, must do it. The Bible’s contribution to my thinking comes after I have already experienced being human and trying to make sense of my existence in the world.

Let me first, then, attempt a brief answer to the question of defining art from the perspective of thinking out of my humanness-my experience of looking at the world and myself. What then does my experience tell me? It tells me that I see the world and being human as “wonderfully problematic.” My experience of life is both marvelous and incredibly beautiful and at times a crushing disappointment. We see and experience beauty, creativity, mercy, victory, goodness, and knowledge- but also futility, hate, failure, brokenness, injustice, and ignorance. These experiences make evident the full range of our situation of being human creatures. We navigate it, negotiate with it, to survive it physically, but we also inescapably seek to find meaning or significance in it all to make sense of what and who we are. Add to this that we discover ourselves to be “creating, speaking, and telling” creatures. We cannot deny the part of us that wants and needs to say something to someone else. In this light, art is communication of a very important, intensely personal kind. If I say something very personal to you about which I think and feel strongly, I release something from me. I have taken from the “stuff” of my world, creatively reshaped it, and put it back out in the world for you or others to hear, see, or feel what I thought and felt about it. When I do this, I have created and expressed something about the way I personally see, think, and feel about the world.

From earliest historical reckonings humans have used instruments, languages, and creative symbols to communicate their interpretations of their world, their needs, their aspirations, their deepest longings and feelings about themselves and the beautiful, but often threatening, world about them. Art, then-in music, painting, as well as literature, poetry, and theater-is a form of human communication that we use “to mirror life” to ourselves and to others. Along these lines, art historian and critic Allen Leepa comments:

When art fails to mirror life, it fails as art. Mirroring life, however, does not mean copying it. The artist does not merely set down a photographic record of his times. Rather, he reflects in this work the tempo, attitudes, aims, hopes, tensions, successes and failures of his era. He transposes these through his work. Because he is a member of society, he intuitively expresses its heartbeat. And when he works creatively he indicates to society a spiritually new direction. One has but to walk through one of our great museums to realize the feelings and ideas-the way of life-that were important, consciously and unconsciously, to the people of a particular epoch.

In other words, artists take a medium (paint and canvas, words, the human form in dance movement, and music) and use its language (its conventions) to communicate their rational and emotional reflections and longings-intensely focused observations-about the human condition. We take our experiences, our thinking about what is of most value in being human, our quest for a point of ultimacy-for a kind of sure foundation for truth and human fulfillment-and say something about it in art. Sometimes moments possess us in which our perceptions and feelings about the world and ourselves in it surround us vividly and with penetrating power. In those moments we often sense that there must be more to reality than mundanely appears to us. There must be something “behind or beyond” what we see making up the myriad of phenomena confronting us in our every conscious moment. These moments present us with a kind of unquenchable yearning for genuine fulfillment whether through ultimate understanding or knowledge or experientially realizing some form of being and existence that eludes us now. We want “real reality.” This quest for ultimacy very often gives birth to art in its multitude of forms.

Why, then, is there art? Our experience tells us there is art because humans need to communicate. And the arts are communicated expressions, from playful to philosophical and religious, that flow inevitably from a combination of human attributes that lie deep within the psyche and that seek identity, understanding, significance, and existential security. Art expresses our joyous and suffering “vision of life” in a world in which we are strangely and simultaneously “at home” and “lost.”

Interestingly, the Bible tells us some of the same things that we have already uncovered about why we create. The opening chapters of Genesis describe for us the origins of human existence. They also tell us clearly that our humanness is linked creationally to God who “made us in His image.” The Image of God in us seems to include that we are: 1) persons as God is personal, 2) rational, 3) communicators and therefore creators “in a likeness” to God Himself, and significantly, 4) moral beings designed to be fulfilled ultimately by the moral beauty of righteousness. For example, the first assignment God gave to humans was to creatively name the animals. The biblical text implies that this required rationality, reflection, and creativity. It is at this point that the question of creativity, or art, like other kinds of human endeavor that manifest our creaturely nature, takes a schizophrenic turn.

Although we are creatures made in God’s image-with all the creaturely attributes that implies-we are also in profound rebellion against our Creator. We are wonderful creatures slid into moral corruption that abides at the very core of our personal existence. Every fiber of our being reflects these dual truths about our humanness: created magnificence and moral impotence. Having been brought into existence by the will and plan of the loving, holy Creator-God, rebellious human beings are determined to define life in their own terms, foolishly ignoring the glory, promises, and experiential fulfillment of freely knowing and being with God. Death-spiritual and personal alienation from God-engulfed humanity, leaving us physically and psychologically broken, confused, and hopelessly unable to fulfill our humanness in the ways God designed for us. We somehow reflect God Himself and need all that He is and has for us (God’s Image in us). We see, feel, know, and understand that there is good, beauty, hope, and magnificence in being human and in the cosmos. But God’s just anger against our evil cuts us off from His goodness and the knowledge that would otherwise be intrinsically ours if we were in right relationship with Him.

The Bible explains our true and terrible situation. In our compulsion to be our own god, we run from real moral beauty. Instead, we work feverishly and continuously to deny any accountability to genuine goodness as the Bible defines it. Consequently, the treasures to be found in being truly human as God designed us remain beyond our grasp apart from God’s personal mercy and kindness toward us. We have traded the quest for moral beauty (righteousness) for the insane privilege of defining life on our own, ultimately self-destructive, terms. Thus, the promise of the gospel-to take us from death to life-becomes incredibly, almost unimaginably, good news.

However, even if we receive God’s gift of forgiveness and the promise of His transforming work in our lives, we continue to live in a broken world. For now, in this present world, we are people of two realities. One is tragic, experiential imprisonment in moral impotence and blinding ignorance. We are so blind we don’t know that we don’t know. The other is a beginning of release to a new kind of being and existence-one in which we will one day share in perfection itself. We will not be God or gods, but we shall be “like Him” as Jesus the Man was. We are broken, but being healed; we are ensnared in moral darkness, but on the basis of our trust in God’s mercy, we await the fulfillment of a sure promise that we shall be freed from the grip and pain of darkness’s often subtle but terrible corruption.

It is in this condition, which the Bible explains so clearly, that we discover we are creatures who think, feel, create, and communicate. We create, express, and communicate out of this creatureliness, but also out of our fallenness. But for those who hope in God’s promise to change us, we can also express a new and growing understanding that there is real hope for being what we long to be-truly human as God desires and created us to be. Art, then, in this biblically described context, is intellectually and emotionally powerful communication flowing from people inescapably bearing the image of God yet caught in the agonies of alienation from our only true source of creaturely human fulfillment-God Himself and His moral beauty.

Tragically, we can only see reality through human psyches marred deeply by this alienation from God. Even our longing for goodness is “thin and pale,” and if laid bare in its essence, ultimately self- serving. The expressive impulses showing themselves in human art flow from the nature of what and who we are-fallen but creative and communicating beings made in the likeness of a creative and communicating God. Art graphically displays humanity’s skewed interpretations of life and expresses intensely focused and felt observations about ourselves and our world. These interpretations are filtered and produced through the eyes, minds, experiences-the visions of life-found in artists. Again, Allen Leepa is helpful in commenting on this phenomenon:

A work of art is the product of the total personality of the artist; it is not simply the result of a number of isolated special sensibilities. The artist’s point of view, his philosophy of life, is reflected in his emotional projection on canvas. The projection is an integrated statement of himself. To understand his work it is valuable to know something of his way of thinking, the kinds of problems he sets for himself, his viewpoints of the past and the present, his ideas and feelings about himself and his relationship to the world, and the objectives toward which he strives. Then the various kinds of communications he offers may become clearer in our experiencing of his work.

Art, then, can also be a profoundly serious attempt to search for and articulate emotionally and symbolically our most profound ideas and beliefs. Put briefly, art communicates the world and life views of those who create it. For example, Rembrandt’s work portrays the spirit of a seventeenth-century Christian culture in which people knew about God. Truth was assumed to be objectively knowable and humans, God’s creation, were seen as filled with purpose and eternal significance. The subjects of Rembrandt’s paintings are genuinely and recognizably human painted in mostly ordinary surroundings. By contrast, the work of modern symbolist Edvard Munch, though beautiful and powerfully poignant, haunts us with the forebodings of alienation, empty human experience, and ultimately a vision of humanity lost in a mysteriously empty and consequently meaningless and cruel existence. Munch accomplishes this visually by rendering many of his human subjects simplistically and symbolically in broad moving lines, tones, and shadowy images that in many ways are only figurative or vaguely realistic. Rembrandt’s style is filled with simple beauty, the wonders of natural creation and being human. His work reflects his belief that, because a good God created us and our world, there mercifully remains hope for an awesomely beautiful and “glorious” reality that reaches beyond the one we travail in now. In stark contrast, Munch’s works masterfully and emotionally portray the human psyche infected with suicidal loneliness and alienation. Rembrandt believes God is there and that creation is God’s to control for ultimate good. Therefore, Rembrandt’s art assumes a biblical worldview. Munch’s art has no such assumptions-the differences being visually, artistically, and painfully apparent. Both Rembrandt and Munch are great artists because they each accomplish their artistic vision with obvious talent and genius. However, each employs a different visual means of portraying his vastly different worldview. One is “traditional” in his representationalism, the other is “modern” in his looser, more figurative approach to presenting his message. But each artist tells us, in a clear and powerful way, what he believes about humanity and the world.

WHAT IS MODERN ART?

What, then, is modern art? From what strange minds or alien planet has it arrived to vex us? Why should anyone care about something so enigmatic, often appearing simplistic or grotesque, and so extremely esoteric? Does it have any relevance to anyone besides its own creator? Beyond this, what is modern art saying about the contemporary human situation? Anything? Can Christians as well as non-Christians find something profound and important in the strangeness of contemporary art? My personal answer is “Yes,” especially for those of us who find ourselves touched and moved by our own strivings and those of our fellow human beings to make sense of ourselves and our world. It is important to realize that recent developments in art, that is, the development of what we call the modern movement in art or, “new art,” in one significant way, is not wholly different from the traditional or older art forms. Modern art reflects both the passions and dominant ideas of its age just as the older, more “realistic” art reflected its own. It could not be otherwise, because the nature of art-all art in all ages-is an expression of the rational and emotional exploration of human life. The older representational art was created through the eyes and hearts of humans whose universe included God and the belief in objective, knowable, universal truth on which all might agree. The new art expresses the human mind and psyche without God, without truth, and definitely not “at home” in the cosmos. Thus, all works of art in some degree or other constitute a quest. It is the quest of human beings, who bear God’s image, to say something very meaningful and important in a medium that allows them to say it powerfully and emotionally.

This is true of older representational art. It is equally true of the new abstract and nonrepresentational art with its lack of recognizable form. This is important to remember, because the nature of modern art is such that most observers cannot find anything to recognize and “hang onto” in sorting out what this art is saying. Nevertheless, the creators of these abstract art forms say something very important about our culture and how they see the world. Pure or even semi-abstract paintings, for example, may explore and express intense subjective feelings and moods about life that cannot be put the same way in strictly representational or identifiable forms. Lines, colors, shapes, forms, and their interrelationships in painting compositions may convey, in a modern, emotional, and symbolic language, the subjectivity that pervades the modern mind. Therefore, even modern art is all about human identity, significance, and how we explain and share our ideas and feelings about ourselves while passing through the joys, pains, and uncertainties of this life.

A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE TO MODERN ART

From within the biblical worldview, there is the problem of art as a powerful cultural “engine” that expresses rebellion against God. Modern artists like the great Picasso tell us: “The important thing is to create. Nothing else matters; creation is all.” This kind of statement indicates that for many contemporary artists to make art is to be God-like, to be free from all constraints, and to create and define reality for themselves according to their own autonomous desires. There is explicit rejection of any force or persons seeking to impose external standards on the artist. This is the powerful myth believed by most modern artists, and having observed it, we can justifiably reject its assumptions and goals. However, though Picasso fully embraces and epitomizes this myth, he is still a great artist to us. This is so because even out of Picasso’s self-declared autonomy from God, his art reflects the potential creative genius inherent in creatures made in God’s image. Picasso’s work is masterful-God made it possible for it to be so by giving him the talent and genius he possessed-even though he apparently ignored God and the possibility of knowing the universe from God’s perspective.

This, however, is exactly where those who believe the Bible’s description of the true human condition as fallen should try to understand the modern artist’s quest and strivings to discover and express humanness in art. In so doing, we are able to identify and weep over the agonies of the artist, who in one sense stands as a metaphor for all human beings who are fallen and in desperate need of God’s kindness. Contemporary artists whose minds are deeply influenced by the biases of modernity may not listen to Christians who attempt to communicate with them about the God who is there. Tragically, more often than not, people in the arts never hear Christianity explained to them in any terms other than those caricatured through their materialistic, anti-intellectual, media-controlled, and irrelevantly religious culture. Allow me to share a troubling question that has occurred to me. Some of our greatest artists were raised in Christian environments in which a choice between developing and ultimately embracing Christian faith was eventually pitted against exploring their own humanness in the world of art. Evidently and sadly, attitudes or doctrines in their Christian environments seriously failed to give a legitimate and normal place for their pursuit of art. That they perceived no place for their art in Christianity pushed them toward seeking refuge and answers to their questions about their world and humanness in the realms of art. The Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh is a powerful and tragic example. Raised in a devout Reformed and conservative Christian home, he was the son of a pastor. We have strong evidence that Van Gogh had a profound and deeply felt desire for a right relationship with God. But he was also a powerfully emotional man. He cared deeply about what he knew of God and about what he thought was important to God. But his Christianity and church culture had no place for him and his art. He tried and failed at formal theological training for the ministry. So desperate was he to pursue what he understood to be the demands of his faith that, having failed at formal training, he sought and found a way to get to the mission field without it. Once there, his passionate caring and empathy for the people’s wretched condition literally overwhelmed him. His faith and approach to the Christian life seemed so fanatically impassioned to those to whom he was trying to minister that even they rejected him.

Van Gogh’s fevered attempts at being religiously Christian-as he understood what that meant-utterly failed. Out of the depths of this failure at living out his understanding of the Christian faith he sought and found solace in his deep desire to draw and paint. From there the story is well-known. After a very short, intensely bitter, but incredibly prolific artistic career (one in which he sold not one painting!) he became emotionally ill and committed suicide. As I have read and pondered his story more than once, I have wondered “what if?” What if his understanding of biblical Christianity had better explained his experiences of seeking faith and humanness? And what if his church culture had understood and accepted him and helped him find the brilliance and the passion God had built into him? Would this freedom to be himself, both believer and passionate artist, have resulted in a life found and not lost, and an art powerfully human yet reflecting more directly the real world and humanity as God sees them? These are speculative and ultimately unanswerable questions, yet perhaps worth humbly introspecting over, especially when we consider the insightful words of Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff: “The art you and I now admire in the scrubbed stillness of the museum once dripped with blood, reeked of idolatry, or caused its makers suicidal depression and anguish.”

Summing up then, both our human experience and the Bible inform us that art is the product of our humanness inevitably communicating that we have been made in a certain way-in the image of a personal, creating God. We have been made by God in a way that cannot but declare its nature-that we are created in the magnificence of the Image of God, but that we are also deeply marred by our terrible alienation from God. These two realities embedded in our humanness express themselves relentlessly in our art. Art can be very significant because it can explore and display both the philosophical and intensely emotional nature of our reflections on our frail existence in the cosmos. And of all human beings who ought to care and feel deeply about the human condition, and therefore its portrayal in art, it ought to be those with faith in Christ who carry the hope of the message of grace implanted in their breasts. For the gospel forecasts freedom and release to become what our human yearnings-found so often expressed in the arts-cry out for.

Copyright January 1991 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

R. Wesley Hurd