What Is Art For?

by Eliot Grasso


Man is God’s property. Yet a cockamamie notion floating around in our society maintains that our bodies, time, and money belong to ourselves. Those who make up the picket line of post-modern liberation chant that we have a right to do as we wish with these aspects of existence, that they will be used up at our whim. But this is not the case. All facets of our existence are on loan from God. Our job as Christians is to take care of what has been offered to us for the glory and service of the Lord. We are not at liberty to abuse our bodies, fritter away our money, or waste our time on ridiculous diversions. We are supposed to be stewards of what we have. And no less than other gifts from God, we should see the ability to make art as an opportunity to accomplish His work in the world. Art can and should be a godly instrument.

Over the centuries, Christians have disagreed about what art is, and what it should do. One position within Christianity is that art that fails to exhibit religious or pious feelings is secular and, at worst, anti-Christian. A Christian holding this view would praise Leonardo’s Last Supper because it overtly depicts the life of Christ while condemning Leonardo’s Mona Lisa because it does not depict overtly Christian content.

John Calvin, who held ideas about art similar to the one just mentioned, would have additionally encouraged a critique of art that required the removal of all ornament and excess. Calvin’s logic was that temporal sensual pleasures distracted the faithful from focusing on God. This thinking is evident in what are now the whitewashed church buildings of the reformed churches of Northern Europe. And Dirk van Delen’s 1630 painting Iconoclasts in the Church portrays the results of the Calvinist approach to aesthetic philosophy. The painting clearly shows how reformed Christians took pains to simplify their worship spaces by removing superfluous décor.

From Calvin’s perspective, for a Christian to revel in the sensory pleasure of music, sculpture, and paintings was perilously close to swearing allegiance to the material world, a world whose temptations and ephemerality were to be rejected. In the eyes of some reformers, the Christian who loved God but who enjoyed the sensual kept art as a mistress. To be truly faithful to God, by contrast, required a brand of anti-worldliness that translated into aesthetic austerity—in a word, iconoclasm.

While the iconoclasm of sixteenth-century Europe appears to be absent from contemporary Christian culture in these early years of the twenty-first century, there is an undercurrent of ambivalence about what kind of thing art is and what kind of thing art should do in the life of the Christian. In other words, the tremendous affective and emotional power that art can exert on human beings is not taken as seriously as it should be because art, as a concept, is not given serious consideration. I would argue that art is not taken seriously within contemporary Christianity because Christians have accepted the world’s categories for art.

At the risk of over-generalizing, the world does not understand art to be a serious indication of an artmaker’s worldview. (By “artmaker,” I mean all makers of art—painters, authors, musicians, filmmakers, and so forth.) This is because post-modernism has effectively erased the relevance of the artmaker’s worldview and personhood in the interpretation and assessment of an artwork. An artwork is merely a “text” whose interpretation is the provenance of the audience, not the author. Thus, from this perspective, artmakers’ meanings are never discoverable; the audience merely fabricates and then superimposes on the artwork the significance that each individual imagines himself to have derived from it. If all we are doing, then, when we experience art is to make up stories and retrofit them to the artwork, what is there to take seriously about art? If a work’s meaning is completely relative to myself, then I have nothing to learn from an artwork because its “meaning” is really just a reflection of myself—something with which I am already familiar. Art assessment is thus redundant and pointless. This is where we are today.

A great deal of philosophy has been written on the topic of aesthetics—that is, what constitutes art and what kinds of things count for art in society. In 1980, Nicholas Wolterstorff, a Christian aesthetic philosopher at Yale, wrote a book called Art in Action. In his book, Wolterstorff poses this question: Why does society prioritize pleasure in the evaluation of art?

Wolterstorff identifies worldly categories for art’s function as “aesthetic contemplation.” When art serves the function of aesthetic contemplation, then art exists to be appreciated in and of itself—the sensory pleasure that art gives is its main function, its intended public use. The slogan “l’art pour l’art” (meaning “art for art’s sake”) was championed by Theophile Gaultier in the nineteenth century. Gaultier’s slogan is a curious mix of hedonism (do whatever feels good) and eudaimonism (whatever feels good must be good). If the function of art is merely the doling out of good feelings to the viewer, then the superfluity that contemporary society has assigned to art should come as no surprise. Why pay any special attention to art if it basically accomplishes the same goal as celebrity magazines or television sitcoms—that is, momentary amusement?

The drawback of using art exclusively for aesthetic contemplation is that this perspective extricates a person from real life. The aesthetic contemplator’s purpose is to lose himself and his world in the contemplation of art made exclusively for aesthetic contemplation. It is amusing—but wasteful—to fritter away one’s hours strolling through massive museum spaces to emerge older but none the wiser.

The charge of frivolousness that has become the hallmark of the arts in the twenty-first century stems from an eighteenth-century treatise penned by the French aesthetician Charles Batteux (1713-1780). During the eighteenth century, more than in any other period of time, Christianity lost ground as the dominant voice in public discourse, and nowhere did it do so more completely than in France, where by the end of the century the period of French de-Christianization began in Paris. (This extirpation of culture-based faith began with acts of iconoclasm in which radicals, mistaking the kings of Israel for the kings of France, decapitated the stone statuary on the façade of Notre Dame Cathedral in 1793.)

In 1746, Batteux wrote a book called Les beaux-arts réduits à un même principe (roughly, The Fine Arts Reduced to the Same Principle; 1746). The single principle to which all fine arts can be reduced is, according to Batteux, an imitation of nature. Batteux was not alone among eighteenth-century philosophers in his attempt to validate and explain a human artifact using a value scale defined by nature; indeed, nature was the primary philosophical touchstone for much of eighteenth-century thought. Nothing is wrong with using nature as a touchstone for a value system until you consider that nature is an incomprehensibly variable system of physical events. Nature can be beautiful and cruel. Nature brings life and witnesses death. How does one conclude that a single artwork fails to imitate all dimensions of nature? It seems like this convoluted series of benefices and cruelties should have posed a greater philosophical challenge to the eighteenth century aesthetic philosophers.

“Nature,” however, was seen as the way things operated at their best. And this optimal way of operating brought pleasure. Thus, when art imitated nature properly, the artwork brought pleasure to the viewer. Or, to put it another way, something could be called “art” if and only if it brought pleasure to the viewer. For the eighteenth-century aestheticians, nature was a universal human experience; every person in the course of human history had experienced the natural world. Man is thus unified as a species by the reality that he has observed in nature. Within this framework, art that imitates nature is considered to be good art because it calls upon the universality of human experience. This kind of logic owes a great debt to Newton, who was hailed for tearing the veil off nature to reveal its mathematical laws, and Locke, who extended Newton’s discoveries of the inanimate world to the realm of human society. In short: “naturally” is how everything works best, and when everything works naturally, it brings pleasure.

Batteux’s work resonated with successive aestheticians because he used nature as the primary criterion in Europe’s appraisal of art. Batteux argued that good art should be “natural”; the purpose of art, for Batteux, was to imitate nature so that it could induce pleasure in the viewer. The end of the arts, Batteux wrote, is to bring pleasure:

When necessity and convenience are provided for, it is only a short step to arrive at pleasure…. Thus we can distinguish three sorts of arts with regard to the purpose proposed. For some, their purpose is the basic needs of mankind: nature, which has exposed us to a thousand difficulties and seems to abandon us to ourselves from the moment of birth, insists that remedies and protection be the price of our invention and work. Thus the mechanical arts were born. The object of the others is pleasure. They were born only in the womb of joy and of feelings that plenty and tranquility produce: these are called the fine arts par excellence. Such are music, poetry, painting, drama, and the art of gesture or dance. 1

Other philosophers adopted Batteux’s system. Among them were Diderot and other authors of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts; published between 1751 and 1772), D’Alembert in his Discours préliminaire (Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot; 1751), and Lacombe’s Dictionnaire portatif des Beaux-Arts (Portable Dictionary of Fine Arts; 1753). 2 In order to bring art to as many viewers as possible, art needed to be accessible to viewers. Artifice and complexity were eschewed both in the visual arts and in music to the extent that it limited accessibility and comprehension.

In the 1890s, Leo Tolstoy also championed the idea that true art should be accessible to all, especially regardless of education. Tolstoy’s argument for such accessibility, however, was different from that of the eighteenth-century French aestheticians. For Tolstoy, great art reminds each viewer of the kind of relationship that he has to God. An illustration may be helpful. Imagine a wagon wheel. The metal hub in the center represents God, and the points on the rim represent each person. Art, for Tolstoy, reminds each human being (whether or not he believes in God) of that relationship with God. All men are, in a sense, equidistant from God. True art is supposed to remind the viewer that he, like all other men, is a creation of God. Art reminds man that he is limited in ways that God is not limited and that he is loved by God in the same way that God loves all men.

This aspect of Tolstoy’s aesthetic philosophy is a sound one within a Christian worldview. A person would do well to contemplate his relationship (or lack thereof) with God. But I think that art can do something further, beyond reminding man about his place in the cosmos.

Let me return to the aesthetic philosophy of Nicholas Wolterstorff, the major thrust of which is the idea of what Wolterstorff calls “art in action.” Art is in action when it is serving an end beyond aesthetic contemplation. In Wolterstorff’s language, art is an aesthetically good human artifact that meets a series of alternate ends. For example, a painter makes a picture of the cross. The picture is an utterance of the resurrection, and it is also an assertion that Christ is resurrected. That picture counts as both an utterance and assertion of the resurrection. The picture also informs an onlooker of the resurrection. So, the picture is doing three things at once: (1) uttering, (2) asserting, and (3) informing. The picture is an object that is acted upon by the artist in the making of it and which serves as an instrument to give glory to God and to inform onlookers of the resurrection. To add another layer of action, the picture is then placed in an art exhibition organized to collect food for a Christian mission. The painting in this instance serves as an instrument to yet another end: to feed the hungry. This is an example in which one artwork serves God and His purposes on a variety of levels, from evangelizing to the material service of man’s neighbors.

In conclusion, I believe that art has been misunderstood in Christian society, even by those who are either ambivalent toward it or who believe it is a superfluous and expendable part of life. It was Batteux’s framework that standardized the system of the fine arts while arguing that pleasure was their primary end. This view, popularized by the increasingly vocal French secularists, came to dominate discourse about art in society for several centuries—if not exclusively, then certainly loudly. Tolstoy’s aesthetics brings the purposes of art much closer to where they ought to be in a Christian framework. Wolterstorff’s model for understanding the arts places the entire system of fine arts into an actionable and productive framework whereby Christian art need not be relegated to the duty of luring viewers into aesthetic contemplation. Christian art can be a powerful vehicle for accomplishing God’s purposes for His people metaphysically and materially.

Notes:

  1. Susan L. Feagin and Patrick Maynard, Aesthetics, Oxford Readers (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 103-104.
  2. Paul Oskar Kristeller, Renaissance Thought and the Arts: Collected Essays, An Expanded ed., Princeton Paperbacks (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 199-203.

Copyright March 2014 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Eliot Grasso