Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Solomon and the 20th Century, Pt. 1

Part I: Why Do So Many Christians Hate Modern Art?

Lately, I’ve been rather surprised to find in recent conversations the extent to which ideas like Existentialism (taken in a very general sense) and concepts like modern art, staples of early 20th century world-war era culture, are widely despised by many Christians, especially those whom I would consider very smart. Their objections to the Existentialists (and there are various “breeds” so the generalization only goes so far), which range from a pithy intellectual dismissal to complete moral indignation and animosity, are very much the same as those they give to modern art – they find it degenerate. To some this could be moral degeneracy, meaning that those ideas have degraded from the older “Judeo-Christian morality” into a degenerate “secular morality”. Some look at the beauty of a Renaissance masterpiece and compare it to, let’s say, a Picasso portrait, and feel completely repulsed by the strangeness, chaos, and deformity of it all. “Secular morality”, they could say, “has perverted the image of man, which is the image of God, into this monstrosity! Clearly this is degenerate, immoral art”. Likewise, when these critics examine works of Existentialist philosophy, say Jean-Paul Sartre for example, they arrive at similar conclusions of the man’s moral degeneracy from the “Judeo-Christian” values (which is all too true) and render the same judgment on all of his philosophical positions. However, others who may be less inclined to the moral generalities consider these 20th century cultural artifacts as intellectual degeneracy. They view modern art and its philosophical kin Existentialism as intellectually degenerate from the “Judeo-Christian concepts” of order and meaning in the universe. Modern art and Existential thinkers strongly resist the values of order, rationality, and meaning in the universe and in man, values that were placed center-stage in the Enlightenment and all scholarship derived from it. “We cannot hold these views”, I’ve heard Christians argue, “that so clearly go against the Bible’s teachings on man and creation”. I’ve yet to find any book or any Christian thinker who is today taken seriously in Evangelical circles that speaks any more favorably toward either modern art or Existentialism; in my experience there’s been a very consistent negative reaction toward what has been labeled as “secular humanism” – a very dull term that acts more as a bandage for one’s gaping ignorance than a dangerous weapon against today’s culture – where this “secular humanism” finds its most immediate manifestations in art and philosophy, which have always proved historically to be easy targets for culturally resentful people.

Yet the objection is not merely aesthetic. What I’ve found is that Christian’s detest the greatest cultural forces of the early 20th century ultimately because of several prevailing ideas behind them. Perhaps you don’t know exactly what I mean by “Existentialism” or “modern art” (which probably means those terms don’t offend you very much), so for your sakes I will put it simply that what lies underneath things like modern art and philosophies like Existentialism is the idea that the universe is not orderly, not rational, and certainly has no meaning in it. Life is meaningless, the things that happen to you are chaotic, and ultimately, everything is “Absurd”, as the French philosopher Albert Camus put it. For them, the world certainly doesn’t have any moral order, there are no innate laws of nature, and, more importantly, you couldn’t even know them if they did exist. That’s why modern art looks like it doesn’t make any sense; it’s a statement of a world that makes no sense, not a representation through the eyes, as art has been historically viewed, but a stand-alone production as another nonsense thing in a nonsense world, a nonsense thing meant to make you realize the nonsense of the world. In the same way there’s no reason to value the “subject” of the portrait as more important of focus than the background because there’s no inherent values in humanity or nature that privileges one thing over another, which is why background and foreground are often mixed in modern painting. Proportionality and perspective are also things that are “flattened” in modern art. Nature to them is not proportional, perspective is something distinctly human, and painting is supposed to exhibit this too. Essentially, the point of it is not to make a something beautiful, but to make a statement to remind us that the meaning, order, and rationality of life we so often hold on to is just made up – we made the rules of the very game we subject ourselves to. As such, they try and break those rules to allow us a glimpse of the Absurdity and meaninglessness we really live in. It’s as if they were reminding everyone that the delusions of being rich are no cover-up for poverty; it’s as if they were trying to wake us up from our idealistic dreams. Not very pleasant is it. It’s no surprise to me that many Christian’s have an instinctual reaction against things like modern art and Existentialism. Much of Christian thought has been organized around values exactly opposite: beauty, truth, rationality, order, and meaning in life. Almost as if reacting to a physical threat, Christian writers and thinkers repudiate these ideas as anti-Biblical, against the Christian worldview, and altogether worldly.

Yet I believe this reaction is far too philosophical to be of any use – far too metaphysical to matter to a “degenerate” Existentialist. The problem with the answer most Christians give is not in the worldview-propositions or the values themselves, but that they even give them as answers. The battle is not a battle of “worldviews” since these “worldviews” – a spurious term I hate to use – can do nothing but merely restate their founding instincts in manifold forms. If we remain on the level of arguing between worldviews it will become an increasingly redundant debate full of I’m-right’s and You’re-wrong’s. That is not very helpful to anyone. To get to the bottom of it we must go to the bottom. We must become suspicious of both “worldviews”, these two opposing systems of values, and realize that no one simply views the world, as if it were an exhibit in a museum carefully preserved for us to analyze and explain, but rather that we all interpret the world. Things are not so obvious as to be simply viewed. Here then we see two “world-interpretations” coming to the fore each with their own set of rules prescribing the means of interpreting the various “texts” of nature and in one case the Bible (if I may speak in such an accommodating manner since the whole idea of a “text” becomes consumed in the act of interpreting – how can we tell the two apart?). As such, we have to be honest with ourselves; the Christian “worldview” does not have impregnable defenses because it is ultimately an interpretation, and interpretations come from people with biases. With every interpretation, the conclusions come from somewhere, and a little suspicion for until now easily accepted propositions is only warranted. In fact propositions can no longer be seen as weapons to defend from and attack the enemy, they are now merely affects of an interpretation, outward adornments to fit the philosophical dress-code. I am not saying we ought to be suspicious of the Bible, but we have good reason to be suspicious of our interpretation (and who doesn’t interpret the Bible?), and beyond that our interpretation of interpretations which we elevate as “worldviews”. We, and anyone else for that matter, have a right to be suspicious of these values and the pegs they hang on because their truth may be far less than obvious. At this point the argument transforms from moral indictments and hack philosophical propositions about why that view is unbiblical or not, to an honest question: why are we interpreting what we’re interpreting the way we are? Let’s not take our “worldview” for granted – what are the guts of our objections?

Now this isn’t the place to dive into Existential interpretations and valuations – maybe some other time. What I’m more interested in is why Christians hold to such a view that values order, rationality, and meaning, and why they interpret the world this way. All such ideas have their genealogy; let us begin to trace them back. I suppose the easy answer would be to say they come from the Bible, but that would be foolishly reflexive. Where and why do we get these things from the Bible? Even though we believe it to be the truth of God, we still must interpret it and that means applying a set of rules. Where do these rules come from? The text? We often claim these things to be Biblical, and I think it wise to wonder if they really are. If we are going to call ideas like meaninglessness and chaos in the world wrong, we ought to be confident of our rightness. If we’re going to have such a reaction against something so “unbiblical” we better make sure we are being Biblical as objectors. We must make archaeological inquiries into the history of our “Biblical values”. Now, if this is the task we are to give ourselves, where are we to look?

I’ve recently dealt with this issue in a rather involved discussion that, although more broad, kept coming back to the book of Ecclesiastes. The question was whether or not a Christian may view the world as Absurd (in the above Existential sense of meaninglessness and non-sense); do our lives in this world have meaning? Can we truly make sense of it all? Can we take seriously the statement of modern art and Existentialists when they say the world is a chaotic and absurd place where things happen to you that mean nothing at all? Who better to answer this than the Bible’s wise man Solomon? Well, no one's better than Solomon, but he's going to have to wait until the next part.

Paintings in order of appearance:
1. "White Crucifixion", 1938 - Marc Chagall (Notice the painting's atypical representation of an extremely typical Renaissance subject. Is Chagall offering any kind of profane view of Christ?)
2. "Girl Before Mirror" (Detail), 1932 - Pablo Picasso (How many people do you know that look like that? Perhaps Picasso is trying to say something about the human form that traditional representation can't? Notice the "flatness" and lack of depth as opposed to a "traditional" painting.)
3. "Metaphysical Interior with Biscuit", 1916 - Giorgio de Chirico (What is the subject of this painting?)
4. "Disintegration of Persistence", 1954 - Salvador Dali (This is a good example of a Surrealist work which often exhibit extreme anti-realism. Not much traditional order and representation hear. Notice how the watches, things of order, are "disintegrating" into who knows what, maybe Nothingness? Compare this painting to his "Persistence of Memory".)


Brandy Afterthoughts said...

It seems to me that the easy answer to your question "Why do Christians hate modern art?" is: Francis Schaeffer. He dealt extensively with Existentialism in The God Who is There, among his other books. Many Christians are living out his legacy in their lives, even though they haven't read his books. It's sort of like how Charlotte Mason once wrote that if you are parenting in the way of your family tradition, you need to realize that your family tradition is due to the fact that your great-grandfather read John Locke. Our tradition is due to the fact that our grandparents read Schaeffer.

Or something like that.

Anyhow, some of your questions seem very good, others seem to be forcing the Cartesian legacy upon your readers. As Christians, we believe in Permanent Things. There are things that we can know without questioning them--they are a part of being human. When our forebears questioned them (I think here Descartes and his progeny), they were doing so out of a desire to use man as the starting point--it was self-referential. I do not doubt, for instance, that I exist, that the chair I sit in is real, that the world has meaning. This is healthy, because I have faith, which is the conviction of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

To some extent, Christians hold to ideas of order, goodness, truth, and beauty because these are things to which the vast majority of humans have clung throughout history. Until Darwin removed the last remnants of "meaning" from humanity, there wasn't quite this broad rejection of the basic truths known to man. The beauty of Christianity was not that we believed in beauty and others didn't, but that we could know Beauty's source, that we had Truth which was revealed to us, that we knew the ultimate Good. The Greeks knew these things existed, but could never get to the Source because they relied on their own power.

Anyhow, fascinating post. I look forward to seeing how you bring Solomon into it. I have always enjoyed his declarations of "vanity."

Chad Vegas said...


You do know you are running down a path rejected by most Reformed theologians, right? I find your take interesting and I am waiting to read how you work it out.