Sublime Depravity Is art a distraction or worse, or part of God’s good gift?
It is the glory and good of Art, That Art remains the one way possible Of speaking truth, to mouths like mine at least.
Such was the hope of Robert Browning. However, in this fallen world, art is cursed. As Nicholas Wolterstorff writes: “Art is not isolated from the radical fallenness of our nature. It is an instrument of it. Art does not lift us out of the radical evil of our history but plunges us into it. Art is not man’s saviour but a willing accomplice in our crimes.”
The human imagination reveals its own fallenness in its art. Not only do inherently corrupt forms of art — blasphemy, pornography, idolatry, kitsch, propaganda — proliferate; but our expressions of order are subject to chaos, and our hopes are subject to despair. And yet the arts have the capacity to elevate us, to provide some of our most glorious moments, to show us most in tune with ourselves and the world, even to give us inklings of the divine. As within man and woman themselves, there remains the tension between the potential both for great beauty and also great vileness.
Artists of all kinds throughout history have struggled with this paradox, juggling the contradictions within the artistic endeavour. Christian theology is in a unique position to address this paradox, with its doctrines of createdness and yet fallenness. Despite some historical false trails, a Christ-centred view of the place of the arts is a tremendously fruitful one.
By “the arts” I mean the whole gamut of human imaginative and creative activity, including literary, musical, architectural, theatrical, visual, and even televisual arts.
Art involves the imaginative arrangement and presentation of matter, such as words, or paint, or notes. For matter to become “art” means that it has been invested with a special kind of significance, or meaning. It is universal and ubiquitous — no human society is without some form of art, and virtually no human being would live out of contact with art.
The arts are held to engender an aesthetic response, meaning that something more than a merely sensory or intellectual or even emotional response may be felt when we experience art. The danger of such a broad definition is that we shall be making statements that are necessarily general, so that the major differences between the arts will be obscured. Whatever theological observations we offer, then, would ideally be sharpened by discussion of the major art forms and individual works.
The height of human hubris is most poignantly captured by the story of the Tower of Babel: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth” (Gen 11:4). The history of human art reveals that this arrogance — of created beings creating in defiance of the creator — has since then continued largely unfettered. It is not the arts themselves that are corrupt; in fact the opposite is true. The uses to which art is put reveal how perverse human creativity can be. Thus art has been distorted by its users into corrupted forms, like pornography and propaganda.
Propaganda and pornography form an interesting pair. They represent the most cynical forms art can take — the use of the power of human creativity for a base end, whether indoctrination or masturbation.
The propagandist makes her ideology everything, and takes no joy in the act of creating itself. The medium is used as a kind of trick, and is seen as merely the packaging for a higher good. The reader/viewer/consumer is treated patronizingly, as if the art is the spoonful of sugar that makes the ideological medicine go down.
Some great art has been made out of propaganda — Virgil’s great Roman epic The Aeneid is an example. However, it is because of the complexity and subtlety of Virgil’s treatment of his themes that his work transcends a mere celebration of the founding of the Roman state. We may also view a masterful piece of propaganda such as the Nazi film The Triumph of the Will in a new way when the historical context has radically changed. However, in the main, the propaganda of any ideology tends to be simplistic, banal and one-dimensional, re-enforcing conformity to its agenda.
Propaganda is an act of pure power. The pornographer makes inducing desire his goal, and again uses all the tricks and powers of art in the service of his end. While true erotic art, like the Song of Solomon, celebrates the human reality and God-givenness of sexual bliss, pornography takes sex away from flesh-and-blood people and makes it an unlivable, permanently tumescent fantasy. It removes not just the clothes but also the human individuality of the (usually) women depicted; and feeds on the physiological desires of men. It is prostitution by proxy. It promotes loneliness.
My point is that pornography is not just morally bad — it is artistically bad as well. Its potent and direct realism imprisons the (male) imagination. It is controlling rather than liberating.
As human creativity serves Eros, so also it may serve Mammon. There is of course nothing wrong with artists receiving pay for their work, nor in their being encouraged by a commission to produce work that is socially desirable and genuinely wanted. Many of the great Renaissance artists and musicians had aristocratic benefactors; and today government agencies fulfill much the same function. However, commercial interests often serve to degrade the arts.
When the arts serve the purpose of making someone rich, the purpose has a demeaning effect on the artwork itself. Rather than challenging us or elevating us, such art keeps us comfortable — it takes no risks. Art becomes sentimental, nostalgic and bland. It is unlikely to be vital or genuinely stimulating, although it may be very nice. Rock music, though it still explicitly appeals to the rebellion and revolution that were its roots, is in fact supported by massive multinational corporations.
The enslavement of human artistic talent to the advertising industry is another symptom of Mammon’s power over the arts. That the height of our imaginative energy is used in representing the talismanic properties of sweetened carbonated water is a uniquely human kind of tragicomedy.
That things are ugly is not merely a matter of personal taste. Human beings have themselves contributed much to the sum total of ugliness in the cosmos, sometimes even in the course of their attempts to make beauty. There is a natural ugliness that is the result of the brokenness of our living conditions — the deformity of the world, and the slouch of our own bodies towards decrepitude and death.
Moderns pragmatism means that attention to appearance in the objects that surround us is only a concern when it is affordable, if not profitable. Much of urban life is lived in conditions that are unsympathetic to human beings as physical organisms rather than machines. The media bombards us with the braying brashness of its commercials. But even in that which is intended for beauty, there is the mark of ugliness.
Bauhaus architecture is an outstanding example of an aesthetic method that, in the attempt for a purity of form, (in many cases) actually brutalised (and still brutalizes) those who use it. One of the glories of human creative expression, the Sydney Opera House, has to live cheek-by-jowl with a building of extraordinary banality.
Czech dramatist and president Vaclev Havel recalls a childhood encounter with the ugly:
As a boy ... I used to walk to school in a nearby village along a cart track through the fields and, on the way, see on the horizon a huge smokestack of some hurriedly built factory, in all likelihood in the service of war. It spewed out dense smoke and scattered it across the sky. Each time I saw it, I had an intense sense of something profoundly wrong, of humans soiling the heavens ... It seemed to me that ... humans are guilty of something, that they destroy something important, arbitrarily disrupting the natural order of things and that such things cannot go unpunished.
Ugliness sours our taste for the world. Within Western culture the institutions of high art have been set up for the protection of our traditions and the maintenance of what is viewed as the finest expressions of our cultural aspirations.
While this is in itself no bad thing, these institutions — museums, galleries, opera houses and libraries — can become our own towers of Babel. From justifiable pride in cultural heritage sprang the 19th century nationalism which in turn spawned our century of death in the name of ethnic identity.
Even contemporary Western society is marked by elitism and snobbery in the name of high or fine art. The arts have become inaccessible to the great unwashed, whose dirty fingerprints might smudge them. Rather than mediating between and connecting human beings, for most people the arts in fact enhance the feeling of alienation from the upper middle class lifestyle.
Further, our (Western) culture has participated in the “alienation of art”, cordoning off the aesthetic from the ethical, allowing art to lie and exploit with impunity. Beautiful lies are the most enchanting of all. Art is to be entirely “for art’s sake”, which means it can operate at the expense of human beings rather than in service of them.
Further, while art may succeed up to a point, many artists speak of the frustrating experience of the gap between imagination and realisation. Moderns theorists have proclaimed the sense of connection we experience via the arts a fantasy.
Humanity’s paradox, so evident in its art, is to be at home and not at home in the world; to see the possibility in the world, and yet to discover it tantalisingly out of reach. Artistic activity, hoping for a kind of transcendence, is carried out under the shadow of death, which threatens the entire enterprise with meaninglessness.
The 20th century artist Francis Bacon once said: “Man now realises that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason. I think even when Velasquez was painting ... they were still ... slightly conditioned by certain types of religious possibilities, which man now ... has had cancelled out of him. Man now can only attempt to beguile himself for a time, by prolonging his life ... You see, painting has become — all art has become — a game by which man distracts himself.”
Interestingly, Bacon’s art, with its distorted human forms and agonized expressions, was certainly no distracting game, but rather a terrifying, anguished gaze at human despair. Some aestheticians — even avowed atheist Peter Fuller — have given an intriguing diagnosis of this breakdown in the arts. The lack of a transcendent core of meaning has led to the tendencies of modern art towards either despair or decadence.
Those artists that seek to depict the “real” world, even broadly defined, are accused of “naïve” realism. Optimism and celebration are not the currencies in which the world of the arts trades — nor has it for a century or more. Fuller discerns a loss of faith in the mimetic power of art that parallels this present age of doubt in a divine core of meaning.
Human beings have also been guilty of great idolatries in their interaction with what they have created. So impressed have they been with their own attempts to capture transcendence in created matter that they have turned their creations into objects of veneration and worship.
Since pre-historic times, art and religion have been closely linked; and at times the overlap has been almost total. Humans have used art as a form of mediation between the spirit and the flesh, and as capable of providing religious experience. Artists are unable to stay away from religious themes and religious or spiritual descriptions of the effects of art.
Even the notorious PissChrist revealed the attraction of artists in the contemporary scene to religious themes. Art trespasses into fields that religion may have thought its own. Even secular society has its own way of “worshipping” objects of art — keeping objects in museum-shrines so that we can make pilgrimage to them, view them, and may stand contemplatively before them in wonderstruck and silent awe.
The Christian response to the arts has been, however, rather ambivalent. As we have seen, the warp in the world that is a result of the fall is mirrored in the human arts.
Church history has been characterised by wild swings between a total embrace of the arts and various periods of vehement iconoclasm. Christian aesthetics have ranged from Puritan simplicity to Baroque ornamentation to Orthodox reverence of icons. In Christian thinking about music and poetry there have been similar controversies.
There remains among contemporary Christians several causes of uneasiness with the arts. First, the strength of the second commandment, reiterated so strongly in Romans 1-2, has rightly been taken as a warning against depictions of the divine. Christ is the only true image (eikon) of God (Col 1:15): our imaginations are not allowed free play or diversion concerning him through the mediation of the human arts. To deal in the symbolic is to risk creating God in our image.
Second, the gospel mission (because “the time is short”) holds an absolute precedence over artistic activity (at least in theory), to the point where it is excluded altogether. The old created order is beyond redemption (it is said) and will soon be exposed to the fire of judgment. The human arts have no eternal value; so that they are not worth cultivating.
Third, since (especially in the West) art often involves the outward expression of the inward state of the human psyche, evangelical Christians, who have a strong doctrine of the inner sinfulness of that psyche, may well fear what such expression reveals. That is, the public projection in art of inner depravity may draw a censorious response, rather than an intelligently engaged one, from conservative Christians.
Fourth, Protestant evangelicals have displayed a suspicion of metaphor and representation — which are central to the arts — perhaps derived from the priority of the sensus literalis in scripture reading. “Fiction is lies”, as (incredibly) I heard a well-known preacher say recently. Art traffics in illusion. Metaphor is too loose, too fluid, too slippery a form of communication. The truth that art bears is often complex and not susceptible of easy verbal explanation.
Fifth, as the religious and the aesthetic are felt by some moderns theologians to be responses to the same thing, more orthodox Christians have recoiled from the arts. For John Macquarie, “art ... is something like revelation.” Paul Tillich, building on Rudolf Otto’s comparison of religious and aesthetic experience, saw in art an expression, with revelatory significance, of the Ultimate Concern. The symbols of art and the symbols of religion are considerably overlapped.
However, for those who would uphold the Christ revealed in the scriptures as God’s true communication with humankind, Tillich’s claim for art is extremely unsatisfactory.
But what is to be said, thought and felt about the arts if what we do speak is to be theologically accurate? Dorothy Sayers once wrote:
The Church as a body has never made up her mind about the Arts, and it is hardly too much to say that she has never tried. She has, of course, from time to time puritanically denounced the Arts as irreligious and mischievous, or tried to exploit the Arts as a means to the teaching of religion and morals ... And there had ... been plenty of writers on aesthetics who happened to be Christians, but they seldom made any consistent attempt to relate their aesthetic to the central Christian dogmas. That is, there has been no consistently adequate theological attempt to relate art to Christian teaching.
It is to this task that we now turn.
In thinking theologically about the arts we will be naturally attracted to the doctrines of creation, humanity, revelation and eschatology. The doctrine of creation affirms that God created the universe through and for Christ. Creation and redemption are thus intertwined acts of God. The creation has absolute dependence on God; but is, nevertheless, other from God.
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity expresses the structure of created reality: the tension that holds between God’s distinction from, and relatedness to, the universe, and between unity and plurality. Matter — the stuff with which art is made — is neither evil, nor is it all there is.
Humanity is given a unique role in the creation as the divine viceroy. Creation was in need of subduing, naming and enjoying. Human beings were given the capacity to imagine, to describe, to exercise choice; and to become second-order creators by working to shape God’s creation according to these gifts. John Calvin even went as far as to say that the human capacity for art is innate. Built into the structure of the world was the Sabbath, a rest for humans from their work. Art is a part of the subduing, naming and enjoying of God’s world: it interacts with creation and gives it order and new significance.
Conversely, the Christian doctrine of creation does not allow the human being to worship the creation, even when he or she makes it into art. Rather, creation attests God’s glory (Ps 19), as human art should really do.
The wisdom literature of the Old Testament explores the relationship of man and woman to God and to creation. “The fear of Yahweh” is the principle which explains both the freedom and the limit of human wisdom.
On the one hand, humble service of and deference to the mighty creator and sustainer of the cosmos enables a person to comprehend his or her experience, because it recognises divine order. There is no division between sacred and secular — all the world is God’s.
On the other hand, the phrase is a sharp reminder of the limits placed on human wisdom. It acknowledges the disparity between human understanding and God’s purposes. It recognises the hubris of men and women, and rebukes it. Above all, Jesus Christ provides the model of true human wisdom; and as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 1-2, Christ’s cross — an outrage in the world’s eyes — is in fact the wisdom of God in action confounding proud human wisdom. “The fear of Yahweh” then, provides a useful motto for Christian discussion of the arts.
The fall is not simply from rationality, as platonists and rationalists of all kinds have been tempted to suppose, but from God, and it therefore corrupts all the sources of goodness, beauty and truth. As art so eloquently explains, human society is troubled profoundly by death. Christ’s resurrection from the dead points to the end of death’s rule and to the future transformation of the present order.
The testimony of the Apostles is to the resurrected Christ’s Lordship over the world. What occurs in Christ is a re-creation — a new humanity is formed, by the Holy Spirit, in the present age. This is a people with imaginations reformed as hope in Christ. They experience a present resurrected reality (John 10:10, Col 3:1 5); and they anticipate the future perfecting of their bodies by godly obedience expressed in service, knowing all the while that perfect obedience is not (yet) theirs. Here is the beauty of holiness, rather than the holiness of beauty.
Can art — creative endeavour — be a part of this process of re-creation? There is a danger in speaking as if the arts in themselves extend Christ’s work, or as if “inspiration”, in the normal artistic sense, could be akin to sanctification. However, we can view human art as anticipatory.
When order is wrested from the hands of chaos in a work of art, may we not catch a glimpse of the final goal of creation? As Hans Kung writes:
Art’s particular service to man consists in symbolizing ... how man and society might be ... The human imagination knows that something is not right with the present world, and either dreams of something better, or despairs entirely. Art can turns us in the direction of a perfection we do not possess.
Karl Barth was deeply suspicious of any notion of art which suggested a contact point for human experience of the divine. And yet his love of Mozart’s music led him to make the astonishing claim that the composer should hold a “place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation and in eschatology”. He wrote, it must be remembered, in the context of a discussion of the “shadow side” of creation, thinking of finitude and all its effects including death. This is not an evil, but part of the limits inherent in being a creature.
Barth heard in Mozart an expression of the goodness of creation, including its limits; and that “creation praises its Master and is therefore perfect”. Barth’s view is in harmony with that of the biblical Wisdom literature. Inklings of God are present in the human arts (just as they are in nature); the Christian has been given the eyes of faith with which to see them.
The musical, poetic and painterly renditions of the human condition may take us to the “very threshold of transcendence and the theological”, but it is only encounter with Christ that takes us over it. Works of art are altars to an Unknown God — the God that makes himself known in the glory of the incarnate Word.
What might humans “do” with the arts in response to the challenge of Dorothy Sayers? Will we be wasting our time in creating art or thinking about it when “the time is short”? Will art have a diverting or even corrupting influence on us, leading us to idolatry or immorality? Surely not.
Art is a good part of God’s good creation; the freedom, ability and materials necessary to produce art are his gifts. Yet, like everything created, it is in bondage to decay as a result of sin (Rom 8:20-21).
The Christian hope gives us confidence there is in the arts potential for real communication and expression, pleasure and joy. The Christian hope gives us a grasp of reality that should richly inform discussions of the arts. The Christian hope speaks of God’s judgment, and thus allows for a thorough critique of the abuses of art. The Christian hope also draws our imaginations heavenward, where Christ, the true image of God, is seated (Col 3:1 5).
There is then every good reason for a Christian delight in the human arts. Indeed for Christians to maintain that there is a real joy in the arts has a divine source glorifies the God they worship. Far from wasting time, they are (potentially) a redemption of time. The arts, created and experienced under the fear of God, have their own peculiar ecstatic holiness.