In the fall of 1989, I was standing in front of one of Jackson Pollock’s huge paint-splattered canvases at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) with my girlfriend, now my wife. She asked, “What makes this art?”
Her question echoed my own. The art history and philosophy I had become so comfortable with in graduate seminars suddenly struck me as disturbingly insufficient. It was more than a question about art. It was a theological question, asked by one Christian of another, in front of one of the many strange and ambiguous artifacts that seem to contradict what Christians have traditionally valued in the visual arts.
Christianity, or at least the church, once provided both the context and content for art. But what to make of paint dripped onto a canvas (Pollock), a urinal displayed upside down (Marcel Duchamp), silk-screened images of Campbell’s Soup cans (Andy Warhol), a stuffed shark (Damien Hirst)—not to mention Andres Serrano’s infamous crucifix suspended in golden liquid, titled Piss Christ?
I recalled my wife’s question a few months ago while visiting the MoMA, this time standing in front of a plaster sink made by Robert Gober. What would I say to my students from The King’s College when I brought them to this exhibition a few days later? How could I help them experience this plaster sink as Christians?
I knew my students were tempted to retreat into abstractions like the Good, the True, and the Beautiful when we talked about art. But even apart from the temptation to turn artworks into illustrations of philosophical abstractions, why go all the way to MoMA—or any contemporary gallery? Much easier to use television shows and movies, easily accessible and far more ...1