Would Augustine Have Enjoyed Picasso?

Beware the local movie house! Satan lurks there! At least my mother thought so. As a child she was careful not to walk near the neighborhood theater for fear the Devil would snatch her right off the street.

Many Christians, when confronted with “modern” abstract painting, remind me of my mother. Afraid of being caught in the clutches of some obscene philosophy, they refuse their senses the rich feast of a painting by a master like Picasso. His philosophy may be lost and despairing, but his paintings as paintings—their colors, their lines—are simply magnificent. And praise God I can enjoy them!

Many of the great artists of the twentieth century, while being slaves to godless philosophies, were masters of composition. Reject their philosophies, yes, but only after savoring their achievements as painters.

Just what is meant by “modern art”? Actually “modern” is misleading. What is usually referred to as modern art is abstract art as it evolved in the twentieth century, beginning with the impressionists at the turn of the century and culminating with the abstract expressionists in the 1950s. Usually it is distinguished from “contemporary art,” that is, what is happening in the art world now.

More generally, most people label any abstract painting “modern.” I will use the term in this broader sense while not forgetting the historical context.

As we stopped before a painting by Paul Klee at the Denver Art Museum recently, a friend asked me, “What do you think he was trying to say with that?” The question is a good one in its place, but to ask it before one examines the painting as a painting is the quickest way to become puzzled and bored at an art museum. We should encounter a painting as a message only after we have encountered it as a painting.

Anna Pavlova, asked to explain her dancing, snapped at her interviewer, “If I could say it I wouldn’t have danced it!” Painters are painters first, philosophers second. Don’t rob the artist of his distinctive function by reversing his roles.

But if the message of a painting reflects an unchristian world view, does the believer have any business enjoying it at all? St. Augustine suggests some answers to this question.

Augustine was a poet before his conversion. He had tasted the sweet wine of sensuous pleasures in the various arts. Yet he struggled to find something deeper. Could sensory enjoyment be the only goal of art? Augustine recalls this inner tension in his Confessions: “My mind carefully examined the different qualities of the sensory impressions that were dinning at the ears of my heart; and all the while I was straining to catch your inner melody, beloved Truth.”

Article continues below

Augustine answered his own question with a resounding no: art is not merely sensuous pleasure. The eternal God was the “inner melody” he begged to hear, the sound he finally captured when he became a Christian. After his conversion, though, Augustine did not shut off his senses. Nor did he wish to. Instead he discovered in God a reason for enjoying the sensuous pleasures of art.

To begin with, Augustine placed the Creator-God at the center of aesthetics. All of creation bears the marks of His hand. And since God is not chaos, an underlying harmony characterizes nature. This harmony, manifested in the art object, is what appeals to man’s senses.

Possibly drawing from Paul’s remarks in the first chapter of Romans, especially verse 20, Augustine realized that this fundamental harmony could be perceived by Christian and non-Christian alike. Of course, if this is true, the unconverted artist can pay homage to the principle of harmony in his paintings while not recognizing the source of this beauty.

The tragedy of twentieth-century art is that it forgot its source. For Augustine, the work of art must aid the Christian in his ascent to God, or else it has failed. Yet he does not repudiate the first level of art, the sensuous. Great art is both sensuously satisfying and intellectually edifying.

To demonstrate his point, Augustine tells us of a dancer whose graceful movements afforded his senses the greatest pleasure but whose message, conveyed through the senses, was less than Christian. He enjoyed the sensuous level while rejecting the suggested message.

A certain painting in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, evokes a similar tension in me whenever I see it. The painting is Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror.” I often spend a great deal of time before it, enthralled by Picasso’s masterly use of line and color. When I search for the underlying meaning I am disappointed, just as Augustine was with his dancer. Yet I have thoroughly enjoyed—and, as an artist, learned a great deal from—this painting.

Given this two-pronged concept of art, how should a Christian approach a painting?

Before a painting can be enjoyed as a painting its components must be observed. Basically a painting is nothing more than a stretched piece of canvas cloth covered with paint. This simple observation is one of the most profound discoveries of twentieth-century art. Artists began to take an interest in the materials they were using. They began to study the elements of composition apart from their purely pictorial functions. In short, many artists became more concerned with how they painted than with what they painted. As a result, the subjects of “modern art” changed from recognizable objects to the actual compositional elements themselves.

Article continues below

Francis Schaeffer thinks that the inherent difficulty with abstract art is in this shift in subject matter. “The viewer,” he claims, “is completely alienated from the painter.” Certainly many people do throw up their hands in confusion or alarm at the first sight of an abstract painting. Al Capp, creator of “Li’l Abner,” recently complained that abstract art is “produced by the talentless, sold by the unscrupulous, and bought by the bewildered.”

But is this really fair? In surveying God’s creation do we not find the abstract? I have often been tempted to photograph a sunset, cut off the horizon, frame the picture, hang it in a gallery—and then listen to the ridicule it receives because it is abstract. People enjoy sunsets because of the brilliant colors. Drawing on this sensuous pleasure sparked by God’s good creation, might not the artist make color the subject of his painting?

Or look at one of the pinnacles of God’s creation, the tree. The beauty of branches cutting sharp patterns against the autumn sky of a brisk October morning is always satisfying. What evokes this response in the observer? The rhythm of the branches, of lines. Line is a legitimate subject for a painting.

Abstract art is not always destructive of nature. Rather, it often looks more deeply into the building blocks of God’s harmonious creation. Observing line and color in nature is the best way to begin to enjoy abstract painting.

In a painting of mine called “La Raza,” my intention was simple: to convey an appreciation for the Mexican culture I had encountered in Denver. Using lines and shapes suggested by designs I had seen repeatedly in Mexican art, I composed a painting in which the lines gaily play off each other to suggest the Mexican spirit.

The “message” is not at all profound. The painting is simply an attempt to convey the feelings and pleasures I have had through an encounter with a different culture. It has no recognizable subject matter. The message is conveyed through the use of line, color, and form.

Next time you are in an art gallery or museum, take the time to look at those modern paintings. See them as an occasion for sensuous enrichment as well as an exercise in philosophy. Don’t ignore the message, but do enjoy the painting as a painting. You are likely to find a whole new realm of pleasure waiting for you.

Article continues below


Mark Marchak is an urban minister with the Conservative Baptist Home Mission Society in New York City.

Recording Reflections

Jesus music buffs have been treated to several good record releases in the last few months. Myrrh heads the list with two double, live concert albums plus several good singles. Barry McGuire, always a rousing pleasure to hear, has a new live concert album, To the Bride (MSX-6548). The 2nd Chapter of Acts and “a band called David” are featured in the album. They sing one of the best songs on the two records, “Denomination Blues.” For me part of an album’s appeal lies in its variety, and “To the Bride” has that. At times the 2nd Chapter succumbs to sentimentality, particularly in “Jimmy’s Song” and “Prince Song.” Both songs lack strong melody, harmony, and rhythmic structure, which perhaps accounts for the sentimental effect they produce.

Early Randy Matthews, too, tended to sameness and sentimentality. But his latest release, Eyes to the Sky, (MSA-6547), shows a deepening musical maturity and a less simplistic spiritual outlook. Some of this is anticipated in the slightly earlier double album Now Do You Understand? (MSZ-6546).

Andrae Crouch also has released a new double album, The Best of Andrae (Light, LS 5678). And it is. For those who don’t know Andrae Crouch and the Disciples or who own few of the group’s records, here is a good one to buy. No recording can produce the impact of a live performance, but Andrae’s come close.

Honeytree’s latest release, Evergreen (MSA-6553), bubbles with happy enthusiasm for life. Unfortunately, that attitude results in musical repetition. As in her last album, her sense of humor shows in some of the songs, and this raises the album above the ordinary pop religious recording.

“Denomination Blues” appears again, with a country flavor, on Shamble-jam by Parchment (Myrrh England, MSA-6551). The group is easy to listen to, rather like The Lovin’ Spoonful, and its songs have catchy tunes with slow-swelling rhythms. Made up of two men and a woman, Parchment hits its stride in “Speakers Corner.”

For those more classically minded, Westminster Gold has re-released some fine religious choral music at a reasonable price. “Sacred Service for the Sabbath Morning” is a fine example of twentieth-century religious music by Darius Milhaud (1892–1974). Westminster’s album, In Memoriam (WGS-8281), features Milhaud conducting the Orchestre du Theatre National de L’Opera in that work, first performed in 1949. The baritone soloist, choir, and orchestra are all superb; the music is hauntingly rich, uplifting the spirit.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.