Perhaps, if Christians repent of their sideline stance and join the fray as worthy service for the kingdom.
It is a sign for our times that surrealism in art looks old-fashioned today. Good folk talk about “Freudian slips” and the id in normal conversation, and nobody seems to get too upset about a photograph of an atrocity in El Salvador in Time magazine juxtaposed alongside a slick ad for Dubonnet liquor. We have become so accustomed to the bizarre in ordinary life and to trivialization of things deeply human that “modern art,” like surrealism in the museum, looks and is passé.
Arts like painting, sculpture, and concert music have been shunted to the side, away from the focus of public cultural attention since the end of the World War II, by the increasing and overwhelming popularity of movies, television, and records. Wealthy people may still buy original art as an investment, but most of us have to make do with art that is mechanically mass produced, or repeated frequently (like a theater performance). And this fact of life, that art today is tied as never before to what individual people can and want to afford, is directly relevant to what is going to happen to the arts in the generation after 1981.
Art Since World War Ii
In 1945, one could say, New York became the capital of art ferment in the world instead of Paris and other European cities that were recovering from the war. With the dominance of the United States in painting, for example, came a brash disregard for the history of art form.
Already back before World War I, artists like Picasso, Matisse, and Kandinsky had led the avant garde into explorations that began to change the traditional face of painting and sculpture. But around 1910, Picasso, Matisse, and Kandinsky were trying to paint and sculpt their contemporary world with a contemporary consciousness. They were not in revolt against art history so much as in earnest to follow up the artistic challenge of the impressionist painters and Van Gogh and Cézanne, to rid art of the stilted romanticism and aura of luxurious indulgence with which nineteenth-century idealist commitments had blessed art.
Cubist painting was basically an attempt to mint afresh the standard painterly vocabulary of nuanced composition, enriched color schemes, and the telling impasto of brush stroke texture, all to deepen one’s vision of the living world of the twentieth century. Their shock effect came mostly from the uneducated reaction of the public, which was ill prepared to let go of its magazines filled with ideals, its conviction that the norm for painting was picturesque beauty, and that novels should have happy endings. Braque, Brancusi, and Stravinski were not revolutionaries; they only did art with an honest secularity that disturbed comfortable peo-
But after two world wars, avant-garde artists who were revolutionaries came to the fore in New York circles, and made their predecessors look tame by comparison. Jackson Pollock (1912–56) dripped paint onto canvas laid flat on the floor and made it impossible to connect what he was doing with the history of European art crafted since the Renaissance. Willem de Kooning (b. 1904) swerved humanoid shapes of paint across spaces that looked simultaneously fleshly and environmental, and critic Harold Rosenberg gave such dislocated splashes of loaded paint brushes and drip-dry techniques the name and thenceforth the pedigree of “action painting.”
Art by Pollock and de Kooning spearheaded an effort, it seemed, to do art that had no precedent, that intentionally censored out the pictorial dimension of artistic painting, and compensated for the loss with a deadly serious, violent, gigantic histrionics in the techniques of raw paint. It was as if the dominant American style of the 1950s, “Abstract Expressionism,” meant to echo the unprecedented explosions of atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the 1940s, blotting out the memory of Puritan America and even the sunny rationalism of its Declaration of Independence and Bill of (human) Rights.
During the next decade, partly in reaction perhaps, the so-called New York School came to blanket the art world—that is, the art market of museums, prestigious corporate foundations, and art galleries of New York. The artists who were now feted, by and large reduced their concerns to purely formal matters and riveted their attention solely upon a manipulating finesse with the medium of painting.
Mark Rothko’s (1903–70) cloud beds of shimmering, palpitating color were still to be taken as invitations to contemplative meditation on nothing in particular. But Kenneth Noland (b. 1924), Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923), Frank Stella (b. 1936), and others experimented in the 1960s with stark, simplified designs, incredibly bold stripes of color. They pushed and pulled shapes into strikingly novel patterns that were first and foremost rigorous exercises in painterly elements (comparable to a master pianist playing scales on the piano), nothing more.
Critic Clement Greenberg, who held the position of cultural power at Partisan Review, Art News, Artforum, inflated such exercises, however, into icons for the times. He naturally demythologized “color-field” painting, “minimal” or “hard-edge” art appropriately for the secular setting. But the disciples who flocked to the money flowing from this fountain of puzzles and games that did fascinating tricks to one’s eyes always tried to maintain at least a Wittgensteinian level of fascination to their art. Nobody pays Van Cliburn simply for playing scales or a painter for painting squares, unless the act has been somehow souped up into a fetish.
Also complicating the past 25 years of modern art has been the presence on the American scene of what can only be called anarchist art. Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1925) combined junk with paint and great imagination to startle onlookers into doing a double-take toward what then became an unforgettable image: a besmirched, stuffed goat stuck in a discarded, spare tire. Or a slept-in bed splattered with goo and paint and hung on a wall that gave you a queer sense that sex or a national emblem or something important was being desecrated—anonymously as it were—but you couldn’t be sure. Andy Warhol (b. 1930) picked up on the banality of mass-produced Campbell’s Soup cans and Marilyn Monroe’s kissable face. He traded for a few years on the novelty of blowing up insignificance to billboard proportions of fame until he himself became a parody of his PR self, and “pop art” slipped back into the cheap advertising morass from which it came.
Happenings, documented “earthwork art,” photo realism, and “conceptual art” on into the 1970s has often depended upon promotion gimmicks and the people Saint Paul (see Acts 17:21) and P. T. Barnum talked about more than upon artistically honed skill and insight. But it is a superficial judgment to think that the artists are the ones who were fooled or to say that this tradition of Dada art in America is meaningless. Anarchism is not nonsense, not even in art. It is the nihilistic side of hedonism.
And that might be a way to sum up the main streams of modern art since 1945 and all the trendy isms in painting and sculpture during CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s years of existence. With important exceptions, avant-garde art in America has tried to break down the iron-clad conventions that have boxed art in from being democratically flexible and germane to our motorized, commercialized, fast-paced life where the medium is the message. Art of the generation before 1981 has tried to destroy—whether in the heroics of “action painting,” the controlled exercises of “minimal art,” or in the genial pranks of Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929) and Roy Lichtenstein (b. 1923)—the mentality of pompous sculpture and the sacrosanct rules of order and propriety in the genre of painting.
The double trouble with this tack is that the art of our current generation—which aimed to cut the inviolate privilege of high art down to size and challenged its dated irrelevance and patronage—assumed the very same kind of elitist, cultural tyranny, even more isolated from the real issues of life than the traditional art it faulted. New York formalism fought its tempests in the Soho teapot while the civil-rights struggle took place in the streets. How could “conceptual art” continue to crack its bad jokes after the murder of Martin Luther King? How can Christo Jaracheff (b. 1935) still dare to “wrap up” a million square feet of Australian coastline in plastic tied by rope when there is world starvation? It is also a real question whether the American art that came of technocratic age during 1945–80 has not been co-opted by the power of technique and painted its artistic self into a corner.
The Future Of The Arts
What happens in art between now and A.D. 2006, if the Lord waits to return, depends partly upon where today’s teen-agers and college students find their artistic roots and on how wise artistic leadership becomes in the world after 1981. History is not a predetermined blueprint we need to approximate with an educated guess. Neither is the future a blank check, utterly unknown.
The truth is that God blesses cultural obedience with good fruit, and God punishes the vanity of godless men and women with frustration and ruin, and takes his gifts away from those who bury such talents in the ground. At least this is the way the Bible tells it (Isa. 45; Jer. 35; Matt. 25; James). I believe that norm also holds true for art. What happens in the next 25 years in painting, music, theater, architecture, sculpture, ballet, narrative, and other arts depends upon how obedient to God’s law for art are the artistic leaders and their followers in the coming generation.
A few things are fairly certain.
1. There will be more of the same for a while, simply because of cultural inertia and because the Lord takes his time in punishing disobedience. Avant-garde art since 1945 may be dead, but it is not buried. Museums the world over house pieces of the relics, dealers have large inventories to unload, and it will take a convincing band of prophets to prove the emperor has no clothes before the monopoly has to jettison its investment to cut its losses.
While New York art reduced itself essentially to problems of design and has gone out of its way to be useless, commanding the price of jewels, the legitimacy of fine decoration and the aesthetic reality of ornaments gives its experiments some right to exist, even though its cup of artistic meaning will never be able to flow over. But if decorative exercises ask to be treated like bona fide artworks, after a while the boredom they induce will bring them the oblivion their pride deserves.
As for the anarchist streak in the wit that at least has enlivened the art gallery scene, God knows we shall need humor in 1980s; entertainment is indeed a worthy pastime. But art must be more than entertaining to last. The laughter promoted by the legacy of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) is arbitrarily cruel. The mild sadism of neo-Dada and the enervating masochism of much “pop art” is as wasteful of time as certain I Ching music of John Cage (b. 1912). We may hope the audience of novitiates for this art will continue to shrink.
2. Art that is harnessed to specific use will come to be dominant in society: the pragmatist spirit is the most vital, secular cultural force presently at work in the world. And pragmatism is a protean dynamic that does not rest until whatever it touches is useful for this or that, testing the truth of a cultural product by its societal instrumentality.
This would mean that professional art and its expense must pass the test of utility and guaranteed audience. Monumental sculpture for commemorative occasions, murals on the outer walls of buildings to beautify the city streets, and agit-prop theater would be in. But novels would be hard put to justify their existence unless they were best-sellers with an Uncle Tom’s Cabin type of point. Concerts just for listening would be up for grabs, except as benefits. As for easel oil paintings, lyric poetry, and old-fashioned Shakespeare—what are they good for?
Totalitarian governments already have a pragmatist policy on art: the state dance troupe (like the national airline) is used to win prestige abroad and to act like a bread-and-circus safety valve for the tribes at home. Paintings and prints are tolerated if they become posters for the Communist party. But less politicized and closer to home we must ask: Who reading these lines finds it responsible to recommend to his or her child to, for God’s sake, become an artist, or compose music, chisel sculpture, or write novels for a living? The wandering Chinese poets, troubadours with their lyres, the guild of cabinet makers, or the Bohemian painter living on French bread and a glass of wine, are things of the past. Now, if your art is not a specialized community service hooked into a financial or state network, you cannot live a normal, responsible life.
3. Performance art and artistic acts that are mass reproducible will gradually crowd out everything else in Western civilization done by professional artists. The curse of collectivism and the annihilation of objects as unique valuables is part and parcel of the regime effected by the technocratic idol our culture as a whole at heart serves, with or without militarism.
Individual paintings, like single family dwellings, may disappear as a major art genre, just as the art of landscape gardening did after the eighteenth century.
This means that individual paintings, like single family dwellings, may disappear as a major art genre just as the art of landscape gardening did after the eighteenth century. The painterly art could be absorbed into advertising or revert to illuminating (illustrating) the text of books. Hand-carved sculpture may try to stay alive by becoming an appendage of architecture, like a frieze. Or sculptors may become consultants to those who build the Stonehenges of America, the multiple-level, intertwined, cloverleaf highway intersections near major cities.
Dramatists and choreographers who buy the centralizing handwriting on the wall will reconceive their art (as Balanchine is doing) to fit the TV screen, so different from the theatrical stage. At best there will be pieces like Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men and the CBC ballet-choir rendition of Carl Orff’s Catulli Carmina. At worst there will be spectacular kitsch, with high audience ratings.
4. Current American hegemony in the arts will (reluctantly, perhaps with angry, violent bitterness) pass away, because the empire of the United States in the world is due to end. There is a spirit in South America, Asia, and among many different world peoples of aspiring to a deeper quality of life with the arts as they conceive art—if only they could breathe culturally for a generation-long period free from the repressive constriction of Communist terror and from the Western blight of ham burgers, plastic, transistor radios, ballpoint pens, and Coke.
It may be that the poignant painting going on now in Eastern European countries in spite of Soviet occupation, and fictional narrative like that of Gabriel García Márquez (b. 1928; Cien Años de Sole-dad ), who fled his Colombian homeland, will never survive the demise of superpower art. What we cannot treat as esoteric or lionize on a talk show may simply go down with the Titanic. Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, and Oriental art may not have the consistency to withstand the hideous strength of our secularism, but their pagan pedigree could offer other prospects for reform than New York glitter.
For the sake of a few righteous in the secular city of art, the Lord might still do wonders there in the generation after 1981 and prove judgments two and three to be wrong. But our record as evangelical Christians in this area of God’s kingdom has not been good; we have had other priorities. The conversion of a few superstars does not change the pattern of pop songs and rock music. It takes a generation to shape an alternate artistic style.
Our art critics are tempted to make blanket, negative judgments, missing rich figures like Barlach, Rivera, Hopper, Brecht, Paton, Rattner, Krijger—those who have suffered much in swimming against the stream. We Christians on the sidelines have a lot of repenting to do when it comes to the arts, I believe.
What needs to come first is the vision that the arts are a “reasonable service” for the Christian community as we tend creation for the Lord in his absence and break the bread of life to our neighbor, no matter how dark the night becomes.
Then the Christian artists among us—not the theorists—in concert with Christian art historians, Christian art critics, and aestheticians, along with wise spectators, will take self-conscious soundings for fruitful, if aborted, art movements in history, and solid artistic figures may serve as an inspiring cloud of witnesses as they lead us all gently into the coming years. Thank God there is still time to gird up our artistic loins as Christians and begin to run this race, too, in earnest.
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