The last article that I wrote covered the artists and movements that have influenced my thought as an artist. Now, I’m going to attempt to explain why I think my chosen medium/style is acceptable for a Christian and a pastor. In short, my artwork is non-representational. Its meaning is complicated or ambiguous. This post then seeks to answer two questions: Is art that has ambiguous or complicated content acceptable for the Christian to make or view? If it is acceptable, then why should a Christian make or view art that has ambiguous or complicated content?
Question 1: Is art that has ambiguous or complicated content acceptable for the Christian to make or view?
First, I’ll begin by considering the alternative to non-representational art. Why is representation an acceptable way for a Christian to paint? Of all the possible ways to make art, representation initially seems like the most problematic for the Christian. The Decalogue expressly states, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” The bluntness of the phraseology is perhaps what caused hesitation towards, nay, even rejection of, the creation of representational images on the part of intertestamental Jews. While images of non-animal objects, such as shrubbery, are clearly permitted (having been used in the Solomonic temple), the representation of humans, animals, and heavenly bodies was viewed with suspicion or scorn. Of course, this suspicion and scorn of all human/animal/celestial representation is due to scribal tendency to “fence” the law. If the meaning of a command was difficult to understand, they assumed that the safest bet was to add laws around it to prevent any possible way of violating it. So, though it is rather clear that this prohibition of images was meant specifically in regards to idol-making (note the phrase, “for yourself”–as in, “don’t pay someone to make an idol for you to worship in your home”), an abiding fear of violation lurks around this particular commandment.
Second, though it’s entirely acceptable for a Christian to make representational images, what do we make of the Western history of representation? I immediately think of two particularly disturbing aspects of representation: images of God and pornography. If anything, the command not to make idols directly prohibits the making of an image “of Yahweh”. The Lord was specifically forbidding the making of images to be used to worship HIM. While most venerators-of-icons would never say they worship the image itself, neither did Israel worship the golden calf itself. When the people cried out, “these are your gods who lead you out of Egypt,” they bowed to a singular image. Idols served as totems of the invisible deities to whom the nations bowed. Israel bowed to a singular image, but sought to reverence a plurality of deities. Sure, the Lord could have said, “don’t make images to worship false deities through them,” but He didn’t. He didn’t want images attached to His own reverence or worship. There are all sorts of reasons why God made a command like this, but one basic argument is that image-making necessarily multiplies deities. Just ask a Christologically orthodox professor to draw a symbol of the Trinity, and you’ll hear an audible grunt of angst. Any image will play into a form of heresy–modalism, partialism, or tri-theism. Remember Patrick’s bad analogies. Last, in addition to images of the Lord, the history of Western representation has been riddled with pornography. This isn’t something that I wish to go into in detail, but let’s just say that non-representational art doesn’t carry this issue along with it.
Third, while I think representational art can be used in a God-glorifying way, I just wanted to show that the burden doesn’t really rest upon me to prove the validity of non-representational art. It was Kandinsky, a theosophist, who once pointedly argued that music is not representational, and yet we value it. Similarly, writing is non-representational. Does someone really need to argue that writing is an acceptable endeavor for a Christian to pursue? The meaning of a novel is complicated, and while it may be summarized, a good novel’s meaning “grows” or is “unearthed” over time.
Fourth, I don’t need to defend “non-represenationalism,” or whatever you want to call it, but I need to defend an aspect of it. To what extent is this type artwork communicative of an idea? If it doesn’t communicate anything, then what is the use of it for a Christian? If it communicates an idea, but a complex or ambiguous idea, then is it worth making or viewing? This is where, I believe, contemporary Christian artists split ways. If I had to create categories, I’d say that there are heirs of aestheticists on one side, and heirs of the symbolists on another side. The former group are also influenced by postmodern reader-response theories, poststructuralism, and perhaps what I’d call a revival of romanticism. The latter group are influenced by structuralism and occasionally by revivals in Platonic theories of aesthetics. Of course, I’m making a dichotomy to distinguish the two thoughts from one another, but more realistically this is a spectrum that Christians traverse. Basically, along poststructuralist lines, many non-representational artists would argue that knowledge doesn’t work as cleanly or plainly as a symbolist would like to imagine. Brute facts don’t exist, and symbols are complex. Color, texture, and form can all be their own “language” which a mind can “read” at an intuitive level by thinking about what it sees, much like it “reads” musical compositions by meditating on what it hears. This is all very well, but what is actually “communicated” in a way more than just feeling? Is it necessary to communicate something more than an impression or feeling? Many Christians believe that it is sufficient to make something beautiful that communicates feeling. Other Christians believe that the role of visual art in general is meant to communicate more than feeling. They might argue that non-representational art ought to be made to communicate through a kind of symbol-system. They would reject the idea of merely intuitive meaning, and argue that though complex, meaning is notional/conceptual and rises above bare intuition. Both of these thoughts, though, can only be reasoned on a cultural level. That is, there is no biblical warrant to suggest that a Christian ought only paint aesthetically pleasing things, or that a Christian ought only paint symbolic things. This being the case, the manner of painting then comes down to Christian liberty.
Last, my own artwork contains elements of both the symbolic as well as the aesthetic. I’ve never been comfortable with attempting to evoke sheer feeling from a viewer. While I perhaps sacrifice specificity of meaning by not using representation, I think that I gain complexity as well as aesthetic. Is art that has ambiguous or complicated content acceptable for the Christian to make or view? I hope you see that the answer is, “Yes.” The next question, though, is, “But is it worth making it or looking at it?”
Question 2: Why should a Christian make or view art that has ambiguous or complicated meaning?
I answer this by an analogous statement: A Christian should read a novel with complicated meaning. If that statement is true, then I would argue, “Therefore a Christian should look at a work of art with complicated meaning.” To me it is almost absurd to suggest that a Christian (or any person) shouldn’t read a novel with complicated meaning, but I suppose it is worth addressing this statement in our day-and-age. In my last post I argued that meaning is complicated. It isn’t necessary to say “where” it resides: in the viewer/reader, the artist/author, or the painting/book. It probably exists somewhere “in dialogue” between these things, but who am I to know the answer to this question? The fact is that meaning exists, and must be found in the thing itself that you seek to understand. But why pursue this meaning? I have several reasons why we ought to seek to understand complicated or seemingly ambiguous works: 1. For the enjoyment of a quest. 2. For the sake of personal knowledge/growth. 3. For the purification and edification of imagination. 4. For love/charity (growth in sympathy) of others and ourselves. 5. For enlargement of personal experiences. There’s a strange association of sympathetic people with the amount of quality fiction that a person reads. I’d assume that the same is true of people who imbibe a good amount of quality fine art. This might say more about the person (they want to read/look at these things), or it might say more about the art (it changes you), or both perhaps. The point is that seeking to understand artwork can refresh the mind, and provide other benefits that accompany this. Just as an example–this morning I was reading through some of Wendell Berry’s poems on “rest”, and found that the verses refreshed or freshened my understanding of a subject that I’ve already studied. They provided a breath of fresh air in a stale area of the mind. In the end, there are dozens of reasons to invest your time in thinking about complicated art. Most importantly, though, good artwork provides a challenge to its viewers, urging them to stop and consider the relation of its parts with the goal of providing a new “angle” on reality. Investigating artwork is worth the endeavor.