Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Reason for Art

Over the course of human history, art has played an integral role in society. From the earliest forms of pottery and body decorations to great structures such as the Taj Mahal and Mount Rushmore, art has been formed from many different material, formal, and efficient causes. These three causes in the art seem relatively self-evident, but where lies the final cause? What is the reason for art? The answer to this question ranges all the way from the secular views of relativity and nihilism to the Christian views of worship and deontology. The object of this paper will attempt to explore the reason for secular art in contrast to the reason for Christian art in order to decide which view may be more beneficial to both the audience and the artist.
Even though art such as cave paintings and hieroglyphs may have been at first a tool for scholastic teaching and historical records, art has grown to become a different means of creative expression for the artist. Besides teaching the viewer basic facts and chronologies, the artist began to make art in order to inspire an emotion in their audience and to share their own worldviews.
Some may argue that the artist is no thinker; that he or she would dwell in the realms of beauty and emotion, not logic or reason. This idea is wrong. David Gobel, a contemporary architect, may have described art the best when he said that in art, “a worldview is made tangible.”[1] Even though the audience may not be able to physically touch the artist’s worldview, they can better grasp the artist’s ideas through experiencing the art. We enter a construction of the artist’s mind in order to understand the artist’s work.
This idea of sharing one’s own philosophies through art has been so ingrained within the artist that they may not even recognize their presuppositions’ influence. In ancient Greek artists who would have understood Pythagoras’ philosophies, emphasizing the importance of geometry used mathematics to assist their sculpting. Knowingly or not, their philosophy helped to form their art. Further influence from Pythagoras and Plato led the Byzantine culture to create art which reflected the purity of their idols instead of portraying the seemingly corrupt world in which they lived. Upon the rediscovery of Aristotle’s notes and the understanding that the world too is a gift from God, friars emerged and an influence of the environment returned to the artist’s brush. Reformers, Enlightened artists, and Romantics among others have also had their art affected by their philosophies.[2]
Where does this leave us today? Instead of having mainly Christian or other single-minded ideas taking charge of our culture, we are left in a bizarre state of philosophical chaos. A person’s mind has been split between various concepts and understandings, most of which are conflicting or false. As culture has tried to free the artist’s ability of expression, it has lost the artist’s sense of aesthetics.[3] Almost any understanding of art is acceptable. Whether it be Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper or Andres Sorrano’s Piss Christ, Exekias’ Achilles and Penthesileia or Ai Weiwei’s Dropping the Urn, Alexandros’ Venus de Milo or Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista, it would appear that in modern times the cliché of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is seen as true. Art, according to the majority, has been deemed as relative.
In most cases, art has been diluted to the definition that Germaine Greer, a professor at the University of Warwick, uses: “Art is anything an artist calls art.”[4] The secular mind has benighted itself into thinking that whatever an artist[5] has spent time and effort on is logically art. Greer would go so far as to say that anything which is unique or separate from any other work is truly art. This would include her example that a crooked, malfunctioning, urinal would be art if it were seen as such.[6]
If this is the case, anything which a person sees as art can be good art; it follows then that everything can be judged as good art and so nothing can be judged as good art. As Tom Jay has said, “The term art has been spread so thin, its edges moved so far out that it can no longer bear meaning. Anything can be art, the icicle stuck in the lawn, the moustache on the billboard beauty: if anything is art nothing is art.”[7]
This relative view takes the meaning out of art. If a work can have different meanings for different audiences it can mean a lot to one person and nothing to the next. To escape seeing art as nihilistic, there needs to be some form of absolute good within it. There is a need for art to have aesthetics that most audiences can recognize. But, to the world, “good” has become relative.
Even though this is so, it is clear that what is good for one person may not be good for another. For example it may be good for an explosives expert to have dynamite but not a kindergartener and it is good for a paratrooper to be falling from an airplane but not a scuba diver. Even if dynamite and falling would not be good for different types of people, they still share an absolute good of needing to eat and sleep in order to properly function.
If the secular definition of good art lies somewhere within its uniqueness, this is insufficient because everything is unique in its own way. There are no two exact duplicates of anything otherwise matter would have to be displaced as the two objects would need to hold the exact same space in the physical world. Just the difference of spacing alone is enough to make one object different than another. This is seen even in the example of the urinal. If the urinal were in its proper place then it would still be unique in the fact that it takes a different location than the other urinals in the bathroom and it could be seen as an artistic placement.[8]
Unlike the relativity of secularism, Christianity recognizes that there are true absolute goods. This is possible because a Christian believes that God is good. Even if there are bad things in the world, it is seen as true that the world has originally been made good.[9] There are still good things hidden under the contamination caused by the Fall.[10] These absolute goods can be used to measure art.
Over the centuries, man has attempted to worship God even through art. Sculptures, cathedrals, paintings and other wonders have been built in order to get a glimpse of what is godly. Many Orthodox churches attempt to depict heaven within their walls and please God with their sanctuary’s beauty.
Yet, measuring art only by its godliness may not be the correct answer. Are we solely to create art as a form of seeing or worshipping God? This is a tough question. Alvin Schmidt states that “the truth and religious significance of Christian art was not a mere end in itself, but rather an intimate part of human life.” It seems that art has played a bigger role than only working towards the reaction of the audience.
God has also made man as a creature in his own image.[11] Man was made with the abilities to think, to feel, and to create. Perhaps an understanding of vocation is needed to recognize the artist’s role in the world. In vocation a man is called to lovingly serve their neighbor. The artist’s ability to provide aesthetic works is a way to serve others.
There is another problem though. As Adrienne Chaplin points out, not even all religious art is made by believers. There may be artists such as David Mach who create “Christian” art for the audience’s reaction and not to worship the Christian God.[12] It is also clear that not all art directly points to God in its understanding.
It is possible that God could still use the art of the Christian and the nonbeliever in order to spread the Gospel. But, without the believer’s concept of intrinsic good, the audience may applaud anything as good art. In the end, uniqueness and relative aesthetics may be something worth seeing but without intrinsic meaning the art remains nihilistic. Knowing God can add meaning behind the art. Art can be used in order to appreciate God’s gifts or see a new aspect of God that perhaps a person would not have realized otherwise. If reason matters, Christianity is beneficial to art. But, if chaos rules, art may need no god.

[1] Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2007), 76.
[2] Pearcey, 76-90.
[3] Harry Blamires, The Post-Christian Mind (Vancouver, Canada: Regent College Publishing, 2003), 117-129.
[4] Germaine Greer, “Now please pay attention everybody. I’m about to tell you what art is,” the Guardian (2011), (accessed November 20, 2011).
[5] The definition of an “artist” would become extremely vague in this sense, including anyone and everyone who believes that they can see art in something they create (such as a fast-food employee who has just made a Subway sandwich).
[6] Germaine Greer, “Now please pay attention everybody. I’m about to tell you what art is,” the Guardian (2011), (accessed November 20, 2011).
[7] Tom Jay, The Blossoms Are Ghosts at the Wedding (New York, NY: Empty Bowl, 2006).
[8] This “art” would probably be under the class of parallelism.
[9] Genesis 1:31
[10] Genesis 3
[11] Genesis 1:26
[12] Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin, “Not all religious art is made by believers,” the Guardian (2011), (accessed November 20, 2011).

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