Reply to “Bad art gets worse”

I don’t nose around the internet for new stuff relating art and the Christian faith as often as I’d like, but on whim I did just that this afternoon. I ran across an article titled Bad art gets worse. This post, on a Catholic blog called Rome of the West, presents three main ideas from where I sit: 1) Don’t give bad art the time of day 2) Modern art is bad art 3) The Church must return to its former artistic influence.

Let’s tackle these points in order. “Don’t give bad art the time of day.” I agree. Mark Scott Abeln, author of Rome of the West, points to the old marketing adage saying “any publicity is good publicity.” While this isn’t always true (particularly in my position, working for a small mission mobilizer), it’s a solid bet in the art world. Attention given to exhibits such as Sensation only furthers the fame of the artwork.

Secondly, and this is the point I disagree with, “modern art is bad art.” From the post:

    “Modern art has always been bad, but there seems to be no lower limit to how far down it can go . . . The modern art world exists deep inside of Plato’s cave: auction prices and social propaganda are purely man-made and have little or no relationship with reality, and instead are based on manipulation of emotion. Modern art has little or no intrinsic worth.”

From Wikipedia:

    Modern art is a general term used for most of the artistic stuff from the late 19th century until approximately the 1970s. (Recent art production is more often called Contemporary art or Postmodern art). Modern art refers to the then new approach to art which placed emphasis on representing emotions, themes, and various abstractions. Artists experimented with new ways of seeing, with fresh ideas about the nature of materials and functions of art, often moving further toward abstraction.”

Modern art has little or no intrinsic worth? “The artworks themselves appear to be products of nihilism: and in the absence of truth, or goodness, or beauty, the only things left are power, or political upheaval, or destruction,” Abeln says. OK, much modern art may deal with unpleasant subject matter, and some will be considered generally offensive. But you cannot say this of non-representational works, such as those by Pollock or Rothko. Just because paint splattered on a canvas (which Pollock said was the only kind of painting that made sense in the chaos of the world surrounding him — granted that chaos was, to him, a Godless one) doesn’t agree with your personal aesthetic, you can’t make blanket statements about a particular artistic era with much, if any, credibility.

The modern era represents a period of exploration with media that, to my knowledge, was quite unprecedented. I’ve spoken recently of how man’s creativity in this way speaks to our being created in God’s image. Insisting that the only good art follows classical styles is, well, silly.

Abeln defines good art as virtuous, made with a “happy” combination of talent, learning and practice. Even better art, he claims, is in “harmony” with truth, goodness and beauty while the very best art gives praise, honor and glory to God. First of all, there are a lot of truths which are unpleasant. War isn’t pleasant, but it’s there. Picasso’s Guernica may not deal with goodness and beauty, but it speaks to truth.

picassoguernica.jpg

Do works of art, in order to fit in this very best category, need to include all of the the above qualifications? Who decides what “beauty” is? No such definition is given in the Bible.

Furthermore, if we’re supposed to be ignoring bad art, why does Abeln talk so much about his dislike for modern art? Good art must drive out the bad, he says. First off, drive it out from where? And secondly, won’t we have bad art with us until Jesus’ return to earth? Do you expect unbelievers to intentionally create “God glorifying” paintings and sculpture? And what of modern abstractions such as those by Christian artist Makoto Fujimura? Are these also bad art, even though they are created with much talent, practice and a clear intent to glorify God?

Lastly, the Church must return to its former artistic influence. Can I get an “Amen!” As much as I talk about this here already, I don’t feel the need to elaborate on this point. Read more on this page.

A probing post I was glad to find (I wish I’d find more like it), but the author’s ideas of the art world today seem rooted in tradition more than reality, and won’t help reestablish a Christ-following presence in today’s culture.

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

5 Responses to Reply to “Bad art gets worse”

  1. Thank you for your constructive comments! I knew that I should have continued further after that last paragraph……..!

    You wrote “…the author’s ideas of the art world today seem rooted in tradition more than reality…” Well, yes and no. Certainly I am a lover of tradition, or more precisely, the “tried and true”, but am also equally a lover of science, or the virtue of understanding reality. We are blessed to have all kinds of new materials and techniques that ought to be used in art (I use a fairly new digital camera and Mac!) The arts world has hardly scratched the surface in the use of, say, stainless steel, titanium, plastics, and electronics.

    Regarding truth, goodness, and beauty, certainly truth is of higher importance than goodness, and goodness is of higher importance than beauty, so an ugly truth has its place.

    I hope that I will take the time to make my next article on the subject better reasoned and more precise in its terminology, so it won’t just be a rant.

  2. TAE says:

    Thanks for commenting; I hope my response didn’t come across too harshly. You just happened to hit upon a subject I’m very passionate about!

    My own sentiment has been, in the past, that the highest goal of art was to glorify God. I don’t hold to this any longer because I believe the highest goal of humanity is to glorify God, which of course includes the arts. I also believe that works of art created by non-believers, with no intent to honor God, can honor God. Not always, and the degree and the how we probably can’t know. But all people are created in the image of God; all of creation is fallen but the rocks still cry out.

  3. No problem! I enjoyed your comments.

    The “meeting of the minds”, and bouncing ideas around is one of the joys of the Internet.

  4. Brian Miles says:

    Hello TAE:

    I have some thoughts in response to a question you posed:

    “Who decides what “beauty” is?”

    If you would like to read a remarkably thoughtful and thorough treatment of the undeniable objectivity of beauty–as opposed to mere sentiments of preference–do read the first chapter of C.S. Lewis’ *The Abolition of Man*. There, for instance, Lewis notes: “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it–believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could *merit*, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.” Thus, in describing the beauty of a waterfall Lewis explains: “The man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it; he was also claiming that the object was one which *merited* those emotions.” And as another example he goes on to note “that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply a record of psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which *demands* a certain response from us whether we make it or not.” The key for Lewis is simply this: “Certain attitudes are really true, and others are really false…No emotion is, in itself, a judgment, in that sense all emotions are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform.” Here, I have presented only Lewis’ views; please read the whole text if you want to see how he proves it. Or, if you don’t want to take Lewis’ word for it on this matter, I also recommend to you an essay by Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., entitled: “On the Origin of Beauty: A Platonic Dialogue”. There, the good poet begins to explain to his interlocutors—in a more systematic approach than Lewis—some of the objective qualities of beauty.

    But enough with written analysis already, let’s look at some examples.

    For instance:

    -Is this…

    http://www.cop.ufl.edu/safezone/pat/symp99/cathedral.htm

    …more or less beautiful that this?

    -Or is this…

    …more or less beautiful than this?

    If you opted for the former in any of the following cases, you are not a snob, but are in fact correct. If you opted for the latter in any of the following cases you are not only wrong, but also have disordered tastes.

    We should not be afraid of making value judgments concerning beauty. Lewis already has us on this point as well: “A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) ‘sentimental’ values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process.” In the minds of those who assume that all beauty is subjective, I would be considered inferior (i.e. snobbish or elitist) because I fail to hold the position that there are *no* objective criteria that can be used to weigh the merits of one work of art against another. This is simply not the case.

  5. TAE says:

    I believe there are guidelines from which we can deduce the Divine idea of beaty, I’m just not yet convinced we, in our humanity, are able to define them. Your comment is well-spoken and very appreciated! I’ve read lot of Lewis, but not what you reference. My wife may have that book; I’ll have to check.

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