At the Intersection of Art and Total Depravity

If you’ve grown up in a Canadian Reformed household, ingrained with the sort of down-to-earth practicality that gets things done without a whole lot of nonsense, you’ll probably think that modern art is little more than a running joke. I mean, just look at it; it’s stupid and pointless. Even worse, it’s probably made by people who get a kick out of trying to be weird, and there are few things more irksome to decent CanReffers than pretentious nonsense. No doubt there’s a lot of truth to that, too. But while modern art itself has mostly appealed to a small segment of the population, created by and for an intellectual elite, its principles have become dominant in the world we see all around us. We have been trained by these principles to find certain things attractive, and other things not.

For instance, minimalism and simplicity are highly prized and sought after. If you’ve ever driven across Seattle’s Lake Union at night and seen the lit-up cityscape and its reflection on the water, you’ll know that it’s a gorgeous sight. It’s also a sight that’s been designed according the same simplifying and reductive principles found in modern art; it, and all the other skyscraping downtowns we’ve become used to. There are a lot of clean, straight lines and other precise geometric features, like the Space Needle. You definitely won’t see the flying buttresses, carved statues, or elaborate glass-work that beautifully complicate the medieval architecture of Europe. That’s the sort of stuff we call gaudy or tacky these days.

When you are taught to write well, you are told to say the most you can with the fewest words. Back in my music days, I was told the same thing with my bass playing. Less is more. This is evident beyond the arts as well; scientists search for ever smaller particles, thinking that by mining material reality to its roots they’ll discover the Theory of Everything. It’s about stripping things down to the core and somehow finding the little nugget of meaning or beauty that’s there. We may think that putting a single red dot in the middle of a canvas and calling it a painting is stupid, but isn’t that the sort of thing we’re looking for? After all, there’s the implicit assumption in our science, music, writing, and design, that you’ve got to cut away all that superfluous fat and get down to where the action really is. No distractions, no fancy-shmancy gimmicks. In many ways, modern art is very practical, no-nonsense, and businesslike. But wait a second, doesn’t that mean. . . ? Yes. You modern artist, you.

So what is this thing called “modern art;” where did it come from, and what does it mean? I wasn’t thinking of those questions in particular when I searched the CRTS library website for “art;” I simply wanted to learn more about art in general. Nevertheless, I happened to find H.R. Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. Since the title had me at “M,” I drove immediately to the seminary and checked it out. Although it was written in 1970, the book discusses problems in the art world that not only still exist, but have worsened.

Modern art has given since birth to its infernal offspring, postmodern art. Today, “art” means dunking a crucifix in a bowl of the artist’s urine, arranging some combination of bodily fluids on a canvas, or anything else that shocks and offends the viewer. It’s wretched, blasphemous, and, artistically speaking, the most dull and unimaginative art men have ever created. You’ll find more genuine human feeling and insight in prehistoric cave art than you will in a contemporary gallery. So how, then, should Christians respond to the sickening embarrassment that is postmodern art? How should we think about it, and how can we create art that displays and magnifies Christ’s kingship everywhere, even in the world of art? I’ll be posting a more full review of Rookmaaker’s book in the future, but I will say that if these questions at all interest you, then you will love this book.

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