Book Review: Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, by H.R. Rookmaaker

I’ll begin this review where I ended a couple posts ago. If you are a Christian who enjoys art, or perhaps wants to learn more about it, or if you’ve got a mean artistic skill set that yearns to be used to promote the glory of God, then I insist that you read Modern Art and the Death of a Culture by H.R. Rookmaaker. Generally speaking, the art, music, and literature of the Church today have tended towards the same consumer-driven forgetableness as the world’s, which is a real shame considering the great despair that pervades contemporary art and the subsequent opportunity for the Church to speak with a powerful voice. To Rookmaaker’s credit, however, he doesn’t spend much time bemoaning the state of Christian art, but instead puts forth a framework in which the Church can recover her artistic self and become influential once again. And all this from a Dutch Calvinist perspective.

The book is roughly divided into three sections. The first explains the development of artistic ideals from the Renaissance to modernism, and the second more thoroughly explains modernism itself. In the third section Rookmaaker outlines how the Church should think about and interact with modern art and argues for the importance of the Church as a major artistic force.

The first part of the book reads something like a history of art, but with an emphasis on the various philosophies of the artists. Rookmaaker shows how the prevailing ideas of an era directly impacted the art that was produced during that time, so this section also doubles as a rough history of philosophy. More specifically, he documents how the changing winds of faith and spirituality changed the way people thought about and made art. He does this by analyzing a select number of representative works from each era, but only briefly, and only to show their significance as steps towards modern art.

The most important development, the point at which artists began painting in a new direction, was during that period of time which we now call the Enlightenment. I took a course in literary criticism during my B.A., and my teacher was fond of saying that during the Enlightenment “they kicked God upstairs.” What she meant was that faith began to be seen as a private thing, that in the public and intellectual affairs of men God became irrelevant. What mattered was the real world around us, not that whimsy-flimsy faith business that men of weak mind depended upon. No, a real man trusted what his senses told him and left Christianity for the women and children.

Goya, The Execution of the Spaniards by the French

The effect on art was to downplay the heady and highminded themes of previous eras, themes like like purity, judgment, atonement, virtue, etc., that were drawn from Scripture and the classics, and to bring art literally down to earth. There were a lot fewer crucifixions and a lot more landscapes, and paintings such as Goya’s The Execution of the Spaniards by the French simply depicted the reality of an execution, in the same way a photograph would. It was all about “real life.”

This movement of realism in art began an intense search by artists for what was truly real, and how we can know exactly that something is real. It led to the next major movement, Impressionism. Artists within this movement, such as Monet and van Gogh, painted from the conviction that the only reality was sensation itself; our senses did not inform us about the real world, they were the real world. Art became further removed from God and further internalized within the hearts and minds of men. But still, like the dwarves of Moria, artists mined deeper yet hoping to find some sort of meaning, some sort of shared universal concept that could define human existence.

What followed after Impressionism was what Rookmaaker calls “the final steps to modern art.” God and spirituality were long gone, and it was only a matter of time before artists took this to its logical end and removed humanity as well. Instead, they began painting abstractions with the goal of uncovering the general structure behind reality, hoping at last to find meaning there. But the attempt was futile; they could find no such structure. Art had reached a dead end. There was no God, no man, no reality, no meaning.

Picasso, Nude

The first artist to fully realize this was Picasso, whose earlier paintings still tried in some way to depict reality, but who came to the conclusion that there was no reality to be found anywhere. He had reached the dead end and simply embraced what he found there. Everything was pointless and absurd, without content or design. His Nude in 1909 marked the dawn of modern art, a truly atheistic movement that had no purpose but to express purposelessness. It was the fully developed spawn of the Enlightenment, when men, upon building an intellectual tower of Babel, reached the top and found nothing but a great, meaningless void all around them.

You can see now why Rookmaaker argues for a renewed artistic fervour within the Church. Although modern art during the early 20th century was made and appreciated by only a small fraction of the population, its principles since then have come to dominate the art world, as well as our cities, products, and advertisements. Every artistic movement of the 20th century, from Dada to surrealism to pop art, was simply the outworking of the principles of modern art. Efficiency, simplicity, and minimalism dominate the world of design, and these concepts have also arisen from the same source. That is not to say that these things are evil in themselves; it is only to show how complete the victory of modern art has been. In one section of the book Rookmaaker begins a series of paragraphs with the statement, “modern art has won the battle,” driving home his point.

So the Church stands tall over what the modernist poet T.S. Eliot called “The Wasteland.” The world has not only embraced the designs of modernism, but its philosophy as well. The Church, then, must speak with a powerful voice into this wasteland, calling sinners from their self-created prison of meaninglessness into the fulness of the good, true, and beautiful life in Christ. But the Church, Rookmaaker argues, has neglected her task:

“Much of the protest of today’s generation is justifiable. But why did not Christians protest long ago? Why were we not hungering and thirsting for righteousness, helping the oppressed and poor? To look at modern art is to look at the fruit of the spirit of the avant-garde: it is they who are ahead in building a view of the world with no God, no norms. Yet is this so because Christians long since left the field to the world, and, in a kind of mystical retreat from the world, condemned the arts as worldly, almost sinful? Indeed, nowhere is culture more ‘unsalted’ than precisely in the field of the arts – and that in a time when the arts (in the widest sense) are gaining a stronger influence than ever through the mass communications” (p. 222).

The Church, Rookmaaker writes, must re-establish herself in the world of the arts, for the doctrines of Jesus Christ are the only true foundation for art that exists. Modern art has made this abundantly clear. But, he continues, in order for this to happen, the Church must rediscover its orthodoxy. It must repent of its sins of liberalism, of demythologizing the Bible, and once again embrace the life of vulnerability and sacrifice demonstrated for us by Christ. This isn’t true for Christians everywhere, of course, as he holds that there are indeed pockets of orthodoxy scattered throughout our culture. But for the Church in general, the Church that the world largely sees and knows, she must renounce her compromises with the world and once again hold fast to pure, sound doctrine.

Once these doctrinal lines have been clearly drawn, only then can the Church develop a truly satisfying foundation for art and make her presence known in that field again. It will be an art that flows from a knowledge of the reality of God’s creation, from a life lived joyously within His ordered universe. When man knows himself to be created in the image of the living God and redeemed from his sinful nature through the cross of Christ, and when he abides in the uplifting wisdom of Philippians 4:8; then he can recover a lasting and productive basis for creativity, a source of everlasting artistic delight. Rookmaaker does not provide a detailed philosophy of Christian art, but only sketches the outlines. In fact, he holds that the state of the contemporary Church (1970 for him) is such that an artistic revival is not possible. The Church is simply too immature. He claims that only once there is true revival in the Church, and likely a generation after that yet, will artistic maturity arrive.

The situation today in many respects has not changed. There has not been a profound and widespread revival in Western Christianity. The arts are more deranged and unhinged than they’ve ever been, with the world swiftly following suit. Yet for true believers there is enormous potential. Rookmaaker’s book is much more rich than I’ve been able to describe here, as long as this review is. There are sections of the book that I have not touched on, like his explanation of how the specific attributes mentioned in Philippians 4:8 apply to art. But, as he says, we live in exciting times. The path of response to the world remains mostly uncharted territory, which means there’s plenty of imaginative exploring ahead for Christians in the arts. This book is an excellent place to begin.


One thought on “Book Review: Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, by H.R. Rookmaaker

  1. Pingback: The Sense of the Beautiful | Arenda Reads

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