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The Message of the Most Holy: The Christian Philosophy of Art

By Ingrid Dahl
August 01, 1999

One of the most difficult subjects to draw is the human face. Of course, I didn't learn that until after I tried drawing it. My art teacher specialized in portraits and encouraged me to follow suit. I did, but my first few pictures taught me more patience than technique. My family tried to encourage me, "If you cross your eyes and cock your head it kind of looks like. . . ." My Mom insisted that I needed to "capture the look," in other words, make my drawings look like a particular person instead of an organized collection of facial features. I adamantly insisted it could not be done until my teacher took a pencil, sketchpad, and five minutes to prove me wrong. He actually made my brother appear on the page. Instructed by his careful hand, I eventually learned to make my drawings look human. I learned to "capture the look," to trap a bit of reality on my page.

Modern Art and Self-Expression
In contrast to "modern art" my teachers told me, "draw what you see, don't draw what you know." They knew that if I relied on my imagination, or mental images, I would produce distorted images. They taught me to look at the objective reference in creation and reflect it in my drawings. Modern art, however, has adopted "expression" as its aesthetic philosophy. It has denied the authority of reality and made the artist's autonomous imaginings the goal of artistic expression. The philosophy of expression is the art theory that says, "there are no laws, art is an `expression' of yourself, and thus can be whatever you make it to be." Where my teachers stressed copying reality, modern art stresses creating it, allowing the artist to become his own god and the shaper of a purely subjective reality. Rushdoony pointed out that "basic to the modern perspective in the arts is a reduction of meaning to something purely subjective." He noted that because of this subjectivity modern art has increasingly separated itself from reality and thus "continually seeks new ways of saying nothing."1

Because it must deny the authority of an objective reference to maintain the philosophy of expression, modern art encourages the artist to define aesthetic value for himself. Beauty and order are thus placed at the mercy of the artist's subjectivity. If a work "expresses," it is art. No other criterion is allowed to intrude upon its autonomy.

When we were little, my sister and I used to play with water colors. Once, one of us put two lines on the page in no particular direction and said, "Look Mom, you could hang this in a museum and call it modern art." She agreed, but hung it on the refrigerator instead.

Evidenced by what is produced as modern art, expression reduces art to the autonomous wanderings of fallen man, who, in his hatred of God, rebels against the created order and tends toward chaos. When art that denies God ceases to borrow order and beauty from Him, forthrightly declaring autonomous expression its mode of operation, it inevitably loses order and becomes chaotic.

Expressional art denies the true basis for all reality — God the Creator — telling the artist he, too, is a creator who "creates himself."2 He thus creates a pseudo reality out of his own depravity. Self-expression is an expression of evil: "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked . . ." (Jer. 17:9) and ". . . an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth that which is evil" (Lk. 6:45).

According to Wesley Hurd, "Modern artists like Picasso tell us: `the important thing is to create. Nothing else matters; creation is all' . . . for many contemporary artists to make art is to be God-like, to be free from all constraints, and to create and define reality for themselves according to their own autonomous desires."3

Picasso's creation theory was his way of affirming his allegiance to modern self-expression. He did not want to depict the creation of God; he wanted to make himself the standard for a new creation. Dr. Van Til, commenting on unbelieving philosophers said, "They try to make the world what it isn't."4 Expression is the artistic philosophy of the humanist, who shapes his life around denying the true God.

Expression is not the Christian philosophy of art. The Christian artist will recognize that true art is first a depiction of divinely defined reality, and second a mode of communicating truth.

Christian Art and Depiction
Man, made in the image of God, is by nature an artist. But artists do not create as God did, ex nihilo. Instead, they take the elements He has made and arrange them into a representation of life. They make new combinations out of existing components. True art is thus a depiction of true reality. It explores God's handiwork, both earthly and heavenly, and portrays it in its medium. The philosophy of depiction treats art as a highlighter that sweeps across a piece of creation, grabbing our attention and directing it there. Wesley Hurd applauded Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt because "they are realistic . . . they exhibit at least something common sensical recognizable in their depiction of the subject matter."5 True art depicts God's work Biblically, historically, and materially and acts as a lens that focuses the eye on some aspect of His work. Depiction, as an artistic philosophy, recognizes the absolutes in God's creation as the external standard of order, reality, and beauty and seeks to build on these through its art. Depiction, then, must presume an order outside itself. It must recognize God as the author and standard of order and beauty.

Christian Art and Communication
Beyond depiction, art is a form of communication. Rushdoony said, "Art is a theological exercise and . . . most certainly a form of communication."6 A work of art will inevitably carry meaning beyond the raw materials of the medium used to assemble it. It is the embodiment of a message. It says something to those who come into contact with it. Christian artistic philosophy will thus see art as a vehicle of truth. No clearer was this made to me than through my training in chalk art.

After my brief career as a portrait artist, I decided to try chalk. It couldn't be any worse than trying to draw people, I reasoned. But having been spoiled on the sharp point of a pencil, I found chalk to be about as precise as a five-year-old with finger paints; so much for progressing as an artist. But what chalk art training did provide was an emphasis on the ability of art to communicate a Biblical message. (It is also a medium that alters the appearance of the artists themselves. When the same hand that applies chalk to a picture is used to wipe a face it creates quite an effect.) A chalk presentation usually includes a spoken message (i.e., preaching or storytelling) that is complemented by a picture, drawn before the eyes of the audience, illustrating an aspect of the spoken message. What separates chalk art from other mediums is that it is built entirely around communicating the gospel. It focuses the artist on capturing an aspect of God's truth in his picture, and teaches him to use the communicating power of art to promote Biblical precepts. I am not saying that all art, in order to be godly, must be evangelistic. Art can and should communicate about the totality of life and truth. What a medium specifically devoted to evangelism demonstrates is the communicative ability and purpose of art. Communication is thus the second half of a Christian philosophy of art. Scripture says "everything that has breath" should praise the Lord. That includes the artist, whose work, representing the character of God displayed in the created order, is a declaration of praise to Him.

Depiction vs. Expression
A Christian philosophy of art will view art as depiction rather than expression. It will see art as framing an aspect of God's creation rather than creating the artist's own reality. The believer recognizes that his art is an imitation of God's creation, an attempt to capture a piece of His handiwork in the art form. The unbeliever, under the guise of self-expression, makes a mockery of God's creation by perverting it with an "expression" of his own depravity.

Expressional art works to deny the objectivity of reality and any order outside itself. It refuses to admit that God is the author and founder of beauty. Its products will thus fail to represent recognizable subjects and will end up in chaotic nothingness, preserving only its autonomous expression. Historian and critic Allen Leepa saw this as artistic failure: "When art fails to mirror life it fails as art."7

Expressional art finds itself in a constant struggle to recreate reality. Depictive art, however, will strive to represent reality in accordance with the law of God.

When the children of Israel gathered together and crafted the golden calf, they were acting as artists. The golden calf was a form of art. It was self-expressive art. They crafted an emblem of worship after the wickedness of their own hearts and not according to the stipulations of God. God later called gifted artisans, blessed them with skill and knowledge, and set before them the task of sculpting the intricate designs of their center of worship. He did not allow them to meddle with the design, only to work according to His description. As a result, their work became a rendition of the heavenly throne room (Heb. 8:5) and they communicated through types the redemptive plan of God. At the foot of Mt. Sinai, the Israelites tried a self-expressive form of art and brought upon themselves the wrath of God. The art of the temple was a pictoral forerunner of Christ, a depiction of the majesty of God.

Communication vs. Expression
Christian artistic philosophy sees art as a communication of the message of God rather than an expression of the artist. Expressional art turns away from communication because it rejects God and thus rejects absolutes and order. Expression is the art of confusion. Rejecting order, it testifies of nothing but chaos. Communication, the transfer of ideas, implies absolutes, order, and truth. It implies God. God-haters try to make art into self-expression because it removes the necessity for external standards and allows the artist to deny God and create his own reality.

Expression has intruded not only upon the fine arts, but on the performing arts as well. There's a trend in the theater that has even allowed the performers to slash themselves with sharp objects and suspend blood-soaked rags over the audience, calling this "artistic expression." But who can say that it isn't? Once they abandon an artistic law outside themselves, their expression becomes law. If expression rules the theater they can perform anything and call it art. Expression also invades music. Different "styles," no matter how cacophonous, are now judged only on preference and not by the laws God has built into musical composition. When the artist is expected to express, and not communicate, governing absolutes can be abandoned. Imagine if we tried to do math problems on the same premise. It is obviously absurd to apply arbitrary expression to mathematics, and should strike us as equally absurd to allow it in art.

Rushdoony said that "the hostility of the modern artist to communication is intense." He pointed out that "the attitude of the modern artist is `choose your own meaning.'"8 Rejecting external absolutes, expressional art sacrifices any possibility of communicating. Expressional art cannot communicate unless, as Dr. Van Til often observed, it denies its own philosophy and borrows the artistic philosophy of the Christian. "Having no objective standard, it is incapable of maintaining one internally or artistically. By its radical subjectivity it denies communication in favor of expression and thus cannot maintain continuity."9 Christian art communicates. Humanistic art expresses. Communicative art assumes order. Expressional art denies it. No more stunning is this contrast than in the comparison of the music of Bach or Handel to what is known today as "hard rock" or "heavy metal." The former is a dynamic, but ordered, assembly of musical components, the latter a random collection of noise. Contemporary music is steadily abandoning the use of musical principles, like rhythm and harmony, in its relentless plunge toward total autonomous expression.

Conclusion
Christians should not casually adopt the philosophy of expression, but should recognize it as an intrusion of the unbelieving world on the arts. The philosophy of expression demonstrates an attempt at consistent atheism: a rejection of God and His universal order. Art in its true form is not meant to be an expression of the artist, but a glorification of God. In his perversion man uses it in his attempt to be his own god, expressing the wickedness bound up in his heart. Art is a tool for the Christian to communicate truth to the culture. It represents our drive to follow in the Creator's footsteps. It should be used to depict the beautiful graciousness of His creation, not turned into an unchecked outlet for the expression of sin. The Christian artist is called to depict the majesty of the Creator and communicate the message of the Most Holy.

Notes

1. R. J. Rushdoony, The Meaning and Greatness of Christian Art, 1993, www.ArtsReformation.com.

2. Burne Hogarth, Drawing Dynamic Hands (New York, 1988), 9.

3. R. Wesley Hurd, Art and Modern Art: Reflections from a Human Being, www.ArtsReformation.com.

4. Dr. Cornelius Van Til, Philosophy: Church Fathers, Covenant Media Foundation, tape 5.

5. Hurd, ibid.

6. R. J. Rushdoony, Art: Christian and Non-Christian, 1996, www.ArtsReformation.com.

7. Allen Leepa, as quoted by Wesley Hurd in Art and Modern Art.

8. R. J. Rushdoony, Art: Christian and Non-Christian.

9. Idem., The Meaning and Greatness of Christian Art.


Topics: Culture , Education, Media / Arts, Philosophy, Theology

Ingrid Dahl

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