Saturday, May 27, 2006

Art and Ideas

In 2002, a lovely sister in the Lord (for us Protestants that means a fellow believer of the female variety, not a celibate female married to the church and wearing a habit as in the Catholic faith) named Catherine Fetterman, founded a group called the Christian Artist's Circle. I joined the group last summer, and we have since become friends. There are currently three chapters (Leesburg, Manassas, and Central Virginia). Our chapter meets on the first Sunday afternoon here locally in Manassas, and we share our art and discuss heady topics.

This past meeting (May 7th), I had the privilege of leading a discussion. What follows is a recap of my thoughts shared with the group that afternoon. Much of this presentation has been drawn from John Whitehead's DVD presentation titled Grasping for the Wind: Humanity's Search for Meaning. I would also like to thank my friend Amanda Bowles for helping with this recap.

Art and Philosophy in Western Civilization
The intent of my presentation was to show a connection between philosophy (ideas of God and man) and art through the various eras of Western history over the last 500 years. I began by comparing the Renaissance and the Reformation.

The Renaissance
In Western Europe, the Renaissance sprang to life in the 15th century. Artists, philosophers, and prominent thinkers sought a reconnection with classical antiquity, and pursued a fresh rediscovery of knowledge. Earmarked by a resurgence of mathematics, and a quest for scientific knowledge through experimentation, the era experienced new forms of art, poetry and architecture. And the advent of printing made the dissemination of ideas much easier than it had ever been. From the Renaissance, Humanism emerged, with Reason as the central driving force. Primary in the Renaissance movement was a desire to break from the dominance and control of the Church. God, if He even existed, could not be known, and what understanding we might be able to possess, could only come through our own reason.

The Reformation
Juxtaposed against the Renaissance and its ideas, the Reformation emerged in 1517, with Martin Luther's posting of his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenburg Church. Not intending to start a history changing movement, Luther's act nonetheless gave birth to the Protestant Reformation.

Out of the Reformation five essential principles emerged. They are also known as the five solas:

  • Sola Scriptura: by scripture alone
  • Solus Christus: by Christ alone
  • Sola Gratia: by grace alone
  • Sola Fide: by faith alone
  • Sola Deo Gloria: for the glory of God alone
In contrast to the ideas of the Renaissance, the Reformation is characterized by a belief that God can be known, and that in fact He has revealed Himself to us in three primary ways:

  • Through creation
  • Through Scripture
  • Through the incarnation

Among the most potent ideas to spring from the Reformation is the authority of Scripture. In other words, Scriptural knowledge transcends the earthly realm through divine revelation. Because we are not left to our own human reason, but are instead guided by the Scriptures, we can gain a clearer picture of both God and man, and also a better idea of the structure and order of God's creation through a comprehensive Worldview. Likewise, we can begin to grasp a better understanding of God's purpose for us here on earth.

Because of the gift of the Holy Scriptures through divine revelation, those who are found in Christ are on an ever-widening path of relationship and fellowship with God, as well as an ongoing growth in our understanding, all leading to eternal life. In contrast, those who follow the path of human reason find themselves on a downward slope into chaos and confusion, ending ultimately in death and eternal separation from God.

Fruit of the Renaissance
Emerging gradually from the Renaissance, a series of philosophical eras, mirrored by the art of each age, demonstrates the downward direction of the Humanist philosophies of the world.

The Age of Enlightenment
Beginning with the Age of Enlightenment, a time of elevated reason, rationality, ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge, we can track the evolution of Humanist thought in Western culture. Philosophers in this era rejected the Christian faith and the Church—they wanted to create a man-made utopia—and sought to overthrow, not only the king, but authority in general. Characterized by human reason, the Enlightenment is credited with giving birth to the French Revolution, a bloody, carnage-filled time in French history which saw the wholesale murder of priests, and a war on the Catholic Church, as the revolutionaries rebelled against both state and church.

Philosophers of this age include Voltaire (1694-1778), who criticized both the Bible and organized religion and saw the God of Scripture as cruel and homicidal. Also, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), believed and taught that man creates his own truth, that nature is only a biological machine, and that reality can only be experienced by reason.

The Romantic Era
On the heels of the Enlightenment came the Romantic Era, a time when artists and philosophers romanticized nature and sought a return to the primitive. Romantics reacted to the heavy emphasis upon Human Reason from the Enlightenment, and instead focused upon their emotions and feelings. Through this shift, they hoped to capture the essence of life. Romantic era philosophers taught that nature, mysticism, and people are good, but society corrupts them. Like their predecessors, they sought a world without the constraints of religion, family, or church.

Philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), believing that the individual is the center of all things, promoted a freedom from all traditional and religious morality, and taught that the "Noble Savage" is superior to civilized man. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), believed in and promoted the idea that everything meaningful in our lives derives from our will. Our human nature—our instincts—he taught, forces us to live, to breed, to suffer, and to die. Schopenhauer is often described as "the great pessimist!"

Artists of this era include Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827), who wrote his music to promote a faith in the natural goodness of common man, and in the goodness of nature, and Lord Byron (1788-1824), a charming and charismatic writer who believed and taught that there is no difference between good and evil.

The ideas and philosophies of this era gave rise to the Impressionist Movement in art which, born out of the idea of questioned reality, manifested itself in work that was misty or gauzy, with no hard edges. In a world with no absolutes, subjective impressions replaced objective reality. Artists of the Impressionist Era include Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), Paul Gaugin (1848-1903), Claude Monet (1840-1926), and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), whose work Le Moulin de la Galette (above left) characterizes the style of the Impressionist Movement.

The Age of Realism
At the tail end of the Romantic Era, the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear. Life began to be looked at through jaundiced eyes. Pessimism, narcissism, and nihilism emerged as the philosophies of the day.

The most influential thinker of this age was Charles Darwin (1809-1882), author of On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Darwin became the godfather of numerous anti-God movements, and is credited with influencing many including Andrew Carnegie and JD Rockefeller (Industrialists), Karl Marx (father of Communism/Socialism), Francis Galton (promoter of eugenics), Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood and promoter of abortion), and Adolph Hitler (Nazi dictator who promoted the German super-race).

Darwin's primary thesis, "the survival of the fittest," gave legitimacy to the movement of social engineering, and the rise of the power of the state over the individual. Darwin's work brought a renewed faith in science, and provided scientific justification to the desire of men to remove church, Scripture, tradition, and morality from the human equation. Darwin's ideas and writings brought into question the inherent worth and dignity of human beings.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1889-1945) is also recognized as a leading thinker and philosopher of this era. His work, Thus Spake Zarathustra, promoted the idea that "God is dead." Nietzsche taught that power, strength and intelligence are superior to goodness. His purpose was to produce a new race of supermen, and like Darwin, he greatly influenced Adolph Hitler, and the rise of Nazism.

As for musical artists of this era, composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was adamantly anti-Christian and detested teachings on sexual abstinence and virtue. He believed that love was possible only in a sexual context. Wagner's philosophy and music greatly influenced Adolph Hitler, and like the German Führer, he too held strong anti-Semitic views. Some even say that Hitler's extermination camps sprang from his fascination with Wagner.

Nietzsche's influence in the world of music even reaches into our generation. Rocker Jim Morrison (1943-1971) of The Doors fame, a student of Nietzsche’s writings, promoted "sex, drugs, and rock and roll." Morrison died at the age of 27 from a drug overdose, leaving behind a legacy of rebellion and narcissism.

Visual artists spawned by the Age of Realism are referred to as Post Impressionists. Reacting to a world where humanity’s place was now dominated by machines, they saw reality as observed in nature as irrelevant, and viewed power, strength and intelligence as superior to goodness. Their art forms reduced life to essential geometric structures.

Two prominent artists of this era are Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). They are known specifically as Cubists. Picasso's art demonstrated a subtle hostility toward women. One of his most well known works is Mademoiselle D'Avignon (above left). Duchamp's work reflects a narcissistic view of the world as seen in his work completed in 1912 titled Nude Descending a Staircase # 2 (immediate left).

The reach of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and their descendants stretch even into art of recent decades. Of particular note are Edward Hopper (1882-1968) whose work Nighthawks (left) portrays loneliness and isolation, and Andy Warhol (1928-1987) whose familiar work titled Soup Cans (below left) portrays the repetiveness of our modern world.

Wrapping Up
What I have done here is look specifically at art spawned by the philosophies of this world in Western culture. Each of the movements discussed above carried forth a set of ideas, or dogma, which were danced out in color, line, form, note, or sentence. As seen above, the art of each respective era closely paralleled the anti-God philosophies of their age. But a quick look at two examples, one from the Reformation stream, and one from the Humanist stream, should make my thesis abundantly clear.

In 1646, Rembrandt's Adoration of the Shepherds (left) focuses upon the Christ child in the manger, surrounded by the shepherds as told in the gospel of Luke. Rembrandt's works portray life with meaning, and a Divine purpose for human existence. (By the way, feel free to click on any of these images for a larger view).

In stark contrast we find the work of Morton Schamberg (1881-1918), whose sculpture, God (left) produced in 1917, is but a collection of pipe and fittings and speaks of God as impersonal and disconnected, with no personal influence or relationship with humanity. Schamberg's God is inanimate. There are many other examples of this stark contrast in modern art, among them are Francis Bacon’s 1944 Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (click on link to see the image) which speaks of the isolation and despair of humanity. If you take the time to click on the link, you will clearly see the antithesis to the art of Rembrandt.

It is completely appropriate for Christians to appreciate artists and their work from every era and philosophical stream. We can certainly see the God given genius in the men and women who expressed the ideas of their age in these various movements in history. However, it is equally important to understand the deeper meaning beneath the surface reality. What is really being communicated? As Christian artists today, it is imperative for us to have a discerning eye, and a compassionate ear to hear what is being spoken and taught. We must learn to be discerners of ideas, so that we can sort out the good from the bad. How else will we be able to respond with the voice of the Lord in our work?

Our culture is submerged in an array of media. We are continuously bombarded with literature, music, and art of all kinds. Every one communicates ideas. How do these IDEAS affect our lives, moreover, shape our Worldview? What are these IDEAS? Do we recognize them and their source?

Today is not a day for passivity in thought, or spirit. We need to use our minds to think and ponder and also to listen to the Holy Spirit, sorting what we hear through the filter of the Holy Scriptures for deeper understanding and heavenly wisdom. Let us be wise as serpents and yet gentle as doves. There is a war for the hearts of mankind and God wants us to use the vehicle of art to communicate His truth in a form that the world can receive.

It has been statistically shown that people are attending traditional churches less and less. We live in a day when the written and spoken word is having less and less of an influence on people. We are becoming a visual society. We must prayerfully consider how to use the arts to communicate the gospel's message to the up and coming generations.


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