22 May 2006

A renewed Christian aesthetic

Taking off from my comment on the previous post regarding the nudity of Christ in art, I went looking for a reference to the book I'd seen once, where I learned that fact about all the Renaissance paintings making a big deal about baby Jesus's "manhood." I found what I was looking for: this excellent article not only summarizes the content of the book (Leo Steinberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and In Modern Oblivion), but also fits in very well with the theme of this blog.

In concluding the article "Naked Christs and Balaam's Ass," author Joshua S. Anderson proposes three elements in a renewed Christian aesthetic: "First, we must produce art that is both theologically orthodox and Biblically offensive—that respects the historical boundaries of Christian belief, while authentically interacting with the text, and not veering away from the difficult parts of Scripture. An example is Barry Moser’s illustrations of the King James Bible, which includes portraits of the aftermath of the rape of Tamar, a detailed study of the Angel of Death, and a portrait of the graphic death of Absalom. This is not to discount Psalm 23 depictions of the good shepherd. The 'gentle' parts of scripture must not be neglected, but rather balanced—for the Bible is not a Disney cartoon, and it is both deeply unbiblical, and theologically dangerous, to treat it as though it were. Second, Christian art should be aesthetically excellent. There seems to be an unwritten rule that if a Christian paints a picture of Jesus, we should not criticize it, no matter how awfully it is done. This is shameful—Christ has redeemed all spheres of life, and Christian artwork should be held to higher artistic standards, not lower. As in all of life, the quality of Christian art is significant, because its quality glorifies its ultimate Creator. Finally, Christian artwork should be radically unsentimental. We must paint new paintings, find new metaphors (or, as Steinberg shows, rediscover old ones) to reflect the symphony of the Christian story. Indeed, the main act of Christian art must be to hold our hands to the flame, to reveal again, as if for the first time, the wonder and strangeness of the scriptural narrative as it sings the beautiful, and terrible, tale of the reckless love of God. For when we delight in the story—as we plumb its mysterious depths, laugh at its jokes, sigh at its tragedies, and celebrate its triumphs—we bring glory to the ultimate Storyteller. This, in the end, is the work of Christian art—to faithfully and excellently tell the story of God’s continuing work, in order to better glorify Him."

The whole article is worth reading. Anderson also takes on Andres Serrano's offensive work "Piss Christ" with a new twist that makes me respect it as a work of art, whereas before I'd been appalled that anyone would do such a thing. (Actually, to be honest, I had heard someone else give a similar response to the work a year or so ago, so this isn't the first time I've considered it in a new light.)


Iambic Admonit said...

Is there a current Christian aesthetic which needs to be renewed or replaced? If so, what is it? Is there ever just one Christian aesthetic in a given time period? We talk about the complexity of the Baroque period, the balance of ancient Classicism, etc., but aren’t there always as many aesthetics as there are artists? So is there now one aesthetic among Christian artists? If so, and assuming we can define it, do we need a new one? Or, put another way, doesn’t each artist always need to make a fresh aesthetic for him/herself? I think we’ve talked before about how works of art, to be great, need to be somewhat new. So wouldn’t it follow that they were created from a new aesthetic? Hum, maybe not, because the philosophy could include radical originality as one of its points. But if we were to set forth a new, or renewed, aesthetic, let me consider the three points of Anderson’s article, as to whether they are good, and new, and Christian.
1. Christian art should be both theologically orthodox and Biblically offensive
2. Christian art should be aesthetically excellent
3. Christian artwork should be radically unsentimental
On point #1. theologically orthodox, absolutely. And this is a point which I see lost in much contemporary “Christian” art. Many writers, especially, seem to think that “faith” (ah, that lovely, enormous, amorphous word!) is enough—any kind of faith, faith in anything. Talking about God passes for Christianity, no matter what the doctrine or lifestyle of the characters. This is not orthodox; doctrine matters. I affirm the reinclusion of theological orthodoxy as a prerequisite for considering a work Christian. Biblically offensive? That seems more personal. One artist may choose to make a soft, lovely, encouraging work—but that would violate Anderson’s third point. Hum. But I’m not convinced that art should be about rape, death, violence, etc. I think it could be both paradisiacal and radically unsentimental. Right? Think about Paradiso, think about the Edenic passages of Paradise Lost. Yet there is more than one kind of offense. The Scripture tells us that the Gospel will be offensive. And I suppose the affirmation of exclusive marital sexuality in Milton could be offensive to contemporary culture, just as his affirmation of the beauty of sex could have been offensive to his own! So, while I am cautious about this point, thinking artists are more likely to go too far in being offensive than the reverse, some artists (such as Barry Moser) can go for it, within theological and moral boundaries.
Aesthetically excellent? Absolutely. No question. Which probably excludes anything purely sentimental, anyway. Goodbye, Helen Steiner Rice. Goodbye, praise choruses (oops, that’s fodder for a different conversation!)
But while sentimentality is perhaps easily excluded by the “intelligentsia,” it seems incredibly popular. Sticky, sappy, disgusting sugar-coated sentimentality makes big bucks. I’m in Borders while I write this, and if I were to wander over to the gift section, I’d see plenty of high-fructose-corn-syrup-style poetry and gift books and self-help guides. Christian bookstores, pardon me, are even worse. So how to be Biblical, offensive, excellent, non-sentimental, and relevant? Or is this renewed aesthetic intended to be elitist, too, not just by doctrine but by education? (see a brief discussion of self-education below, under the “nudity in art” conversation.

Iambic Admonit said...

Is nudity in art always obscene?
No. I do not believe so. I cannot clearly draw a line of when it’s OK and when it’s not: one Supreme Court Justice, in a ruling on pornography, said something to the effect of “I can’t give you a definition, but I know it when I see it.” I suppose a rule could be, if its intention and result is sensual or sexual arousal, it’s bad; if its intent and result is sensoryarousal, it’s fine. One should be stirred and moved by beauty, again: ...boys and girls, pale from the imagined love / Of solitary beds... pressed at midnight in some public place / Live lips upon a plummet-measured face....Have you read My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok? The young Orthodox Jewish boy in the story is born with a divine gift of painting; he cannot help painting, and his works are masterful. He has to face the difficulty of painting from nude models, even though that is against his faith. The book does not solve the dilemma, just presents it and goes on, from his “negative capability,” I guess.

About the Picasso quote: “Art is never pure, we should keep it far away from the innocent ignorant. We should never let people approach. Yes, art is dangerous. If it is pure it is not art.” Wow, tough question. I disagree. I think all people should approach art. But I do not think that they should remain ignorant. I think anyone who wants to live with art should study it, read about it, talk to knowledgeable artists and scholars, and develop intelligent opinions. Otherwise we have people quoting “Now is the winter of our discontent” without “…made glorious summer by this Son of York” and “If music be the food of love, play on” without “…that, surfeiting, it may so die”! and other atrocities. But seriously, those are not egregious sins. Does anyone have an example of a very dangerous misunderstanding and misuse of art to share here?

Oh, and I also think art can be pure, to the extent that it is offered to God and the artist’s motives are pure. Think of Herbert. Although he himself would have been the first to condemn his work as skillful, tricksy works of craft rather than honest, heartfelt statements—but he would have said so in a skillful, crafty way, as indeed he often did!

Rosie Perera said...

By "Biblically offensive" art, I'm not sure Anderson was talking about including rape, death, and violence. I think he meant something more along the lines of the "scandal of the cross."

Good critique of whether there's a need for a renewed Christian aesthetic at all, though. I'll probably have more to say about elitism and art once I finish Tolstoy's What Is Art?

I've read The Gift of Asher Lev but not yet My Name is Asher Lev. I want to read that someday, as well as The Chosen, also by Chaim Potok.

Regarding dangerous misuses of art/literature, people quote the Bible out of context all the time. The most egregious and common example I can think of off the top of my head is "money is the root of all evil." The actual quote is "the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil." (1 Tim 6:10, NIV)

Here's a whole thread discussing quotes taken out of context, which includes many literary/poetic ones (from The Volokh Conspiracy blog): "Careful With That Quote"

There is also this book you might want to look at:
Boller, Paul F.; George, John. They never said it: a book of fake quotes, misquotes, and misleading attributions. New York: Oxford University Press; 1989.