On Aesthetic

One thing that’s obviously on my mind a lot, as a community art and theater major, is art. More specifically, why do I like art? What kind of art do I like? Why is that important to me?

I’m a writer, and have been for as long as I can remember. To me, writing is a type of art that uses words to paint stories and pictures in our minds. I believe that words hold the power to create worlds and change worlds. And, in that way, writing is a form of art.

However, if my classes, discussions, solo field trips, and journal entries have taught me anything, it’s this: There are no words I could possibly share that would touch the soul in the exact same way that art does. And that’s not because words don’t also have the power to be beautiful, hopeful, ugly, shocking, or vivid. It’s merely because there is a part of our brain that is stimulated by visual sight, and taking in words can’t tickle that section of the brain in quite the same way a painting, sculpture, or piece of theater does.

But if we accept that there are certain types of art that must remain visual, in order to stimulate that section of our brain and touch us in ways that novels and theses never can, we must also accept that different types of visual art stimulate and affect us in different ways. And therein lies the question: What kind of art is good art?

My experience, especially among Christian circles, has been the view that art must reflect the beauty and glory of God and His created world. Christians are very quick to praise the work of Impressionists, Hudson River School painters, and the always docile Kinkade. We love these painters because they created worlds of unrivaled beauty and wonder. Who doesn’t see the hand of God in the mist of a stunning waterfall, the curve of a ballerina’s foot, or the parasols on the French Riviera? I’ll be the first to admit that I love to stand and look at Impressionist paintings up close. I’ve seen the works of Monet and Degas face to face, and I’ve waited in line for hours to catch a glimpse at the portraits and sunflowers of Van Gogh. There is so much beautiful art to be seen and appreciated, and I really do want to take in all of it.

But even if we did soak in all the “pretty art” of the world–trek to every foreign country and private gallery salon to see it–we still have to stop and ask ourselves if perhaps we have only witnessed half of what art, and human existence, reveals itself to actually be.

The problem is this: We view art as being purely aesthetic. We have our tastes, preferences, and favorites. Who doesn’t? When we are conditioned to view art as something pretty, meant for our enjoyment and culture, why would we not turn a blind eye to the pieces we don’t understand or like?

I don’t think this reality in any way indicates that Christians are blind to the needs of the world or indifferent to the suffering of others. On the contrary, it has been my experience that many Christians are the first to react to the injustice found around them. But why does the Christian’s acceptance that the world is broken and hurting stop short when it comes face to face with art? Why do we insist that art must “be pretty” and “reflect Jesus’ light” and “remind us of pleasant things”, when there is so much ugliness and darkness and unpleasantness around us?

In my opinion, this comes down to a mistaken understanding of what art is. In the Christian world, art has generally been placed into one of two categories: frivolity or history. We can admire art for the way it has changed over time and the different beautiful works artists have created through the years, but it retains its museum status even in the 21st Century, because we are unwilling to accept the fact that imperfect, honest art is creeping up all around us.

The Bible doesn’t have much to say about visual art. Ancient Israelites are warned about the worship of carved images, but the emphasis on visual creatures seems only unacceptable in a worship context. However, if we think back on the conclusions I made in the beginning of this post about how writing can be a form of art, then the Scriptures come alive with poetry, song, and meditations–not even half of which are “pretty”.

In the Book of Psalms, David and other poets pour out their hearts to God with visual images calling to mind drought, famine, war, death, and solitude. They express the full nakedness of their souls’ conditions, and plead for drops of living water. In Psalm 22, David cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” Sound familiar? That’s because Christ quoted those very words as He died, stretched out on a cross and completely abandoned by His heavenly Father and many of His earthly friends.

Now take a look at this painting by a Jewish painter named Marc Chagall. And let me warn you–it’s not pretty.

Chagall painted this portrait of Christ’s crucifixion in 1938–in spite of the fact that he wasn’t a Christian. But as a Russian-French artist who visited Europe during the pre-World War II killings of Jews in his native country, Chagall was struck to the soul, just like David, and could not understand why God–and Christians–were forsaking him. In this painting, Christ is crucified again as His people are killed, burned, and scattered across Europe during the mid-20th Century.

Another painting that I think should be viewed and talked about by every Christian who cares about art is “Die” by Faith Ringgold, painted in 1967.

Believe it or not, this painting is just one of many in a series Faith (an African-American artist also working in the mid-20th Century) entitled “The American People”. ┬áThis painting highlights the violence and brutality of the Civil Rights era, as both black and white Americans battled with each other and our nation was split and hurting. The power of this image is that not only does this reflect one African-American woman’s perspective on what was happening to the people around her, but it also gives 21st Century Americans (and Christians) a slap in the face as we recognize how little has changed in almost fifty years.

I’ve only shown two pieces of art today and believe me, I could show twenty or thirty more. But my goal in writing this is to remind Christians that yes, some art is meant to be beautiful. I hope that we can always find joy and peace in the sunflowers of Van Gogh and the waterlilies of Monet. But there is more art out there that could really change us if we allowed ourselves to experience and think about it. How are we, like the Christians in the 1930′s and 40′s, ignorant to the pain and suffering of minority groups all over our world? How are we, just like the Christians in the 1960′s, blind to the injustices of racism in America today? How can this art be used, not as enjoyment, but as prophecy?

The writers of the Psalms used art as a way of expressing the beauty, pain, suffering, joy, and glory they saw in the world around them. And I don’t think our art is a full reflection of God and His created earth until we use our art in all the same ways.

-Rachel

One thought on “On Aesthetic

  1. I remember seeing Chagall’s painting at the Chicago Institute of Art when I was there, and it was one of the paintings that really hit me, mostly because it represented something so…real. The Holocaust was real. It was horrible. It tore apart families, ripped relationships, sent millions of people to heaven or hell…and thank you for this post. It was real.

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