If you’ve ever looked at some abstract concept piece and wondered, “How exactly is that art?” you’ll enjoy this video of abstract artist Arno Coenen trying to explain to his father how his brewing beer can be considered a museum-worthy project.
I have to give Arno credit for having the courage to allows his parent to expose him as a poseur. When dad points out that his son has been brewing beer since high school and yet this is the first time he’s tried to pass it off as “art,” you realize that the younger Coenen is not just artistically uninspired, he’s downright lazy. Passing off an old hobby as a new and exciting piece of art is just lame.
But, of course, that it is the way of most contemporary visual art. Remember five years ago when 500 arts specialists in Britain agreed that the single most important work of art in the twentieth century was Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”?
Now for most people, the selection of a urinal over the works of such artists as Picasso or Matisse might have come as a bit of a shock. But as art expert Simon Wilson said at the time, “it reflects the dynamic nature of art today and the idea that the creative process that goes into a work of art is the most important thing – the work itself can be made of anything and can take any form.” [emphasis added]
Wilson’s comment echoes a remark made in 1974 by New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer:
Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory. And given the nature of our intellectual commerce with works of art, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial—the means by which our experience of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify.
In The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe writes that after reading Kramer’s innocuous comment he “experienced a flash known as the Aha! phenomenon, and the buried life of contemporary art was revealed to me for the first time.”
What I saw before me was the critic-in-chief of The New York Times saying: In looking at a painting today, “to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial.” I read it again. It didn’t say “something helpful” or “enriching” or even “extremely valuable.” No, the word was crucial.
In short: frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.
To the untrained eye, Duchamp’s “Fountain” looks like nothing more than a discarded urinal with a name painted on the side and Coenen’s “Eurotrash Hell” just a bad microbrew left behind in the museum after a homeless patron’s lunch. But once we know the theory behind the pieces (re: associating art with non-art subverts the traditional bourgeois artistic values) we can recognize that the creative process is the important thing. It won’t help us to appreciate the “art work”—it is, after all, still a discarded urinal, still a cheap brew—but it will allow us to appear sophisticated and “in the know.” Definitely not bourgeois.
And so this is the situation we find ourselves in at the beginning of the twenty-first century: contemporary art is mostly comprised of theory-laden nonsense.
But this depressing state of affairs offers a unique opportunity for Christians. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Daniel Henniger once lamented, the cultural values of the twentieth century included “discordance, challenge, collision, violation, confusion.”
“This is wholly out of sync with what people want or need in the current age,” adds Henniger, who argues that what we need in this age of global terrorism is “respite.”
If this is truly what is needed then it should be Christians who take the lead. After all, who is better equipped to offer the world a glimpse of true respite than those who can say with Augustine, “for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee”?
But for Christians to salvage the visual arts we first must recognize the importance of art in creation. We must recognize, as Francis Schaffer contends in Art and the Bible, that art is important for those who take the Lordship of Christ seriously:
The arts and the sciences do have a place in the Christian life—they are not peripheral. For a Christian, redeemed by the work of Christ and living within the norms of Scripture and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the Lordship of Christ should include an interest in the arts. A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God—not just as tracts, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself.
Can Christians save the visual arts? Can we lift it out of the realm of toilets and theories about micro-brews and help restore its proper place in creation? I think we can. I hope we can. But if nothing else, maybe we could at least start producing works—even abstract works—that our parents would recognize as art.