The expression of art—the exploration of figurative and abstract thought in tangible external forms—is unique to human beings. Even as we think in words, we imagine in the “language” of images. Art is one of the great facilitators of human dialogue, and it provides us as well with the icons we need in order to make sense of reality. Without art and language, the human race stands blind and mute, its emotions and intellect imprisoned forever in a lump of inert flesh.
Creation gives life meaning. We know God only because of His choice to create. If the words concerning our being—that we are made “in the image of God”—have a clear meaning, surely it is seen in our capacity to imitate God's creative character.
This theological-cultural vision of the creative process as something ordained and blessed by Providence is the basis of the Jewish-Christian civilization that emerged from its classical roots and formed what we now call the West (our “Western” heritage first being firmly established by the Eastern Orthodox Church in Byzantium long before the Latin West had crawled out of its long dark age into the light of the high Middle Ages).
In our contemporary post-Christian culture, we no longer have the coherent artistic vision that inspired our spiritual ancestors in Latin Europe or Byzantium. If the modern Western world were to produce icons, they would be the blank images of Mark Rothko's paintings, not the Byzantine mosaics of saints found in Ravenna or in the frescoes of Fra Filippo Lippi. Yet despite the poverty of its spiritual vision, art continues to define our culture. But, as illustrated by the recent ruckus over art funding by the National Endowment for the Arts, the impact of art on society today is of an uncertain and morally dubious nature. Esthetic, spiritual, and artistic lines have been blurred in such a way as to make what art now is radically different—and generally not for the better—from what it once was. The change is not so much a matter of style as of epistemology and philosophy.
For one thing, the distinction between art and political propaganda has been all but erased. Art has of course always been subject to manipulation by people with various political or religious agendas. But generally these people merely sought to advance themselves on the coattails of the transcendent themes expressed in art. They did not, as we do today, seek to change the very meaning of art itself for their political ends. A seventeenth-century patron of the arts may have insinuated himself into a picture of the Virgin and Christ Child, but he did not banish all pictures of the Virgin and Child and replace them with portraits of himself. Michelangelo's David may have been commissioned by certain Florentines to express and promote the civic spirit of Florence, but even this supreme humanistic statement was rendered as a homage to the greatness and potential of the whole human race. It was not a sculpture only about White Florentine European Males, but a statement about the nature of man, as “little lower than the angels”—a theme which a proud African Masai warrior could appreciate just as much as Lorenzo de Medici.
Hitching one's political fortunes to the changeless themes of the spirit expressed in art is a very different matter from abolishing those themes altogether and replacing them with mere politics, race, and gender advocacy. The patrons of the past sought to bask in the light cast by the arts, not to extinguish the light altogether for their own limited purposes. It was precisely because the arts were understood to express fundamental, universal human and spiritual truths that patrons, often of less than noble or truthful dispositions, sought to cast themselves in the role of civilized sponsors of the arts, much as today's mobster, coveting respectability, may wish to be seen in the company of a pious churchman.
Art in the twentieth century has at times been so politicized as wholly to lose its transcendent vision. This phenomenon has been most obviously displayed in crude Nazi and Socialist realist art, but it is also in evidence in the present. The modern feminist movement, for example, has managed through its literary criticism to reduce literature to little more than politics, a supposed object lesson in patriarchal tyranny on the one hand and a vehicle for feminist ideological aspirations on the other. In the former case, current feminist ideology is read back into history and made determinative of judgments on that history; in the latter case, feminist concerns become the touchstone for artistic judgments. Thus it is that The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar by African-American feminist and lesbian author Alice Walker are said to be taught more frequently in many university literature departments than Shakespeare. This is obviously not because anyone argues seriously for the superiority of Walker's literary talent, but because she is more “PC” (Politically Correct) than Shakespeare, who is not “PC” at all.
The trend of harnessing the arts to causes of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. undermines the potential contribution to our divided culture that the arts could uniquely make—that is, the creation of common language available to all that transcends human divisions and deals in a universal currency of human aspirations and experience.
Whatever satisfaction the “knowledge elite” may have in the present state of the arts, the general public is voting against it with their feet. The disgruntled public looks to the past to fill the void left by our often sterile contemporary art. Thus, for example, little late-twentieth-century classical music is performed—or enjoyed on those rare occasions when it is performed. Audiences and musicians alike (a few crusading conductors excepted) prefer the more humane, less political, or at least less philosophically nihilistic music of the past to the failed classical compositions of the present. This phenomenon is unique to our time and points to the fact that ours is a period of history that seems to have lost confidence in its own high culture. Through the late nineteenth century, newly composed serious music was popularly enjoyed by the contemporaries of the composers. Audiences for that music were largely made up of members of the general public, not a cultural, let alone “knowledge,” elite. Popular enjoyment of high culture applied to the figurative arts as well. There were long lines to see the spectacular unveiling of Ghiberti's Doors of Paradise for the baptistery in fifteenth-century Florence. No such lines of ordinary people attend the unveiling of some new minimalist sculpture today.
Nevertheless, much as the art of the past is enjoyed today, there is often no real philosophical or religious link between modern audiences and that art. We tend to enjoy the artistic fruits generated by the philosophical certainties of pre-twentieth-century artists on a merely sentimental and superficial basis. Thus the ability of the rich past to teach the poor present is limited. In the case of music, again, today's value-neutral, secular, PC audience may appreciate traditional classical music's melodically pleasing composition without sharing or understanding its spiritual content. (Even less will they admit that the musical expression of their own relativistic philosophy produces the music they hate.) Nothing could illustrate this better than the spectacle of a modern audience attempting to understand a performance of Handel's Messiah in a purely secular context. Bringing typically twentieth-century sentiments to the experience—sentiments hostile to the moral and religious certainties that inspired such an art work—the secularized modern person can scarcely begin to understand this or comparable works. It is therefore no mystery why today's deconstructionist mythology has found fertile ground among the spiritually deracinated students common on today's college campuses. Nor is it hard to understand why today's secular neoconservative is having a hard time inspiring a return to high culture. Those without religious faith have little more than nostalgia to offer as an alternative to the decadent relativisms of the present.
What will the future hold for the arts in our society? I believe that two very different conceivable destinies lie ahead. One is a continuing slide down the path I have been describing, its end the moral liquidation of our high culture. On the other hand, there lies a possible path of artistic revival—a revival that will become a reality only through a rebirth of the spirit. If we can once again capture the religious sacramental view of life that has always been the true foundation of lasting artistic creation, this second path may be open to us.
Francis (a.k.a. Franky) Schaeffer, a film director and screenwriter, is also the author of six books, including, most recently, Sham Pearls for Real Swine.