ArtWay

‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’ – that is what art does. Phyllis Novak

Books

Hengelaar, M. ed.: Complete Works of H. Rookmaaker

Book Review

M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): The Complete Works of Hans Rookmaaker, Piquant, 2003.
 
by William Edgar
 
"Why All This?" Rediscovering the Witness of Hans Rookmaaker

In retrospect, romanticism about the 1960s is overstated. Alongside George Harrison's sermons on Sergeant Pepper about being "all one and life flows on" and Timothy Leary's League of Spiritual Discovery (lsd) we must set the addictions, the deaths, and the wasted lives from Haight Ashbury to suburban New York. Alongside the anti-establishment flower power of the hippy movement, the confused lives in the communes. Alongside the Pax Americana, the brutal Realpolitik of American engagement in Vietnam. Alongside the social programs and the war on poverty, the political assassinations in America and student barricades in Paris.

Although things would eventually return to some kind of normalcy, the 1960s represented a sea change, from the relative social conformity of the years after World War II to a multi-layered, conflicted culture, an unprecedented polarization between Left and Right, new and old, rebellion and conformity. Earlier voices in the 1950s had pushed the envelope, from the Juvenile Delinquents saluted in The Blackboard Jungle to Elvis' risqué gyrations and Chuck Berry's celebration of teenage identity, but the full flood of defiance came in the next decade. Elvis joined the army, and rock became profligate. Hopeful Abstract Expressionism gave way to cynical Pop, Op, Neo-Dada, and Happenings. Cary Grant and Doris Day were replaced by Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman. Ozzie and Harriet were no longer everyone's pop and mom. Things were at best confusing. At worst they were dangerous. The arts were both descriptive weathervanes and prescriptive prophesies.

At the center of those times, a rather lost young man, a jazz pianist by night, a sophomore music student at Harvard by day, made his way up the mountain toward Villars, Switzerland, stopping in a tiny village called Huémoz, where his life would be forever changed. After a long journey I became a follower of Christ. The people I met there, and their message, became the network undergirding my new-found countercultural faith in evangelical Christianity. The year was 1964, not long after John F. Kennedy's assassination. The first student to don a Beatles haircut had just walked across Harvard Yard to everyone's amusement. Less amusing was the spread of hallucinogenic drugs around the community. We lived under the threat of the bomb, and of the draft, a conscription which would send us to Asian jungles to fight a war we did not endorse. The Cold War was seething.

Here at l'Abri I had found a place, completely off the beaten path, where enlightened instructors could make some sense out of our disturbed times, based on biblical Christian faith. The major voice in the community was Francis A. Schaeffer. I had not known such exuberance in my college classes as I did under his teaching. It was wide-ranging, imprecise, passionately delivered, and always related to a unifying worldview. But another voice, at first more muted, but which became for me the more significant influence, was that of an idiosyncratic Dutch art historian. I first knew about him from a chart hanging on the wall of Farel House, the name given to a section of Chalet Beausite, where we studied tapes every day. It was a history of African American music, beginning with spirituals and blues, and moving to the jazz era. It was signed Hans Rookmaaker. I had come to expect connections of all kinds at l'Abri, a place dedicated to exploring the relation of Christian faith to just about everything. But jazz music? Could I have arrived at paradise before my time? And who was this man?

I eagerly found my way through the large tape collection to a series on jazz, full of musical illustrations from rare recordings, delivered in beautiful English with a Dutch accent. More careful, less overtly emotional than Francis Schaeffer's, the voice was clear, compelling, and utterly fascinating. Hans Rookmaaker spoke of the great artistry and authenticity of Victoria Spivey, Texas Alexander, Bumble Bee Slim, Blind Willie Johnson, and a host of other founders of classic black music. Not only was Rookmaaker the European editor of Fontana Record's series, Treasures of North American Negro Music, but he had been to America and met Thomas A. Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, and Langston Hughes. What was the attraction of jazz to this Dutch art historian? For that is what he was during his professional career.

He said it often in his lectures and throughout his writings. It put iron into the blood! Discussing his hero, Joseph "King" Oliver, he compares the New Orleans cornetist's orchestral sounds to the music of J. S. Bach. He finds very similar musical qualities in the baroque polyphony of the Brandenburg Concertos and Oliver's Creole Jazz Band from the 1920s. Not only the technical structure, but the mood and atmosphere are similar. Especially, he finds in both of them joy, true joy, not romantic escape. In stark contrast to Theodor Adorno's attacks on jazz, which found it "unruly," "rebellious," and "emasculating," Rookmaaker describes it as orderly, harmonious, and full of vigor. The opposite of joy for him is happiness, or the escapism of those who look for depth in the tragic and ruinous. And the ultimate source of true joy, whether in jazz or any other human expression, is biblical Christian faith, which Bach and Oliver shared.

During his lifetime, Hans Rookmaaker guided a great host of students into a strategy for understanding their times and working within their society with courage and creativity. His best-selling Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (IVP, 1970) was nothing short of a ground-breaking study of the surrounding culture, both in its threats and its promises. He dared to make sense of the steps to modern art by noting the general trend from a theocentric world to an absurd universe that lay behind the pictures. Malcolm Muggeridge, himself a returned prodigal, gave it a ringing endorsement on the pages of Esquire.

Following in the tradition of the historian Groen van Prinsterer, the theologian-statesman Abraham Kuyper, and the philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, Rookmaaker believed there was a spiritual background to Western painting which was the key to unlocking its meaning. However, unlike amateur attempts to reduce art to philosophy, Rookmaaker led the reader on a visit to hundreds of paintings, writings, and musical numbers, pausing to scrutinize their composition and motifs.

While the clarity of his pages has fooled some into thinking he was merely a popularizer, or, more gravely, that he ran slipshod over the inner dynamics of particular works of art in order to discern their message, the truth is that behind every one of his judgments there was considerable research. It's just that he did not want to miss the forest for the trees. What his critics feared at the time was that he made facile connections between an artistic statement and its philosophical orientation. They worried that he was from a bygone era which had not yet escaped the carelessness and even the paternalism of such judgments.

Perhaps there is some truth to this. In his praise of Groen van Prinsterer, Rookmaaker compares the statesman's history of Holland to the books of Kings in the Bible, because both are able to discern the hand of God in history. So, there is a hint of providentialism here. Still, we have gone way over to the other extreme. Besides often being unfair, there is something sad about our timid refusal to look for meaning in a text. Have we not become jaded in our over-sensitivity to hermeneutics? Have not our critical requirements turned us into snobs of a different kind? When we read the works of Rookmaaker and others in the previous generation of scholars, we are in a different world. The air is full of oxygen. They are capable of enviable lucidity. Sure, they made their judgments, but these were often well considered, delivered without today's required guilt feelings for treading on the wrong toes. They are careful and nuanced in their own way, but full of passion and courage. Besides, the final reason for Rookmaaker's calling as a critic is that he believed in objective truth, while many of his contemporaries were seducing their audiences away from the possibility of truth.

Close to three thousand pages of limpid prose are gathered between the covers of the six volumes of Rookmaaker's Complete Works, the appearance of which is truly a publishing event. Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker's editorial loving care, and respect for her father, shine on these pages.

I thought I knew the man and his subject well. He was a mentor, a friend, a correspondent, and a frequent visitor to our home. Reading these pages, though, I realize that I only knew a part of his work. The sheer quantity is a first revelation. It is marvellous to see all of his major books reproduced, including an English translation of Jazz, Blues and Spirituals. But there is so much more, much of it previously unavailable in English.

The second revelation for me is the variety of subjects discussed. Here are technical articles on philosophical aesthetics. Here, too, are gathered personal letters, transcribed tapes of lectures and interviews, revealing the pastoral and emotional side of the scholar. We find studies on various portions of the Bible, some of them daring in their understanding of symbolism and ancient historiography. There are sermons, and writings about patience and suffering in the Christian life. Numerous book reviews are reproduced. Rookmaaker writes about God's sovereignty over human history, about his favorite Albrecht Dürer, about the nature of culture, Escher's graphic art, freedom in the Christian life, and myriad other subjects. These pages are simply a feast.
Significantly absent is almost any attention to photography or film. He does comment on them here and there, but usually negatively, worried that they are bound up with a two-dimensional world. In a memorable review of Luis Buñuel's surrealist sermon Un Chien Andaloux he describes the film as hateful, chaotic, meaningless, and then compares it to art and music which came out of suffering, but with Christian hope, such as Schütz's Psalms, the golden age of Dutch painting, or African American blues. Surely this reluctance to engage with movies and photographs emanates from his concern not to reduce reality to brute facts.

One of the richest portions, not previously familiar to most of us, is the collection of articles in volume 4 entitled "Western Art." Moving from medieval times to the present, it contains a dazzling array of references and examples. The Danube School, Bruegel, the Anabaptists on art, Raphael's Madonna of the Sistine Chapel, Vertumnus and Pomona, Jan van Goyen, Daumier, kitsch . . . this journey is simply magical. In the process we are reintroduced to Rookmaaker's basic commitments. A poem, a piece of music, a painting must have primary aesthetic qualities. But they also teach us something. Not in the moralistic manner of didactic art, but by opening our eyes to something in the world we had not seen before. He insisted that art be given no less, but no more a place in the scheme of things than it is due. In the 19th century, art (small a) became Art (upper case) because it left its proper place and pretended to be revelatory. No, says Rookmaaker: "Art has a function of its own in culture and human life. Just being art. Not autonomous, but bound by a thousand threads to full reality and human life. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, just because it is related to humanness and reality."

Art history is a task and calling for today which traces the engagement of artists whose work contributes to the good or the downfall of humanity. Indeed, at their best, artists are called to "elevate the humanity of those who consider their work." Certainly Rookmaaker's life was dedicated to the elevation of the humanity of everyone he encountered, in his profession and in his ministry.

The final volume contains a beautiful biography by Laurel Gasque, entitled Hans Rookmaaker: An Open Life. No one could be better qualified for the task. Not only were she and her husband, Ward, close friends of the entire Rookmaaker family, but they shared his vision. She speaks for many of us when she writes: Hans Rookmaaker never failed to encourage me intellectually and spiritually through friendship or to inspire me to independence of vocation by his creative example and serious conversation. Through his generous gift of time in viewing art and architecture, listening to music, and in discussing vigorously, extensively, and openly issues of culture and meaning with me, he gave a dimension to my education that I could never have obtained by formal means. Hans's complete confidence in the indissoluble relation between art and reality and his wise understanding of their inter-relatedness have enriched my thinking, and, indeed, my life.

At the same time, this 130-page life story is not a hagiography. Hans and his wife Anky went through periods of spiritual dryness. Hans was something of a workaholic. He was often restless. Yet in the end, he did what few persons in any generation can do, because he was truly a universal thinker: navigate easily from the study to the living room, from the Bible to the art museum, from learned books to real people with spiritual gifts and needs.

Several aspects of Rookmaaker's life and thought are particularly worth underscoring. What were his major influences? During World War II, he served in the Dutch navy. He was interned in a prison camp near Nuremberg, then another in Stanislau, doing hard labor. Though not from a believing background, he began to read the Bible upon the recommendation of a friend back home. He became convinced of its truth. He read other books, and wrote papers on prophecy and aesthetics. In prison, he met Captain Johan Pieter Albertus Mekkes, a Christian, who introduced him to the Amsterdam philosophy espoused by Stoker, Vollenhoven, and, especially, Herman Dooyeweerd (1894–1977), whose New Critique of Theoretical Thought revolutionized Rookmaaker's outlook on epistemology and apologetics. (How many POWs were reading Dutch neo-Calvinist philosophy in their deprived circumstances?)
After the war, Rookmaaker devoted much of his early writing to aesthetic theory based on the Cosmonomic Idea, which posited that nothing was neutral, and that meaning was lodged in spheres and laws governing every part of the created world. Accordingly, beauty and harmony were at the center of the aesthetic sphere, while at the same time there was overlapping into others, so that psychology or theology could be beautiful.
Students of Rookmaaker's in the '60s and '70s may not have realized how deeply his thinking was permeated by the Amsterdam philosophy. Much of this school of thought is of technical interest only; the originality of Rookmaaker's contribution lies in applying it to the arts. As he moved into circles where artists and students were asking hard questions, the theoretical language moved into the background, and he became eminently practical. Still, his commitment to the basic contours of the philosophy was always there. It often came out in his reactions to issues. For example, if a student asked him whether God exists, his answer would first be to dismantle a presumed Cartesian presupposition behind the question, and only then attempt a reply, which would assert that everything in the Bible and in the world is a proof of God. Or if an art student expressed preference for Rubens' robust infants over the grown-up medieval baby in a Madonna and Child, he would say that neither of them really connects to reality. The Rubens baby, with its Herculean musculature, is just as idealized as the medieval adult icon.

Rookmaaker's lectures at l'Abri, also reproduced here, stress the unity of life. In them he defends the Kuyperian approach to a world-and-life view. He reminisces on his discussions with his closest friend, Francis Schaeffer, about Dooyeweerd, recalling that they both profited from his critique enormously but made a conscious effort not to use his difficult terminology. Rookmaaker was deeply critical of pietism. He believed that the great tragedy of modernity was to have split the world into a sacred and a secular realm. He cautioned against Christian attempts at living in a subculture, because that unwittingly supported the same split world.

Arguably, the central question which characterized all of Rookmaaker's investigations was the problem of meaning. There were meaning-structures in the world, which he simply called "reality." He believed that history has been unfolding since the creation of humanity and its purpose in the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26-31. When artists try to rebel against the laws of creation, they violate its inner structure, and therefore end up in absurdity. But this dilemma cannot last long, as the unfolding process will continue to develop under God's providence regardless of whether a particular people conforms or not. Even though much in the West has ultimately headed toward "death" (a word found throughout his writings, and heard frequently at l'Abri), the ultimate direction of history is positive. The Reformation was a high point where the Neo-Platonic chain of being was destroyed, to be replaced by a healthier understanding of creation and human dignity. The Dutch landscapists of the 17th century, along with Rembrandt's œuvre, mark the high points in this unfolding thus far. Since then, the forces of secularization have taken over. But nothing rules out further progress and a new Reformation.

He reflected over and over again on the doctrine of calling. He worried that the modern spirit of revolution, coupled with pietism, would flatten everything out and squeeze any hope for meaning out of the discussion. In his view, we can only combat this with a fully informed worldview, one that recognizes both the dignity of human beings within the creation and the decimation wrought by the Fall. In the booklet The Creative Gift, republished in these volumes, Rookmaaker suggests that much of the effort to solve the problem of Christianity and culture got off on a wrong footing, because it falls into abstraction. "Christianity" does not really have meaning. There are Christians, some good, some weak, but no "Christianity." And "culture" is not something to be isolated from the universe. Rather, it is an environment where God has placed us, one which he rules despite its pretended revolt. "Creativity" is no special dimension, but is what we should be practicing all the time wherever we find ourselves.

Reading these rich pages will put iron in our blood. And we will remember why we were so grateful for such a unique guide, a prophet, and a friend. His voice still carries today. We need it more than ever.

William Edgar is professor of apologetics, coordinator of the Apologetics Department, and chairman of the faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is the author most recently of Truth in All Its Glory: Commending the Reformed Faith (P&R).

Published in BOOKS AND CULTURE Magazine, Jan/Feb 2006.