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H.R. Rookmaaker: Does Art Need Justification?

Does Art Need Justification?

by H.R. Rookmaaker
Somewhere between the Middle Ages and our times, art became Art. The visual arts had always been understood as a craft, even if a very special craft. In the fifteenth century, however, the position of art began to change. Artists began to aspire towards more recognition, hoping to see painting take its place with poetry, scholarship, and letters and even be introduced into the circle of the seven liberal arts. Some great artists like Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Dürer nearly achieved this status, but for lesser artists it was out of the question.
In the eighteenth century, however, art finally took its place as a form of ‘high culture’. To be an artist could mean to be a genius, one of the great leaders of humanity, a seer, a prophet, a high priest of culture. Art with a capital A even came to challenge the place of religion, itself becoming a new religion in a secularized world. Also, the term ‘culture’ took on a new meaning, separate from the natural sciences, economics, and technology. (Someone who is favorably inclined might say that culture involves high human pursuits, removed from the practical things of daily life. Someone less sympathetic might call culture a pastime for the rich, or the nouveau riche middle class. Expressed negatively, culture has no real meaning at all, and is the hobby of a snobbish coterie.)
For the few really great artists, this change was no obstacle. They came to be revered as superior people, their works sold and discussed in the learned and cultured circles. For the vast majority of artists, however, the change was almost disastrous. Although their profession was regarded as high and important, and surrounded with the aura of Art, often their works could not live up to such a high standard. Certainly a less prominent artist could not survive on the income from work regarded by most people as inessential. Art was something to look at or, in the case of the musician, to listen to or, in the case of literature, to read. Visual art especially was certainly not something to spend much money on. As a result, many artists were very poor, and even important works could not be produced without high subsidy. Now art, or Art, has become elevated and refined, but must be kept alive in a highly artificial way. (Note the implications of the very term ‘artificial’)
Another result of the present situation is that along with Art, a new kind of artistic category has emerged, a type of work which is confined to the realm of the crafts, but which is often not recognized as valid primarily because most artists of quality tend to despise it. We refer here to popular art, which is often called ‘commercial’ or ‘entertainment’ art. To entertain seems to be one of the great sins in art. Yet, if we hold such a position we are challenged by the quality of a waltz by Johann Strauss or the jazz of Duke Ellington; and in commercial art there are such outstanding figures as Toulouse-Lautrec and Cassandre.
Not only the artists, but art itself has suffered from this shift. Placed too high in the total culture, art has lost its ties with reality, and therefore its meaning. Abstract art is one result of this change. Also, because art has taken on religious significance, it has given birth to some very strange offspring. As a result, art has for most people become an esoteric activity, extremely intellectualistic on the one hand, and fostering irrationality on the other. It has become confined to the museum.
A museum is a place where one usually finds objects which have lost their function in contemporary life. The modern art museum, however, has almost become the nihilistic temple for an anti-religion. In a way, this is also true of the museums of the older arts, like the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the National Gallery in Washington. ‘Cultured’ people know the famous works of art in order to refer to them just like Christians quoting Bible texts.
As a result, people have come to examine the true meaning and function of art. What is art, really? What is its importance? Why bother with it at all? Certainly in teaching, one must deal with these pertinent - or should we say impertinent - questions. And many answers have been formulated. Art teaches us deep things. But, say some, art should not be didactic; it is meant to enrich life. Is art, then, only for the rich, or for snobs? For those who have the time, the money, and that peculiar gift called artistic sensibility? Can art never be for the toiling, hard-working men and women, or for those who live far from all cultural centers? Oh yes, most people do have paintings on their walls, but that is only decoration; one could certainly not call it Art. Art is too high and special. Indeed, art has become something lofty and removed, and even the interpretation of art has become a strange and difficult pursuit, since one must read into the works meaning that is certainly not evident to the ‘unenlightened’ masses.
The elevation of art to its current position is in itself a sign of the crisis that exists. High Art has become strange and esoteric; popular art, with which most people are surrounded, is often very low in quality, revealing and even promoting the spiritual poverty of our age. This crisis makes life very difficult for many artists and art students. For many, art has become a gratuitous activity. Nevertheless they continue, often searching for their own identity in their work, like the philosopher depicted by Max Klinger: a man looking in a minor at his own image.1 Art is said to be an expression of man’s innermost being.
But what if there is nothing inside? The artist is supposed to be a genius, and geniuses cannot be taught. Young artists are frequently left to themselves, to find themselves and their own forms of expression. They often reach a point of despair; but when they cry for help, they are thrown back upon themselves and many crumble under the load. Unless one is really strong and endowed with great talents, or filled with a powerful ego-drive and able to carry off a profitable program of self-promotion, success in the art world will elude him.
Art is in crisis. This is no less true in the Christian world, where perhaps the crisis is even doubled. On the one hand, Christians are children of their own times; on the other hand, they tend to regard the arts as the very epitome of the non-Christian spirit of our age. Two different responses then follow: either one abstains from the arts altogether, and leaves them to the ‘worldly pagans’; or one enters the art world, hesitantly and with many questions and doubts. Each of these positions requires some justification.
The justification of the first attitude may be that after all, man’s real calling in life is to be a witness for Christ and to live the ‘spiritual’ life. And since art does not enter this realm, it can be ignored. The interesting thing is, however, that having taken this attitude, one cannot really avoid art. For having discarded art, one still uses a stained-glass window in the chapel, or one illustrates an evangelistic pamphlet or church paper, using either ‘old’ art (like a copy of a Holman Hunt painting) or popular art. That the pamphlet therefore looks cheap does not seem to bother anyone. After all, the message is the only thing that counts!
The second attitude, that of the Christian who does enter the art field, is often difficult to defend in the face of the first. Isn’t it sinful to devote a life to the arts, which are worldly anyway, only for giving pleasure? Many a Christian who is active in the arts is made to feel like a kind of hedonist, someone who never works (art is not work!), and who is in constant danger of falling into the evil snares of this world. Usually he is seen as a person of strange or impractical ideas. After all, what has art to do with the realities of daily life, especially ‘Christian’ daily life?
Many fine Christians who have a talent or an interest in the arts are forced to defend their involvement by saying that art is an excellent means of evangelism. When art is used as a tool for evangelism, it is often insincere and second-rate, devalued to the level of propaganda. I would call this a form of prostitution, a misuse of one’s talent.
Art is not a religion, nor an activity relegated to a chosen few, nor a mere worldly, superfluous affair. None of these views of art does justice to the creativity with which God has endowed man. It is the ability to make something beautiful (as well as useful), just as God made the world beautiful and said, ‘It is good.’ Art as such needs no justification; rather, it demands a response, like that of the twenty-four elders in Revelation who worship God for the very act of creation itself: ´You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.´(Revelation 4:11)
The supreme justification for all creation is that God has willed it to be. And so there is no need to justify, let us say, a tree. A tree is there and is meaningful because God made it. Of course a tree has many functions: birds sit on its branches, cattle rest in its shadow, and men use its wood for building houses or making fires. What would the world be without trees? Yet even if the tree is indispensable to many ecological cycles and useful to mankind, none of these functions alone, nor even their sum total, can provide the justification for and the meaning of the tree. The tree has meaning simply because God made it; that meaning surpasses all its functions. If we do not see this, we are not far from accepting naturalist evolutionary theories, which are all based on functionalist assumptions.
God’s creatures require no justification. God has given them their value by including them in the totality of his creation. In the same way, our personal human qualities and activities need no justification. To love is indeed a command of God, but a justification for it is not given. To marry, to praise the Lord, to till the ground, to prepare meals, to talk, to feel, to think - all need no apology within the context of ‘Hallowed be thy name, thy will be done.’
In the same way, art needs no justification. It is meaningful in itself, not only as an evangelistic tool, or to serve a practical purpose, or to be didactic. Art must be free: free from politics (including church politics); free from traditions of the past, free from mode of the present, free from the judgment of the future; and free from our economic and social needs. Art cannot be turned into a mere function of any of these without losing its indispensable place in human life. After all, Christ died for us in order to restore our humanity, and to give meaning back to God’s creation. Not only is evangelism Christian, but all of life is Christian, unless we would make Christ very small.
But if art needs no justification, it also does not follow that art is to be art for art’s sake. Just as a tree, being more than the totality of its functions, nevertheless has functions, so art is not just there to be art, but is bound by a thousand ties to reality. Nothing is simply autonomous. A tree, a human being, a work of art - all are part of that wonderful fabric which we call reality; no thread can be missing without impoverishing the whole.
So even if art has meaning in itself, it can never be on its own. It would wither and die. It is tied in two ways to reality. On the one hand, art deals with reality; it is about fear, hope, joy, love, our surroundings, the things we love or hate. On the other hand, art is used in reality. Music, rhetoric, poetry make up a large part of our social functions and religious activities; and architecture, furniture and textile design, interior decoration, painting and illustration provide the setting for our movements and actions.
No matter whether art receives a prominent place or serves in the background, the fascinating truth is that the more it becomes engaged in reality, and the more concrete its manifold ties with our daily life, the more we will recognize that it needs no justification.
Published in The Creative Gift. The Arts and the Christian Life, IVP 1982 and in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker: The Complete Works 3, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003. Also obtainable as a CD-Rom. and


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