H.R. Rookmaaker: Does Art Need Justification?
Does Art Need Justification?
by H.R. Rookmaaker
A NEW SECULAR RELIGION?
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.
A HEDONISTIC PASTIME?
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.
A GIFT OF GOD?
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.
07 December 2019 / ArtWay Newsletter 2019
An update by our editor-in-chief
the ArtWay List of Books 2019
16 November 2019 / Scottish Miracles and Parables Exhibition
Alan Wilson: "Can there be a renewal of Christian tradition in Scottish art, where ambitious artists create from a heartfelt faith, committed to their Lord and saviour as well as their craft?"
23 September 2019 / Dal Schindell Tribute
While Dal’s ads and sense of humour became the stuff of legends, it was his influence on the arts at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada that may be his biggest legacy.
04 September 2019 / The Aesthetics of John Calvin
Calvin stated that 'the faithful see sparks of God's glory, as it were, glittering in every created thing. The world was no doubt made, that it might be the theater of divine glory.'
31 July 2019 / The Legend of the Artist
by Beat Rink
The image of the 'divine' artist becomes so dominant that artists take their orientation from it and lead their lives accordingly.
02 July 2019 / Quotes by Tim Keller
Many “Christian art” productions are in reality just ways of pulling artists out of the world and into the Christian subculture.
08 June 2019 / The Chaiya Art Awards
by Jonathan Evens
The Chaiya Art Awards 2018 proved hugely popular, with over 450 entries and more than 2,700 exhibition visitors.
29 May 2019 / Art Stations of the Cross: Reflections
by Lieke Wynia
In its engagement with both Biblical and contemporary forms of suffering, the exhibition addressed complex topical issues without losing a sense of hope out of sight.
03 May 2019 / Marianne Lettieri: Relics Reborn
Items that show the patina of time and reveal the wear and tear of human interaction are carriers of personal and collective history.
27 April 2019 / Franciscan and Dominican Arts of Devotion
by John Skillen
This manner of prayer stirs up devotion, the soul stirring the body, and the body stirring the soul.
13 March 2019 / Makoto Fujimura and the Culture Care Movement
by Victoria Emily Jones
Culture care is a generative approach to culture that brings bouquets of flowers into a culture bereft of beauty.
08 January 2019 / Building a Portfolio of People
by Marianne Lettieri
Besides hard work in the studio, networking may be the single most important skill for a sustainable art practice.
01 December 2018 / ArtWay Newsletter December 2018
ArtWay has Special Plans for 2019!
After London, Washington D.C. and New York the city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands is now the anticipated location for a prominent art exhibition with the title Art Stations of the Cross.
11 October 2018 / The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe
Book Review by Jonathan Evens
The significance and spirituality of the work is made clear in ways which counteract the stereotype of mass production of a static style.
13 September 2018 / A Visit to the Studio of Georges Rouault
by Jim Alimena
Everything we saw and learned reinforced my picture of a great man of faith and a great artist.
09 August 2018 / With Opened Eyes: Representational Art
by Ydi Coetsee
How do we respond to the ‘lost innocence’ of representational art?
13 July 2018 / True Spirituality in the Arts
by Edith Reitsema
Living in Christ should lead us away from living with a segregated view of life, having a sacred-secular split.
17 May 2018 / Beholding Christ in African American Art
Book review by Victoria Emily Jones
One of the hallmarks of Beholding Christ is the diversity of styles, media, and denominational affiliations represented.
23 April 2018 / Short Introduction to Hans Rookmaaker
by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker
On the occasion of the establishment of the Rookmaaker Jazz Scholarship at Covenant College, Chattanooga, Tennessee, 12 March 2018
04 April 2018 / International Art Residency in India
Art for Change, a New Delhi based arts organization with a vision to see art shape society with beauty and truth, will be running its 6th annual International Artist Residency in November 2018.
15 March 2018 / The Stations of the Cross at Blackburn Cathedral
by Penny Warden
Perhaps the central challenge for the artist in imaging the body of Christ is the problem of representing the dual natures of the doctrine of the incarnation.
23 February 2018 / Between the Shadow and the Light
By Rachel Hostetter Smith
In June 2013 a group of twenty North American and African artists from six African countries met for two weeks of intensive engagement with South Africa.
30 January 2018 / Sacred Geometry in Christian Art
by Sophie Hacker
This blog unravels aspects of sacred geometry and how it has inspired art and architecture for millennia.
01 January 2018 / Jonathan Evens writes about Central Saint Martins
Why would Central Saint Martins, a world-famous arts and design college and part of University of the Arts London, choose to show work by its graduates in a church?
06 December 2017 / ArtWay Newsletter December, 2017
ArtWay's Chairman Wim Eikelboom: "The visual arts cultivate a fresh and renewed view of deeply entrenched values. That is why ArtWay is happy to provide an online platform for art old and new."
14 November 2017 / The Moral Imagination: Art and Peacebuilding
In the context of conflict transformation the key purpose of creative expression is to provide a venue for people to tell their stories, and for their stories to be heard.
24 October 2017 / Bruce Herman: Ut pictura poesis?
For the last couple hundred of years the arts have largely been in "experimentation mode"—moving away from the humble business of craft and service toward ideas, issues, and theory.
04 October 2017 / David Jeffrey: Art and Understanding Scripture
The purpose of In the Beauty of Holiness: Art and the Bible in Western Culture is to help deepen the reader’s understanding of the magnificence of the Bible as a source for European art.
08 September 2017 / David Taylor: The Aesthetics of John Calvin
Calvin stated that 'the faithful see sparks of God's glory, as it were, glittering in every created thing. The world was no doubt made, that it might be the theater of divine glory.'
23 August 2017 / Reconstructed by Anikó Ouweneel
A much talked-about exposition in the NoordBrabants Museum in The Netherlands showed works by modern and contemporary Dutch artists inspired by traditional Catholic statues of Christ and the saints.
04 July 2017 / Pilgrimage to Venice – The Venice Biennale 2017
When I start to look at the art works, I notice a strange rift between this pleasant environment and the angst and political engagement present in the works of the artists.
24 June 2017 / Collecting as a Calling
After many years of compiling a collection of religious art, I have come to realize that collecting is a calling. I feel strongly that our collection has real value and that it is a valuable ministry.
02 June 2017 / I Believe in Contemporary Art
By Alastair Gordon
In recent years there has been a growing interest in questions of religion in contemporary art. Is it just a passing fad or signs of renewed faith in art?
04 April 2017 / Stations of the Cross - Washington, DC 2017
by Aaron Rosen
We realized that the Stations needed to speak to the acute anxiety facing so many minorities in today’s America and beyond.
07 March 2017 / Socially Engaged Art
A discussion starter by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin
Growing dissatisfaction with an out-of-touch, elite and market driven art world has led artists to turn to socially engaged art.
01 February 2017 / Theodore Prescott: Inside Sagrada Familia
The columns resemble the trunks of trees. Gaudi conceived of the whole interior as a forest, where the nave ceiling would invoke the image of an arboreal canopy.
03 January 2017 / Steve Scott tells about his trips to Bali
In the Balinese shadow play the puppet master pulls from a repertoire of traditional tales and retells them with an emphasis on contemporary moral and spiritual lessons.
09 December 2016 / Newsletter ArtWay December 2016
Like an imitation of a good thing past, these days of darkness surely will not last. Jesus was here and he is coming again, to lead us to the festival of friends.
01 November 2016 / LAbri for Beginners
What is the role of the Christian artist? Is it not to ‘re-transcendentalise’ the transcendent, to discern what is good in culture, and to subvert what is not with a prophetic voice?
30 September 2016 / Book Review by Jonathan Evens
Jonathan Koestlé-Cate, Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace - Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art, Routledge, 2016.
01 September 2016 / Review: Modern art and the life of a culture
The authors say they want to help the Christian community recognize the issues raised in modern art and to do so in ways that are charitable and irenic. But I did not find them so. Their representation of Rookmaaker seems uncharitable and at times even misleading.
29 July 2016 / Victoria Emily Jones on Disciplining our Eyes
There’s nothing inherently wrong with images—creating or consuming. In fact, we need them. But we also need to beware of the propensity they have to plant themselves firmly in our minds.
30 June 2016 / Aniko Ouweneel on What is Christian Art?
Pekka Hannula challenges the spectator to search for the source of the breath we breathe, the source of what makes life worth living, the source of our longing for the victory of redemptive harmony.
09 June 2016 / Theodore Prescott: The Sagrada Familia
Sagrada Familia is a visual encyclopedia of Christian narrative and Catholic doctrine as Gaudi sought to embody the faith through images, symbols, and expressive forms.
19 May 2016 / Edward Knippers: Do Clothes make the Man?
Since the body is the one common denominator for all of humankind, why do we fear to uncover it? Why is public nudity a shock or even a personal affront?
27 April 2016 / Alexandra Harper: Culture Care
Culture Care is an invitation to create space within the local church to invest our talents, time and tithes in works that lean into the Kingdom of God as creative agents of shalom.
06 April 2016 / Jonathan Evens on Contemporary Commissions
The issue of commissioning secular artists versus artists of faith represents false division and unnecessary debate. The reality is that both have resulted in successes and failures.
12 March 2016 / Betty Spackman: Creativity and Depression
When our whole being is wired to fly outside the box, life can become a very big challenge. To carve oneself into a square peg for the square holes of society, when you are a round peg, is painful to say the least.
24 February 2016 / Jim Watkins: Augustine and the Senses
Augustine is not saying that sensual pleasure is bad, but that it is a mixed good. As his Confessions so clearly show, Augustine is painfully aware of how easily he can take something good and turn it into something bad.
26 January 2016 / Ned Bustard: The Bible is Not Safe
Revealed is intended to provoke surprise, even shock. It shows that the Bible is a book about ordinary people, who are not only spiritual beings, but also greedy, needy, hateful, hopeful, selfish, and sexual.
14 January 2016 / Painting by Nanias Maira from Papua New Guinea
In 2011 Wycliffe missionary Peter Brook commissioned artist Nanias Maira, who belongs to the Kwoma people group of northwestern Papua New Guinea, to paint Bible stories in the traditional style for which he is locally known.