Abstract art and the Bible

Thanks to Tickletext for this great quotation from the Christian abstract artist Makoto Fujimura:

I’ve heard many people say of contemporary art: “my kids can do that.” I encourage them, then to try it themselves, don’t let kids have all the fun! Try to make drip paintings like Jackson Pollock. Or paint an object with encaustic, layering color upon color, like Johns. Try silk screening images like Warhol. You soon find out that in the ordinary gestures and materials, there are deceptively complicated and sublime twists. Our drips become unnatural and confined, where as Pollock’s drips dance, and form delectable edges that seem to undulate in front of our eyes. Our edges of encaustic strokes become unshapely, because If you try working with wax (as I have tried to in college,) you find out soon enough that it is unforgiving, making it very difficult to create a clean, sharp definition. The melting wax constantly oozes, and moves about, and the colors muddle. If you are finally able to paint a stripe with bright colors, the stripes would not resonate, in ways that Johns’ Flags do.

What’s the source of that quote, Tickletext? You may recall this post and this post about Fujimura.

The fact is, from a strictly literal Biblical point of view, abstract art–that is, non-representational art–may be less problematic than the realistic art that most Christians prefer today. The Commandment forbids making “any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). It was paganism–and in particular, in our Western heritage, the pagan Greeks–who stressed that art has to be imitation; that is, a “likeness” of something.

The prohibition of likenesses by no means prohibited art. But the art it inspired was non-representational or abstract, art that depicted no likeness of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water. Pottery of the ancient Hebrews tended to feature complex geometrical designs. Pottery of the Canaanites featured deities, animals, and fish.

Now I don’t think the Biblical prohibition of likenesses DOES altogether forbid realistic art. The point of the Commandment is not to “bow down” to such images. Later in Exodus God commands the use of realistic art–such as representations of angels and pomegranates in the Tabernacle, with lions and palm trees adorning the Temple–so the Bible in principle allows for such things. But still, non-representational art is non-controversial at all according to the Bible. (For good examples of how beautiful such art created in the shadow of the prohibition of images can be, look at Islamic art such as Persian carpets.)

I get into all of this in my book State of the Arts.

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  • Booklover

    “The point of the Commandment is not to “bow down” to such images.”

    In my opinion, this is the most important comment in your article. If we don’t remember that it is the “bowing down” to such representational art that is forbidden, there may be the danger of becoming radical icon-smashers.

    In many ancient churches, there is much breathtaking representational artwork depicting the entire gospel story. Cranach was known for it. 🙂

    http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/ARTH214/Cranach_LawGrace.html

    I understand your point is that there is nothing wrong with abstract art. Just wanted to elaborate. 🙂

  • Booklover

    “The point of the Commandment is not to “bow down” to such images.”

    In my opinion, this is the most important comment in your article. If we don’t remember that it is the “bowing down” to such representational art that is forbidden, there may be the danger of becoming radical icon-smashers.

    In many ancient churches, there is much breathtaking representational artwork depicting the entire gospel story. Cranach was known for it. 🙂

    http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/ARTH214/Cranach_LawGrace.html

    I understand your point is that there is nothing wrong with abstract art. Just wanted to elaborate. 🙂

  • Peter Leavitt

    Dr. Veith, thanks for an excellent summary of this issue. I actually have learned to enjoy abstract forms of art including that of Pollock. The Japanese are especially good at this.; their stark gardens, compared to luxuriant ones in the West, are moving. Even the cathedrals of Europe that I love with their form and window color derive most of their beauty from the abstract.

    However, the mainly realistic Pieta has supreme beauty and, as you suggest, doesn’t necessarily have to be bow downed to. Traveling through Eastern Orthodox countries with their superlative church images of Christ, one appreciates the transcendent beauty of realistic art.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Dr. Veith, thanks for an excellent summary of this issue. I actually have learned to enjoy abstract forms of art including that of Pollock. The Japanese are especially good at this.; their stark gardens, compared to luxuriant ones in the West, are moving. Even the cathedrals of Europe that I love with their form and window color derive most of their beauty from the abstract.

    However, the mainly realistic Pieta has supreme beauty and, as you suggest, doesn’t necessarily have to be bow downed to. Traveling through Eastern Orthodox countries with their superlative church images of Christ, one appreciates the transcendent beauty of realistic art.

  • MikeD

    And while there’s no disagreement with anything above stated what rationale is there for granting that enema paintings are art or not? How about self-mutilation on a stage in front of a bunch of professors? I believe a common thought to be that art is expression, but then shouting and facial gestures are forms of art. Soon art is everything, but then it’s nothing. Have either of you, or anybody, thought of a definition of what art is? I’ve tried and it’s tough.

  • MikeD

    And while there’s no disagreement with anything above stated what rationale is there for granting that enema paintings are art or not? How about self-mutilation on a stage in front of a bunch of professors? I believe a common thought to be that art is expression, but then shouting and facial gestures are forms of art. Soon art is everything, but then it’s nothing. Have either of you, or anybody, thought of a definition of what art is? I’ve tried and it’s tough.

  • One of the things from my generic protestant evangelical past that I have not been able to shake(and am not sure I want to) is an uncomfortability with images in the church that we bow towards or pray towards. I still don’t buy the EO or RC line about it. The commandment is clear.

    Years ago I dated a Jewish woman and brought her to my (Lutheran church) which had a very prominent statue of Christ placed above the altar. She called it an idol as soon as she walked in. I explained our “theology” concerning images in the church. She looked me right in the eye and said, ‘There is not a 5 year old in this church that doesn’t think that thing is really Jesus and that you aren’t praying to it every Sunday.” What could I say?

  • One of the things from my generic protestant evangelical past that I have not been able to shake(and am not sure I want to) is an uncomfortability with images in the church that we bow towards or pray towards. I still don’t buy the EO or RC line about it. The commandment is clear.

    Years ago I dated a Jewish woman and brought her to my (Lutheran church) which had a very prominent statue of Christ placed above the altar. She called it an idol as soon as she walked in. I explained our “theology” concerning images in the church. She looked me right in the eye and said, ‘There is not a 5 year old in this church that doesn’t think that thing is really Jesus and that you aren’t praying to it every Sunday.” What could I say?

  • Patrick (@4), you could’ve asked a 5-year-old. I’m pretty certain at least a few of them would’ve proved her wrong (they would at my church). But then, Jews have issues with the Incarnation in the first place, so you only would have been buying time by talking to her about the statue …

    Of course, “evangelicals” have just as many issues with confusing a medium’s message with the God it deals with. Just ask my wife, who once was chastised for putting her Bible on the floor at her Baptist church. Sometimes even adults get confused about who or what it is we’re supposed to be reverencing. The problem isn’t with the Bible or the statues, it’s when people confuse these things with God. And if you think that representational art saves you from that problem, try defacing a beautiful calligraphy working of the name of Allah some time.

    I do think it’s interesting that Western art tends to focus less on depicting God the Father than it does God the Son. Of course, I can see theological reasons for this emphasis, to begin with. But depictions of God are, often as not, abstract representations — a triangle bearing the Tetragrammaton, with rays beaming out of it, for example. After all, what does God look like? The Bible doesn’t give us lots of clues. At the very least, we know that Jesus can be depicted as a human — apparently a pretty common one, at that. And somewhere in all this, there’s an idea I can’t quite express. But it goes back to Patrick’s Jewish girlfriend. The same people who are offended by art depicting God — is it possible they’re also offended by flesh that depicts God, if you will? By seeing God reduced to a humble, frail body? Are they offended that we would bow down to this collection of skin, muscle, and bones, and call him God?

  • Patrick (@4), you could’ve asked a 5-year-old. I’m pretty certain at least a few of them would’ve proved her wrong (they would at my church). But then, Jews have issues with the Incarnation in the first place, so you only would have been buying time by talking to her about the statue …

    Of course, “evangelicals” have just as many issues with confusing a medium’s message with the God it deals with. Just ask my wife, who once was chastised for putting her Bible on the floor at her Baptist church. Sometimes even adults get confused about who or what it is we’re supposed to be reverencing. The problem isn’t with the Bible or the statues, it’s when people confuse these things with God. And if you think that representational art saves you from that problem, try defacing a beautiful calligraphy working of the name of Allah some time.

    I do think it’s interesting that Western art tends to focus less on depicting God the Father than it does God the Son. Of course, I can see theological reasons for this emphasis, to begin with. But depictions of God are, often as not, abstract representations — a triangle bearing the Tetragrammaton, with rays beaming out of it, for example. After all, what does God look like? The Bible doesn’t give us lots of clues. At the very least, we know that Jesus can be depicted as a human — apparently a pretty common one, at that. And somewhere in all this, there’s an idea I can’t quite express. But it goes back to Patrick’s Jewish girlfriend. The same people who are offended by art depicting God — is it possible they’re also offended by flesh that depicts God, if you will? By seeing God reduced to a humble, frail body? Are they offended that we would bow down to this collection of skin, muscle, and bones, and call him God?

  • Dan Kempin

    I remember reading an excellent book called “Modern Fascism,” in which the artistic revolution was tied to the cultural revolution. I’ll have to get that out some time and re-read it. . .

    Be that as it may, Fujimura instantly and profoundly changed my perspective on abstract art when he explained that the artist Kazimir Malevich used abstraction as a way to convey transcendence during the religious ban of the Stalin/Lenin era. That got me thinking in a whole new way.

    All the works of the Lord shall declare the glory of the Lord. An artist is himself a work of art, even if he (she) rejects his creator. In the realm of art, much importance is attached to knowing the artist, but isn’t God the artist behind the artist?

    This has led me to ponder abstract work as a glimpse of the transcendent–that which is ordered yet cannot be comprehended. I have certainly looked at such art and literally thought, “That is beyond me.” Ok, maybe there was a bit of sarcasm. Still, it never dawned on me that God is the antitype of that which is beyond me, and art could be a way to ponder that.

    I’m still not saving up for a Pollock. I just don’t have the vision to see the order or the beauty in it–at least not yet.

    But I would not have journeyed at all down this road of insight if not for this blog, so thanks.

  • Dan Kempin

    I remember reading an excellent book called “Modern Fascism,” in which the artistic revolution was tied to the cultural revolution. I’ll have to get that out some time and re-read it. . .

    Be that as it may, Fujimura instantly and profoundly changed my perspective on abstract art when he explained that the artist Kazimir Malevich used abstraction as a way to convey transcendence during the religious ban of the Stalin/Lenin era. That got me thinking in a whole new way.

    All the works of the Lord shall declare the glory of the Lord. An artist is himself a work of art, even if he (she) rejects his creator. In the realm of art, much importance is attached to knowing the artist, but isn’t God the artist behind the artist?

    This has led me to ponder abstract work as a glimpse of the transcendent–that which is ordered yet cannot be comprehended. I have certainly looked at such art and literally thought, “That is beyond me.” Ok, maybe there was a bit of sarcasm. Still, it never dawned on me that God is the antitype of that which is beyond me, and art could be a way to ponder that.

    I’m still not saving up for a Pollock. I just don’t have the vision to see the order or the beauty in it–at least not yet.

    But I would not have journeyed at all down this road of insight if not for this blog, so thanks.

  • Dan Kempin

    tODD, #5,

    Great insight on the incarnation, by the way, and rather poetic to boot.

  • Dan Kempin

    tODD, #5,

    Great insight on the incarnation, by the way, and rather poetic to boot.

  • Boaz

    ‘There is not a 5 year old in this church that doesn’t think that thing is really Jesus and that you aren’t praying to it every Sunday.”

    This just strikes me as bizarre. I don’t see how there is any danger of this, especially in a church that believes he’s on the altar.

  • Boaz

    ‘There is not a 5 year old in this church that doesn’t think that thing is really Jesus and that you aren’t praying to it every Sunday.”

    This just strikes me as bizarre. I don’t see how there is any danger of this, especially in a church that believes he’s on the altar.

  • tODD, Boaz,

    The incarnation wasn’t so much a stumbling block in her particular case. She couldn’t buy the ‘whole resurrection thing.’

    And yes, I’m sure some children might prove her wrong. (I know my boys would pass that test.)
    However, given the sorry state of catechesis in many churches not much shocks me or strikes me as bizarre. Even in very confessional and well catechized churches I’ve seen and heard things that show despite our best efforts, some people aren’t ‘getting it.’

    A friend and mentor often quotes a survey from several years ago showing that a large percentage of Lutherans (including LCMS) believe in some form of salvation by works.
    The president of the board of directors in one of the most confessional churches in SoCal complained to me about the church having too many crucifixes, and having a bloody corpse in your face every time you turn around. (Hmmm…now that person might have issues with the incarnation.)

    Its not a stretch to believe that statues and icons can be stumbling block even in our churches.

  • tODD, Boaz,

    The incarnation wasn’t so much a stumbling block in her particular case. She couldn’t buy the ‘whole resurrection thing.’

    And yes, I’m sure some children might prove her wrong. (I know my boys would pass that test.)
    However, given the sorry state of catechesis in many churches not much shocks me or strikes me as bizarre. Even in very confessional and well catechized churches I’ve seen and heard things that show despite our best efforts, some people aren’t ‘getting it.’

    A friend and mentor often quotes a survey from several years ago showing that a large percentage of Lutherans (including LCMS) believe in some form of salvation by works.
    The president of the board of directors in one of the most confessional churches in SoCal complained to me about the church having too many crucifixes, and having a bloody corpse in your face every time you turn around. (Hmmm…now that person might have issues with the incarnation.)

    Its not a stretch to believe that statues and icons can be stumbling block even in our churches.