John the Steadfast

The new organization supporting the new “Issues, Etc.” program is being named Brothers of John the Steadfast. I like naming things after people like that (he said from the Cranach blog). Here is a great account of who John the Steadfast was–the brother of and successor to Elector of Saxony Frederick the Wise, literally the first “protestant,” and the Prince who really protected and cultivated the Reformation–by Martin R. Noland. Picture by Cranach:

John the Steadfast

Erasmus, Tyndale, & Contemporary Christian artists

My student Nathan Martin, at Patrol Magazine, launches off after an account of hearing John Piper contrast Tyndale and Erasmus, relating it to contemporary Christian music and other expressions:

The incredibly truncated quote:

…”I linger over this difference between Erasmus and Tyndale because of how amazing it sounds to me like today. Tyndale wrote his books and translated the New Testament and there was a thundering effect, Erasmus wrote his and there was an entertaining effect a, high brow, elitist, layered, nuanceing of church tradition. They satirized the monasteries so they had a ring of radical nature about them, clerical abuses they criticized, but the gospel wasn’t at the center. I’m not going to name any names but there are elitist cool avant-garde, marginally evangelical writers and scholars today who…(feel) as if to be robust and strong and full about what Christ has achieved feels rather distasteful…it is ironic and sad that today supposedly avant-garde writers strike a cool, evasive, imprecise, artistic superficially reformist pose of Erasmus and call it post-modern when in fact it is totally pre-modern, because it is totally permanent.”

Whether it’s in Relevant, Blue like Jazz, or in the Black Cat, it’s hard to find Christians who will explicitly admit that they are Christians, or what exactly being a Christian means. Now, I know why many of these artists and writers have trouble identifying themselves with the particularities of doctrine and teaching; too many of them have been burned by the church in the past and too many of them are still trying to figure out what being a Christian truly means. What I’ve struggled with is when any type of doctrinal or philosophical certainty is greeted with skepticism and condescension, when the gospel is reduced to little more than well-meaning, philosophically vague platitudes that carry no true implications for belief or non-belief.

It’s a difficult thing to get labeled as a Christian in the mainstream or independent art world today, and inspires no end of questions and incessant, sniping prattle. Ask Sufjan Stevens what it’s like to never make it through an interview without his faith being mentioned, ask Dan Layus of Augustana what it’s like to make music with the weight of the faith of his family, church and college hanging over his head. I’ve talked to, and hung out with a number of other artists who face that problem on a day to day basis; what does it mean to be a Christian artist? Or perhaps more precisely, “How much of my faith can I admit to, without being completely labeled as a conservative fundamentalist freak-out?”

I have no great all-encompassing solution to this problem, but I think there are some things you can’t get away from. I’d argue, along with Piper, that Christianity is comprised in the gospel and the gospel is a message that necessarily excludes many other philosophical standpoints from legitimacy. I’m trying so delicately to not make this be a discussion about all these specific points of theology, but at some point and time, Christians have to be willing to be dogmatic about their “theology” because the implications of that theology provides the entire basis for their faith.

The implications of that faith should extend outside of doctrine and into vocation, as another speaker said, the purest theology should produce the most beautiful and excellent art.

Notice how Nathan gets the connection between the gospel and vocation.

Christian art as the cutting edge

Jan Swafford in “Slate” has a fine discussion of Bach’s “Art of the Fugue,” a recording of which is topping the classical charts. The article shows just how wild, avant garde, and mind-blowing the piece is. But especially noteworthy is that the article shows what music criticism can do on the web: Swafford includes audio links of snippets of music to illustrate aurally what he is talking about. See The surprising popularity of Bach’s complex, esoteric The Art of Fugue.

We have seen something similar in our recent postings on the art of Lucas Cranach, as experts are realizing just how innovative he was.

Here is the point: these devoutly Christian, yea, Lutheran, artists were not stodgy. Their faith did not prevent them from being creative, original, and cutting-edged. Indeed, I would argue that their faith opened their imaginations up to complexity, depth, and aesthetics of the highest order.

I have noticed that in English literature, the most overtly pious authors are also the most innovative: George Herbert reinvented poetry by breaking it free from a dependence on set stanzaic forms, inventing a new form to reflect the meaning of each poem. Milton pursued things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme. Hopkins re-invented poetry again, on the level of the very line and metric foot. Eliot invented literary modernism, not just before his conversion but afterwards as well.

Christian artists today, in whatever genre, will have no cultural impact as long as they merely follow the culture and try to emulate non-Christian artists. The very culture is crying out for something different, a way out of the current aesthetic and philosophical dead-ends. Christians, who have a basis for art that secularists lack, can lead our civilization out of its wilderness. If, that is, Christian artists can get in touch with that basis in the creativity of God, if they can take their part in the Christian artistic tradition, and if they can recover art as a Christian vocation.

The (in)humanities at Yale

You have probably heard of that other example of monstrous evil, Aliza Shvarts, the Yale student who created a work of “art” that consisted of repeatedly conceiving via artificial insemination and repeatedly giving herself an abortion. Though some have said it was a hoax, Shvarts insists that she really did this to yourself and to her unborn children.

Washington Post editorial page journalist Charles Lane goes into what she meant with her work of “art” and what this, in turn, tells us about what she had been learning at Yale. From The Art of Folly at Yale:

Among her “conceptual goals,” she wrote in the Yale Daily News, was “to assert that often, normative understandings of biological function are a mythology imposed on form. It is this mythology that creates the sexist, racist, ableist, nationalist and homophobic perspective, distinguishing what body parts are ‘meant’ to do from their physical capability.” Shvarts wanted to show that “it is a myth that ovaries and a uterus are ‘meant’ to birth a child.”

Lane segues into a review of a book by a Yale professor who protests what his colleagues have done to the humanities:

Last year, Anthony T. Kronman, the former dean of Yale’s law school, published “Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life.” This superb book traces the historical rise and fall of the humanities, which, Kronman writes, “are not merely in a crisis. They are in danger of becoming a laughingstock, both within the academy and outside it.”

In the past, Kronman argues, colleges and universities understood that undergraduates were hungry for answers to the Big Question: What is the meaning of life? And schools believed that not only religion but also higher education could help students find them. Humanities departments focused on great works of Western civilization, from Homer to Shakespeare. In short, Kronman writes, they gave their students a four-year seat in the unending “great conversation” of their civilization.

But between political correctness and the “publish or perish” ethic of the modern research university, the humanities have lost the desire and the capability to guide students’ spiritual quests. Instead, humanities professors stake their authority on an unrelenting critique not just of contemporary society but of meaning itself.

Once, humanities teachers cultivated perspective in their young charges; now, many of them instill grievance. The biological function of female reproductive organs can be portrayed as some kind of injustice. Or so Aliza Shvarts learned.

As I keep saying, where I am, at Patrick Henry College, we still cultivate the Humanities as this book says we should, as opposed to the inhumanities that dominate higher education elsewhere.

Cranach & Dürer day

Yesterday, April 6, was the day set aside to commemorate the two Reformation artists Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Dürer, this being the day the latter artist died. (Are Lutherans the only ones to mark this day? Did these artists get on the Anglican calendar? I believe the ELCA throws in Michaelangelo, the humanist Catholic artist. Does anyone know?)

Read A man for all seasons – Spring 2008 – RA Magazine – Royal Academy of Arts, growing out of the big Cranach exhibit at the Royal Academy that has the contemporary art world all astonished. The article surveys Cranach’s career in an interesting way, though the author does not “get” the Christian part, or how the Reformation put together what this critic assumes is contradictory.

Albrecht Dürer was an even greater and more influential artist. He pioneered highly realistic painting, including the genre of the human-free landscape. He was earlier than Cranach, captivated by Luther’s Reformation when it was brand new and he was in his last years. His most famous work: Those oft-reproduced praying hands.

Wikipedia has some good write-ups, with samples of their work, for both Cranach and
Dürer.

Durer's Praying Hands

The anti-Cranach

You might want to contrast the work of Cranach & Durer on their special day with another artist much in the news, the late Andy Warhol. The conservative art critic says this about him in a posting entitled Roger Kimball Warhol vs. art:

According to the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, Andy Warhol was the nearest thing to a “philosophical genius” that twentieth-century art produced. Why? Because he helped complete the assault—begun by Marcel Duchamp in the early years of the 20th century—on the traditional understanding of art as a distinctive, and distinctively valuable, realm of experience. Whether that activity is best understood as “philosophical” I will leave to one side. It certainly did a lot to change, not to say undermine, practice of art in the later part of the twentieth century. I have always felt that Warhol’s chief talent was not philosophical but promotional. The man had an uncanny talent—genius, even—for publicity. For me, his remark that “Art is what you can get away with” takes us close to the center of his achievement—not, I believe, an aesthetic achievement, or even a philosophical one, but assuredly something special in the annals of shameless cultural hucksterism.
Warholism is not the only perspective determining the shape of the art world today, but it is a strong, perhaps a dominant, force.

Think of that: a dominant force in today’s art world rejects the notion that art is a distinctively valuable realm of experience.

Warhol, of course, is the “pop-artist” of Campbell Soup cans, Marilyn Monroe prints, and films such as “Sleep,” consisting of 5 and a half hours that show nothing more than a man sleeping. That work was dutifully screened in Washington lately.

Christians have been accused, rightly in some cases, of rejecting art, but today it’s the art world that’s rejecting art!

Do you see why Christians have an ADVANTAGE over the secularists when it comes to art?


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