Defacing Beauty with a Message?

Samuel Smith’s thoughts on our recent post about study of the arts being good in itself, from his comment and his maplemountain blog site:

Art does not have to have any “practical” utility to be of value. If it is good, it has value that need not be “useful.” And I mean useful in a practical way. To a large degree Christian artists have become utilitarians, seeing art as merely a vehicle for transmitting a message. And that is not the sole purpose of art. I won’t say that art cannot be a medium for a message, but I believe this very often serves to cheapen the art and the message it is presenting, usually in an ungainly way.

But aren’t we to live and breath for the glory of God?

When explaining my view on this, I often resort to “The Tree Illustration.” I am fond of trees, even with an amazing deficiency of botanical understanding (there’s something in that, I suppose). Imagine the most beautiful tree you have ever seen. What beauty, what serenity, what transcendence it conveys. It speaks plainly of the glory of the Creator. Now imagine that same tree, but with “John 3:16″ crudely spray-painted on the trunk. Now this tree, already displaying its God-given purpose, becomes polluted by being transformed into a mere medium for a message.

Now, hold on. I hear you. I know that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. That’s a fact. I am one who does not buy into the idea (attributed, I believe erroneously, to St. Francis of Assisi) that we ought to “Preach the Gospel, and if possible use words.” The Gospel is conveyed by words. God loves Words so much that he has chosen to communicate to man primarily through words, his Word, and most profoundly through his Son, referred to in Scripture as “the Word.” So words matter, the Gospel matters, and it must be preached using words. But that does not require that we put Bible verses on the Mona Lisa. That doesn’t help either the message of the cross, or the art done to the glory of God (or art that necessarily glorifies God by it’s sub-creative worth).

I believe that engaging in art, be it writing a novel, painting a canvas, composing music, sketching a tree, writing poetry, etc., has value. It has value even without a “conversion scene”, or an “allegory of Christ”, or “Bible verses above the lyrics”, or a “quota of Jesus references in a song.” It has value because it is part of the order of God to convey the beauty of the common, and the thrill of the transcendent in his world through every noble facet of our imaginations. Imagination is crucial to the Christian, it is where the Lordship of Christ is established and his reign issues in our lives. If he is not Lord there, then where? And I do not mean, by imagination, the unreal. But the most real. The place of the soul…our very selves. As C.S. Lewis said: “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

. . . I think we ought to engage in art to the Glory of God, and that leads us necessarily to art that expresses Beauty and Goodness. Here’s my semi-concise pseudo-summary: We are either engaging in art for goodness’ sake, or we are forsaking good art.

What’s the use of studying a poem?

Thanks to Frank Sonnek for alerting me to this piece by literary critic Stanley Fish, trying to figure out what the value is of literary study.  He begins with a fine reading of some lines from George Herbert, and he nails Herbert’s Reformation emphasis on how Christ does EVERYTHING for our salvation.

Fish became a big postmodernist theorist, but he was also a first-rate George Herbert critic.  In fact, he was, like me, an early promoter of a Reformation reading of Herbert’s spirituality, in contrast to the Roman Catholic interpretations that dominated the scholarship until then.

So Fish tosses off this brilliant little example explaining a line from Herbert.  And, in fact, his overall discussion shooting down the various claimed uses for this sort of thing (to change your life?  not really.  to make you a critical thinker?  other things can do that too.  to enrich your conversation in the culture?  or make the conversation duller.  to promote liberal thinking?  but conservatives read the same texts) is pretty much true.

But what he is no longer able to do, given his postmodernist worldview–which makes him have to explain everything in terms of a “community of discourse”–is to use classical, Aristotelian analysis, whereby some things, such as a poem and studying a poem, are good IN THEMSELVES.  Not everything HAS to be “useful” (good because it leads to other goods).   The pursuit of things good in themselves was also the hallmark of a classical, liberal arts education (as Cardinal Newman explains).

Cranach makes the New Yorker

Not the blog, the artist. The article lauds Lucas Cranach, giving a detailed account of his art and a fair, though not quite comprehending, account of his faith. (Including the rather surprised revelation that “Sex was O.K. with Luther.”) A summary of the author’s thesis:

As an artist, he siphoned his era’s chaotic energies into wonderments of style. His re-visionings of humanity are philosophically resonant and lots of fun.

HT: Paul McCain

The greatest work of art in the whole cosmos?

Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German advant garde composer of mostly non-melodic music, has died. He became best known to the public when he commented that the September 11 attacks constituted “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.”

“Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn’t even dream of in music, people rehearsing like mad for 10 years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying, just imagine what happened there,” he elaborated. “You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 [sic] people are dispatched to the afterlife, in a single moment.”

Later, he backtracked a little, saying that the attacks were “Lucifer’s” greatest work of art.

Form & Meaning in Church Architecture

The Third Church of Christ, Scientist, in Washington, D.C., has been declared a historical landmark because it is such a good example of the architectural style known as “Brutalism.” The building is only 36 years old, it has no windows, it is ugly, it is utterly unfunctional, and the congregation itself hates it. But now it cannot be demolished, as the congregation wants to do, or even substantially remodeled.

“Brutalism” was a radical, in-your-face style of architectural “modernism,” brutally rejecting ornament, meaning, and obsolete pre-modern notions such as beauty. It is characterized by the use of extremely rough, hardly-finished concrete, emphasizing the nitty-gritty materiality that is all there is to existence.

Brutalism for a Church

So why would a church want a building in the “brutalist” style? I mean, Christian Scientists don’t even believe in the true existence of the material world, so that their theology is contradicted by every detail in the building! Well, back in 1971, some of you may recall, churches wanted to be relevant to the modern world, and “brutalism” must have seemed very cutting-edge and impressive, a sure way to draw in denizens of “the secular city.”

Well, the “brutalist” sanctuary was designed to hold 400 worshippers, apparently the size of the congregation in 1971, but now it has only 40 or so. And, despite its designation as a historical relic, the building is mocked and derided as a blight to the neighborhood by the people who live in the city. One lesson to be learned is that committing yourself to a fashion is the surest way to be old-fashioned, since, by definition, fashions are always changing. Notice, by contrast, that the classical architecture of Washington’s national buildings is STILL magnificent and that it never ages in its appeal.

Another lesson is for churches today. A basic principle of aesthetics is that the form must be in harmony with the content. And when they diverge, it is the FORM that is going to communicate more than the content that it is supposed to convey. Today we have church buildings designed like pre-fab industrial buildings (conveying the message that the faith is cheap and temporary), concert halls (conveying the message that faith has to do with entertainment) and shopping malls (conveying the message that faith has to do with consumerism). Pre-modern churches were built in the shape of crosses, conveying the message that in the church people come together in the Cross of Jesus Christ. You can certainly have contemporary church architecture. My first Lutheran church had a contemporary style that communicated powerful Christian messages: a massive concrete altar; a skylight pouring in light from above; steel and brick structures that communicated the solidity and strength of what was taught in that building.)

Of course, the Gospel can be preached in any style of building or in no building. But just remember, the laws of aesthetics and the relation of form and meaning operate whether anybody likes them or not. Beware of unintended messages. And of becoming irrelevant in one’s zeal to be relevant. Remember the “brutalist” church in D.C. Stop by and see for yourself. It’s going to be around for a long time.

Architecture and the Aesthetics of Totalitarianism

The arts, of all kinds, give us insights into how and what their creators think and feel–that is, to their worldview. In this story on some of the grandiose building projects of Venezuelan dictator wannabe Hugo Chavez, Charles Lane draws on some actual aesthetic scholarship to make some revealing points about “high modernism” and why that style has been so attractive to totalitarians:

Chávez acts on an ideology that anthropologist James C. Scott of Yale has called “high modernism.” In his brilliant 1998 book about the phenomenon, “Seeing Like a State,” Scott explored the peculiar mix of good intentions and megalomania that has driven one unchecked government after another to pursue the dream of a reconcentrated populace: “a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.”

Central to high modernism is an aesthetic sense that prefers straight lines and right angles to the crooked pathways and sprawling gardens of spontaneous rural development. Nyerere, for example, was determined to give his East African country a landscape dotted with symmetrical “proper” villages, like those he had seen in England.

Architecturally and ecologically unsustainable, high modernist projects always collapse of their own weight sooner or later. As Scott writes, “the history of Third World development is littered with the debris of huge agricultural schemes and new cities . . . that have failed their residents.” Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union fit that assessment also, as visitors to Germany’s Eisenhuettenstadt, begun in the 1950s as Stalinstadt, can attest. Designated “the first socialist city on German soil” by East Germany’s Communists, it was plunked down next to an immense steel mill and commanded to thrive. Today, the depressed city is hemorrhaging residents.

Yet the high-modernist experiments continue — think of China’s Three Gorges Dam and the accompanying vast uprooting of villages. Fundamentally, they are not about economics. High modernism is the architecture of centralized political control. When people live scattered across the countryside or, in the case of Venezuela, clinging to the mountainsides around the capital, they’re relatively hard to govern in any fashion, let alone by authoritarian means. In government-built grids, Scott notes, they can be identified, counted, conscripted and monitored.