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

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?

Another big-name author turns to the right

First David Mamet, now Tom Stoppard, the British playwright, turns away in revulsion from 1960’s-era radicalism to find his inner conservative. Read 1968: The year of the posturing rebel.

Apprehending Beauty

In a comment to “Aesthetics & American Idol,” Reader Mason Ian perfectly describes the “arduous” process of perceiving the greatest beauty:

Learning to subjectively like what is objectively good at first bounced off of my 3am quick-read blog-scan. But then I realized that this exact thing happened to me and I shall anecdote-ize it thus:

When first I approached Milton’s Paradise Lost I knew that I “should” treasure it as a sublime and beautiful epic of written art. But i could only (at first) force myself to appreciate it from the outside, like looking at an utterly alien thing that all others considered beautiful. You look at it sideways, squint a bit, trying to see what they see… but it is unutterably alien. Perhaps you see an angle here or there that has a symmetrical form that is pleasing, a curve here, a line there… but the whole is so beyond your current vantage point that the beauty is lost by your own unelevated perspective.

Then, after forcing yourself to merely “mentally ascribe” the designation of beauty to the form, you slowly achieve the ability to connect the slivers of recognizable traits of beauty that you CAN see from your current state.

This is achieved in literature by reading more. The more you read, the more you read. Sounds like very droll truism, but by it I mean the process by which reading one book end us turing you on to several other books, other authors, different ideas and concepts and styles. I read Samuel Taylor Coleridge and find a dozen more obscure authors through his quotes and references, which in turn leads me to more reading. Then, after ten years I come back to Milton and find that Paradise Lost IS beautiful to me in a very different way than the alien beauty I had firs admired as an outsider.

So at first I liked it for reasons outside of myself (others regarded it as the pinnacle of English poetry, etc, etc) then I learned to love it myself, through my own tastes and my own reflection.

We go from being outsiders to being insiders.

However, as it was pointed out, hollywood goes another way. The simple and quick way. the way of the lowest common denominator. Grasping beauty and goodness is a slow art that requires years of honing and exercise. Who has time? Pare down the representation of love to three lines of cheesy dialogue and a wet kissing scene and the audience is satisfied right?

Hardly. Here’s to those who take the time to find and create what is beautiful. It is a long and arduous journey but one which holds the most epic of rewards.

See, Milton and Shakespeare don’t make concessions to our impoverished vocabularies. You may have to read them with a dictionary at first. And they don’t pause every twelve minutes for a word from their sponsors. They go their own way and we have to catch up. But it is worth it when we do. The very subjective pleasure, if you want to reduce everything to this, is so much greater and deeper and more intense with these writers than with the lesser entertainment we content ourselves with (for one thing because we don’t always want to involve ourselves so much or work so hard–which is fine sometimes, as long as we don’t reduce our aesthetic standards to our own lazy pleasures and exclude what is really objectively good).