And now non-visible art

A major trend in the 20th and 21st century art world has to become ever more “minimalist.”  As artists have tried to achieve the least possible gesture that could be called art–going from representations to idealizations to reductions to basic forms to pure forms to color fields to lines to found objects–they arrived at “conceptual art,” in which there is no art at all, just the idea for the art.  Museums and art buyers can purchase and display the notes that record the idea for the work of art, which is never made.  Now we have “The Museum of Non-Visible Art,” in which there is nothing at all.   And it has recorded its first sale:  Woman Pays $10,000 For ‘Non-Visible’ Work Of Art » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.

At the link, Joe Carter goes into all of this.  He then offers for sale his own line of non-existent art for a mere $19.95 apiece.   He specifies, however, that he only takes money that is real, not imaginary.

Abstract art and Nature

Here is another way to look at abstract or non-representational art. . . .Most of us appreciate the beauty of nature. Most of us appreciate art that makes us aware. perhaps in a heightened way, the beauty of nature, as the best realistic landscape art does. But why is NATURE beautiful? Well, among other things, it has to do with the colors and textures and forms and details and all the little details coming together into a majestic whole. Look at a tree, even a bare tree in winter. Look at the tracery of the limbs, like lacework.

Non-representational artists are trying to achieve a similar effect, working with fields of color, shapes, and designs. They don’t represent anything, anymore than tree branches represent anything. But the result, if done well, can still be beautiful and even sometimes awe-inspiring.

God, if we may say so, is an abstract artist. He created pure aesthetic forms when He designed the universe. He wasn’t representing anything other than His creative will.

This, however, is also the reason representational art is beautiful. In that book I did, Painters of Faith on the Hudson River school artists, I show how those highly-realistic and mostly devoutly Christian landscape painters justified their own approach by saying that they wanted to imitate God’s art.

So there is a sense in which abstract art, in the sense of pure design, is prior to representational art, and the same aesthetic principle justifies them both.

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.