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.

How God is in the world

Longtime Cranach reader and commenter Dan Kempen “got” yesterday’s post Makoto Fujimura on art, paganism, and worship. His reflections are worth considering in themselves:

God is in the world, not merely as the one who has authority over it, but as the one who is creating it. Even in a broken world, everything God creates is a work of art. Everything God creates is a masterpiece. There is a wonder of God in the created world that is both immanent and transcendent. It is not the deification of “nature,” but the perception of the handiwork of God, and, to follow Makoto Fujimura, when your eyes are opened, you can even see the second article woven into the first. You can perceive the Grace of God in the very fabric of his creation.

Granted that, strictly speaking, the grace of God is revealed in His Word rather than creation as such, in what sense is that last sentence true?

Could this be the basis of a Christian environmentalism? How would it be different from regular environmentalism?

Do you see how this relates also to vocation?


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