Friday, June 1, 2018

The Death of Meaning and the Death of Art

"Life doesn't mean anything."
Meaningless goodness?

More than twenty years ago I ducked out of a San Francisco rain shower into a doorway, as it turned out, the doorway to a steep staircase leading up five flights to an artist’s loft. I entered and saw the strangest sight.

One entire wall was spanned by a wooden frame stretched with a canvas. But not just any canvas. This one was a hodgepodge of old clothes: jeans, t-shirts, overalls, zippers, buttons, and snaps--a sort of grab-bag, thrift-store canvas. I watched in amazement as the artist smeared paint on his canvas, dipping randomly from a variety of paint cans.

“Unusual canvas,” I ventured at last.

“Pretty cool, huh?” he replied, grinning at me as he continued to apply paint over his shoulder with a large brush.

After several moments of chat about his creation, I asked if his artwork was didactic.

Di—what?” he replied.

I tried again. “Does it mean something?”

“Mean something?” he snorted, flicking a wet brush at a pair of paint-stiffened trousers. “Of course it doesn’t mean anything. Life doesn’t mean anything.”

“So why do you bother doing it?”

“Because I’m good at it.”

Curious about the criteria he used to come to this absolutist conclusion, I probed further. How could life be meaningless and he be good or bad at anything? If it was meaningless wouldn’t it be impossible to measure goodness or badness? He frowned.

Believing that life doesn’t mean anything, after all, is an evaluative perspective, a belief. As C. S. Lewis observed, “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning.” Thus, by denying that life means anything, he unwittingly, admitted that meaning does exist--absolutely. If it didn’t we would never have had the discussion, nor would he bother creating art that attempts to mirror his nihilistic philosophy of life. At this point, the intricacies of his painting seemed to require more of his concentration. So I left.

Art as religion

In the same breath that many artists and academics declare that there are no absolutes, they say things like, “Art is a means of giving order to the chaos of experience.” “Art represents the source of human values.” “Art gives meaning to life.” Cultural Editor for World magazine, Gene Edward Veith, suggests that these statements are various ways of placing “art and the artist squarely in the position of God—as creator, lawgiver, and redeemer.”

Listen to almost any artist or art critic speak about art and you will hear the terminology of religion: creation, inspiration, transcendence, vision. In this pseudo-religious milieu, artists are the high priests, works of art are the equivalent of relics, the elite appreciators are the worshipers, the adulations uttered are the responses prescribed in the liturgy, taxes to support artists are the forced tithes, grand museums are the temples, and the baffled masses scratching our heads are the equivalent of the heathen unbelievers. Absurdly, all this in a world that demands a separation of church and state!

The resulting “chronological snobbery,” as C. S, Lewis dubbed it, can have the effect of making you feel unsophisticated, a sort of aesthetic atheist. You may begin to feel like your world view is pretty out of touch, not very intellectual. You may even be tempted to feel ashamed of being a Christian. At the end of the day, however, all this is merely another form of idolatry, another way of putting something else in place of the grandeur of truth and making truth look silly. It takes first-rate deception to pull it off, but, then, that’s what the devil is so good at. 

Laws governing freedom in art

There is one constant for the Christian young man trying to sort out what he is to think about art: artistic fashion changes constantly. Ironically, as artists speak in religious terms about their art, a form of self worship, they venerate something that is inherently changing, something that in a very short time will be sneered at by the next generation of artistic gurus.

Art reflects the temper of its culture,” wrote Gene Edward Veith. And a culture that is constantly being shaped and reformed by the transient appetites of people groping for the next amusement, for the next entertainment thrill, for the latest technology, the newest fashion in clothes, or music, or cars, or coffee—will produce art that reflects these flighty, laser-light-show changes.

Still there is another unchangeable law among the artistic elite: the more innovative the better. This rigid law leads immediately to another: the more bazaar, the more shocking, the more valuable the art.

Art in a culture of death                                                                      

Perhaps there is no better example of this than the sensational “death art” of German doctor, Gunther von Hagen, who has developed a technique whereby he can turn human tissue into plastic and shape corpses into “art.” With the help of his father, a retired Nazi SS sergeant, Hagen set up a plastanation factory in Poland where on his father’s last visit he sent sixty human beings to death camps during the war.

Hagen’s art features a dead man riding a skinned horse, the man’s corpse positioned holding both the horse’s brain and his own. It gets much worse. With the aid of US taxpayers, human corpses, skinned and contorted into grotesque life-like, sometimes provocative poses, have created a freaky sensation in American art and science museums.  Since 1997, his “Body Works” art has been viewed by 17 million museum goers, including thousands of school children, raking in some $200 million dollars in the bargain.

For the Christian, this should not be a close call. In Holy Scripture we are taught that our bodies are not our own, that they are temples of the living God. When man made in the image of God dies his body is to be buried, there to await the resurrection of the body; it is not to be burned, mutilated, or desecrated—not even in the all-excusing name of art. Hagen’s morbid creations seem to epitomize what Gene Edward Veith calls “art in the culture of death.”  

Beauty and the beholder

            A former student, frustrated at the ugliness all around him while deployed on board ship during the Global War on Terror emailed me with questions about art and beauty. He wrote: “Being surrounded by the people I have been around for the last few months has started my mind on a question. What makes some people capable of enjoying beauty and others not? Why am I able to enjoy literature, poetry, and J. S. Bach and my shipmates are not? Secondly, what makes something beautiful? I know we talked about this in high school. I’m ashamed to say that I probably wasn't paying good enough attention, but I was hoping for a refresher.”

My reply: “Confusion results when postmoderns shape the argument by insisting that everything, including beauty, is simply a matter of taste: like favorite flavors of ice cream. It is critical to their argument that there be no universal qualities of beauty. Their insistence notwithstanding, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. Though art seems subjective, any thoughtful Christian is reality-bound to disagree with the elitists here. Why? Because there are universal non-cultural, non-ethnic agreements about beauty.

“Few would attempt to disagree that all peoples, wherever they are in the continuum of civilization, find beauty in a sunset, in a mother tenderly caring for a newborn, the vastness of the ocean, the music of the breaking surf, sunlight sparkling on a mountain lake, the soaring of an eagle —all this creates a sublime wonder in everyone regardless of culture, ethnicity, or gender. The things that are truly beautiful imitate the parts of our world less tainted by the fall, or they create a sense of longing for those things. When art features sin it ought to be in a way that unmasks fallen-ness for what it is. In the end, all true art is redemptive; it lifts us above the base things and gives us a longing for the perfections of heaven.

“So why do the guys on the ship not appreciate Bach and beautiful things? One explanation is that they have been so bent by pop culture and the need for immediate gratification that they have no appetite for transcendent beautiful things. They are enslaved to immediate and tactile gratification in the music they listen to, the pornography they devour, and the games and videos to which they have made themselves willing slaves.

“Real beauty represented in fine art lifts us out of ourselves, elevates us above our desires for twisted gratification and shows us a glimmer of what a world would be like if it were not wrenched from its original design into something barbaric and crude.

Hell on the ship

“It is all very tragic, Stuart. The people on your ship are lost, and their indifference or disdain for true beauty is simply an expression of their lostness. I hope this will deepen your compassion for them and your appreciation for a mother who introduced you to art and beauty when you were very young. Moreover, I hope it will create a deeper longing for heaven and eternity where all that is bent and ugly, the rap, pornography, drunkenness will vanish and Bach and Rembrandt—and a host of other great artists--will be loved by all!

“The fact that beauty has survived, even in our fallen world, is further demonstration of the truly great artists’ eternal conception of beauty. Perhaps Bach has outlived the vicissitudes of the centuries because he struck the chord of eternity in his music. His is music that must endure. And what’s true of music must also be true of visual art and the rest. Raunchy, throw-away music, like raunchy visual art, twists goodness out of shape and then celebrates the deformity instead of the eternal beauties.

“The pounding ugliness of what your shipmates listen to does not strike the chord of eternity, perhaps because what they prefer has broken the instrument with chaos and a celebration of all that is unworthy. Unworthy and ugly, it celebrates not the hints of heaven in this fallen place; it celebrates the relentless foretastes of hell that are strewn all about us. Hell will be many things, but one thing it will be is the absence of beauty. There will be nothing to lift a man above the ugliness that litters hell. I don’t doubt that the ship may sound and look like hell, but your job, Stuart, is to flood that floating Hades with the light of truth, beauty and the love of Christ. Press on, Sailor!”

Art as imitation

Everyone wants to be original--especially artists. But herein lies the problem and the great challenge. All art is imitative. Art by definition is not the real thing; it is the artificial thing—thus, the source of the name “art.” So art that imitates dark and sinful things in non redemptive ways is imitating the wrong things. Like the “art” preferred by sailors on Stuart’s ship, that art will inevitably be an ugly imitation of hell.

It all starts with theology. Only in a world severed from moral absolutes can art be anything the artists wants it to be, but not so in the real world. In our world an artist can bag up his own excrement, dub it “art,” and send it to museums to be displayed at the expense of the grossed-out, but dutifully un-protesting public. In God’s world--the real world--this is non-redemptive and ugly--and therefore not art.

            It is perhaps not surprising that man’s theological rebellion against, God the ultimate original Creator of all beauty, finds virulent expression in art. Many artists are affronted that they cannot be ultimate originators of anything. Desperate to assert their authority over creative expression, they are driven to innovate. They don’t want to be seen as imitators of anything or anyone—especially not the Creator God of the Bible. Thus, in a world devoid of absolute values, the value of art is measured by individual expression, innovation, and the bazaar. And artists continue to insist that their “Art represents the source of human values.”

Play by the intellectual elitists’ rules and you will no longer be able to define beauty or art. Accept the cultural elitists’ supposed authority over art and that authority will encompass every other area of life. It’s what they want. Remember how expansively they speak about art: “Art gives meaning to life.” Accept their authority over art and eventually things like truth, liberty, justice will also be defined by the elite. Tyranny in art leads to tyranny in everything else.

When political leaders see themselves as “the makers of manners,” as Shakespeare’s Henry V quipped to his battle-prize bride, law and justice are redefined for the self-gratification of the tyrant. So in matters of art. The elite are not the makers of artistic manners, though they work very hard at intimidating us into believing this. Art, like truth and justice, must be guided by universal absolutes, otherwise we live in an inconsistent world, a world none of us can count on, a world without gravity, a chaotic and ugly world.

Socrates, on a quest for the source of wisdom, discovered that Greek artisans, though skillful with stone, were unwise because they projected their skill with the chisel into the notion “that they also knew all sorts of high matters.” Socrates concluded his inquiry with the words, “God only is wise,” or put another way: Man’s skill, his wisdom, in any field is the gift of God, the great originator of all skill.

A wise ancient poet put it still better. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). Do you want skill (wisdom) to appreciate or create beautiful art? Fear the Lord; he alone is the “beginning of wisdom.”

A wise man, then, acknowledges that his skill is not innate but derived, given to him from above, a gift of God, regulated by his laws. So throughout the Bible, art is a means of reflecting the glory of God, the originator of all creative beauty. However unsophisticated it sounds to the world’s ears, God, de jure, by right, defines both beauty and art.

Gaze on ultimate beauty

Perhaps the advice biblically informed Shakespeare has Hamlet give actors helps shed light on these questions about art. The Bard wrote that the purpose of his art was “to hold the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature.” Shakespeare’s summary of the imitative purpose of art sounds odd in a world that is morally, intellectually, spiritually, and aesthetically adrift. When the world rejects absolutes it loses the capability of showing “virtue her own features” in art, or in any other dimension of life.

Though it is possible for an artist to create a worthy image of something that is not at first blush beautiful (crucifixion is not beautiful), all artistic endeavor must be regulated by the light of God’s word. Paul in his letter to the Philippians gives us the final word about art and life: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Therefore, the Christian young man will only set before his mind and eyes art that leads to truth, purity, and loveliness. Art worthy of the title must be excellent and praiseworthy. But not according to the transient opinions of elitist critics—excellent and praiseworthy according to God’s definition. And know this, in the Bible, “excellent” and “praiseworthy” are not subjective terms. 
Vast and wonderfully varied as human creativity and art is, a subject worthy of a lifetime of enjoyment and discovery, how does a young man keep his way pure in matters of art? Be like the Psalmist: “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord…” Live your life gazing on the beauty of the Lord and you will have little difficulty defining beauty, appreciating beauty, or creating beauty.    

Douglas Bond is author of more than 25 books, conference speaker, European tour leader, award-winning teacher. This post is an excerpt from his book HOLD FAST In a Broken World, in his Fathers & Sons devotional series. Subscribe to his blog and his website