Sunday, 14 December 2008

Ten theological theses on art

I was talking the other day about art with the delightful and incomparable Oliver Crisp (who went to art school before he studied theology). So here’s my attempt at ten brief theses on art (with a picture below of one of my favourite paintings in New York – Picasso’s 1936 Girl Asleep at a Table):

  1. Art is not a representation of the world or an expression of feeling, but a construction of form
  2. Nature is flawed; art is more perfect than nature
  3. Art is therefore a parable of the redemption of the world
  4. Art is tradition; it opens the future by renewing the past
  5. Art is the occurrence of the new; metaphysics trails in art’s wake
  6. Art may be true or good to the extent that it seeks only the beautiful
  7. Didacticism is therefore the enemy of art. Bad art is not harmless; it is a betrayal of the world, violence against beauty
  8. Beauty in art can take form as grotesqueness, fragmentation and dissonance
  9. The beauty of grotesqueness, fragmentation and dissonance has a special proximity to a Christian theology of the cross
  10. God is beauty; the crucified Christ is the beauty of God

31 Comments:

Troy Polidori said...

Great stuff, Ben. My favorite band is Sonic Youth, and I like to think that they fit this ideal quite well. The fact that such beautifully atonal noise can be the result of a screwdriver jammed into the neck of a guitar seems to me to have some kind of parallel to the fact that cosmic redemption is to be found in a man upon a cross.

Micheal said...

In distinguishing art from nature, are you claiming a special place for art as a redemptive act (as opposed to, say, engineering)? Also, I'm not sure what you mean by "didacticism." I have encountered much good art that is "didactic" (for example, the Stations of the Cross in many cathedrals; many nursery rhymes; certain poems). In contemporary usage, "didactic" is usually code for "art whose principles I disagree with," at least in my experience.

Daniel said...

As a visual artist, I often find these kind of 'Art is/is not' kind of propositions interesting and valuable even when i have a lot of questions about them. Ben's list is particularly challenging and deserves some reflection. However, i have a couple of questions;

1. why can't art be all three, representation, expression, construction, and more! ('will' ala Schopenhauer, Truth--Monet/Derrida, unveiling work--Heidegger) ?

2. i am new to this blog but most anytime someone uses the word 'nature' i like to see a definition or discussion of what kind of categories are being constructed.

3. 'art is a parable' i like that. (perhaps 'is' is a little strong? maybe 'can be' a parable of redemption.

4. 'Art is tradition...' i have no idea what that might mean, but sounds catchy.

5. 'art only seeks beautiful...' again, 'beautiful' is just one of them dang words that just begs a little explication (i am not now nor have i ever been a Kantian, neo or otherwise).

6. '...bad art...' well, gosh darn it, this is getting tiresome, but 'bad art?' your gunna have to write a little more about that. and as one who has painted the "stations of the cross' (I also paint orthodox icons) i agree with that other fellow about about 'didactisism' as an enemy of art, but then maybe i don't understand what you mean, does that make me an 'enemy'? oh my.

7. You came in for a strong finish here Ben, "the crucified Christ is the beauty of God." Now this deserves some reflection on my part. I haven't thought about this way before. I may inscribe it on a painting if thats all right with you.

thanks for the thoughtful post, obliged Daniel

Art is not a representation of the world or an expression of feeling, but a construction of form
Nature is flawed; art is more perfect than nature
Art is therefore a parable of the redemption of the world
Art is tradition; it opens the future by renewing the past
Art is the occurrence of the new; metaphysics trails in art’s wake
Art may be true or good to the extent that it seeks only the beautiful
Didacticism is therefore the enemy of art. Bad art is not harmless; it is a betrayal of the world, violence against beauty
Beauty in art can take form as grotesqueness, fragmentation and dissonance
The beauty of grotesqueness, fragmentation and dissonance has a special proximity to a Christian theology of the cross
God is beauty; the crucified Christ is the beauty of God

'sychormi' is the posting, authorization word. Synchronized oragami? interesting having a computer compel me to prove that i am human.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

As a composer and musician this list skews pretty heavily toward visual art and seems to do so at the expense of all other forms of art. Music isn't representational as such but it can express both feelings and idea. Formal innovation within tradition (4 and 5) happened in music because composers in the age of Haydn didn't see the prelude or fugue or suite as adequate forms to express the ideas or feelings of their own time.

Didacticism and its mileage varies. One generations true art will seem merely didactic to the next. And if didacticism is the enemy of art why write a ten point list? :)

Michael F. Bird said...

Ben,
Oliver is such a great chap isn't he! I never knew that he went to art school.

discard said...

A big problem here: (7) criticism didacticism because "it is a betrayal of the world", yet in (2) and (3) you basically claim that that nature is flawed and needs art's redemption. So musn't art, by virtue of its redemptive essence, be a kind of didacticism?

Here, I think, is the secret agreement between didactic art and Christian theology -- a redemption from above or outside nature.

(As an aside: surely nature is an artifice of itself, beavers making dams, the Australian bird that cuts up leaves and turns them over to create a color scheme for itself, etc.)

Casey Klahn said...

Art may be a representation, and expressive, and a construction of form. The "form" part lies in the formal realm of art, while the first two aspects relate to metaphysical parts of art.
Good stuff here. I'm glad I found your blog as I have theological training, but now I'm a Fine Artist. By the way, the art blog world (where theology is lesser known stuff) is very very small compared to the broader blogosphere. I am out exploring out-of-niche today.
Creativity is the chief nexus between art and God, I think.

Samuel said...

Where is the resurrection? The pattern in your theology (on this blog), Ben, of focusing on the crucifixion apart from and not in the light of the resurrection strikes me as dangerous and distorting.

The distortion and agony of the Christ on the cross are reflections, even the embodiment of, the distortion and agony of sin, the destruction of which is why God undertoook the task of redemption. To fail to link distortion and agony with sin - not in a moralizing sense, mind, but at least theologically - seems to verge on a celebration of disorder and disruption for its own sake.

I'm not against "ugly" art as such, but ugliness for its own sake is not beautiful in any sense. The "for the sake of" and "in the light of" seem crucial when considering "grotesqueness, fragmentation, and dissonance," in art and theology. Crucixifion is for the sake of redemption and stands in the light of resurrection of the body and the restoration and recreation of the created order. Without these things the death of Christ seems to be less than that to which the Christian faith bears witness because it would exist outside of the mininuml contextual determination given it by the Christian faith.

Sorry if I am singing a one note tune here . . .

Daniel said...

note to Casey Klahn: liked your post, i see you are from washington and that you have shown at the Karlson/gray gallery here in langley on Whidbey Island where i live! nice to meet you, Daniel

Casey Klahn said...

Daniel, nice to met you. You'll have to ask Wendy to see my work. My pastels will be hung in January, though.

Nice to meet you, too. Hey, I am off now to query "resurrection" in the search box of this present blog!

Samuel takes the authors to task. I find a particular Godly beauty in Christ's death on the cross - redemptive behavior; submission. But the resurrection is indeed the foundational element of our salvation.

Well, I have read some posts, and I should say I hold off any negative judgment. The ten thesis (somehow referred to as theological) on art are provisional; as he says, "an attempt at..." Give the man a break, and perhaps I will try my own ten thesis, although I haven't discussed theology in-depth since graduating Bible College in @1980.

Daniel said...

thanks Casey, i will check it out. will you be coming over for the hanging? let me know, perhaps i will drop by. my email is dannya54@whidbey.com
obliged, Daniel

theologyandculture said...

I just finished a course, surveying the entirety of Art History throughout the Western world. It's fascinating to see this list, mainly because it drips so much of the postmodern aesthetic.

And I don't mean that as a bad thing- it's just interesting.

If we lived in any other time period (Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Romanticism, Impressionism, Expressionism, etc.), this list would look radically different. It is just fascinatingly postmodern, aesthetically speaking.

Just some thoughts =D.

-Aaron

Casey Klahn said...

I am purposefully non-Postmodernist, myself. But, I do feel that some of the contemporary art creeds evolve from art history and look a lot like Post Modernism.

The best crit. of PM art creed is the current trend towards aesthetics and small "r" realism. We are indeed supposed to be past PM-ism, anyway, aren't we?

Daniel said...

theologyandculture said..." It's fascinating to see this list, mainly because it drips so much of the postmodern aesthetic." And I don't mean that as a bad thing...."

Now there is a ideological back aching for the post-modern lash!!

"drip |drip| verb
ORIGIN Old English dryppan, drȳpen, of Germanic origin; related to Danish dryppe, also to drop
his hands were dripping with blood.
• [ trans. ] cause or allow (a liquid) to fall in such a way : the candle was dripping wax down one side.
• figurative display a copious amount or degree of a particular quality or thing : the women were dripping with gold and diamonds | [ trans. ] her voice dripped sarcasm.

2 informal a weak and ineffectual person.

3 Architecture a projection or groove on the underside of a cornice, windowsill, or molding that prevents rain from running down the wall below. Compare with dripstone .

Thesaurus
drip verb
1 there was a faucet dripping dribble, leak.
2 sweat dripped from his chin drop, dribble, trickle, drizzle, run, splash, plop; leak, emanate, issue.
2 informal : that drip who fancies you bore; ninny, milksop, namby-pamby; informal creep; wimp, sissy, wuss, candy-ass, pantywaist.

("not that there's anything wrong with that").

obliged, daniel

Natanael Disla said...

Good post. Though, I am thinking about seeing nature as flawed, opposed to art as more perfect.

Art as a reconstruction of reality? "Medium is the message?" vs. the message itself? Interesting...

theologyandculture said...

Daniel:
"display a copious amount or degree of a particular quality or thing"

Contextually, this is (painfully obviously) the one and only meaning I am conveying with the word "drip." I could have similarly said, "It's fascinating to see this list, mainly because it "displays a copious amount or degree"</i of the postmodern aesthetic.

I sincerely meant nothing negative whatsoever- I, myself, subscribe more to postmodernity than otherwise. It's just interesting to think that if we were making such a list in any other time period, all of this would be nonsensical; we would have totally different aesthetics.

Daniel said...

to theologyandculture, hey no offense taken, just having fun. i confess i edited out the def.s from my dict. that i cut and pasted in my post to skew the meaning toward a playful critique. One of the challenges of using 'texts' (of any kind) to prove a point (even a "painfully obvious") one. BTW your site is excellent. best and obliged, Daniel

Ryan said...

I think most talk about ART gets pretty highfalutin pretty fast. Often by then it's not clear what activity you're actually talking about--usually it narrows down to 'Advanced Painters' and 'Modern Composers.'

Any theories about art (and 'good' art and 'bad' art) should capture the following (not exhaustive): Dr. Seuss, Ogden Nash, knitting, Japanese flower arranging, African body painting, basket weaving, fairy tales, tattoos, paperweights, YouTube and, possibly, cooking food.

...and not just Cezanne, Henry James, Shakespeare, Mahler and Jean-Luc Godard.

::aaron g:: said...

To pick up on what Ryan's comment, Dewey's Art as Experience has some great opening chapters on the connection between art and common life.

Jason Goroncy said...

Great stuff Ben. 3 2 reminds me of something Trevor Hart has often said: that art 'adds value' to nature.

kim fabricius said...

Excellent. Very provocative proposals. I think we are still very much in the prolegomena stage of theologies of art. In any cae, let's not get carried away. Auden has two very wise things to say on the subject. First:

it's as well at times
To be reminded that nothing is lovely,
Not even poetry, which is not the case.

And second: Art "is, in the profoundest sense, frivolous. For one thing, and one thing only, is serious: loving one's neighbor as one's self."

Josh said...

The phrase "the crucified Christ is the beauty of God" is haunting me.

I think I need the resurrection.

kim fabricius said...

"The crucified Christ is the beauty = doxa of God" - that's the Johannine gospel alright.

peter k. said...

Jeremy Begbie:

"As far as divine beauty is concerned, in chapter one I spoke of God's beauty as the beauty of ecstatic, outgoing love for the other. We can now stress that this outgoing love is nowhere more palpable, nowhere more acutely or sharply defined, than in the 'way of the Son of God into the country'; here the intratrinitarian agape 'goes out' to that extremity of darkness into which our rebellion leads us, in order to win us back. This is emphatically not to say that the crucifixion as an event of torture and death is really beautiful and not ugly, if only we would change our perspective. That would be gross sentimentality. But it is to say that in and through this particular torture, crucifixion and death, God's love is displayed at its most potent. The 'form' of beauty here is the radiant, splendid form of God's self-giving love. As Cardinal Ratzinger put it: 'in his Face that is so disfigured, there appears the genuine, extreme beauty: the beauty of love that goes to the very end.' This is what Barth meant when he claimed that 'God's beauty embraces death as well as life, fear as well as joy, what we might call the ugly as well as what we might call the beautiful.' He was not proposing that ugliness itself is in fact beautiful or that ugliness belongs in some way to God's own being, but that God's saving love has stretched out to redeem that which is ugly. Compare Balthasar: '[God's beauty] embraces the most abysmal ugliness of sin and hell by virtue of the condescension of divine love, which has brought even sin and hell into that divine art for which there is no human analogue.' In other words, there can be nothing sentimental about God's beauty, because it has engaged with the worst and shows itself most vigorously as it engages with the worst."

dan said...

Hey Ben,

I've posted a response/challenge to this entry at my blog. I'd be curious to hear what you think (sorry to post this as a comment... I tried to email you, but I think I only have your old email address).

Grace and peace.

Chris Green said...

Thanks for this list; if nothing else - and there is much else - it generated excellent discussion.

I would say that your 10th thesis is in fact two theses, related of course, and that the 11th thesis - "The crucified Christ is the beauty of God" - needs serious and careful qualification. To say it just as you've said it is, I think, problematic. God's beauty is not exhausted by the cross, though it is truly revealed in Jesus' dying and death. Perhaps this would work: "The resurrected crucified Christ reveals the God who is beautiful."

Daniel said...

to dan/poser-prophet, (at journeying in exile) great response and alternative 10 thesis. i would encourage all to check it out. that is if anyone has time to spare from composing their own "ten thesis." obliged, Daniel (from whidbey, not the prophet but often a poseur).

bassplayer said...

Hey, Ben, I find these comments didactic. What are you trying to say and why? Art is the attempt of our frail humaness to reach beyond ourselves. I think we need to be careful about deciding if you are attempting to describe the partaker of the artistic act or the description from the side of the creator of the art. The two are skewed into one here I think.
Art happens as we respond to the world around us in an attempt to articulate the unknown or the unknowable. when words fail us art takes over whether it be visual or musical. It can offer emotional understanding of a mystery like the Triune God and offers us a ways of approach. It can stir us to social justice action and work to subvert the status quo. In that it is our endeavour to work proleptically art as it reaches beyond us is a creative act of futuring our world. This is its value and its strength inlight of the resurrection of which we cannot ever really make sense.

Andii said...

You've been given a 'superior scribbler' award. Check it out here http://nouslife.blogspot.com/2008/12/superior-scribbler.html
I've been enjoying your blog for a good while now and wanted you to know there was some appreciation out there!

Ben Myers said...

Thanks Andii, I'm flattered!

Shawno said...

Wow, I disagree with almost everything you say. For me, I would say the following:

1. Art is anything someone chooses to look at, regardless of who created it.

2. Nature is art.

3. Perfection is arbitrary and subjective. Objectivity is merely collective subjectivity and therefore imperfect. Thus, nature, by preceding all observers, defines the perfect for us.

4. If art approaches perfection, it loses its appeal as mere imitation.

5. Redemption comes from seeing the beauty in all things, even bad art.

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