God is Necessary for Art

This is an excerpt from my essay “Christian Civilization is the Only Civilization – Part II: A Critique of Specific Disciplines and their Christian Reconstruction” under the topic “Art.”

Janus Beads String

Defining art has been a perennial problem, but regardless of what the definition should be, regardless of whether the definition is in the form of necessary and sufficient conditions or in the form of family resemblances à la Wittgenstein, defining art is impossible in terms of non-Christian philosophy because defining anything is impossible if God does not exist.  Predication is impossible if God does not exist. To define art is to impose a unifying, abstract category on a diversity of sensible phenomena.  It is a matter of relating a unity to diversity.  It is flatly contradictory to begin with particulars that, by hypothesis, exclude abstract universals, and then try to relate these abstract particulars to abstract universal.[1]  There must be an eternal concrete universal in order for particulars and universals to be able to relate to one another.

Modern art has clearly favored the many in the dialectic tension between the one and the many.  The goal of modern art is to achieve greater freedom.  Having rejected the concrete universal God, modern artists have equated freedom with disorder.  Diversity becomes abstracted from all unity.  Freedom is achieved only to the extent that order is rejected.  Thus the modern artist is placed in the dilemma that achieving the goal of absolute freedom excludes the possibility of calling what he achieves “art,” or giving the creation any other evaluative term.  Artistic freedom becomes as stultifyingly uniform as pure order.  Gunther Stent observes how artistic revolution become self-defeating:

As artistic evolution unfolds, the artist is being freed more and more from strict canons governing the method of working his medium of creative expression. The end result of this evolution has been that, finally, in our time, the artist’s liberation has been almost total. However, the artist’s accession to near-total freedom of expression now presents very great cognitive difficulties for the appreciation of his work:  The absence of recognizable canons reduces his act of creation to near-randomness for the perceiver. In other words, artistic evolution along the one-way street to freedom embodies an element of self-limitation. The greater the freedom already attained and hence the closer the approach to the random of any artistic style for the percipient, the less possible for any successor style to seem significantly different from its predecessor.[2]

As Stent’s quote suggests, the issue of the one and the many arises in relation to art with respect to its communicative function.  Although art may be produced for the purpose of the artist’s sole enjoyment, most often art is intended to communicate something to others.  If interpretations of art are purely subjective, then nothing can be communicated by art.  There could only be solipsism, each artist stuck in his own isolated world.  If art is to be a means of communication, there must be a universal human nature.  If humans come into existence from abstract particulars, then there is no basis for a unity in human nature that would allow communication.  If human nature arises Platonically, from abstract universals, then human nature will have no content.  On the Christian view there can be a unity among humans that allows for communication, by art or otherwise, because humans are made in the image of the Word – an absolutely rational, absolutely personal God.

Art often involves creating sensory-rich symbols, and a symbol is defined as a concrete, objective reality with an additional level of meaning beyond that reality.  But why should any collection of sensory inputs be able to refer to a higher spiritual, moral, or rational meaning?  Why should the paint, stone, sound waves or other material that constitute what is commonly called art be able to represent any meaning beyond themselves?  If the diverse world of sense experience is divorced from the unity of abstract concepts, then the sensory world can have no higher meaning, no more than beads without holes can be strung on an infinite string without ends.

In terms of the concrete universal God, there is an answer to this problem.  As Van Til says, “Christ was the Logos of creation as well as the Logos of redemption. The things of nature were adapted by himself to the things of the Spirit. The lower was made for the higher. The lower did not just exist independently of the higher. And because all things are made by God, that is, through the eternal Logos of creation, we too can use symbolism and analogy and know that, though we must always look for the tertium comparationis in all symbolism, nevertheless it is at bottom true.  Without a revelational foundation all symbolism and all art in general would fall to the ground.[3]  Only on Christian grounds is there justification for relating sensible phenomena to abstract rational concepts.

On the Christian view, humans are made in the image of the One who is the source of all beauty and moral perfection.  There is an infinite wellspring for the human artist to draw from for inspiration.  Yet some art that has received a great deal of media attention recently directly defames Christianity.  These works may be called art in a formal sense because they are sensory-rich symbols, but in another sense they are anti-art because they attack that which is necessary for the very intelligibility of art, the God of Christianity.  The artists who created these pieces are sitting on God’s lap in order to slap Him in the face because what they create would have no meaning if not for the One whom they attack.

Christianity is attacked in the name of freedom, but that freedom is an irrational freedom because it is a freedom that rejects all order, a diversity in abstraction from all unity.  The lawless, and especially in our day the pornographic, is exalted and the moral ideal of God’s law becomes a natural object of attack.[4]  By attacking that which is legitimate about Christianity, art is self-destructive.

Challenging the present, corrupt institutions of power is often seen today as a necessary goal of art, and it is a legitimate goal of art in the Christian worldview, in which the source of art is ultimately not any corrupt human institution.  Because there is a transcendent, absolutely morally pure standard for art, art can display the moral courage to challenge the corrupt institutions of power in this world without self-destructing into an irrational freedom.  Even the church, as an institution composed of sinful humans, is a legitimate object of challenge by socially conscious artists.[5]

Placing Christianity, ideally considered (i.e. God and His Word), ethically off-limits to criticism does not mean blinding one’s self to corruption.  Everyone has some ultimate standard of truth and beauty.  As ultimate, there is no higher standard to bring that standard into judgment.  Infallibility is an inescapable concept.[6]  If that ultimate source of judgment is said to be found in man and this world rather than in an absolute God, then the standard is self-destructive because the source of the standard is ultimately irrational.  Communicating an ethical message through art faces the same problems mentioned above of communicating any other meaning.  In a world of pure freedom, the artist’s critical standard he intends to convey through his creation has no life or application beyond the moment it spontaneously arises in his own psyche.  But in addition to the problem of the one and the many, the lack of a transcendent ultimate standard of ethics undermines the possibility of any negative ethical judgment.  If all is one, if there is no transcendent standard of truth, then no ethical distinctions can be made.   There is no basis for distinguishing between truth and falsehood; ethical corruption is then equivalent to ethical virtue, darkness equivalent to light, ugliness equivalent to beauty.  Christianity, centered on the transcendent, concrete universal God, is the wellspring and ideal of all true art.

[1]  A Kantian dialectic tension between the one and the many is evident in Nietzsche’s philosophy of art.  In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche described the source of art as a duality between Apollonian thinking and Dionysian thinking.  Representational art is under the restrains of Apollinian thinking, which is controlled by attention to the distinctions between appearances, whereas abstract art rejects Apollo in favor of Dionysus, a metaphor for non-rational, primordial unity.  The two approaches are in tension, but they both are necessary to produce the greatest art.

[2]  Gunther Stent, The Coming of the Golden Age: A View of the End of Progress  (Garden City, New York: Natural History Press, published for the American Museum of Natural History, 1969),  98.  Quoted in Gary North, Moses and Pharaoh, 148 n.13.

[3]  Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974), 66-67.

[4]  R.J. Rushdoony, Infallibility:  An Inescapable Concept (Vallicito, CA: Ross House Books, 1978),  34-38.

[5]  Jesus attacked the religious leaders of his day with vicious sarcasm.

[6]  See Rushdoony, Infallibility: An Inescapable Concept.

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