I wish that the young men might have something to rid them of their love ditties and wanton songs and might instead of these learn wholesome things and thus yield willingly to the good; also, because I am not of the opinion that all the arts shall be crushed to earth and perish through the Gospel, as some bigoted persons pretend, but would willingly see them all, and especially music, servants of Him who gave and created them.
Martin Luther, Wittenberg Gesangbuch
I am no artist nor artiste but I do know nonsense when I see it. As when a group of ‘‘artists’’ near Pinedale, Wyo. were found painting words on cows (funded by a $4,000 grant) and calling it ‘‘art’’ since the cows are going to ‘‘randomly reorder the words for us and make new meanings.’’ Or when Joel-Peter Witkin (funded by a $20,000 grant) had a pathologist saw a human head in half, turned the halves toward each other, photographed it and called it ‘‘kiss.’’ Or when Peter Hutchinson attached each end of a rope to garbage bags full of rotten food, tossed it into the ocean, waited for the rotten food to expand and rise under water thus lifting the rope in a bowed fashion. He photographed it, called it ‘‘arc’’ and sold it to the Museum of Modern Art.
Ten years ago George Will wrote a column titled ‘‘The Shocking Bourgeoisie’’ in which he wrote, ‘‘There will be an abundance of fine art if you declare that fine art is anything that anyone calling himself an artist calls fine art. If I call a tail a leg, how many legs has a dog got? Five? No, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.’’ And calling cows with words painted on them ‘‘art’’ doesn’t make it art. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. confessed, ‘‘Today’s art is fashioned, for the most part, by quacks and the occasional fool.’’
No people should grieve to see the destruction of the fine arts more than the people of God. We are in the unique place of understanding divine truth and its illumination in the created world through things that man can make, i.e., art. But Christianity (especially conservative) has too often flinched at the overt atrocities in the art world and has, at the same time, consented to mediocrity in the rest. There is a type of art known today as ‘‘kitsch.’’ It is the poor quality ornament or ‘‘knickknack,’’ Elvis on black velvet or dresser-top souvenirs sold at tourist traps. Calvin Seerveld says, ‘‘it is hard to talk to Christians about kitsch because those who love it are naive about it, unaware that they are identifying with something fake and inferior.’’
As Luther (quoted above) points out, we are apt to present divine truth this way and become a religious knickknack shop. Take a stroll through the local Bible book store and ask yourself, ‘‘Do Christians love kitsch?’’ But don’t stop in the knickknack aisle, browse through the Christian fiction section, play the latest Christian video game and listen to the popular tune coming none too softly over the speaker system and don’t forget your free ‘‘Honk if you love Jesus’’ bumper sticker on the way out.
It was Sir Arnold Toynbee (A Study of History) in the 1940s who called this sort of thing ‘‘promiscuity . . . an act of self-surrender to the melting pot . . . in Religion and Literature and Art as well as Manners and Customs.’’ Francis Schaeffer in The God Who Is There wrote, ‘‘Christians should stop laughing and take such men seriously. Then we shall have the right to speak again to our generation.’’ But Christian kitsch prevails in most of our lives. In the books we read (or don’t), the things we watch, the music we play, the decor of our homes and churches and even our vocabulary all mark us guilty of this promiscuity of God’s creation.
I confess to being guilty and am sorry for it. I am the worse off for having succumbed often in my life to the spirit of the age. A few of my ‘‘friends’’ (as Dr. Harju often calls them) have brought me a little closer to reality. There are some past ‘‘friends’’ such as Francis Schaeffer, C.S. Lewis, A.W. Tozer, and some present ‘‘friends’’ such as Gene Veith, Cal Thomas, and Neil Postman. They are helping me be an iconophile rather than an iconoclast. The following thought was induced by Gene Veith in State Of The Arts (reviewed this month).
Adam was told to ‘‘dress’’ the garden of Eden and ‘‘keep it’’ (Gen 2:15). After the fall he must struggle with nature and labor by his sweat to survive (Gen 3:19). To do that, man must depend both on the resources of nature and his own creative abilities. Food comes from God’s earth but man must apply the art of farming to get it. Every honest occupation is an art because it is a God-given craft. Dishonest occupations (robbery, fraud, embezzlement) exploit other’s artful labor to get gain without work. All honest work, the talents and gifts from our Creator, is art.
‘‘Fine art’’ is developed ability to make beautiful things that honor the Creator (painting, music, oratory). In Exodus 28, twice God commanded (vss 2 & 40) the tabernacle to be built for ‘‘glory and beauty.’’ Fine art has a two-fold nature: it is to have meaning (‘‘glory’’) and form (‘‘beauty’’). God is interested in both. A Sunday School picture of Jesus may be compared to a Rembrandt painting of Christ. In meaning they are nearly the same, both referring to God Incarnate. In form, however, they are worlds apart. The photo-copied curriculum picture cannot compare in form to Rembrandt.
In our churches, as well as in our personal lives, we should strive to honor God by the best ‘‘glory and beauty’’ possible. And we should be tolerant when we try our best but fall somewhat short (I’m not sure how tolerant we should be when we don’t try). When I hear a song sung that glorifies God both in words (meaning) and music (form), it blesses me. When someone introduces a song with ‘‘listen to these words,’’ he may be preparing me for good meaning but poor form. So I try to appreciate the meaning. Another may sing a song that misses meaning altogether but has beautiful form. So I try to appreciate the form. I think God desires both ‘‘glory and beauty.’’
Of course, this line of thinking could (and should) be followed further. A lost world usually grieves God in form and meaning (can we seriously doubt that in our day of erotic art, MTV and slasher films?). If our generation of believers succumbs to the artistic kitsch of the day, we will fail to honor God in either form or meaning. The church of Jesus Christ must take the lead. We have the meaning given to us in His Word, and we have the form being created in Him unto good works. We should strive to do the best in both areas. As one kitsch expert says, ‘‘Anything less would be uncivilized!’’