Monday, January 6, 2014

Artists Below the Line of Despair!


Pastor Stephen Feinstein

Happy Monday to you all! Last week, I began to blog on the subject of forming a biblical worldview using Francis Schaeffer’s five volume series on the subject. My goal is to summarize one chapter per weekday. Hopefully I will be able to keep that commitment.

The reason it is so important to form a Christian worldview is because if we are going to be living lives that are pleasing to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, then we must think biblically. The surrounding culture does not think biblically, but instead their way of thinking is in total opposition to God and His standards. This is seen clearly in the current culture war. Well, Schaeffer recognized where the main anti-Christian ideas of the postmodern world originated from. It started with the philosophers of Europe at the close of the 19th Century. It then moved from the philosophers to the artists. From the artists it made its way to the musicians and the general culture.

With this being the case, Schaeffer began his book The God Who Is There by explaining how in the postmodern world, people simply do not believe in absolutes. As a result, they reject the existence of absolute truth. Eventually, Schaeffer will refute this idea and explain how Christians who think biblically will reason about these matters. But for now, he is still explaining how this shift in our understanding about truth even happened. He is explaining how Western civilization crossed below the line of despair.

Last time I summarized his chapter on philosophy, where this move first started. Today, we will talk about art. I have much that I would love to say about art since it is on this subject that Christians err grievously. It is on this subject that Christians are caught off guard unaware, and look at human creations that are often perverse. And yet, since it is under the heading of art, we give it a pass. After all, we are told that art is all about creativity and artists cannot be creative if they are limited by any set of morals. This could not be further from the truth. We are to take all thoughts captive to the obedience of the knowledge of God. As important as this is, however, it is not Schaeffer’s point to make this point so early in his book. His point is simply to show how the discipline of art fell under the line of despair.

Philosophy, the first step in the line of despair directly influenced very few, but the second step, art, influenced many more. Bear in mind that many of the artists were directly influenced by the philosophers. They were influenced by many of the disillusioned writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of them rejected historic Christianity and bought into the idea of existentialism. If all existence is truly meaningless, then it is up to each individual to determine meaning for themselves. Artists, above all, were able to capture this idea and put it on canvass.

Schaeffer goes into some detail about particular artists and their works, but for the sake of those who are not very interested in art history, I will keep my summary brief. After all, Schaeffer’s purpose was to simply show us the history of how art also abandoned absolute standards.

Just as Hegel proved to be the doorway to going below the line of despair for the field of philosophy, the Impressionists proved to be so for art. Impressionists at first were simply fascinated with light and how they could surpass classical art with a better understanding of how light works. But later Impressionists bought into the new mentality that was forming, thus opening the door for later artists to go below the line.

Three of the first to take the plunge were Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cezanne. How did they try to take the plunge? Well, rather than focusing on real matters in the real world, they were each attempting to paint that which was universal and transcendent. No created person, place, or thing truly fulfills this desire. Thus, each man in his own way tried to determine for himself what the universal transcendental reality truly was. And in the process, their art became extremely abstract. In their quest to show reality as it was, they painted things that were in no way real. They failed, and yet their failure agreed with philosophy’s failure to find the GUT. Ultimately, artists were beginning to see existence as meaningless, just as the philosophers were. Van Gogh (1853-1890) ultimately became so disillusioned that he committed suicide. Gauguin’s (1846-1903) work also demonstrated his ultimate belief that reality is meaningless. After completing his greatest work, he attempted suicide. Cezanne (1839-1906) sought to find the universal by focusing on geometric forms. This would later become the art form called Cubism that was made famous by Picasso. This art form distorts what we see in the real world by representing it as geometric shapes.

Picasso (1881-1973) attempted to take this all to the next level, but ultimately he made some of his work so abstract that the viewer had no idea what he was looking at. When people look at his art and admire it, they have no idea of the despair that existed in the man’s mind and heart. They have no idea that he was living below the line of despair. After him came the Dadaists, who were not content with portraying meaninglessness in their art. Instead, they wanted their art to destroy old values and sensibilities. They wanted it to destroy the past. They wanted their art to affect the onlooker and lead to some sort of destruction within oneself. Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was probably the most significant of these artists. He sneaked pornography into his art just so it would make his viewers feel dirty upon seeing it. That was part of the goal of destruction. Another tactic of his would be to paint a picture, and then give it a title that is unrelated to what was painted. And yet the title itself is one that would cause you to picture in your mind something that would make you feel dirty. And because it is classified as “art,” even when our culture had more sensible morals, they still placed this in a great art museum for the population to enjoy. Dirty thinking is dirty thinking, and since art was awarded this status of having no rules, people who would otherwise seek to avoid dirty thinking were unwittingly subjected to it as they gazed upon art.

Other movements in art soon followed such as the happenings and the environments. It was more of the same. Dirty stuff was meant to draw the viewer into the painting and to mentally cause them to participate in the dirt. The bottom line is when the artists abandoned meaning, truth, and absolute standards, their art reflected their view. Each step became more absurd and dirty than the previous. Eventually, there were no standards in art at all. A man eventually won a major award for urinating in a jar and putting a piece of jewelry in it.

Ideas have consequences and what we are seeing in these chapters is the slippery slope of abandoning absolutes. Each of these artists lived as though absolutes were real. For example, Van Gogh was offended that Gauguin stole a woman he was interested in. That makes no sense if there are not absolute standards of right and wrong. So like the philosophers, these artists abandoned what was real (absolutes) in order to cling to what was not real (a chance-based meaningless universe), and the end result is the utter folly of postmodern Western Civilization.

As tempting as it is to scoff at these artists, Schaeffer encourages compassion instead. The insanity of the art of these people actually shows just how much despair they were in. Schaeffer writes:

These paintings, these poems, and these demonstrations we have been talking about are the expression of men who are struggling with their appalling lostness. Dare we laugh at such things? Dare we feel superior when we view their tortured expressions in their art? … These men are dying while they live; where is our compassion for them? There is nothing more ugly than a Christian orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.

How true his words are! Christians, we must have compassion for those who are so tortured by their
worldview. Most people float through the world without ever considering their presuppositions and assumptions. They never follow their thinking to its logical consequence. For those that do, they often end up in despair. If you really believed the universe is a chance-based infinite accident, and that reality is this cruel meaningless existence, and you truly followed this thinking to its logical conclusion, then you would be utterly terrified by this. And like these artists, you would be utterly rebellious, and yet tortured and depressed at the same time. Perhaps you too would end your own life. I truly believe the average atheists do not think things to their logical conclusion, otherwise we would find them depressed like these artists. Instead, these atheists say the universe is meaningless, but they live day-to-day as though there really is meaning. Why? Deep down they know God exists, and therefore they know there is meaning. Thus, they are not terrified like the artists who truly believed in a godless universe.

The final point to made here is that Christians really need to reflect on what they bring into their house and what they show to their children. Just because something is labeled as art does not mean that it does not have to the follow the rules of decency set forth by the Creator. Furthermore, art is man’s attempt to express true beauty. People often think that beauty is subjective. To some extent this is true, but beauty is ultimately objective. After each day of creation, God declared everything to be good. He was making an absolute claim as to what was good. Everything as He made it had the intrinsic quality of goodness and beauty. Some things are beautiful in and of themselves, and art should match God’s objective standards. Such standards can be deduced by the splendor of what we see in creation itself. But there are limits too. The Bible gives us moral standards that reflect the moral will of God. When our art depicts things that contradict God’s moral standards, even if it is beautiful to the eye, it has lost its objective beauty. Of course, that is a different topic for a different time.

Until tomorrow, God bless.

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