This is all there is, and it’s ugly.—My mum on the lie of realism.
We’ve lost so much.
We don’t know the meaning of art anymore. Right now I’m writing a book that I hope will help people begin to understand fiction. What it means. How it teaches. How to spot the deep-coded messages hidden inside plot twists and imagery.
I have such an easy job.
Fiction is easy. When it comes to the other arts, I feel like a complete dunce. My musical education began three-quarters of my life ago, and I’ve only just begun to understand what and how it communicates. I’ve never really studied architecture, although even I can tell what Brutalism says. As for pictorial arts, I have next to no idea, although Paul Johnson convinced me that Picasso was just about the most despicable creature in history.
|The Birmingham Library, which says, "BOW TO YOUR FACELESS OVERLORDS"|
We Christians are such infants when it comes to culture. And the sad thing is that our fathers were once so much wiser than we. JS Bach, Edmund Spenser, and whoever designed Chartres Cathedral worked according to a complex philosophy of art and culture, using an incredibly mature and meaningful system of symbol. But we, we look at the work and not only do we not know what they are saying, we also don’t know why they said it that way.
The main problem confronting Christians when it comes to culture is the bare fact that we are the children of a rebellious age. We were suckled by the world, not by Christendom. We have deep-seated presuppositions when it comes to art, which we’ve never challenged. Perhaps the best antidote is to get back, before the Enlightenment, to a time when Christians breathed the air of Christendom, not the air of modernity.
In order to begin to understand art and culture from a Christian perspective, we need to begin by asking what it is that we have lost, and how we have lost it.
The Enlightenment. It sounds so benign, doesn’t it? Yet it was a philosophical movement dedicated to the sovereignty of man and the death of God. It spawned many revolutions and even more wars. It has been dancing on Christendom’s grave for more than a hundred years. We may be Christians, but we are children of the Enlightenment and much of our thinking is just baptised modernism. We may be Protestants, but I’m convinced that we actually have less in common with the Reformers than the medieval Romanists had in common with their sons and heirs, the Reformers. For the Enlightenment stands between the Reformation and us.
This is a confession. It has been true of me in the past, and it will be true of me again. I have no doubt at all that it is also true of you.
Here it is: I am always uncovering bits of Enlightenment thinking in my own worldview. I’ve discovered enough false presuppositions by now to have come to expect it. I’m still looking. This is why we so often need help reading and interpreting Scripture, you know. It’s never just us and the Holy Spirit and the Bible. There are a thousand other whispering voices as well, the spirits of Rousseau and Voltaire, the spirits of Marx and Nietszche, the spirits of Sartre and Friedan, to distract us from what Scripture actually says. I may never have read these philosophers' works, but I drank their worldview with my mother’s milk. So did you.
Last year I read James Gaines’s wonderful book, Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment. It was so much more than a book on music. It was so much more than a book on Bach. For it provided a key that fits every door.
In this book Gaines discusses a clash of worldviews. Bach represented Christendom and the Reformation. Frederick the Great represented humanism and the Enlightenment. Both of them had opposing views about music.
Bach believed that music expressed profound truth about the cosmos. It was orderly: the cosmos was orderly. It had a beginning, middle, and end: so did history. It was characterised by unity and diversity: so was the Trinity itself. Everything about it—from the intervals used in a tune to the number of movements in a work—bore a deep symbolic meaning.
|Every time someone talks about "the beauty of the commonplace", I think of Vermeer.|
Frederick the Great patronised a new school. Enlightenment music had nothing serious to say about anything. It was the amusement of an idle hour, a way to entertain and divert one from serious occupation, not a serious occupation in itself. Christian music had been characterised by rigorous and cerebral counterpoint. Enlightenment music was characterised by pretty, flowing melodies that required little mental exertion. For the Enlightenment, music had nothing serious to say.
It occurred to me with the force of epiphany that the Enlightenment had not just affected music in this way. It had affected all the arts.
The Enlightenment was the age of paintings like The Swing—silly frilly pictures intended to amuse and titillate, quite different to the moral symbolism of the medievalists. The Good Samaritan Window in Chartres Cathedral, for instance, casts that parable as an allegory of salvation by Christ (the Good Samaritan) after the priest (religion) and Levite (law) prove themselves unable or unwilling to help.
The Enlightenment was also the reason why allegory of the kind written by Bunyan and Spenser was replaced by realistic novels. It was the reason why we lost poetry like Beowulf or Paradise Lost, in favour of Wordsworth going into rhapsodies over daffodils. It was the reason why preachers stopped interpreting redemptive history typologically, as Paul had in Galatians when he claimed that Hagar symbolised the Old, and Isaac the New, Covenant.
|This picture is not devoid of symbolism. There's a Cupid and everything! It's totally serious, folks!|
The Enlightenment was the enemy of metaphor, symbol, and allegory. Composing music, painting pictures, writing poetry, or crafting novels had become not a way to tell truth, but a way to provide mindless entertainment. The artistic results can be roughly divided into two schools: the realist and the romantic.
Realism is a creature of the Enlightenment. Realism is not a Scriptural notion. Realism is fundamentally anti-Christian.
Realism sounds wonderful, just like Enlightenment does. But the term is just as deceptive. Pay close attention to this definition, from Wikipedia:
Realism in the arts may be generally defined as the attempt to represent subject matter truthfully, without artificiality and avoiding artistic conventions, implausible, exotic and supernatural elements. [...] Realist works of art are those that, in revealing a truth, may emphasize the ugly or sordid (emphasis added).
Remember George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and the slogan “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”? For realists, ugliness and sordidity is more real than beauty or goodness. And don’t even think about including the supernatural.
|Isn't it a wonderful life?|
One problem. The supernatural exists. God exists. Angels exist. Beauty and goodness don’t just exist, they triumph in the end.
The world is a lot quirkier than you think. Moses went and faced the magicians of Egypt and turned his staff into a snake. What genre are we in? The magicians then turned their staves into snakes, which in addition to being kind of freaky is not something that gets a lot of attention in Sunday School classes. As ND Wilson points out, it’s the first wizard duel in world literature, and it’s in Scripture.
In realism, Jesus never rose again. He’s certainly never coming back. He doesn’t rule the world from beyond the sky.
In realism, Jesus’ parables don’t mean anything. They’re just stories, told in an idle hour to tickle your fancies.
Romanticism is another creature of the Enlightenment. Romanticism is a lot easier to love, but it’s not a Scriptural notion either.
Romanticism is defined by Wikipedia like this:
The movement validated intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe—especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities.
Romanticism says that the only thing art exists for is to provide an intense emotional experience. This is, at least, closer to the mark than realism. Good art can provoke an intense emotional experience. But that’s not what it’s for.
Both romanticism and realism are children of the Enlightenment. Both of them tell the same lie:
Art has no deeper meaning.
Realism says that the only purpose of art is to reflect, with mirror-like accuracy, the surface reality of life, especially if it’s ugly.
Romanticism says that the only purpose of art is to provide escape and diversion from this unutterably dreary reality.
Both of them refuse to acknowledge that there is some deeper meaning to art than diversion or reflection. If Art has no deep symbolic meaning, then it can only either reproduce “reality”—a reality leeched of symbolic and supernatural dimensions—or escape from it.
|Pollock's message: "I don't exist."|
Realism leads to chaotic, ugly, and spontaneous art because realism presupposes a world without a creator. Modern art, as it strains towards greater epistemological self-consciousness, is unsatisfied with an appearance of design. If the world is art, then it has an Artist who is sovereign over His creation. But the presence of an Artist, to the realist, is insufficiently real. There is no God, there is no Artist.
Modern art is an attempt by the artist to erase himself from his own work. That was what Jackson Pollock was trying to do.
Unsurprisingly, the modern church has embraced realism and romanticism as the basic rationales of art. It has also embraced Arminianism, the idea that God chooses not to exercise sovereignty over His creation. Deism was the religion of many Enlightenment thinkers: the idea that God sort of sneezed the cosmos into being and has been ignoring it ever since. In my experience, the Christians most badly affected by the Enlightenment worldview are Arminians.
The antidote is a return to meaning, symbol, and metaphor. A return to allegory, fantasy, and epic. A return to art that peels back the material surface reality to show the goodness, beauty, and truth underneath.
Scripture is replete with such examples. Redemptive history is full of supernatural break-ins. Fire coming down from heaven to devour Elijah’s sacrifice. Prophets watching in the night visions. A King coming back from the dead.
God uses allegory to teach us. “Allegory” is, after all, another word for “parable”. The Authorised Version of the Bible even translates Paul in Galatians 4:22-24 like this:
For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants.
God uses metaphor and fiction to teach us. The Song of Songs. Nathan’s admonition to David. These stories are not entertainment. These stories are not amusement. They are deadly serious. They mean something, something deeper.
We need to return to a Christian idea of art, one that goes further than emotionalism or materialism.