Feb 3, 2015

Shock and Redemption in Modern Art

By Alison Schroeder

This article is the third installment of a multi-part series on the intersection of Art and a Lutheran worldview. You can read Part I here, and Part II here.

The previous two articles in this series laid out the purposes of art and definitions of beauty, and of complexities involved in the artist’s search for beauty in a fallen world. This article assesses art as a human work from a theological perspective (borrowing some distinctions laid out by Adolf Koeberle’s The Quest For Holiness), and seeks to show how even modern art demonstrates itself to be an expression of natural theology.

In his book, The Quest for Holiness, Lutheran theologian Adolf Koeberle argues that all of man’s attempts to reach God (to himself reclaim that original righteousness and a right relationship with God and man) fall into three main categories: moralism, mysticism, or speculation. Moralism deals with the will (human conduct and works). Mysticism deals with the heart (sensation and emotion). Speculation (or rationalism) deals with the mind. All human works, including works of art, can be assessed in terms of these categories, and so these distinctions provide a good starting point for assessing modern art (and all other eras and even individual works of art, too).


Moralism in Modern Art: Art as Ideology

Art is a human work that involves the heart, mind, and will in coordination to produce an object that is aesthetically pleasing (“beautiful”) and meaningful. An artist is the person who produces these works. In this way, art is as much about who someone is as what they do. According to Koeberle’s distinctions, moralism is the human attempt to achieve perfection in conduct and works.  Moralism is the belief that by doing good, we will thereby be (or become) good. In light of these distinctions, it becomes evident that art is a fundamentally moralistic pursuit.

Perhaps the suggestion that Modern art is moralistic might seem strange: so much of Modern art seems immoral, even amoral. This is art that so often seems to glorify the evil, the false, and the ugly! How can that be called “art” at all?

The thing is, in the same way that atheists obsess and fume and form rational arguments over the non-existence of a deity whom they they claim is irrelevant, postmodern artists agonize over and organize around and devote themselves to ideas and works deliberately constructed to deconstruct notions of objective truth. Postmodern ideology may not be logically sound, but, it is argued, it is good for individuals and society (and, therefore, anyone who opposes postmodernist values is bad).

Ideologically-charged art wants to change you: to change the way you see yourself and to change the way you live your life. This kind of societal change takes time and willing cooperation: by uncritically consuming postmodern popular culture (TV, fashion, music, movies) our moral compass eventually becomes tuned to accept vices (what is contrary to natural law and/or divine revelation) as morally neutral or even as virtues. This is how postmodern art teaches morality.

Mysticism in Modern art: Art as Experience

When I’m engaged in drawing, I’m so focused on the work at hand that I’m not completely aware of what’s going on around me (e.g., I might not hear the oven timer go off, though I will eventually smell something burning). That kind of hyperfocus on the activity at hand (and the drowning out of other stimuli) is what psychologists call “flow.” The experience is that of a kind of natural high, but, when the creative action ceases, snapping back to reality can be a real bummer (i.e., there’s a corresponding low). So creativity becomes a habit (a hobby), a compulsion, even, an addiction. This addiction is not entirely a bad thing, though, as the works that flow from creativity can be pleasant and edifying on both personal and societal levels.

The “flow” of creativity is a kind of meditative state. World religions have long combined ritualistic actions (kneeling, dancing, sex) with mental focus (chanting scriptures, prayer, mantras) to deliberately achieve such a state of mystical euphoria and, further, a supposed communion with the divine essence. But those blissful states are fleeting, for those good feelings simply cannot be maintained in a world where we humans are constantly fighting against evil forces inside and out.

Speculation in Modern art: Art as Enlightenment

Modern art is, above all else, conceptual in nature. Even “shock art” at first elicits an initial repulsion or confusion, then invites further inquiry and consideration. Usually a knowledge of contemporary socio-political events is helpful in making sense of modern art which otherwise seems purposefully obscure and cryptic. There’s a kind of gnostic cult that has developed around art (this attitude is especially seen in our postmodern culture, where higher sources of revelation are rejected outright): the illuminati versus the ignorati. People who are “in the know” will take themselves to be superior to those who just don’t get it. This way, so much of the art world shows that natural human inclination to attempt to achieve superhuman perfection (“you will be like God, knowing good and evil”) by way of our mental efforts.

Shock and Redemption in Modern Art

Now that we’ve looked at some of the basic moralistic, mystical, and speculative emphases involved in art, we’ll apply these distinctions to two particular movements within modern art: shock art and found art.

Moralism, mysticism, and speculation together find expression in that subcategory of modern art called “shock art.” Shock art may appear vulgar, gory, or merely incomprehensible. It’s art deliberately construed in order to shock the senses and the moral sensibilities. Shock art is the art of a dying world (we’re so modern, we’re now postmodern). Shock art is a dramatic attempt to re-sensitize society; to try to make ourselves remember what it feels like to be human: to feel moral outrage at injustice and discord (to hold a mirror to our own inner wars), to confront (and not ignore) the creaturely limitations of our minds and hearts, and, finally, to inspire a hunger for eternal goodness, truth, and beauty.

Both good and evil (beauty and ugliness) are subjects in art, and always have been. This reflects the basic reality that we live in a simultaneously beautiful and fallen world, and that we humans are also characterized by that “greatness and wretchedness,” as Pascal put it. So, from antiquity, the church has had its own share of shock art (art intended to highlight the wretchedness of man and the threat of impending divine judgment, and so to provoke terror and contrition): the Danse Macabre, Bosch’s infamous Last Judgment altarpiece, and Grunewald’s much beloved (and gruesome) Isenheim altarpiece, for a few examples.

Post-apocalyptic horror dramas and dystopian YA novels (shock art’s mild mannered cousins) draw devoted followings from a broad cross-section of society and continue to gain in popularity. Indulging in darkness (even vicariously) seems to help give us an appreciation of the simple goodness of everyday life that we are otherwise inclined to downplay and ignore, while also making our everyday trials and sufferings seem not so unbearable, after all.

Indeed, creativity and the arts give a kind of welcome escape from the frustrations of everyday life. But, as Pascal points out, these diversions can end up being more harmful than helpful, because they themselves cannot solve the problem of our wretchedness before God (and can so end up minimizing the problem of sin). We can’t pull ourselves out of our self-referential lives: our constant preoccupation with our feelings, our thoughts, our own works. All art inspires a longing for something greater, something beyond ourselves; but it cannot itself fulfill this longing. Art highlights the problem, but, powerless to provide a solution, ultimately serves only to show us the insurmountable depth of our fall.

This brings to mind another development within modern art: "found art". The general idea behind found (a.k.a. “found object” or “ready-made”) art is to take some object, (mostly) unchanged from the state in which it was found, and place it in a gallery or museum for public consideration. One early example would be “Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp. The piece was an old urinal, signed by Duchamp, and bestowed with a title. Technically the piece wasn’t purely ready-made, as some important elements were added to the urinal before it was presented back to the public: the artist’s signature (a pseudonym, “R. Mutt”), the unusual placement (on its back on the floor of a museum, not upright and installed into a restroom, as it would have been when in use), and the evocative title of “Fountain” all work together to take this object out of the junkyard, and into a realm of intellectual, moral, and even sentimental consideration. How can one possibly sentimentalize or moralize or intellectualize an old urinal? Unsurprisingly, the debut of the piece caused a critical uproar.

Perhaps, if you have a child, you may have observed how children tend to form attachments to seemingly random objects, like rocks or even worms, or maybe as a child you yourself had a pet rock. It is not so much that the thing itself is particularly interesting in and of itself (rocks are aplenty), but the child knows that this one sample, even of so many like it, is significant. And so it is. Jesus said that “The very stones would cry out” if his disciples did not proclaim Him (Luke 19:40). All of the created world is infused with a certain significance, because it exists as a testament to its Creator. Ultimately, we exist only because He exists. But, at the same time it is quite apparent that we are fallen, broken, disordered: we can’t go on this way forever, and eventually we too will draw a final breath and depart to the ground, dust to dust. As Scripture puts it, the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs, awaiting its deliverance from the bondage of corruption.

Found art can be seen, first of all, as an acknowledgment of this basic human helplessness, and, secondly, an acknowledgement that we need the intervention of a redeemer. An article published in the time of public outcry surrounding “Fountain” (presumably, a defense written by Duchamp himself) offers crucial insight into the significance of such “found art”: “Mr. Mutt's fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers' shop windows. Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view, and created a new thought for that object.” (“The Richard Mutt Case,” The Blind Man, New York, no.2, May 1917, p.5)

While we humans are fallen, there is nothing immoral about our humanity in and of itself: the Word was made flesh, and He is not ashamed to call us brethren. In His death on the cross, Christ redeemed the world from sin and death, and repaired man’s broken relationship with his Creator. Furthermore, in Holy Baptism, God breaks in: one by one, He chooses us. “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-15). He gave us a new Name and a new identity. So now our ordinary lives are infused with a whole new significance, a new hidden reality: it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. Our human significance is not in what we ourselves have to offer to God, but in what He has done for us and continually works through us.

Our Lutheran Confessions talk about human nature as curved inward upon itself. We humans are helpless if left to our own devices, and we know that. It’s tempting to think that by thinking right, or by holding on to the right feelings, or by working hard enough at the right things, that we can somehow traverse that chasm between us and perfection (between us and God). The Christian well knows that we need not just an escape, but a rescue, and that that is provided for us in Christ.

So the life of the Christian is one of daily repentance and daily renewal in Christ, which is all the more certain because it comes to us entirely from without (extra nos). There is no reforming the Old Adam, only a daily drowning. Moralism, mysticism, and speculation will remain sources of temptation in the Christian’s temporal life. But, in Christ, there is a good purpose even for our broken hearts, our feeble minds, our bad/good works--a good purpose, even for art and creativity. Christ’s blood washes away the guilt of our sins of thought, word, and deed, and covers our flawed efforts in His own righteousness, so that, before God, we are justified and holy. Rationality, sensitivity, and the ability to serve others in words and deeds are gifts of God. He can work these things to our good, and, through us, He works to serve our neighbors, too.

“One does not choose a Redeemer for oneself, you understand, nor give one’s heart to him. The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap. A fine birthday gift, indeed! But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks his walking cane through it, and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with him. That is how it is.” Bo Giertz, The Hammer of God


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Alison Schroeder is a married mother of three. A daughter and sister of artists, herself an artist (though she's loath to admit it), she blogs at Alison's Open Sketchbook.


Title Image: "Wire" by Paul Nash, 1919

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