Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Decline of Modern Art, and the Resurgence of Christian Art

Carolyn and I had the pleasure of attending the 40th annual Harding Art Show in Nashville last weekend  (2-3 May). 

What we saw at the show was, I believe, an example of the “beginning of the end” of a century old fraud foisted on the public – that modern abstract art is real art. We noticed that among the 71 presentors that there were a dozen artists or so who were probing a return of art to its classic role of re-presenting God’s beautiful creation and the world’s shape and color harmonies. 

Here is an example of some of the fine paintings displayed.

However, we also noticed presentors who were of the old school of modern art where innovation and shock trumped beauty and form. One presentor, for instance, glued blobs of stuff (crumpled paper, or cow patties?) on the canvas, painted them in pastel colors and decorated the blobs with strands of dripping paint. It looked like a ruined water color painting done by a two year old.[1]  I call this sort of stuff "blob-ego-non-art, " or BENA for short. This type of "art" is at last drawing serious criticism from secular critics.  These critics are declaring that the modern art Emperor has no clothes, and in fact has been naked for a long time.

A seminal article by Simon Doonan in Slate magazine  recently sparked a maelstrom of comments and criticism. It showed, not only how bad modern art and its exhibits are, but how money driven the non-artists presentors are.  This is ironic, as most belong to the political left even as they faun over the rich “1%” for sale of their BENA pieces.  As Doonan rightly observes, Renaissance artists, often criticized for being beholden to the Italian commercial families, did in fact much better art, as they were given  commissions and left alone.[2] 

Doonan also points out that since the 1970s modern are has been driven by shock and ego as artist try to innovate in ever more shocking ways.[3] (Innovation being a substitute for talent). We Christians can well recall the famous “Piss Christ” BENA photograph by  Andres Serrarno which won the 1987 prize of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. For those who don't recall, it was a picture of a plastic crucifix in a jar of urine. The art elites defended this picture as an artistic form of freedom of expression, but it really revealed a deep anti-Christian prejudice in the modern art elites.   

We can prove that with a thought experiment. (Einstein loved these, as they cost a lot less than a physical experiment). Supposing some artist had done a beautifully and skillfully executed painting called "The White Man's Dream," in which was depicted the imaginary lynching of Martin Luther King, with smiling Klansmen in beautiful painted white robes, etc. Of course it would not have been displayed, nor would anything have been mentioned about freedom of expression. That is, something hurtful and insulting to African Americans is not permitted, but something equally hurtful and insulting to Christians was OK. Incidentally, there was not a whiff of anti-Christian prejudice at the Harding Show. 

But back to Doonan's insights. He also observed that modern art confuses the boundaries between the fine arts and the crafts. He commented on how in his own professional career, that of decorating department store windows, he skillfully used color coordination and design, but never considered his work to be in the category of fine art. Rather it is a craft with artistic elements.

This confusion was quite manifest at the Harding Art Show, as in practically every art show in the country. I suppose this is so because BENA is so bad that there has to be something reasonably attractive in the exhibits. The Harding Art Show, for instance, included several presentors who displayed hand carved wooden bowls. Many of the bowls were really lovely work, and aesthetically pleasing. Another presenter displayed an amazing collection of model airplanes done with soda and beer cans. Many would consider this more a hobby than a craft, but the presenter, Mr. Shao Lin Xia, was really at the top of his craft, and it was fun to look at his creations.  

You can see his web page and work HERE

I do similar work with card stock models, and take pride in the quality of my work, but would not call it fine art. (See my hobby blog site “The Christian Cardstock Modeler” HERE.) I also do original work by refashioning an old miniature soldier collection into Biblical dioramas. I consider it a craft and hobby with no pretensions to call it fine art. This is a picture of my latest project, called "The eunuch and the evangelist" (Acts 9):

(Psst...I you want to call this fine art it is OK with me. Make me an offer I can't refuse and I will sell it to you.)

Over the years Carolyn and I have gone to various arts and crafts shows and we have found much art there aesthetically pleasing and crafts that are very artistic. In these events the pressure to sell limits the amount of BENA.  This is an indicator that many people are willing to go to an exhibit to see BENA, but most wouldn't buy the stuff to put in their homes.  So in this era especially there is a blurred line between the fine arts and crafts.[4] My complaint (really comment) is that there should be more truth in advertising at art exhibits including the Harding Show, and call it the Harding Fine Arts and Crafts Show.”

To the contrary, we gave up going to the Atlanta Arts Festival, an art show and yearly event totally dominated by BENA.  We discerned a demonic presence there stimulated by pieces that were bizarre, colors that do not occur in nature (and thus cannot reflect nature's beauty) and a drug and Pagan culture. This is in contrast to what we found at the Harding Art Show. There in spite of many BENA presentors, there was an openness to traditional and even overtly Christian art, and the atmosphere was wholesome, family friendly and joyful.

The debasement of modern art has been going on since the turn of the century – the Nineteenth Century not Twentieth. Here is a painting by the famous modern artist Paul Klee, (1879-1940) "The Twittering Machine" done in 1922.  Klee was, and continues to be,  influential in modern art circles.  His work was already BENA level. His paintings were, as Mia Fineman remarked in the article cited above, what a three year old could do, but celebrated by art critics.

I have two personal witness about the persistence and destructiveness of BENA (Feel free to add your thoughts on this as a comment).  My older brother, born in 1933, was an art and music prodigy. He loved both drawing and playing the piano. In grammar school his talent in art was recognized immediately and he was referred to a public school art program for special instruction once a week. 

The staff there tried to steer him turn to modern art, cubism, etc., and he rightly resisted and eventually focused on music. He died of a tragic accident at age 21 while he was attending Julliard School of Music. An art instructor there told him, “You can be a good concert pianist, but a great artist.”  Only God knows how much great art he could have done had his art teachers allowed him a traditional art agenda.  These water colors of his were painted when he was about seven years old. 

Decades later, in the 1960s I met a young lady volunteer who was in art school and already an excellent artist. In a conversation she expressed her distress that many of her fellow students “could not draw.” That is, they did not have the talent to be artists but could disguise their talent-less status by painting abstract or random designs, etc., and call it “modern art.”  That struck me as deeply significant, and pointing to a bleak future. Indeed it was – as the Doonan article summarizes.

Back now to the Harding Art show in Nashville. We went there principally to view and support the paintings of a friend, Mrs. Kathryn Trotter, who was displaying her oil paintings at the show. She comes from a deeply Christian family and is a Believer herself.  Her work resembles and is influenced by French impressionism, and well demonstrates both excellent art and points to the road away from BENA. Here are a few pics of Mrs. Trotter and her paintings.. 

Her website where you can view further pictures is HERE 

Another Christian artist displaying was Mrs. Carylon Killebrew, a rally excellent and well known Christian artist who does many animal pictures.  Her work can be seen HERE

Carolyn and I stood in front of Carylon's (yes, that's the spelling) booth admiring her work. We chatted with her and expressed how much we admired her painting of a black Lab, who looked just like the one we have. I commented jokingly that when I become “rich and famous” I will buy it from her if it is not sold. We went back to Mrs. Trotters’ booth to check with her, as we promised to help in packing and dismantling her display. Up came Mrs. Killebrew with the dog picture. She felt that the Lord told her to gave it to us. It was priced at $1,500, and she well would have received that a little later, or at some other showing. The painting now hangs at out home in Carolyn's computer corner. 

There were other artists who displayed paintings that showed a return to what art has traditionally been, an interpretive  representation of the harmony and beauty of the God’s creation. I suggest you go next year to the Harding Art Show and see how the BENA further declines and Christian art continues to ascend. Check your own local art shows and see how that is developing in your area and let me know as a comment to this blog. 

Modern art and BENA defenders are quick to point out that both the Nazis and the Communists of the Stalinist era hated modern art – therefore we Christians are aligning ourselves with those dreadful people. Yes, both regimes produced awful “realist” art for the sake of propaganda. Here are a few examples of that stuff. Notice that the focus is man in his Nazi or Stalinist manifestation. There is no re-presentation of the harmony and beauty of God’s creation.

There is also a logical fallacy to this argument. That if the Nazis and Communists disliked modern art, it must be good. No, the Nazis also were against cigarette smoking, as German scientists immediately saw the statistical relation between smoking and lung cancer. The Nazi anti-smoking program was a first in the world and it was right on target. Dictatorships sometimes get things right. 

Lastly, a word to the wise, if you have bought some BENA paintings as an investment, sell quickly. As revival comes they will be worth less and less.

Addendum (June 16, 2015):

Check this article by Michael Lind of The Smart Set, “Artless: Why do intelligent people no longer care about art.” (6/12/2015) HERE. Mr. Lind repeats in a more succinct manner what  Doonan said.
That is, that modern art is market driven, but the “market” is a small group of elites who seek innovation and “artists” who provide ever more bizarre innovations.  This has led to constant graceless productions (i.e., an assembly of junk yard trash as art). The end result is that the educated classes in America no longer care about the “fine arts” because indeed they have been largely destroyed. Few Americans care about or pays for the junk found in modern art museums.  

Addendum: With a similar view: Michael J. Lewis, "How Art Became Irrelevant," Commentary, July August 2015, Accessed HERE

Here is an article from City Journal on an influential art school in New York with teaches classical painting, "The Old New masters." HERE

An important article from First Things (an orthodox Catholic journal of great influence) that warns that some Christian art is overly sentimental. HERE

This is an article from the NYT defending federal funding for the arts and pointing out that authoritarian regemes hate modern art. HERE

[1] My reaction to this piece is quite common. See Mia Fineman’s piece, “My Kid Could Paint That. Does Marla Olmstead's work belong in a museum or on the fridge?” Slate. Posted Oct. 5, 2007.

[2] Simon Doonan, “Why the Art World Is So Loathsom,” Slate. Posted  Dec. 17, 2013.

[3]Karl R. Popper, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the Twentieth Century, believed that true art paraphrases and re-presents what has been achieved before, the very opposite of contemporary modern art theory. 

[4] The great English philosopher of history R.G. Collingwood grappled with this issue, as his family was highly artistic.  He came to the conclusion that fine art is  not finished until sold (artists usually tinker with their pieces endlessly), but a craft in done definitively and with a set image in place. See R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958). I am not sure that it totally correct, but it is close.