“It’s just so sad to see the state of the arts today; you know, with urinals as part of art exhibits.” I should have known better than to say things like this out loud.
“What’s wrong with it?” my friend challenges. “Art is whatever you want it to be.”
“Art is anything?” I asked, I thought rhetorically.
“Yep,” he responded confidently. “A loogie stuck to the sidewalk could be art.”
“You’re kidding me,” I said.
“No I’m not; after all, who are you to define art?”
I wish I could say that this was a fictional conversation; but it wasn’t. What makes this even worse is that my friend graduated from what is considered one of the top art schools in the country.
There are few examples of our cultural confusion today than the contemporary state of the arts. As the twentieth-century Christian scholar Hans Rookmaaker recognized, modern art comes from the loss of our sense of a created order. The world prior to the modern age was filled with divine meaning and purpose. And the mission of the artist was to serve humanity by awakening us to that divine meaning and purpose by representing such in new and beautiful complexions.
But the rise of modern science in effect de-sanctified the world by supposedly exposing all cultural meaning systems as fabrications. The world is not governed by the gods or divine meaning or purpose, but rather by physical, chemical, and biological causal laws. The mission of the artist is now redefined; the modern secular artist all too often seeks to celebrate the new, the hip, by tearing down cultural fences and mores and exposing them as artificial constructions. Art increasingly exists to shock, to turn our heads and grab our attentions with blasphemous and pornographic content.
So much of modern secular art is a window into a world devoid of any objective meaning, any sense of care and purpose. It is no wonder that our books and movies are infatuated with dystopias and Armageddon scenarios.
A society founded on the meaninglessness of life, that sees the work of Rembrandt as offering artistically no more to us than a loogie on a sidewalk, is simply culturally unsustainable.
The Christian conception of art stands in stark contrast to this bleak modern view. The Christian conception of art is rooted in what we might call the “redemption of the senses.” The redemption of the senses involves a re-directing or re-training of the senses away from the carnal and the sensual and toward the eternally True, Good, and Beautiful, and thus prepares the body for its resurrection.
There was a classical Greek precedent to this. In the Greek education system known as paideia, there was a real stress on the cultivation of the senses of the body, largely as a way of training the soul. In his pursuit of Beauty in the Symposium, Plato appropriates visual and sonic beauty as that which draws the person into union with divine life, which is absolute Beauty.
For Christians, the union of heaven and earth in the Incarnation extended into the sacramental life of the Church in order to awaken the senses to the renewed condition of the created order in Christ. So sacraments in effect bestow upon the believer a new physical sense that is able to receive knowledge of God through sanctified sensory experiences. And so, as an extension of this manifestation of the new creation in Christ, the arts were a means by which the senses could be awakened and the body prepared for its resurrection.
An emerging iconography in the East, sought to sanctify the visual, shaping the optical sense with earthly materials transformed into heavenly visions of new creation. And in the West, most notably developed by Bonaventure in his Reduction of the Arts to Theology, light became the key motif for understanding, so that just as the physical sight was dependent on physical light, so spiritual sight was dependent on a divine luminosity. Hence for Bonaventure, the illumination of the Holy Spirit upon the mind enables us to imaginatively reinterpret the natural world around us as a theater of divine glory, a reinterpretation made explicit in the idealized work of the artisan.
The important point here is that the redemption of the senses sees a connection between the loveliness of our art and the virtuousness of our society. Art is a means by which both the human person and the elements of creation are transformed into a harmonious expression of redemption.
Unlike the art of the modern age, the redemption of the senses thus represents a sustainable culture that is conducive to human flourishing.
And so, who am I to define art?
I’m no one.
Instead, I defer to the Great Artist, the one through whom all things are made, and in whom all things are made new.
For more information on the role of the arts in the redemption of the senses, see my book, Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, available here.