Who's Afraid of Contemporary Art?
How do Christians think about contemporary art and the gospel while remaining committed to the rigorous practice of successful artmaking or theorizing? Are these two often-contradictory pursuits possible?
Lately, I have been thinking hard about these questions. A paradox at best, I am an artist, historian, critic, wife of a pastor committed to Reformed theology, and—most importantly—a follower of Christ. I recently read D. A. Carson's Christ and Culture Revisited. Although an unlikely source, Carson's book provides serious insight for considering contemporary art (art made post-1945 to the present) in light of this tension between the secular and the scriptural. As the book title suggests, Carson explores the intersection between Christ and culture—"a system . . . by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life" (205). Carson begins by critiquing Niebuhr's seminal text, Christ and Culture (1951). He then discusses the relationship between Christ and culture to biblical theology, postmodernism, and the separation between church and state. In conclusion, Carson explores six methodologies Christians have used to come to terms with secular culture.
One example caught my attention, what he calls "minimalist expectations," a stance perpetuated by historian Darryl G. Hart and other scholars. Carson echoes this perspective in saying that we ought not speak about "redeeming culture." As Carson explains, "if we lose the unique significance bound up with the redemption secured by Christ in his death and resurrection, we lose the ongoing tension between Christ and culture that must subsist until the end" (217). However, he acknowledges that "improv[ing] and transform[ing] some social structures . . . may help . . . thousands develop a countercultural way of looking at all reality under the Lordship of Christ [and it can] sometimes . . . produce wonderful work that inspires a new generation" (218). Ultimately, we must test each approach to culture against Scripture, specifically biblical theology as seen through the pivotal turning points of: creation and the fall, Israel and the law, Christ and the new covenant, and a heaven to be gained and a hell to be found.
Carson does not advocate that by putting on biblical theology glasses the intersection between Christianity and the secular world suddenly becomes clear. Instead, he suggests that looking to Christ first effectively works out how we live in our specialized horizontal spheres. Carson mirrors Paul's prescription in Colossians 3: "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God . . . put off the old self with its practices and . . . put on the new self." Beginning with an eternal focus allows us to rightly align our worldly passions and pursuits to the desires of Christ.
Carson's caution about the "minimalist expectation" of Christ and culture does not demonize Christians who attempt to merge the gospel and the arts; instead, he gently reminds them that all study must be subordinate to the lordship of Christ. In fact, he acknowledges that "doing good to the city . . . is part of our responsibility as God's redeemed people in this time of tension between the 'already' and the 'not yet'" (218).
With these thoughts, Carson provides a helpful diving point for the Christ-follower who is also a professional artist or art historian. How does this tension between the "already" and "not yet" play out in our lives?
1. We recognize—and embrace—this tension. We abstain from figuring out ways to fix or "redeem" contemporary art but instead accept it. Likewise, we don't ignore the art world but instead pursue Christ within it so that others might come to know him through the relationships we build with members of that community.
2. We must understand our role as ambassadors of Christ within that tension. Daniel Siedell, writing in God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (2008), encourages Christian artists and intellectuals to realize and embrace their "homelessness" or their set-apartness (123). As specialists in an already specialized field, he maintains that we stand out from the rest of the art world but remain committed to that world; again, we are not called to isolation but instead tension or discomfort within the confines.
3. Therefore, we make art well by the standards that have been set forth in academia, art history, and the art world. We diligently pursue art that is subordinate to the lordship of Christ while working in a secular sphere. Because our Creator made good, perfect, and beautiful art that surpasses the highest forms of artmaking in this world, we should emulate him and make critically stimulating work that values craftsmanship and conceptual thinking over mimicry, kitsch, or market-based trends.
4. We stop avoiding contemporary art out of suspicion or fear. If creation and general revelation reflect the Creator, then there is merit—somehow—to contemporary art, even if not easily ascertainable.
5. We, as Christian intellectuals, must teach and discuss art within secular art institutions while reflecting the gospel in our lives as we proclaim the good news. We must think strategically, searching for alternative narratives for theorizing and writing about art, while remaining committed to object-based analysis. These narratives must be shaped by the Scriptures as seen through the pivotal moments of biblical theology. At the same time, we don't isolate ourselves in the ivory tower of academia, but instead use our position as artist or art historian and Christ-follower to creatively foster spiritual growth within the church.
By embracing this tension and placing the gospel first in our pursuit of visual art, we might discover the benefits of contemporary art within its specialized field.