Toward a Contemporary Understanding
Driving in cars with boys one day, I was surprised to hear my 12-year-old son tell his friends that he couldn't wait to turn 18. "Why?" they asked, and my ears perked. Why indeed; so that he could buy a car, or so that he could leave home?
"So that I can make a million dollars."
There was laughter from his friends, "How are you going to do that?"
"I'm going to paint a green stripe down the middle of a canvas and sell it to the art gallery."
In the essay "Toward a Christian Aesthetic", mid-twentieth century writer Dorothy Sayers contrasts entertainment and propaganda-style art with the kind of art that comes from (what she calls) a "true" artist. The entertainer and the preacher use tools and materials to accomplish their purposes in relation to their audiences. The artist uses those same tools and materials to create an image that is completely new. In the same way that, in the biblical account of the creation of the world, God created something out of nothing, the artist forms a unique thing out of his own (unseen) experience.
Sayers goes on to argue that in the Trinitarian understanding of God, the creation of the world included a likeness of God, which is the Son. The Son is not a copy of God, nor is he His inferior; he is an image of the invisible God. When we see the Son, we see God. Similarly, when the artist expresses an internal (and therefore invisible) experience, it becomes an image that we can see and experience for ourselves. When we look at the image, we see the artist.
The example that Sayers uses is that of the poet who experiences something when he sees the full moon. The poem that he writes is not a description of the moon (that is what a "literary artisan" does). Rather, it is an expression of his experience. When we read the poem, we see the image of that poet's experience, and we may even recognize it as something that we experienced too. That image of the moon is brand new, because every poet's inner response, and subsequent image, is unique. The impact that it has on its audience is therefore also unique.
If a piece of art is not merely a copy of something, but rather the thing itself as it appeared in the artist's spirit, then we, the viewer, will respond to it as such. This understanding of art, in which the artist "images" his own internal experiences, therefore does not have to be "nice" or even "edifying." When honesty is involved in expression, anything can happen. A modern example of this is the controversy created by the 1980's song "If I Had a Rocket Launcher." This song is not "nice"; but it is Cockburn, the true artist, expressing his invisible experience. If that experience is anger, then that is the image that we, the listener, see.
Sayers' definition of true art has been enormously helpful in understanding "contemporary art"; and by that I mean anything that appears in the Contemporary Art section of the National Gallery of Canada. I have visited this section many times; and, obviously, so has my son. We all know the common response to the kind of art that is found there: "I could do that." When my son expressed that sentiment, I said "I dare you", which possibly got him thinking about his cool million.
We suspect that there's some sort of deception going on here. Why would the gallery pay (to tell a true story) 1.8 million dollars for Barnett Newman's "Voice of Fire", which consists of a red stripe on a blue background? The worth of the product in no way matches its cost. But that very fact is artistic in itself, because it reveals a truth about our culture as clearly as the Renaissance fascination with the human body reveals their gleeful escape from stiff medieval form. Perhaps the National Gallery of Canada is cleverer than we think. Maybe they really can tell the difference between a true artist imaging forth what is inside him, and a scheming 18-year old out to make a buck
We live in a time and place where we, as a culture, refuse to acknowledge the existence of God. Contemporary art (art produced by this same culture) is therefore the likeness of the artists' experience of Godlessness. The artist is not trying to represent godlessness. Godlessness is his reality, and therefore that is what he images. A side-effect of a culture of godlessness is the idea that no one is bound by absolutes, and that there are therefore no constraints on our expression. Contemporary art is, actually, a marvellous manifestation of our current belief. It so wonderfully expresses the experience of godlessness that it evokes a reaction in its viewer. Some laugh, some scratch their heads„and I saw one viewer react with profound distress.
According to this understanding, contemporary art, as displayed at the National Gallery of Canada, every cardboard box, every broken car part, every moving table, every neon light, is great art. It is a brilliant image of what exists in the soul of contemporary culture. Furthermore, the fact that a huge piece of expensive downtown real estate is given over to one carefully placed spiral of rock is a fantastic articulation of the contemporary human's disproportionate perception of himself. Our culture believes that humans are the centre of the universe; therefore the images that we create must be given all prominence. That is a very powerful message.
So, contemporary art is not a deception at all. The deception is the assumption of godlessness; the idea that God does not exist, and that humans are the prominent beings. Contemporary art is merely the visible image of the invisible deception that the artist has come to believe. If we find ourselves reacting to these expressions with puzzlement, we would do well to examine the assumed reality that is at their foundation.