A while back, I wrote a blog about art and its relation to objectivity, trying to get the ball rolling in a conversation that I think is worth having. I recognize that describing it as “getting the ball rolling” may sound more than a little ridiculous; it’s not even close to a novel idea, and nothing I’ve said has been very revolutionary (most of it is really just regurgitated stuff from people I have been influenced by). My aim is simply to bring the conversation into the small sphere of people I actually interact with as an extension of what I consider to be a life-calling: challenging people to push theology into every nook and cranny of thought. And, as far as my initial objective goes, mission accomplished! The ball has begun to roll and I have had some great conversations with what (I assume) is probably my primary (only?) audience: my friends. They have, in turn, helped me to think through some additional nuances. So with that said, I invite you to humor me as I pontificate further on the subject.
The principle that I tried to lay out in the last article is simple: beauty is defined by conformity to–and reflection of–God. I want to place God not only as the ontological foundation–and thus, criteria–for truth and goodness, but also for beauty. So in the same way that “evil” is defined by its contrast with God’s goodness (“evil” is the ethical or moral equivalent to “not-God-ness”), and in the same way that “falsity” is defined by its contrast with God’s truthfulness (“falsity” is the philosophical equivalent to “not-God-ness”), I want to say that “ugliness,” as an abstract principle, is defined by its contrast with God’s beauty (“ugliness” is the aesthetic equivalent to “not-God-ness”).
Which, as a side note, has serious implications for our beauty-obsessed culture. It means that Christians shouldn’t be working to eradicate the category of “ugliness,” as is the habit of some, nor should they be seeking to impose the superficial categories of American tabloids for “beauty” and “ugliness,” as is the habit of others. Interestingly enough, you can spot both of those positions in different manifestations of the sexual revolution; the former pop up as the “whatever floats your boat” people who stand for revolution by bragging about being the anti-type of a skinny porn-star (you know, the proudly-big-and-beautiful-in-your-face-underwear-selfie type), and the latter pop up as the Cosmopolitan sex-peddlers who stand for revolution by securing the careers of skinny porn-stars. Both groups of people are missing the point; their standards of beauty are too superficial and are hopelessly subjective at the top. They need to think bigger with the concept of “beauty” in general before they can make their way into the particulars. With both groups, we see the vanity of insisting upon a sexuality-centered identity.
But I digress. What I want to explore right now are two providential levels to which this principle must be applied; namely, the micro-level and the macro-level. Since he’s kind of an easy target, I’ll keep picking on Jackson Pollock.
At the micro-level, we can identify God’s creative craftsmanship in everything–including a Jackson Pollock painting. The fact that God has absolute sovereignty over every square-inch of existence matters. We are Calvinists after all; we love that God refuses to let any particle in the cosmos go rogue.
So we see Jackson, in all of his revolutionary thought–his paradigm shifting experiment to annihilate the very notion of sovereignty–take a fistful of dripping paint, and fling it out of his sovereign domain. He lets Mother Nature decide. He lets naturalism take a crack at visual arts.
And we, Christians, snicker as God sovereignly and meticulously places a splatter here rather than there, and another one here rather than there.
Try again, Pollock.
No matter how hard he works at it, Jack can never give his paint over into the hands of chaos, because chaos doesn’t exist. What he’s actually doing, on the micro-level, is giving his paint into the hands of providence… which, incidentally, is where he starts off to begin with; where he lives and moves and has his being.
So, question: on the micro-level of a Jackson Pollock painting, can we identify and appreciate God’s creative craftsmanship–his beauty? Answer: we’d better! But this doesn’t mean that we must judge the work to be beautiful in and of itself, anymore than a murder carried out with a knife must be judged as a good action on account of God’s continual sustaining of the metallic substance of the knife or the heartbeat of the murderer. God’s micro-involvement shouldn’t be the defining criteria of truth, beauty, or goodness; otherwise every fact of the universe would be true, beautiful, and good.
But let’s take another angle. Let’s identify Jack’s paintings from the wide-angled lens of God’s providence. If all of time and space are God’s canvas, then the cosmos and human history can be understood as God’s painting.
And in this painting, we see creation, fall, redemption, and glorification. We see wholeness, disorder, and repair. We see bright spots and dark contours. We see a lot of texture. We see contrast. It’s a painting that has newborns and mountains and sunsets and laughter, and it also has Hitler and fungi and hurricanes and cats.
If we look real close, we spot Jackson Pollock in his studio, right there with a full ash-tray, a lit cigarette between his lips, and wet paint all over the place. He’s right there, part of God’s painting, and he’s making his tiny contribution to the masterpiece along with the rest of us.
Now, from this wide-angled lens, can we appreciate Jack’s painting and its place in the masterpiece as a whole? Absolutely. But does his contribution equate to beauty, in a strictly surface-level sense? Absolutely not. A massive stained glass window may have a nasty little smudge of grayish-brownish in it, which strictly speaking is “ugly,” but which nevertheless contributes to the beauty of the window as a whole. So on the grounds of providential placement, I wouldn’t want to call Jack’s work “beautiful” anymore than I would want to call Saruman’s treachery “good,” even though it’s placement in The Lord of the Rings made the story “good.”
Reflective By Default
There’s something else that we need to consider. In the last post I made the argument that artists are imitators; they are what they are by virtue of being image bearers. In a recent post for Humble Beast, Levi The Poet writes:
For a long time, I’ve loved a band named mewithoutYou. In one of their songs, vocalist Aaron Weiss sings, “If ever you draw near, I will hold up high a mirror – Lord, I could never show you anything as beautiful as you.” It’s a gorgeous lyric, and yet I wonder at the fact that, truthfully, Aaron himself is that mirror.
He later makes the helpful observation that we are “created creators.” Amen. So when an artist stands in front of a canvas with an idea, he resembles the Triune God, standing in front of the endless void with an idea.
Let there be…
*Brush dips in paint…*
In the case of Mr. Pollock, I tried to argue that he was a bad artist because he misrepresented the Artist, and in turn, the true art of reality. Where the Artist providentially and meticulously pours care and detail and complexity into his work, Pollock seeks to remove himself entirely. Where the Artist employs carefully defined methods to sovereignly piece his creation together, Pollock seeks to adopt chaos and disorder as his governing method. God is the Triune, benevolent, theistic Artist to his artwork, while Pollock is, at best, a deistic artist to his.
Now, a qualification needs to be made here. Though I try to make the case Jackson is a bad artist because he is a poor representation of the Artist, I have to concede the fact that he is still a representation. In other words, to some measure, he can’t not reflect God as an artist.
Before he can try to rage against the Imago Dei in his artwork, he has to put his canvas on his easel and get his paint out, which will never be anything less than an imitation of God spreading out the void in preparation to create his ex nihilo masterpiece. He can’t deny the Imago Dei without establishing the Imago Dei!
So yes, there is some artistic reflection of God in Jackson Pollock’s painting, insofar as his endeavor to paint at all is a reflection of God. But this qualification is applicable for all people in all things and in all circumstances, because all people and all things and all circumstances are ultimately and ontologically contingent upon God!
So this applies to the moral relativist and the postmodern philosopher as well. The very fact that the moral relativist even has the desire to engage in the arena of morality is a testament to the fact that he is a moral creature, created in the image of a moral God. The very fact that a postmodern philosopher even has the desire to engage in the arena of rationality is a testament to the fact that he is a rational creature, created in the image of a rational God.
The simple reality that Pollock’s endeavor to create art is a reflection of God should not necessarily lead us to conclude that his artwork is beautiful, any more than we ought to conclude that the moral relativist or postmodern philosopher are morally good or rationally right.
We have to pay attention to proportion. If you have a bowl of sugar, and you add a bit of salt, you still have a bowl of sugar. But if you continue to add more and more salt, eventually you will have a bowl of salt, despite the fact that sugar is still in there. Moral relativism, postmodern philosophy, and Pollock’s abstract impressionism are, in my estimation, bowls of salt–with a little bit of sugar.
One last comment. Maybe you’re a Christian and you don’t agree with the categories I give for how to work this principle out (the principle that absolute “beauty” is defined by God’s beauty). That’s fine. So long as you try to work the principle out into some categories of designation. My agenda is simply to push Christians to define all of life from theological principles.
What we want to have is consistency to the glory of God.