Saturday, May 21, 2011

Why Protestants Don't Like Art

When I was making outlines for research papers at University, the first heading was always "I. Introduction," after which I would write, "blah-blah-blah, BS, BS, BS," followed by whatever the thesis statement happened to be on that particular piece. It was part of The System I'd worked out, a way to write a passable research paper in about nine hours, spread over three days. I'm not exactly proud of my "bare minimum" attitude at University, or the way I allowed a facility with words to compensate more often than not for a slacker attitude regarding actual work. The fact that this is normal even for undergraduate students is no consolation. The average person is lazy and accomplishes very little with the gift of life they've been given... so why would I aspire to normalcy?
Nonetheless, I did learn a few things despite my slacking, and "The BS Section," as I called it, served an important function - allowing me to blather on in grandiose terms about the subject matter of the paper to come, providing a sort of "hook" that would catch the interest of professors long-since bored out of their gourds by undergraduate inanity. 
So this year, when I had to read and review a book as part of the continuing-education credit-accumulation required to retain my position as an art teacher, I knew just how to start off - with an extended session of good old-fashioned BS. You probably wouldn't be all that interested in reading the book I was there to review, so I'll re-write my BS a little and pick a few paragraphs out of the body of the thing to make it a self-contained little entity. While it may sound like I know what I'm talking about, scholarly it most definitely is not. Enjoy:

Blah-Blah-Blah, BS, BS, BS 
(by Joshua Lawrence Barkey, Esquire)

The Protestant Reformation of the Fifteenth Century brought to light a great many of the excesses and failures of the Catholic Church, corruption that included the selling of Indulgences and other wanton abuses of power. It is a truism that power corrupts, and the Catholic Church had become quite corrupt by its long association with power. You cannot go to bed with the devil and expect to remain unaffected by the experience. There was much that was good, therefore, about what the Protestant Reformation wished to accomplish.
Like most Revolutions, however, it was also party to its own excesses, perhaps none more notable than its treatment of the Arts. In a sometimes desperate attempt to distance itself from the problems of the Catholic Church and what was perceived as the idolatry inherent in the Catholic Iconographic tradition, the Protesters began a campaign of smashing statues and tearing down and burning a great deal of priceless art.
While there are few today who would argue that the extremes of this anti-Art campaign were either good or necessary, the fact remains that there was something it was reacting against. By the Fifteenth Century the artwork of the Catholic Church had often become gaudy, opulent and self-indulgent. But what sort of alternative did the Protestant movement offer? None. Their response was to whitewash the walls of churches and disengage entirely from the world of visual art.  In their efforts to assert the primacy of scripture, they swung the pendulum of their thoughts dramatically in the opposite direction, completely ignoring the possibility that a God who had created a world of such lush, multifarious beauty could also be revealed (and perhaps more powerfully) through something as non-verbal, transient, and mysterious as visual art.
This is not exactly surprising. Human enterprise is often characterized by a dialectic process, wherein ideas push against their opposites in an ongoing conversation that is often drastic in its swinging from one polar opposite to another. It is a natural thing for a person to wish to be connected to the Truth, and one of the ways each generation and time does this is to react – often violently – against the ideas and beliefs of their predecessors (which have inevitably become corrupted by the Power and Control they assert over the minds of so many). In their own way, for example, the Catholic Church ended up echoing this anti-Art mentality during the counter-Reformation. But the experiential and visually-starved world that the Protestant movement created for itself was one stripped, largely, of life. We are visual creatures, and we live in stories – stories that are often best told by means that capitalize less on the verbal, linear, rational side of our brains and more on the spatial, connective, emotive side.
Thus, early Protestant Christianity gave up the opportunity to engage in a very important part of what it means to be human. They abandoned a vital corrective to a way of thinking that often gives pride of place to the limited realm of human reason. This pride of place grew and grew, leading in many cases to an abandonment of the sort of humility, wonder and gratitude that the visual arts are perhaps best suited to inculcate.
Art is a basic human drive. It is part of our created nature, and humans will have their art. So when Protestant Christianity abdicated its place at the table of visual art – demanding that any visual art be purely illustrative of a direct, verbal, moral message – people began to go elsewhere for their art. In our day and age, for example, the majority of people who call themselves Christians - even many of the most ardently conservative - prefer for the most part to watch movies (the culmination and amalgamation of all art forms into one) made by people whose values they do not necessarily share. This is because people have an instinctive sense for good art, and will seek it out wherever it may be found (even as they cluck their tongues and bemoan the "ubiquitous depravity of our nasty, secularized culture").
The truth today is that the Christian Church as an institution is almost a nonentity when it comes to shaping culture. Yes, it can make a movie like “Fireproof” and get it in theaters and Walmart shelves across the country, but the people who are watching this movie and others like it are those who already agree with its premise and often congratulate themselves for doing so. This is because the main focus of a movie like “Fireproof” is, from the outset, to very clearly and blatantly argue a point of view and illustrate a sermon point, not to very honestly and truthfully tell a story about real-life people struggling to live lives of faith in the real world… and the former is not what art is best suited for.
            What this subculture has done is to create a Christian Ghetto, an insular, dome-covered community easily dismissed by the rest of society. In a dichotomizing effort stemming directly from early attempts to distance itself from the overly world-entangled, power-and-money-focused Catholic Church, Protestantism has split the Sacred and Secular in a way that is likely more an expression of the sort of strongly Greek/Platonic thought that characterized the Modern Mindset shaped and disseminated by the Enlightenment, than it is anything actually Christian. The Bible does not shy away from depicting sex, violence, selfishness, greed, gluttony, pride, or any of the other failings that the flesh is heir to. And therein, I believe, lies much of its power. It is real. It is us
I can understand the desire to protect children from images that might harm them. But we have to wake up… this is the internet age, and they are already experiencing all of these things, meted out to them by people who (sometimes) do not care if Divine Truth and Beauty and Love are represented. They are listening to people who affirm ugly, destructive things (such as: "Consuming will make you happy!" and "There is nothing more Patriotic and American than a Mall!"), and they are doing it because the people who create this artwork – these movies, TV shows, songs and books – are creating a vision of the world that is more in line with reality than the one presented by people calling themselves Christians.
This is not a universal principle. Many Christians are doing a great many wonderful things in each of these areas of the arts – but usually, whenever they take risks and explore uncomfortable realities outside the ken of the insular Christian community, they are themselves castigated, cast from the community and painted as the enemy. This is a shame. In this, I believe that Protestant Christianity has missed out on an opportunity to be involved in what Christ is able to give to the world: everything, presented artfully.


Whitewashed interior of the Church of St. Odolphus, by Pieter van Saenredam


3 comments:

  1. I don't want to get you in trouble or anything, but as an art teacher what kinds of attitudes do you encounter from the admin and/or the faculty towards art? Do you find - or do you think you would find - a difference between the reaction of art depicting violence and the depiction of sexuality and/or nudity?

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  2. Our faculty/admin is comprised of a great many different individuals, who believe a wide variety of things. I'm grateful to be at a VERY good school, where I am encouraged to be myself. Naturally, there are a lot of people there who don't agree with me about everything, but the truth is, practically all my interactions about art at work happen with the students... whom I find to be quite varied in their approach as well. I generally encourage them to make whatever sort of art they would like... just that if there is anything that I suspect the administration would have a problem with, I won't hang it in the halls. It's their school, and they have a right to decide what art to put up. So far I've had no major issues regarding the content of student work, which is sometimes a bit edgy/weird. But yeah, I would expect a much stronger reaction to art depicting sexuality and/or nudity than violence, and the only two (mild) reactions I've gotten to student art have been because of depictions of sexuality.

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  3. Thank you for share this informative post.

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