Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Art Through the Years

If you are a homeschooling parent, you're probably planning to try to teach both history and art at some point this year. Clearly the two topics are interrelated, since all art was created at some point in history, and almost all periods in history are characterized by art in one form or another. (There may be time frames from which we no longer have any preserved art, but as people created in the image of our Creator, it seems pretty much all of us value some kind of artistic/creative expression.)

Until today, though, I hadn't thought much about how art reflects the philosophies and mindset of the artist, and particularly how artistic styles reflect the philosophies and mindsets of the historical times in which the artists lived. But on his Breakpoint radio program today (click here for transcript), Chuck Colson points out the relationships, and he does so in a simple, easy-to-understand way. At the same time, he explains something I've been wondering about recently: Why do many people today think animals create art, and why does that idea seem so strange to me? Take a look:

Imagine we’re touring an imaginary art museum. Beginning in the medieval section, we see figures that are stiff and formal, set against gold backgrounds. This is art expressing an otherworldly philosophy of life.

Next comes the Reformation. Figures begin to look like real individuals instead of symbols. Reformation artists believed God could be represented not just by icons but by paintings of real human beings, who are made in His image.

Next we come to the Enlightenment. Paintings show respectable figures in fashionable dress. Landscapes consist of neat, orderly fields—nature under the dominion of reason.

But in the next room, the plowed fields give way to craggy mountains. Romanticism in art celebrates wild, untamed nature, the Noble Savage, ancient legends.

Finally we approach the room housing modern art, beginning with Impressionism, when art was taken over by subjectivist philosophies. Definitions of art shifted from the subject matter being portrayed to the way light strikes the artist's eye; from great themes of human drama to daubs of paint on canvas; from objective standards of beauty to the artist's psyche.

Expressionism and Surrealism probed deeper into subjective experience. Eventually art lost sight of any objective standards of form and beauty. Art became defined as whatever an artist does.

But without objective standards of form and beauty, even unformed, random marks on canvas—not unlike the dabblings of a dog—can be regarded as art.

Art used to be regarded as the expression of a civilization’s highest ideals. Great painters shared a communal vision of the good and beautiful. But today art has become so subjective that many people cannot tell the difference between works that have artistic merit and works that don’t. A museum might exhibit a paper plate next to a Rembrandt—who is to say which is art?

Christians ought to care about art because God calls us to lead the way in renewing our culture. Artistic talent is a gift of God, to be cultivated for the service of God and our neighbor.

So while we may regard the “work” of canine Picassos as amusing, we should spend our money supporting those humans who are called to create, as the Scripture puts it, “for the glory of God and for beauty.”

If nothing else, Colson's program here helps me understand how the philosophy of a given historical time period influenced the art of that period. I find it fascinating, for example, that as the concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, became more and more blurred in society, art became more and more subjective. "If I think it's good, what right do you have to say it's bad?" became as accepted in art as in morality and religion. As I teach my children history and philosophy, I can now show them how the culture of the time influenced its art.

But Colson also explains why I don't think a dog's creation (or an elephant's, or any other animal's) can be called art. True art can only be created by people, as an expression of the gift God has given them (whether they recognize it as being from Him or not). True art gives us a glimpse of "the good and the beautiful," to use Colson's words. And the best of true art is produced to glorify God and make the world a more beautiful place.


Dana said...

Very true. It is fascinating to look at the relationship between art and the philosophical ideals of the time. What we cannot bring about in reality, we often succeed in bringing about in art. Look at postmodernism...it strives to be art without purpose (which is a task, since technically art is a combination of human skill and purpose...but even the expression of purposelessness is a purpose I suppose).

Anyway, you can see it in canvas, in literature and even architecture. Take a look at this building and its description (3rd quote). Does that not describe both the art and the philosophy of our time?

Marcy Muser said...

Wow, Dana,

I'd never seen anything about this building before. I wonder if the media realizes the general public is not ready for taxpayers' dollars to be spent on anything so senseless. Stairways that go nowhere? Have we really gotten to the point that we can afford to spend money on such extravagances?

Amazing! Thanks for pointing that out to me.