As you have come to study art at this college perhaps your assumption is that of the ‘God is dead’ school. I would like to challenge that assumption – it is an assumption that soon leads to the ‘man is dead’ philosophy.
When the title question was asked at the University of Dundee, Duncan of Jordanstone Art College, it caused some degree of controversy. There were those who were upset that it seemed to be implying that atheists could not be artists. But the question is subtler than that – of course atheists can be artists – and many are. But the real question is how consistent is it for someone who denies the Creator, to then assert creativity? Can there be art without an artist? Can there be art without The Artist?
Modern art is deeply tied up with the question of religion, and the questions that arise from that. What is art? Who does it mean to be human? Is there any meaning at all? Art, at its best is an exploration of such questions and a revelation of the human soul. Whether we like it or not, whether we believe in God or not, the connection between art, spirituality and religion is so deep that one suspects that they could not be disjoined without the separation causing the death of both.
The history of art is fascinating- reflecting and sometimes leading the various changes in worldviews and philosophies. In this short article we do not have time to offer more than a few examples of art in the Western world but I hope that it will be enough to wet your appetite. For a more comprehensive view read Modern Art and the Death of a Culture by H.R Rookmaaker – a classic which has yet to be bettered.
Lets begin with an artist who is making the headlines in Scotland today – Titian and his painting Venus and Mars. Titian was a Roman Catholic but also a Humanist. His world was a world in which it was possible to speak of concepts such as beauty and love. And these concepts were perceived of as being objective as well as subjective. They were really there – even if we could not see them. Titian painted as someone who understood that art was more than making a photographic representation. The picture, by its artistry and method tells a story.
However when we come to Goya, whom some would call the first modern artist, he takes a different view. In his The execution of Spaniards by the French he demonstrates a very modernist view of the world. The only things we can paint are the things we can see. Courbet argued that he had never seen an angel so he would not paint one. This ‘enlightenment’ view of the world, where reality is limited to what can be empirically tested, also led to an increase in landscape painting (the land, sea, trees were ‘real’ and were there) as well as the reaction of Romanticism in the 18th century where the irrational, the mystical and the mysterious were elevated. Romanticism also fitted in well with the new bourgeois morality – whether of the Victorian prudish type or its opposite twin, sexual amorality.
The trouble with realism is that once one accepts that all that exists is what one can perceive with the senses, what is there left for the artist to interpret? What can the artist ‘see’? The is where the Impressionists come in. Monet, Renoir and their colleagues used light to paint what their eyes saw, or what they thought they saw, but in such a way as to make the picture seem somewhat unreal. In 1885 Monet made a crucial decision. There is no reality. Only the sensations are real. Gauguin took this further. In his greatest painting Whence? What? Whither? he tried to marry the earlier realism whilst seeking to express freedom and humanity.
Van Gogh believed in reality but he tried to paint his feelings rather than what his eyes saw. Trees like flames, mountains like waves and everything in strong, bright colours. Cezanne wanted to paint only what the eye sees, but to do so within the structure of human rationality. In a sense the Post-Impressionists tried to marry two principles – that of scientific positivism which made man only a sophisticated machine/animal – the other that of humanity and human freedom. The two could not live long together. Expressionism resulted.
Expressionism had no programme, no definite philosophy, no rules and no publicity. It was revolutionary art in a revolutionary age – the beginning of the 20th Century. It is urban work that seeks to understand man in his relation to nature. One great expressionist, Kandinsky, argued that “we must destroy the soulless, materialistic life of the nineteenth century and we must build the life of the soul and the spirit of the 20th century”. He soon came to see this as abstract painting – art in which there is no subject matter. This too was an attempt to find art and meaning without God.
Meanwhile the early Cubists and Picasso in particular sought to find meaning and the spiritual in more ‘primitive art’ – an art closer to nature. There was a search for the absolute but it was no longer personal, because there was no personal God and all ‘creation’ was basically the same. Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon was neither moral nor immoral. It was amoral. The figures are objects. There is no feeling. But it is still a painting that is painted from the perspective of the search for the absolute. But Picasso was a genius and he came to realise that he had failed. He then believed that he had failed to find the absolute because there was no absolute to find. There are no universals. The world is absurd. And so in 1910 the world of Sartre, Camus and the post-modern was born. Mondian, Duchamps and Dada all reacted in different ways to this. The latter in particular teaching a from of nihilistic, destructive, anti-art, anti-philosophy. Later on surrealism joined in the ever-increasing chorus of ‘man is dead’. ‘God is dead’ had of course been the earlier cry of the German philosopher, Nietzsche.
There is much much more. But this quick trip through some of the philosophy of art surely demonstrates how art, philosophy and religion are intertwined. It also shows that the attempts of great artists to paint art without God have only underlined the futility and meaninglessness of both life and art without Him. As you have come to study art at this college perhaps your assumption is that of the ‘God is dead’ school. I would like to challenge that assumption – it is an assumption that soon leads to the ‘man is dead’ philosophy. And whilst, asking such questions in artistic form, can produce great art – in the end it kills art. The greater art is found in the search for truth, reality, beauty, love and meaning.
A long time ago a wise man wrote that having searched for meaning under the sun his conclusion was that everything was meaningless. But he came to realise that not everything was ‘under the sun’, not everything was measurable nor limited to that which we can empirically sense. Indeed the material, and the empirical only make sense, when seen in the greater reality and clearer light of God. If you really want to be an artist. If you really want to be creative. Then surely it makes sense to get to know the Creator. It is in Him that we live and move and have our being. Jesus Christ is the Light of the World. A light by which every artist needs to see and be seen. Search and you will find. Open your eyes and you will see.
This is the substance of a talk I gave at Duncan of Jordanstone Art College at the University of Dundee. Those of you who know Rookmaaker’s ‘Modern Art and the Death of a Culture’ will recognise much of the material, which I have condensed and re-contextualised, and then added a few of my own thoughts. Feel free to comment….
David Robertson is the pastor of St. Peters Free Church of Scotland in Dundee. He can be reached at [email protected]