Q Los Angeles 2013
Arts + Entertainment
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Arts + Entertainment
When Art Offends
On a recent visit to New York City, I stumbled upon a outdoor art market in Soho. Intrigued by the organic “New Yorkiness”, I stopped to encounter gritty “starving artists” with musty suitcases full of original artwork. I couldn’t help but purchase a couple of pieces and as I was leaving, I noticed one lonely artist with violent depictions of animal slaughterhouses with renderings of Jesus superimposed over them. “That is not art,” I thought, averting my eyes. “That guy shouldn’t be allowed to show that.”
On the subway ride back to my hotel, I began to question my initial reaction to the graphic photos. An important question rattled around my mind. How should Christians respond to works of art we initially find offensive?
Artists have been violating sensibilities for some time. In fact, they’re known for it. Critics found much of Picasso’s unorthodox work completely unacceptable. Salvador Dali, a Spanish surrealist in the mid-20th century, disgusted many with works including his 1929 “The Great Masturbator” featuring nudity and sexual overtones that would make even a progressive hedonist blush. In addition, his work often depicts grotesque images of corpses and rotting animals, which serve as outrageous metaphors intended to shock observers out of their everyday complacency. Today, both artists are considered geniuses.
Not much has changed in recent years, as artists continue to push the limits of public tolerance. Art can be unpalatable, even repulsive, for followers of Jesus, and we may be tempted to disconnect from art altogether. After all, our Scriptures instruct us to fill our minds with “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, [and] whatever is admirable.” (Phil. 4:8)
How then should we respond to art we find reprehensible?
Sometimes the easiest way to respond to objectionable art is to disregard it or criticize it, but I’m not sure this is the most helpful response. Perhaps we should do the hard work of engaging both the artist and the work itself. Some art serves only to distress the masses, but what is distasteful
often turns out to be a light by which we are instructed and matured.
Chris Ofili’s 1996 collage, “Holy Virgin Mary,” illustrates this point vividly. This controversial work is a linen rendering of the Virgin Mary, which incorporates elephant dung and hundreds of cutouts of female genitalia. The piece was immediately condemned by many Christian leaders when it went on display. One’s first reaction may be to dismiss the piece altogether, but further research is illuminative. Upon researching Ofili, I realized that the controversial British painter is of African decent. In the African context, elephant dung is not negative; it is a symbol of fertility. Rather than defaming Mary, Ofili uses the dung to illustrate a certain sacredness.
It’s very easy to condemn progressive art—or any element in culture for that matter—out of hand without doing one’s homework. But the engaged Christian must be in conversation with culture. We must be wise in the things we consume and support, we must also do the hard work of discernment. Informed engagement and cultural conversations can transform, enlighten, and lead us into new relationships.
Maybe the artist I encountered in Soho was a dime-a-dozen Jesus-hater, but perhaps he was making a profound statement about religious ambivalence to social evils such as animal cruelty. If the latter is true, my lazy reaction to a potentially penetrating work of art robbed me of an opportunity for introspection and edification.
I wonder if you could help us understand how to interpret modern art. Where should we go to procure an understanding or rubric that will help us determine what is true art?
I understand your sentiment regarding a Christian's posture toward potentially offensive art but at what point does our "understanding" (also translated "tolerance") of pornographic cut-outs of vaginas render the Christian's position of morality moot?
The dung usage in the painting is understandable. But what is the context for a piece such as "Holy Virgin Mary"? When is it suitable for a Christian to condone something that uses the profane to be ironic?
Great comments. Your first question is, simply stated, "What is art?" This question has been and continues to plague art historians and critics. After all, who determines if something is art or not and what criteria or standards are used to judge such a thing? I am not an expert in this area, and I certainly won't settle it in a blog comment, however, let me try to shed some light on this by sharing the way I process art....
Opinions on how to determine what is and isn't art range from "everything is art" to "almost nothing is art." For example, John Carey in the book, "What Good Are The Arts?" incorporates relativistic theory to assert that anything you think is art. In his view, a particular work may be art for you but not for me. This seems overly subjective to me. After all, am I to assume that anyone individual can be the only standard for meaning and definition? I don't think so. At the same time, no serious thinker would suggest that there is some absolute standard by which to judge art. There isn't a Secretary sitting at the Louvre with a chart and clipboard.
A good approach that minimizes subjectivity and gives a loose standard for judging works of art is the transcendental test. This involves asking three questions of any supposed work of art:
1. IS IT GOOD? In other words, is there some redeeming lesson that can be learned from this? Can society, my community, my family positively see life in a new way as a result of this work. For example,
2. IS IT BEAUTIFUL? Be careful on this one. "Beautiful" doesn't mean "pretty." Jesus on the cross is not "pretty," but it is "beautiful." When judging a work of art, ask yourself if the presentation of something contains a beauty element. Is this creative, fresh, engaging?
3. IS IT TRUE? Often, art is used to present a faulty, wrongheaded, or distorted view of sex, life, humanity, God, violence, etc. In order to judge the artwork on its own merits, we have to know what the piece is saying.
As far as the question about "pornographic cut-outs of vaginas," you raise the issue of nudity. This is also a huge question in art and really one of intent. Is the nudity intended to arouse? In this case, no. Is Michelangelo's "David" considered "pornographic?" Certainly not. In my opinion, nudity in art is something best understood with the three questions above. In Ofili's piece, the cut-outs symbolize the womb and the dung in the African context symbolizes sacredness. The affirmation of Mary's sacred womb is deeply theological. It is true, good and beautiful, and in my opinion, makes for wonderful--albeit, complex--art.
Your last question is easy to answer in light of the transcendentals. Something that is profane for the value of shock, irony, or fame would not qualify as art in my opinion. Entertainment, perhaps. But not art.
Hope this explains how I undertand this issue. Let me know if you think I am wrong or misguided.
i do not believe we can ask these questions about what is good, true and beautiful art without first understanding the motive of the artist--whether or not he is able to or willing to accurately understand himself. obviously, we can't take this understanding too far--i.e., it is best held within the realm of the obvious and observable. fortunately, this aspiring artist in manhattan makes for an easy understanding. is his piece a work of art? i would say absolutely not. i would say it is gimmick, cheap advertisement (for him as brilliant artist, that is). i say this because the first thing i think we must ask is why? why does he decide to use dung, for instance, to symbolize fertility.why not the elephant, which is the more common symbol? are we supposed to know the dung is from an elephant and make that association? or, why not the peacock or parrot which also have, over the years, been symbols of fertility. if we're looking strictly for fertility symbols in africa, why not trees or sunbirds or frogs (which have been found to be living in the elephant dung). alas, these other options are not nearly as controversial when paired with the virgin mary. and then, if that's not evidence enough, we ask: why cut-outs of vaginas? i'll save us the other options i could think of--any human could think of--for less offensive options for a symbol of female fertility. the answer to the question of why cut-outs of vaginas is still obvious: because putting a frog (male fertility) with a flower (female fertility) with the virgin mary suddenly isn't controversial. it doesn't have the same affect does it? we say, "pretty flower," or, "odd combination of subjects," but we aren't offended. alas, we don't remember ofili as an artist. goal not attained. paintings not sold.
am i off in all this or am i the only one willing to state the obvious?
I get what you are saying. Much like we use the exclamation point in grammar or the Apostle Paul would use bombastic (perhaps obsene) language to make a point, so artists are known for presenting things in a creative, provocative way to make a point. By the same criteria, Picasso would not earn your respect. He was known to use unorthodox--even offensive--methods to make a point. They may not be seen that way in a 21st Century context, but they were in his day. The question for me is the message, not the medium.
so a gorgeous naked woman stands before me and passionately proclaims Jesus is Lord and Savior and i am to read her message the same as if a fully dressed woman echos the same? i believe you've not thought this through. the message diverges at precisely the same moment the medium does. i say a true artist does not need gimmick (nudity or otherwise) to make a point. when a self-proclaimed artist has to use gimmick, i wonder that this person is not skilled or creative enough to accomplish his work in good, true and beautiful form. have you read the NYT article on the manufacturing of megan fox? one line says it all: she learned early on that "noise and nudity equals celebrity." let's not confuse an "artist" who desires celebrity with one who desires art.
Art can be offensive. Life can be offensive. Even a preacher on his soap box can be offensive. So, what is offensive? And why does that matter? We live in a broken world. We are here, in this world, to be stewards of this world ... It's people included.
We can make assumptions about one's motivation, but that should hold zero bearing on how we engage that individual. We can ask as many questions about the art as we like, but unless we're speaking directly to the artist, these are NOT questions. These are assumptions. These are interpretations through our own perception, through our own world views.
In regard to the merit of one's art, that's a debate that will never end. That's the beauty of art.
When I think of the woman at the well, everything about her life was offensive. And yet, Christ provides a beautiful picture of how one might engage something or someone that is offensive. He stops, sits and engages her. He helped her and ultimately He served her as well.
So should we not do the same?
Thanks for the thoughtful blog. Let me offer a couple of thoughts in response:
I view visual artists, like musicians, authors of books, plays, or movies, as an important part of our human culture. Many can not only see our world from a unique perspective but they can often "say" something about it in ways that I have not seen or understood before. Every artist employs a language of his/her own. Understanding that language and then understanding the message sometimes takes time.
I do not quickly dismiss an artist whose message is unclear or, if understood, disturbing. I may learn something that I do not know, or gain insights that would be difficult save the work of that artist.
Can an artist offend? Of course. Can an artist communicate a message that is vile, destructive, pernicious, and hurtful? By all means. Some apparently benign visual artists are marvelous mythmakers; Norman Rockwell comes to mind. What world WAS he painting? :-) Other artists are very unsettling; Oliver Stone's film "JFK" still arouses controversy about an event that remains unsettled in the minds of many.
I am sensitive to two cultural phenomenon relating to art: commercialization and censorship. You mention in your post that both Dali and Picasso are considered geniuses today. They are but the credit for that rests largely on the shoulders of a now deceased British aristocrat, Sir Roland Penrose (
) who founded an institution in Britain to promote modern art (Institute of Contemporary Art). Penrose funded many of these artists, collected their work, and built this "niche" in the art world. The high profile (and high prices) commanded by Dali and Picasso resulted from Penrose's patient market making activities. But does that mean their work is any better than any others? More or less offensive? More or less relevant? If they are, it isn't because they enjoy a high profile or public recognition. Those are the result of the hard work by Sir Roland to build a commercially viable niche in the art world. And their familiarity and popularity do not shape my view of the quality of their work or their message.
A little over 70 years ago, a well known Bavarian politician caused quite a stir when he proclaimed that a great deal of his country's art was "degenerate." In his mind, all modern art (cubism, Dada, surrealism, symbolism, post-Impressionism) corrupted the minds of youth and should be banished (
). His government sponsored an exhibit of degenerate artwork (The Entartete Kunst exhibit in 1937), sponsored several art and book burning events, and led the dismissal of many leading artists, authors, and university professors from their posts. His intention was to enforce his view of (and I borrow Jonathan Merrit's adjectives) what is good, beautiful, and true.
If this politician had offered Biblical texts to support his campaign, would you have supported him? If not, would you have protested this use of state power to enforce the boundaries of artistic expression?
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Jason Bowman's and Mark Goode's comments bring necessary perspective to the article, I think. Artistic expression invokes all the complexities of the communication process that we take for granted. The source, the message and its medium, and the recipients of the message must all be considered. The assessment of a piece of art cannot be accomplished divorced from either the intent of the artist or its medium/manner of transmittal. Moreover, each piece is necessarily couched in an existing system of symbols and meanings; the artist may manipulate them, but he certainly cannot escape them or pretend that he has reinvented them completely, or he will have sabotaged the very bridges of communication he must use. The viewers of a piece will engage with it through existing cultural filters. Different cultural contexts open up the possibility of different meanings, true. I suppose Ofili's piece might have provoked a very different response in Africa. But being British, I'm sure the artist was also aware that the juxtaposition of Mary, dung and genitalia would have a very different meaning among British viewers. In which case, it is only wise to question his motives. Such pieces should be properly curated and presented. (James Bowman's naked evangelist might have successfully done her job in another culture as well!)
Mark Goode also makes a very good point about art and commercialization or art and its promotion. (I remember watching an excellent documentary on just this topic—"The Mona Lisa Curse", Robert Hughes). Older works of "genius" are usually validated by longer histories of critical engagement. But we should still be diligent to distinguish between the merits of a piece and its reputation.
In short, there are many factors to take into account. The dynamic interrelationship among communicator, message, medium, receiver, etc will be different for each piece of art/types of art. This should not discourage newcomers to art, especially not Christian newcomers to art. A good grounding in the ways and purposes of God in Scripture and a conscientious study of art and culture should provide us with the discernment we need to responsibly participate in the God-given task of calling things by their rightful names.
It should be said, though, that in all of this, we should not neglect our consciences. The conscience is an invaluable instrument for cultural engagement, and the apostle Paul taught that to violate it was to sin. If a brother is offended or shocked by a piece, it is not only okay but wise to stop engaging with the piece at that moment. It may be (assuming there is real worth in the piece) that greater Christian maturity will later inform his conscience such that it will become possible to engage fruitfully at a later time.
"i say a true artist does not need gimmick (nudity or otherwise) to make a point."
I would offer in response to this that drawing three-dimensional such as buildings in perspective is a "gimmick," or at least it was once upon a time back in the Renaissance -- and that such techniques as using dark backgrounds to make light-colored foreground objects jump out is a "gimmick", and that the Impressionists' use of blurred brushstokes to suggest the motion of water is a "gimmick"...
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As a professional artist, I can appreciate the questions raised in this discussion. I tend to think about these issues often and would like to join in the conversation. But first, let me say that I do not have the answers... Actually, I have more questions than answers. That being said, it is my relationship with God that has most influenced way I approach making my art, as well as, how I view and engage other artist's work.
"What is art?"... "What is the purpose of art?" Some might say, "to match my decor or make my room pretty." Surely there is more to art than matching one's sofa. For many years, I painted minimalist landscapes and abstract flowers, which were inspired by the beauty of God's creation. Is this valid?
Well, about two years ago, I began to seriously seek and pray about what my goal is as an artist. What do I have to say? Initially, I thought a lot about beauty. A person can be physically beautiful and one can also have a beautiful character. I asked, "Which form of beauty is more powerful? Or has more influence to make a difference for the better?" Obviously, the beautiful character! This insight influenced my goal as an artist. My goal is to make art that touches another human being and changes them for the better. I set out to make art that conveys a beautiful concept or powerful truth... Not just a beautiful image.
As I embraced this goal, I asked for God's guidance and immediately felt called to do a series of 12 paintings on the different conditions of the church- inspired by the 7 churches in Revelation.
As I pray about the next series, beauty and truth will continue to be key elements in my work. I might add, they are also very evident in the art work that I respond to the most. Beauty and truth moves us, inspires us, and makes us think. And sometimes... it offends us or "divinely disturbs" us. Art can be an instrument that the Holy Spirit uses as He convicts us and ministers to us.
Therefore, when I initially feel offended by a work of art, I try not to make quick assumptions. I will not dismiss it without engaging in it first. I try to understand what the artist is saying or perhaps asking. If anything, it can be a platform to initiate conversation with another viewer or the artist. Either way, it could be an opportunity to make a difference for the better.
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