Contemporary Art for Human Thriving
“My kid could paint that,” a common refrain uttered in response to modern and contemporary art. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko or Agnes Martin come to mind as those whose work is often sadly reduced to a lack of skill, a decline in intelligence or a rebellious teenage angst. Often, these interpretations stem from a personal definition of what exactly art is, but this merely demonstrates a lack of artistic literacy towards modern(1900s) and contemporary art(artists making work today). This tends to be especially true of the church, where suspicion of “the world” is engrained in doctrine. Thus, Christian engagement with the arts is generally limited if not downright kitschy, and we miss the opportunities for cultural redemption found in contemporary art. The church must reexamine how they think about and relate to the art world. Contemporary art exists as a realm for humanity to exercise the image of God in us and express dominion over the earth both physically and philosophically.
The goals and conventions of modern art shifted dramatically in response to various technological advances in the early 1900s, perhaps most notably, photography. The primary goal of art was no longer representation, although this had served protestant circles well following the reformation and the release of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and art was forced to engage differently with the world, and so it turned to action and philosophy. As a result of the developments of the 20th century, contemporary art now acts as a a way of exploring philosophical ideas and underpinnings in the world around us through material and action.
Philosophical examinations and questions attempt to reach some understanding of the world we live in so we may exist well within the world, in a sense to subdue and gain dominion over our own existence in the world. The words of Genesis 1:28 echo through this goal, a command which the whole of humanity is meant to pursue. While the idea of subduing is most often applied to the physical realm of the world, it must surely extend to a kind of mental and philosophical mastery of the world around us, an understanding which allows for proper tending and ruling of the world. Deep and abiding understanding of the world allows for appropriate and useful engagement with it. As a combination of both philosophical and physical realms, art seems to be a the perfect arena for exploring what human existence in the world really consists of. Contemporary art allows people to think about what it means to live on this earth and present our findings to others who may understand either similarly or differently.
Some argue for a more limited engagement with art, only considering those who view the world according to the Biblical worldview to be worthy of their engagement. Perhaps there is some truth here, as surely we are influenced by the ideas we choose to engage with our mind and soul. What is lacking in this stand, however, is the acknowledgement of common grace and general revelation to all humanity. Dan Siedell’s "Altars to an Unknown God: Modern Art for Modern Christians” provides a useful rebuttal to this argument, stating instead that while the artist may not explicitly hold to the Christian worldview, their art often exists as an altar to some God whom they know not how to name. These altars provide perspective on the culture around us, helping to contextualize the variety of world views extant within this pluralistic society. They also can function as objects around which we gather to explore our common experience, and in this way, to learn more wholly what it means to be human.
If, as Andy Crouch argues in “Culture Making”, culture is what we make of the world, we must acknowledge that we all are engaging with and creating culture, whether we approach this with intentionality or not. Engaging with intentionality, and with the knowledge that the extent of our engagement with the world directly correlates to what we make of the world, opens up vast possibilities for culture-making. Although it requires effort, engaging with art—contemporary art specifically—helps us understand the world, humanity’s place in it, and how others are making sense of their place in it differently. Further, Nicolas Wolterstorff’s "The Artist as Responsible Servant,” sheds light on how art relates directly to the calling of mankind on earth: our responsibility to subdue the earth, simply put, is to tame and imprint order upon it, to take it from “formless and void” to “and it was good”. More specifically, art means to order the world to better accommodate human livelihood and delight. The livelihood aspect of this conclusion encompasses many aspects of humanity, including, perhaps most notably, philosophical/mental well being stemming from proper understanding of our relationship to the world.
When understood thus, the evangelical church may begin to engage with contemporary art in useful and redemptive ways. Art stems from a responsibility of humanity to make sense of the world and to help others to do the same. As a social practice, art allows many different people to gather around a shared object and explore the way this object or happening interprets and re-presents the world, essentially contributing to human unity. The church, although behind the curve of engaging well with culture, ought to embrace this aspect of culture making as a logical extension of dominion over the earth, and an opportunity for deeper relationship with neighbor.