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Re: The Christian and the Aesthetics

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  • jbsny2004
    - And this one... Christian Aesthetics Gordon H. Clark In the last few years the ostensibly evangelical community in this country has developed a rather lively
    Message 1 of 5 , Dec 29, 2004
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      And this one...
      Christian Aesthetics

      Gordon H. Clark

      In the last few years the ostensibly evangelical community in this
      country has developed a rather lively interest in art. Christianity
      Today, Christian Scholar's Review, the Association for the
      Advancement of Christian Scholarship, and others give evidence of
      such an interest by having published several books and articles on
      the subject. The present piece aims to survey these views and point
      to a few conclusions.

      First of all, some of the problems secular authors on aesthetics must
      face require identification. Evangelical authors face additional
      difficulties when they try to relate art to Christianity. The first
      group of problems includes the elusive definition of beauty.
      Unfortunately this is so elusive that modern writers usually make no
      attempt to define it. In any case, a work of art need not be
      beautiful. The ugly can also be artistic. Discarding the concept of
      beauty, however, only increases the need of a definition of art. What
      is the common element in all works of art, beautiful or ugly, that
      causes us so to classify them? Presumably the definition is to be
      found in the purpose of art. If a chronometer is defined by the
      purpose of measuring time, art must be that which fulfills a
      particular function. Would anyone hold that art has no purpose,
      fulfills no function at all?

      If this purpose can be stated, a step will have been taken toward the
      solution of another problem. Nearly everybody acknowledges a
      hierarchy of arts. They are not all on a dead level. People ask, and
      often answer quickly, whether or not the ballet is a better, a
      higher, a more perfect form of art than sculpture or architecture.
      Musicians are almost universally convinced that music outranks
      painting. But poets vote for poetry. An author on aesthetics must not
      only judge who is right, but must state the criteria for his
      hierarchy. No doubt many writers only dimly recognize their criteria;
      they may even inconsistently use incompatible criteria; but nearly
      everyone ranks the arts in some order or other. Presumably this has
      to be done by first determining the purpose of art and then
      determining which art best fulfills this purpose. In fact, within a
      single art, such as painting, one work, the Sistine Madonna, can be
      judged better or worse than another, Rembrandt's Night Watch, for
      example, on this same basis of fulfilling the purpose of painting.

      If the purpose of art in general and of painting or poetry in
      particular is not merely a display of technique, if the content plays
      some role in the judgment, the ground is laid for
      distinguishing "great" art from trivial or even evil art. If a
      painting has the new moon in the east when day is dying in the west,
      does not this astronomical monstrosity, no matter how perfect the
      composition and technique, detract from its value? Can a poem talk
      nonsense and be a great poem, or, at least, can it be as great as a
      poem equal in other respects and which also speaks sensibly?

      These are some of the problems that secular aesthetics cannot avoid.
      Nor can Christian authors avoid them. But in addition the latter must
      ask other questions, all of which can be condensed in the question
      whether the Scriptures imply a theory of aesthetics. Certainly an
      evangelical, whose formal princip1e is Sola Scriptura, cannot study
      any part of philosophy without considering Scriptural teaching.

      It is not necessary here to discuss secular and Biblical aesthetics
      separately. The latter faces all the problems of the former. Hence
      the present procedure can well begin with criticism of the sort of
      article that has been appearing in recent ostensibly evangelical

      These articles, so it seems to me, are usually defective in one or
      more of three points: First, they exhibit the pervasive ambiguity and
      meaninglessness of almost all literature on aesthetics; second, even
      when the first objection is not so obviously the case they either
      depend on or suggest invalid arguments; and third, they are with
      virtual unanimity deficient in supporting their contentions by
      Scriptural norms.

      First, in the last few years a gadfly has been lampooning the
      pedantic nonsense that emanates from New York's Metropolitan Museum.
      Theodore L, Shaw and Stuart Publications have produced Hypocrisy
      About Art, Precious Rubbish, and other titles which are not all
      hypocrisy and rubbish. The Met comes out as pontifically stupid.

      If anyone thinks that this gadfly should be ignored, do not more
      serious volumes on aesthetics testify to the unintelligibility of the
      subject? For example, can anyone deny that there is confusion and
      meaninglessness in The Art of Painting (chapter four and Appendix I)
      where Albert Barnes discusses the subject of form? Can the work of
      Elie Faure, Venturi, or John Dewey be adjudged more intelligible? Or,
      on music, note the pitiful attempts to define classical and romantic
      in Grove's five volume Dictionary of Music. There are, to be sure,
      better attempts than Grove's. The Oxford Companion to Music (revised
      edition, 1963) says that the term classical distinguishes music –
      largely the music written between 1600 and 1800 – which is
      characterized by a more or less consciously accepted formalism in
      which elements of proportion and of beauty as such [!] are emphasized
      from "romantic" music in which the main purpose is the expression of
      emotions, or even the representation in tone of ideas that usually
      receive, not a musical, but rather a literary or pictorial expression.

      Although this is a relatively good statement for books on aesthetics,
      one notices not only that its term beauty as such remains
      unexplained, but also the meaning or mode of emotional expression is
      left vague. Then too, if proportion can be so defined as to exclude
      it from romanticism, form presents worse difficulties. Does not
      Beethoven show form? Nor, and this is surely important, is there any
      explanation of how or whether literary ideas can be expressed in
      tone. Inasmuch as one or two professors of philosophy claim for art a
      cognitive function not duplicated elsewhere, the point needs serious

      Hardly any book on aesthetics defines its terms carefully. Even
      Plato, when he tried to define Beauty in Greater Hippias, failed.
      Historical information, e.g., the formulation of the laws of
      perspective or the development from plainsong to counterpoint, has a
      proper share of interest and importance – it is also intelligible;
      but there is a dearth of definition. It seems that even the better
      books do not know the meaning of the words they use, while the
      sentimental gushings of "art appreciation" are utterly vacuous.

      Now, if Plato himself, who so stressed definition and
      intelligibility, could do so little on beauty, one cannot be
      surprised that writers of lesser genius do worse. Yet the failures
      may be instructive. If most of the books on aesthetics are largely
      unintelligible, it may not be because the authors are otherwise
      stupid, but because art itself is defective in intelligibility.

      For example, there is no good objection against classifying art as a
      form of expression. So far as it goes, this is a good statement of
      the purpose of art. But it does not go very far at all. One should
      not go so far as to define art as the expression of emotion, for by
      the previous remarks this would imply that classical art is not art.
      The trouble here is to make precise what content art can express. Few
      writers do so. On one occasion when the present writer had been
      examining Rembrandt's pen sketches in Amsterdam, an art connoisseur
      remarked that they "said so much." What they said, he did not say.
      Similarly music is called expressive. True, it can, like an
      ejaculation, express joy or sorrow, but not much else. It certainly
      cannot express Lincoln's Gettysburg Address or the Lord's Prayer. A
      choir director, a very good one too, exemplified the emptiness of
      musical jargon when he scolded his tenors and told them that the
      color of their tone should be more round. Apparently they had been
      singing red, rectangular notes and he wanted them to sing circular,
      green notes.

      When the Oxford Companion to Music defines romantic music as that
      which expresses literary or pictorial ideas, as if notes could
      express the cadmium vermilion flowers of an ocotilla and their
      difference from the light raw sienna sand out of which they grow, it
      says something so paradoxical that it ought to defend and explain its
      incredible suggestion by clear and extended argument.

      How can anyone decide whether Mozart's Sonata K 545 expresses the
      chugging of a locomotive up the east slope of the Rockies or the
      eruption of Old Faithful? If some aesthetic soul finds this example
      too facetious, would he in all seriousness explain why L'Apres Midi
      d'un Faune could not have been called La Soiree d'un Lapin? In a
      painting this distinction would be immediately obvious. But even a
      painting cannot express Lincoln's Gettysburg Address – and this
      Address is indeed a work of art.

      No claim is made here that music expresses nothing. The music favored
      by hairy left-wing hippies expresses the animistic savagery of the
      jungle. Rock cannot appropriately express worship of the God of
      Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Bach and Handel can. But even in these
      cases what music expresses, by itself without words, is very little.

      So much for the first point concerning the unintelligibility of most
      articles and books on aesthetics. Now, second, there is the matter of
      time invalidity of their arguments. A recent article bewailed the
      narrow evangelicalism of George Eliot's parents, and without much
      disguise suggested that this was the cause of her rebellious atheism.
      The conclusion is of course fallaciously drawn. Evangelicalism is
      indeed narrow – it prohibits adultery. But her desire for freedom
      from such morality is a more probable cause of her rejection of
      Christianity than a hard childhood and the death of her mother.

      Other articles have made other unfounded charges. The Puritans are
      constantly described as sour and dour. Ernest Boyd (Portraits Real
      and Imaginary, 109) was surely indulging in irresponsible imagination
      when he wrote, "Pleasure is the enemy, not evil, and so the joys of
      mind and body are under suspicion."

      As for pleasures of the mind Boyd must have been ignorant of the
      Puritan concern for education; while J. Truslow Adams and Harlan
      Updegraff unconscionably misrepresent the literacy index in
      Massachusetts. As for sensory pleasures, particularly the pleasures
      of art, those who condemn the Puritans not only fail to make
      allowances for the difficulties of mere survival in an untamed
      wilderness, but also ignore the exquisite proportions and design of
      their doorways and everyday domestic tools.

      Less reprehensible than these prejudicial fallacies are instances of
      trivialities, tautologies, and generalities that fail of constructive
      contribution. For example, H.H. Rookmaaker's article on "Art" in the
      Encyclopedia of Christianity does not say anything that can be
      branded false, but he achieves this desirable result by saying hardly
      anything pertinent. He states that aesthetic theory "concerns the
      nature of a Christian way of life." So does counting calories. It is
      wrong, he says, "to pose an antithesis between one's professional
      life and the enjoyment of art." Also the enjoyment of golf. Then
      again, he states that "There are many types of art" – as there are of
      engineering – "each fulfilling its own function." But what the
      function of music, or of all art is, he does not explain; except that
      it is all for the glory of God. But this no more explains art than it
      explains investing in the stock market. The article contains little
      if anything that distinguishes art from other facets of human

      This second criticism has thus given examples of prejudice,
      falsehood, fallacy, and triviality.

      The third criticism was the widespread, though not universal, neglect
      of Scripture by allegedly evangelical writers. Here an attempt will
      be made to shift from adverse criticism to something of a more
      constructive nature.

      An evangelical theory of art, so far as art is amenable to meaningful
      statement, must be based on the teaching of the Bible. What is not
      based on Scripture, even if it should miraculously escape
      unintelligibility, could hardly be called an evangelical view. The
      fact that the Bible says so little about art, whereas its
      intellectually conceptual theology is voluminous, indicates that
      there is really very little to say. However, a Biblical student
      should try to collect that little. Such a summarization can be
      divided into materia1 on utensils and architecture (combining useful
      and fine art), painting and sculpture, then music, and finally
      literature. Naturally the following is not exhaustive.

      The construction of utensils and musical instruments seems to have
      originated among the rebellious and ungodly (Genesis 4:21-22). Later
      these forms of art were used in the worship of God (Exodus 25-28).
      Still later great artistic skill was expended on Solomon's Temple and
      palaces (I Kings, 5-7). From what is said, Solomon's Temple must have
      been an artistic triumph, surpassing even Hagia Sophia. Thus there is
      no Biblical prohibition against imposing architecture. That
      evangelicals today should build such expensive structures does not
      logically follow, but it would seem that some groups ought to pay
      more attention and avoid crudities in building.

      The Bible has virtually nothing to say about painting, and its
      references to sculpture link it to idolatry. Therefore the Reformed
      churches do not exhibit a statue of Peter for the faithful to kiss
      its big toe. Painting must also be included, for the wording of the
      commandment includes every sort of likeness. Outside the church
      property, however, Rodin's Thinker seems to be unobjectionable, and
      his repulsive shriveled old woman can teach a moral lesson to
      majorettes and homecoming queens.

      The Bible explicitly commands music, vocal and instrumental.
      Therefore some people must take time to learn composition, other
      people must achieve the skill to manufacture instruments, and all
      people no doubt should improve their voices – circular green notes
      instead of rectangular red. The requirement of vocal music emphasizes
      the fact that music is an accompaniment for words. By itself music is
      not very expressive. Note that hymnbooks sometimes use the same music
      for two or three hymns. If music had a definite meaning, one tune
      could not fit two hymns, nor even two stanzas of one hymn. But
      defective as music is in this respect, the Bible commands
      instrumental music.

      Music is the lowest form of art; literature is the highest. Musicians
      will raise their eyebrows and no doubt their voices against this
      proposition. But there is a reason for such a hierarchical
      arrangement. It depends on a presupposition relative to the nature of
      man and on an assumption concerning the purpose of art.

      The purpose of art is expression. Of course this short sentence
      raises many questions. By itself it is uninformative. One should
      specify what art can and cannot express. One should specify what art
      should and should not express. These questions cannot be answered
      without having some notion of the nature of man. Here it is
      presupposed that God created man as essentially a rational being. *
      This implies that man's most valuable expressions are rational and
      intellectual. Therefore, although man can express emotion, by
      screaming "Ouch," art becomes more human and valuable in proportion
      to its intellectual content. This does not deny that excellent
      technique may express triviality, evil, and insanity. It asserts,
      however, that what should be expressed is rational and intelligent.

      Therefore the highest form of art is literature because only words
      have the full and clearest range of expression. The cliche, "one
      picture is worth a thousand words," is basically false, though it may
      be true enough in a blueprint. But, as suggested above, how many
      pictures would be required to express the Lord's Prayer or the
      doctrine of justification by faith? In comparison with these the
      importance of painting and music pales.

      Of course art has a certain measure of importance. Embellishments of
      prose, and sometimes poetry, help to enforce the literary message.

      I say sometimes poetry because, although prose can also be nonsense,
      nonsense seems to be an occupational disease of poets. It was with
      pleasure that I read a letter to the editor in the Eutychus section
      of Christianity Today, which complained of the poems recently
      published. But what could be greater nonsense than the esteemed John
      Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn? Consider:

      " `Beauty is truth and truth beauty,' – that is all ye know on earth,
      and all ye need to know."

      Now, Keats' lines are not nonsense in the sense of being meaningless.
      They are nonsense in the sense of being ridiculously false. As a
      corrective to Keats and to the poetry of Christianity Today, permit
      me to offer a Kantian Ode on a Quartz Crystal.

      Electrified, vibrating crystal stone

      Thou foster child of science and slow time

      Thou geologic witness with a tone

      That tells a tale more rhythmic than our rhyme:

      When old age shall this generation waste

      Thou shalt remain and oscillating go;

      Thy message e'er repeating without haste –

      "Space is time and time is space" – that is all

      Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

      It is unfortunate that literary embellishment is in these two Odes
      used to inculcate falsehood. It should enforce truth. Crabbed
      language can express thought quite accurately, and even by its
      ugliness can sometimes jolt a person into understanding. Further, it
      is better to have unembellished truth than embellished falsehood.
      Nevertheless, artistic literature aids one's memory to make the
      comprehension of a doctrine a permanent acquisition.

      The designer of the Delaware River Bridge at Vine Street, Paul Cret,
      told his students, "Ornament construction, do not construct
      ornament." This is a good view of art, not only for a great
      architect, but particularly for a Christian. The principle of art for
      art's sake is pagan, suitable to its depraved exponent, Oscar Wilde.
      For a Christian, art is subordinate to a higher purpose, and only
      insofar as it serves that purpose is it justified.

      *For a long argument supporting this position, see my article in the
      Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Vol. XII, Part
      IV), "The Image of God in Man," and my book, The Biblical Doctrine of
      Man (The Trinity Foundation, 1984). A more materialistic or
      physicalistic view is found in "The Imago Dei and Christian
      Aesthetics" (J. E. T. S. Vol. XV, Part III), by William A. Dyrness,
      but it has precious little to do with aesthetics.

      -- In covenantedreformationclub@yahoogroups.com, Benjamin Hart
      <benhartmail@y...> wrote:
      > Please forgive me if this is off-topic, but I am looking for some
      good resources on aesthetics, particularly from a Reformed
      perspective if possible. I've found Wolterstorff's book, Art in
      Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic interesting so far, but if there
      are any more out there, please let me know. Thanks.
      > -Ben
      > ---------------------------------
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