“The Whole Idea of Art”

Controversial Art Exhibit at Grantleigh School

Recently, an art exhibit caused considerable debate at a Christian school in South Africa. Thanks to Lisa Q. at Think Divinely, for pointing me to the story.

 Why the controversy? The exhibit featured several copies of classical compositions of Christian art where God the Father and Jesus are portrayed as the clown, Ronald McDonald. Additional displays featured pages of the Bible ripped up and strewn about haphazardly, pasted upon skulls and glued upon various horn-headed sculptures. One drawing shows a figure depicting Satan referring to Jesus as a ‘She’ donning a ‘tiara of thorns”. Immediate denunciation by the local and greater Christian community resulted in a viral video, a petition, and various slams on social media. The artist has attempted to explain his work, but it was the statement made by a supporter of the exhibit that piqued my interest.

One of the voices supporting the exhibit is Professor Jonathan Jansen of Stellenbosch University. Dr. Jansen denounced what he called “fake outrage” over the exhibit. He also made this astonishing statement:

“The whole idea of art is to be offensive, to push the boundaries and turn orthodoxy on its head.”

Is that true? Is “turning orthodoxy on its head” really the “whole idea of art”? A brief look at the history of art says otherwise. Up until the time of the Impressionists, artists generally accepted the correspondence theory of truth–that Truth corresponds to reality. It was the post-Impressionists who began to step away from a correspondence theory of truth in earnest, paving the way for art to become a channel for Modernism. Subsequently, art became a way in which artists represented modern thought. Undoubtedly, Modernism fits Dr. Jansen’s description, as the 20th c. marks a dramatic shift in the arts toward the view he describes.

Unfortunately, what Professor Jansen has done in his remark is ignore art prior to the second half of the 19th century. It was only nearing the turn of the century that the world of art lost its conviction that boundaries were necessary and orthodoxy was desirable. For example, in her book Saving Leonardo author and apologist, Nancy Pearcey, describes the Baroque period (17th c). In sum, art was replete with works that endeavored to communicate the idea of God’s permeating power in the physical world. In the Catholic work of the period, the heaviness of God’s glory in the world is communicated by the massive muscular figures by artists such as Peter Paul Rubens. Protestant work of the same period sought to communicate the sanctity of ordinary life, as shown in the golden-light filled scenes of Dutch painters such as Jacob van Ruisdael. The work of this period hardly sought to “turn orthodoxy on its head”. Many more examples could be given; nevertheless, in one sweeping generalization the greater history of art was swept aside by Professor Jansen.

Not only is the statement factually false, but Dr. Jansen failed to give us any reason as to why Christians should allow the modernists of the 20th c. to dictate the purpose of art. Dr. Jansen, a Christian himself, fails to recognize that the Christian worldview prescribes the way we are to think about art at all times: The Bible teaches us that God is the Divine Artist and He has gifted us with the ability to create and enjoy art. Due to the fallen nature of humanity, however, He also placed boundaries upon those gifts, knowing our propensity for distortion. Rather than limit the artist, however, philosopher and author, Francis Schaeffer explains how biblical constraints liberate the artist: “But once we understand that Christianity is true to what is there, true to the ultimate environment-the infinite, personal God who is really there-then our minds are freed.”

For the Christian, the arts are voluntarily held under the Lordship of Christ and acknowledge His supreme reign over all creative human efforts. Art for the Christian is never reduced to mere political or intellectual opinion. I humbly suggest that Dr. Jansen has forgotten what Christianity says about the arts.

Regardless of what one thinks of the student’s work at Grantleigh school, the history of art does not align with Dr. Jansen’s statement, and for the Christian, the Lordship of Christ includes His Lordship over the arts.

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