When I was in high school, an English teacher told me that poetry required emotional tension, and that if the only response a poem produced was happiness, it was just a “Hallmark card,” not a “real” poem. As an aspiring poet whose work had a generally optimistic tone, I found this comment disturbing.
The type of attitude that favors dark art and denigrates cheerful themes has become prevalent in art today. We see it in museums, where artists strive to be controversial, through work that is either outright grotesque or simply so abstract and confusing that it disturbs the viewer. We see it at film festivals, where the films addressing dark or taboo themes are praised as insightful and sophisticated. People may not flock to see these works, but most would admit, with varying degrees of embarrassment, that their lighter choices are not “high art.”
The artists who produce all of this “highbrow” artwork see themselves as philosophers who are using their work to proclaim a message about life. Sometimes the message is political and aims at correcting a real or perceived injustice. At other times, it is more theoretical, expressing the sense that life has no meaning or purpose other than what we impose on it.
Ultimately, though, the belief that true art must be negative reflects a worldview without hope. The worldviews of most contemporary intellectuals are outgrowths of various types of naturalism. They share the assumption that there is nothing outside the physical world, so people, and everything else in life, are nothing more than matter and energy interacting.
Naturalistic worldviews diverge when they address the question of purpose and how we ought to live. Some naturalists devote their lives to political or social causes based on ethical principles that they feel intuitively, even though their worldview has no transcendent base to ground them. Marxism is the most prominent example of this type of philosophy, but other naturalists devote themselves to environmentalism, civil rights, or other political goals that they see as essential to improving the world. They believe that all problems are the result of oppressive social institutions, and that until these institutions are changed, society cannot advance. Thus, art, like everything else, is best used to advance these political goals by challenging the status quo and portraying contemporary society as grotesque and fundamentally flawed.
Other artists accept the logical implications of naturalism, which they seek to express through their work. They reason that since the world came about accidentally from natural processes, it has no purpose, and neither should art. Jackson Pollock provided an excellent example of this mindset; by dripping paint on the canvas in random patterns and giving his paintings numbers instead of names, he created paintings that were not intended to represent anything.
Some naturalists try to create their own meaning, either by sheer willpower, as in existentialism, or as postmodernists constructing meaning though their communities’ shared assumptions. Works that seek to challenge the viewer by placing everyday objects in art galleries and proclaiming them to be “art” express this worldview. Their makers claim that art, like purpose, can be created by willpower or community agreement, so anything that they call art is art.
In spite of their differences, these worldviews all share one thing: They lack a source of hope. If there is no objective meaning, we do not even have a way to define what is good, much less a reason to believe that good will triumph. If the fate of society rests on achieving political goals, there is no way to be sure that these goals will be achieved, since there is no Providence to bring them about. If life is pointless and meaningless, death is ultimate, so any good things in life are doomed to be destroyed.
Creating our own meaning may sound liberating, but it cannot satisfy our need for true purpose, which must be outside ourselves. Meaning that we create is limited by the mind that created it and is destined to die when we do. Thus, it cannot be the basis for lasting hope.
Naturalists also have difficulty accounting for beauty, since it is neither matter nor energy. The only way they can make sense of beauty is in terms of the subjective reactions of the viewer, not objective fact. In other words, beauty becomes “what people enjoy looking at” rather than an inherent quality. But “creating things people like” is not significant enough to be art’s purpose. Instead, Naturalists claim that the purpose of art is to challenge the viewer by expressing either political stances or philosophical ideas about purposelessness and the need to create meaning. They say that beautiful works do not challenge the viewer because they show the viewer what he wants. Thus, beauty is not only subjective but detrimental to the true purpose of art.
Christianity, by contrast, provides a framework that embraces all of human experience. Evil comes from our decision to sin, which explains both the awful things people do to each other and the horrors of natural disasters that result from the curse our sin attracted. Thus, evil is real, and we must address it in order to overcome it. However, evil is not the whole of reality, nor is it the most lasting part of the world.
Goodness is a fundamental part of the universe because it was part of the original creation, and before that it existed in the character of God. Moreover, God has a plan to redeem the world, eliminating evil and restoring good to what it was meant to be. This means that ultimately, evil is not the essence of reality; good is.
Christianity also provides a foundation for beauty because God is by nature beautiful. Recognizing that the world came from God allows us to see the beauty of nature as an intentional expression of the character of its Artist. Since people are created in God’s image, we are also capable of creating beautiful things, and since God values beauty, we should too.
There may be times when ugliness in artwork is appropriate, such as when we are seeking to truthfully show the reality of evil, but goodness and beauty hold an even more important place because they reflect God’s nature, the way the world was originally, and the way it will be in eternity.
Elizabeth Sunshine is an editor of "Studio Classroom" magazine and currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan.
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