The Muses and the Mind

When Christians hear the word art, we're liable to think first of the controversies surrounding the NEA. What a shame. The first thing that ought to come to mind is our own rich artistic heritage. Some of those riches are on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which is holding a show on the seventeenth-century Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. We all know what a Rubens painting looks like. Think of the first thing that strikes you when you see figures painted by the old masters: They look much heavier and fleshier than modern ideals of beauty. That's the Rubens look. His figures are full-bodied and heavy. That much you could learn from any art history book. But what most books don't tell you is why Rubens painted that way. Rubens was a devout Catholic. He lived during the Counter-Reformation, a movement that sought to clean up the corruption of the medieval church. The Counter-Reformation sanctioned the use of images, icons, and other physical representations of spiritual reality. This gave rise to the idea that the physical world itself can be, in a sense, an "icon"-a means of reminding the faithful of spiritual truths. Catholic artists like Rubens picked up this theme by reveling in the color and motion of the physical world, painting things as heavy and fleshy. It was a way of saying that the physical world is where God dwells-that it carries a weight of spiritual glory. Many of you may have studied Rubens in art appreciation courses, but how many of you learned about his spiritual motivation? Most history books are written from a purely secular perspective. They rarely mention an artist's religious or philosophical convictions. Yet every artistic style is ultimately shaped by a set of presuppositions, a world view. Think of the shifting, shimmering colors of an Impressionist painting. Impressionism was motivated by a philosophy of skepticism: a philosophy that humans cannot know anything about the ultimate nature of reality, that we know only our own sense data-the play of light hitting the human eye. Or think of Cubism, where every object is painted from several perspectives-front, side, and back-all at the same time. This wasn't just an artistic technique, it expressed a philosophy: the belief that there is no universal truth, there's only a diversity of private perspectives. Then there's contemporary art. If you've ever wondered why contemporary art is often ugly and disjointed, the reason is the philosophy it expresses. When the secular world gave up belief in God, eventually it also gave up any sense of universal truth and meaning. Contemporary art expresses a view of life where humans are aimless actors upon an empty stage. Christians are right to oppose the use of taxpayer money for decadent art. But that should be just the first step. To bring new life to the art world we have to bring a new world view to artists-grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. "By their fruit you will know them," Jesus said, and that includes the "fruit" of artistic creation. A culture's art flows from its world view. If we want to reform art, we must work to present the Christian world view-to transform not only hearts but minds as well.


Chuck Colson



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