Death, Art & Christian Aesthetics: Interlude, What is "Christian" about Christian Art?

Thanks for the comments to the last post. They made me want to post a bit more about the category “Christian art” before proceeding to Part 2. So, an Interlude: What is “Christian” about Christian art?

First, I’m no expert on art or Christian art. So my personal thoughts on this are amateurish. Always feel free to illuminate me.

My first response to the question “What is Christian art?” is to specify what art is versus something like “decoration” or “home décor.” In my mind, art must have some kind of symbolic significance. As such, art is a form of communication, a commentary or claim or sermon or critique. When you approach art you expect it to speak to you. In contrast, when we decorate with pictures we don’t approach the pictures as forms of communication. We see them as “window dressing.” A splash of color that might affect our mood but isn't likely to prompt reflection.

Admittedly, this distinction quickly breaks down upon examination. It’s a definition influenced by modern art in a post-patron period. For example, under this definition is a Renaissance portrait considered to be art or just very expensive home décor?

Regardless, I think for for the question at hand the definition holds up okay. Specifically, should the art I buy at a Christian bookstore (let’s say a picture of Jesus) be considered art? Or is it just Christian home décor? I think it’s art. Poor art, perhaps, but art. Why art? Because the piece was selected for its communicative value. It’s a declaration of belief. As such, it’s art. Plus, the picture of Jesus is probably treated as art by the owner. Throwing away a picture of Jesus is probably not the same as throwing out a picture of a duck you bought at Hobby Lobby. Because of the symbolic value, the Jesus picture it is treated differently. I’m basing my definition of art upon that symbolic value.

All this thinking about Christian art reminded me of something I’ve been needing to read. Specifically, my friend Paul, a colleague at the university, has always spoken highly of an essay written by Paul Tillich about religion and art. You can find the essay online here.

One of the interesting things Tillich does in this essay is contrast the content of the artwork with its style. More specifically, Tillich contrasts religious versus non-religious content and style.

The contrast of content is easiest to see. Specifically, a piece of art can have overt religious content (e.g., a bible scene) or not (e.g., a landscape).

The more interesting move Tillich makes is contrasting religious and non-religious style. What is a religious style? For Tillich, the style of the artwork is the overall manner in which the artwork is presented that can communicate messages which transcend the object/content of the artwork. For example, cubism is a style irrespective of the content of the painting. Given Tillich's definition of religious, a style is considered to be religious if it makes a commentary upon ultimate, transcendent, or existential issues. A religious style points us to something deeper or higher than mere appearances.

With these notions in hand, Tillich is able to divide artwork into four categories:

Artwork with…
1. Non-Religious Style & Non-Religious Content
2. Religious Style & Non-Religious Content
3. Non-Religious Style & Religious Content
4. Religious Style & Religious Content

Tillich goes on to give examples in each category. For example, for Non-Religious Style & Non-Religious Content Tillich gives Jan Steen’s The World Upside Down:

Obviously, Steen’s painting has no overt religious content. As for style, despite its vitality and dynamism, Tillich suggests that the painting doesn’t point us deeper or higher. It lacks an existential or religious style.

For the second category, Religious Style & Non-Religious Content, Tillich cites Picasso’s Guernica:

Again, the content is non-religious. But for Tillich, the fractured style of Guernica, which captures the fractured moral and physical situation in the wake of the WW2 bombing of Guernica, communicates a deeper, religious message. Although the content of the painting is non-religious, the style of the painting is very much so.

For category three, Non-Religious Style & Religious Content, Tillich cites Raphael’s Madonna and Child:

Here the content is overtly religious. But the style, for Tillich, is non-religious. Although beautiful, the style of the Raphael painting doesn’t point to deeper realities. The painting is certainly well done, but the style could be applied to any object without adding any spiritual significance to it.

Finally, there is the fourth category, Religious Style & Religious Content. As an example, Tillich cites El Greco’s Crucifixion:

The content is religious and the style is also religious. The religious content is obvious. As for style, the moody background, the shape of the body, the ecstatic look on the Savior’s face, all communicate, stylistically, a deeper message beyond the mere subject matter. The content is deep but the style is deeper still.

Three comments on Tillich’s scheme and the question of “Christian art.”

First, I think it important to note along with Tillich that “Christian art” doesn’t have to be overtly religious to be “Christian.” In fact, some of the most Christian art that exists is overtly not religious (e.g., Picasso’s Guernica). I would also argue that art that is overtly aimed at being anti-Christian might also be co-opted by Christians and rendered religious. Not via some kind of sloppy borrowing, but by a subversive move, akin to the "deeper magic" in C.S. Lewis' tale The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Take, for example, Piss Christ from my last post. Although the work might have been intended to be shocking and blasphemous, the artist might have missed the fact that a deeper Christian impulse exists in the work. For example, see this theological take on the work. I know many of my students see Christmas in Piss Christ. Do you? I certainly do.

Second, I think that most would agree that the best overt Christian art is that of Category 4. This is the kind of Christian art that calls us into deeper reflection. It is overtly Christian art and it is hard on us, challenges us, and, to use a favorite buzz word of theologians, it interrupts us. In my last post when I spoke of “good Christian art” I’m speaking of Tillich’s Category 4.

Finally, like Tillich, we should worry some about Category 3. In the last post when I spoke of “bad Christian art” I was speaking of this category. That is, this art is overtly religious but its style, although beautiful, doesn’t convey any deeper spiritual or religious truth. Worse, as I hinted in the last post, this art goes easy on us. A striking contrast with Category 4 art. This Category 3 art looks, stylistically speaking, like the stuff you buy for home décor, just with a religious twist. It may be Christian art on the surface, but at a deeper level it just might be hurting us.

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2 thoughts on “Death, Art & Christian Aesthetics: Interlude, What is "Christian" about Christian Art?”

  1. Dr. Beck,
    Being largely more amateurish than just about anyone else with regard to art criticism, I have but one criteria... creativity. This is true whether or not the art is music, writing, or painting. What makes so much of "Christian" art so bad is it's stunning lack of creativity and originality. It's all the same. What made Michelangelo's work so amazing was its never-been-done-before-like-this quality. It impacted the viewer--it still does. That is what most art lacks today--Christian or not.

  2. I believe that even "bad art", "non-Christian" art, or just art itself say something that is meaningful, even if it is not a "Christian message". Why? Because, any meaning that anyone has, is important, because they are human and humans by their very existence point beyond themselves to "God". Art is only a reflection of the human being that paints, scuplts, etc. I think that Christians create a false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular! And then we get into arguments over what is "Christian or "not" Christian". Who defines the terms? Scripture, when Scripture doesn't directly address "modern things"? Church authority, when Church authority are fallible human beings, although made in God's image? or science?

    Just because an art form impacts a human being in a certain way does not mean that it necessarily is bad, unless it leads to "bad behavior". Certainly pornography is not appropriate for anyone, but there are differences in tolerance levels in other types of art. Some, such as the early Reformers, sought to eradicate all "representations of God" as they understood this to be a form of idolatry. Tolerance should be a Christian virtue in these areas.

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