I have an article coming out this winter in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity. The paper is entitled Death, Art and the Fall: A Terror Management View of Christian Aesthetic Judgments. My co-authors were Dan McGregor, Brooke Woodrow, Andrea Haugen and Kyna Killion. Dan and I are colleagues at ACU, he in Art and I in Psychology. Brooke, Andrea and Kyna were my Graduate Assistants while we were working on this project. What follows is a bit of that paper edited for this blog:
Visual art has a long and rich tradition within the Christian faith. From the first Christian art in the Roman catacombs to DaVinci’s The Last Supper to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes to the work of contemporary practicing Christian artists, art has profoundly affected Christian worship, personal devotion and the larger Christian culture. And yet, with the rise of Christian retail, many Christian artists are lamenting the quality of the “Christian art” bought and sold in Christian bookstores and retail outlets, artwork that is often used for devotional purposes or to adorn worship spaces. Specifically, many Christian artists see a general decline in Christian aesthetic judgments, as poor or superficial artwork appears to be dominating the Christian visual culture. Take, as an example, the assessment of the poet Steve Turner in his book Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts:
[Aspiring Christian artists] are usually frustrated that there is so little distinctive Christian content in the contemporary arts, but on the other hand, they are embarrassed at the low standards of much of what is promoted as “Christian art.”This evaluation of Christian artists’ frustration jives with Turner’s own judgment:
This perspective confirmed what I had instinctively felt for sometime—that a lot of art created by Christians was bad and a lot of art created by non-Christians was good…Because the work that bore the name Christian was often poor in quality and naïve in understanding, Christianity by implication seemed insipid and uninspiring.And Turner is not alone in this assessment. Take, as another example, the analysis of Philip Graham Ryken in his book Art for God’s Sake:
The question becomes, therefore, whether as Christians we will aspire to high aesthetic standards. All too often we settle for something that is functional, but not beautiful. We gravitate toward what is familiar, popular, or commercial, with little regard for the enduring values of artistic excellence. Sometimes what we produce can be described only as kitsch—tacky artwork of poor quality that appeals to low tastes. The average Christian bookstore is full of the stuff, as real artists will tell us, if we will only listen.In light of these criticisms, it is important to note that kitsch isn’t unique to Christianity. Much of what passes for art in the retail world is of questionable quality and can be subjected to the same criticisms that Turner and Ryken level as Christian commercial art. Still, it seems worth asking if Turner and Ryken are making a legitimate point. Might there be theological and psychological forces within Christianity that are affecting Christian aesthetics?
If we accept the judgments above, even on hypothetical grounds, we might ask the following: What might be artistically compromising Christian aesthetic judgments? Many think a root cause is theological. Specifically, when Christian artists depict the world they must wrestle with how they portray the brokenness they find there. In light of God’s grace should the artwork depict the way the world should be or will be at the eschaton? Or should the artist depict the brokenness, woundedness and suffering of our current existence? Take, for instance, the work of one of the most recognizable Christian artists, Thomas Kinkade. Kinkade has said that his idyllic paintings are portrayals of the world “without the Fall." But many Christian artists wonder if this impulse is truthful to human experience and the activity of God’s grace in a broken world. The graphic artist Ned Bustard writes in It Was Good: Making Art for the Glory of God:
Inevitably it seems that most attempts to picture good tend to offer the viewer disingenuous, sugary sweet propaganda. Ignoring the implications of the Fall, these artists paint the worlds as a shiny, happy place. The quintessential example of this in our day is found in Thomas Kinkade’s general philosophy. Kinkade professes to be a Christian but has said, “I like to portray a world without the Fall.”The argument is made that good art, to be truthful, must present grace in the midst of the Fall. Supporting this view, Bustard cites the opinion of Edward Knippers, one of the most influential Christian artists working today:
Speaking to the issue of the portrayal of goodness in art, Knippers [insists] “Goodness needs to be attached to the real world because if you separate it from reality what you are left with is Disney World.” The believer’s art should be rooted in the rich soil of believing that humanity is far worse off than we think and God’s grace extends far beyond what we can imagine. It is in this understanding and not the two-dimensional, sweet, niceness of Snow White that we can produce good fruit that is rich in the fullness of our humanity.According to this view, true beauty isn’t achieved by willfully removing the signs of death, suffering or brokenness. True beauty aims to find God’s grace in unlikely and painful places. Take, as an example, the work of Tim Lowly. A recurring subject in Lowly’s art is Temma, his severely mentally and handicapped daughter. Temma is an emotional and biographical vision of the brokenness we find within the human condition. And yet, in painting Temma Lowly finds powerful ways to communicate grace in the midst of brokenness. For example, in his piece Carry Me Lowly draws Temma being lifted upward by six young women. We look down on the scene. Temma’s eyes are closed. She appears peaceful and restful. The eyes of the six women look upward, toward us or God. Carry Me is not, to quote Bustard again, a work of “sugary sweet propaganda” which ignores the implications of the Fall by painting the world as “a shiny, happy place.” Carry Me confronts the Fall through the broken body of Temma, but the beauty of the work is in how, through the six women lifting Temma up, it also depicts love, compassion, trust, and hopeful expectation in the midst of brokenness. Adrienne Chaplin writes of Carry Me: “By allowing the broken body of Temma to stand for the brokenness of us all, we are encouraged to reflect on our shared humanity."
Of course, as said above it is important to note that kitsch is not unique to Christians. Nor am I saying that I don't enjoy Kinkade's work. In fact, there is a small Kinkade hanging in my living room. So these concerns about declining aesthetics within the Christian population might very well be overblown. However, it is worth wondering if Christians (or anyone for that matter) might be attracted to artwork that portrays a world “without the Fall,” a sweet, shiny, untroubled and Disneyesque existence. No doubt, there are good theological reasons to paint the world not as it is but as it should be. We might characterize this kind of artwork, such as Thomas Kinkade’s, as eschatological, as painting the world that is yet-to-be. And yet, this eschatological impulse could tend toward triumphalism and an all-too-quick dismissal of the brokenness of human existence. In short, are preferences for eschatological art a form of denial or hope?
This is the question that has been occupying me as a researcher for the last few years. From worship choices to Christian publishing to Christian music to how Christians explain the pain of human existence, are Christians trying to deny or avoid the brokenness in the world? And are they doing this for existential and emotional comfort and solace? Is there within Christian populations what my friend and co-author Dan and I call The Thomas Kinkade Effect, the desire to portray the world "without the Fall"?