Death, Art & Christian Aesthetics: Part 1, Why is Christian Art So Bad?

In the summer of '07 I posted about a presentation I attended at the annual APA convention regarding the psychological functions of art. I'd like to repost some of that material here and then follow up with a Part 2 telling how I engaged this topic in a Christian population. Specifically, I've just finished a study on the impact of death anxiety upon Christian aesthetics. I'm preparing that study for publication with three talented students of mine who ran tons of subjects and entered tons of data: Thanks Andrea, Kyna and Brooke! While waiting on that product I'd like to share with the readers of this blog how that research turned out.

The talk I attended at APA was Mark Landau and Jeff Greenburg's presentation on A Terror Management Perspective on Art's Psychological Function.

I've written about Terror Management Theory (TMT) before. TMT is rooted in the work of Ernest Becker and his Pulitzer-Prize winning book the Denial of Death. Following Becker, TMT suggests that we overcome our fears of death by creating cultural worldviews that imbue life with significance and create a path for literal (e.g., the religious belief in life after death) or symbolic (e.g., children, a book you publish, a building named after you) immortality. Thus, cultural worldviews become vital, from an existential standpoint, to us. Consequently, the worldview is vehemently defended in the face of threat. This is often done by denigrating persons who hold values different from our own. In short, one of the deep psychological sources of interpersonal and group friction is existential dread.

What does this have to do with art? Well, Landau noted that art often encodes, represents and portrays the symbols of our cultural worldview. If so, death-denying dynamics are involved in art. Some examples from studies Landau noted:

1. When made to contemplate their death, subjects looked longer at iconic art (e.g., Washington crossing the Delaware) compared to symbolically neutral art (e.g., a landscape). The TMT view of this outcome: As death existentially unsettles the subjects they seek solace in the symbols of their worldview. Thus, they stare at iconic American art longer.

2. Subjects with high needs for structure, when made to contemplate their death, were more dismissive of abstract art. Again, the TMT view is that these subjects seek meaning and structure in life for existential solace. It makes them feel more in control. Thus, when made to feel existentially unsettled these subjects were dismissive of art that was formless, chaotic, and abstract. Abstract art was existentially unsettling them.

3. When made to contemplate death, subjects were much more uncomfortable misusing a culturally meaningful object (e.g., using a crucifix to hammer in a nail). Again, thoughts of death imbued these objects with even more sacred meaning, leading to increased discomfort at misuse (and greater anger at others misusing the object). Landau speculated if this existential reactivity lies behind public responses to works of art like Piss Christ. That is, while some might trace their outrage at Piss Christ to anger over blasphemy the deeper psychological cause might be the fear of death.

Walking away from Landau's presentation I wondered: Might this be an explanation for why Christian art is, generally, so poor? Here was my reasoning. Suppose religious faith is implicated in death repression, at least in some quarters of our souls (I know I don't like the prospect of dying). If so, Christian art would seek to minimize existential threat. Christian art would tend toward the sweet, soothing, and consoling. Christian art would be "easy," existentially speaking, upon us. This facet of Christian art might explain why little of the art we find in Christian bookstores is challenging, aesthetically and theologically. Further, this might explain why serious Christian artists, who seek to push and challenge their audiences, find churches so inhospitable to their work, seeing the "sweeter" art dominate in Christian churches and homes.

These were the questions behind the study we just completed. More in Part 2.

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7 thoughts on “Death, Art & Christian Aesthetics: Part 1, Why is Christian Art So Bad?”

  1. Sounds like another great series.

    A question that has interested me for some time:

    What is "Christian art"?

    Is it...(a) art that uses a specific perspective to "make" a particular theological point or (b) art that happens to utilize Christian perspective.

    The difference, to me, isn't trivial. My hunch is that a lot of Christian communities will only tolerate (a), and then only if it suits the peculiarities of the community (atonement theories, soteriology, etc.). This stifles creativity, because the art "serves" the theology, rather than vice versa, and will inevitably lead to a lot of bad art, whither you are Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, etc.

    Don't know if that is germane to where you are taking all of this, but it seemed worth mentioning.

  2. Your comment on how the need for structure correlates with antipathy toward the abstract was very interesting to me. I've always thought the more abstract forms of art to be mysterious and evocative, possibly pointing to hidden, obscure knowledge. Have never understood how such art repels some people rather sparking indifference. Certain religious groups, perhaps the more fundamental and conservative probably attract the structure happy people and filter out the others.

  3. An exception that proves the rule: Marilynne Robinson's "Home." It just came out, is Christian thoroughly, confronts death continually, questions religious meaning explicitly, and in my opinion is as fine a novel as this old former English major has ever read.

    And I didn't see it coming, but near the end of the work Robinson lays down a hint that she created a wonderful composite picture of Christ in the novel's main characters.



  4. It strikes me that the term "christian art" may need some differentiations. I think there is a difference between art which is produced in a market economy and art which is of a pure "religous" nature (i.e. icons, stain glass windows, architecture, etc.). On the surface it seems that "protestant art" is often evasive of the whole "death thing" but I'm not sure that that is true for all (or even most) purely "religious art". In fact, one of my own personal frustrations is the rejection of iconography (which has been philosophically linked to existentialism among several orthodox writers) and yet the embracing of (capitalist) market economy art in the form of Kinkade. I obviously don't want to implicate all art which is sold for profit but I do think a distinction of different kinds of "christian art" might help.

  5. I just want to thank you so much- I am currently writing my Art related study on the use of the symbol of the cross throughout history, and your site has been a huge help.

  6. That post made me laugh. I study art history and always wondered, why there isn't good christian art..

  7. There is a visual language to art; wordless, yet describable in many ways with words. Back to the visual language. It is universally understood by artists and those who love art, and to a greater extent is becoming less understandable by the public at large, and possibly even less so by the church. The streams can come together, and to the extent that fine art is meaningful and important to civilization (which it is) then I would encourage the church to be around good art. In fact, the best art possible. I'm happy you pointed out the low quality of art at Christian bookstores. I cringe when I go there, which is too bad.

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