Try to grasp the essence of what the great artists, the serious masters, say in their masterpieces, and you will again find God in them. – Vincent Van Gogh, 1880
In 2011, writer Sally Quinn revealed an ancient Medieval secret to assembled intelligentsia at a National Press Club meeting: "To understand the history of art," you must first understand religion.
It should have been obvious, yet this likely startled some of Quinn's audience. "Religion" is in full flower in art courses across the nation – every sect, cult and "ology" except Judaism and Christianity.
This is bizarre, since almost all Western culture is based on Judeo-Christian thought, torn straight from the pages of the Bible.
For most of the last 4000 years our civilization was conceived differently, almost in opposition to contemporary thought. It was all religion, all the time – Greek, Roman and Celtic gods first, then a long reign of Elohim and Christ. Many universities seem embarrassed by this culture and their only remedy is to ignore it.
"Bible" is a censored concept in most secular art schools and universities. Out of curiosity, I searched in vain through hundreds of art course descriptions and never found the word (or related terms) at all. Obscurely buried beneath academic haystacks, the foundational subject of religion is considered utterly insignificant.
Yale's art department is now considered the nation's best. Presumably its art history courses are marvelously diverse and reflect a solid understanding or the origins and ancient "purpose" or use of art. But they don't – except for Mayan, African or Asian art. Plenty of that.
How many Yalies identify as "pre-Colombian" on their driver's license? There's a great deal of coursework offered on Homer, shopping, Islamic revival and much about the Mambo. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of those – yet nothing about spiritual forces and movements powering the most known and venerated of Western arts. Why?
Of 119 Yale art history course descriptions, only a few dealing with Medieval, Renaissance or Byzantine art mention Christianity – and those obliquely, as if it was obscene. One of those relates to "Buddhist scrolls and temple banners" from missionary archives. Crucifixion is examined only in relation to "re-use of materials" – undoubtedly the real reason Christ came to earth and a reminder how banal things are without faith in God.
Critical theory skips 3800 years, beginning in the 19th century with "Psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, structuralism, and poststructuralism" at Yale. Brown University adds "critical race theory" – all abstractions unrelated to the real life of most Americans (potential viewers and patrons).
It must be difficult to avoid the towering supremacy and reliance European culture had on Christian art ... like slogging through swamps with your eyes closed to avoid seeing any mountains.
Considering many students still identify as Christians or Jews, it seems it would still be relevant. No matter how you deconstruct it, Biblically-themed painting, literature and music (from approximately 1200 1900 A.D.) is still considered the high-water mark in our culture by most Westerners. These works are still most admired, imitated, known, loved and recognized. Styles come and go, but underlying themes in Western art didn't change much until recently.
No, art appreciation isn't based on approval ratings like a reality show. Yet art theory seems caught up in a reactionary aversion to our own culture and the Judeo-Christian beliefs that created most of it.
Surely you can find a Noh play somewhere in Metropolis, but it's rare. Yet millions if not billions of people recognize Handel's "Messiah" across the globe. When it's performed in China, they may even know the libretto is straight from Scripture, prophesizing the first and second coming of the Savior of the world.
This is isn't to rip Yale's art department, as most of the rest have even more dismal offerings. Peering in vain over class lists for NYU, there is a conspicuous dearth of the word "Christian" or "Western," but even "spiritual" is out of vogue. It may be in there somewhere, but it's truly astonishing that the bedrock of Western arts and culture – the Bible – is AWOL and "queer performance" is conspicuously open for students.
It may surprise some that many conservatives love art, new ideas, technology and even playing with means of expression. That was the Renaissance, at its heart. Up to the last few decades, it wasn't obligatory to deny your heritage, history, culture and founding religion either to find your voice or gain advanced degrees.
New York artist Sandra Bowden speaks quite a bit about the raw deal "sacred art" and public Christianity is getting lately. "You may parody, mythologize, or psychoanalyze religion, but it seems only a few eccentric artists take it seriously anymore. ... There is no need to search for meaning."
Modern art schools teach physical and psychological aspects of a secular world – only the craft of art and its academic marketing. It forces everyone to stop at their station and get off, forgetting the grand tours and eternal distances they travelled in the past. In one of his poems, Archibald MacLeish said, "There is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style."
Soulless, religionless teaching of many contemporary art schools is crimping. It promotes the brashest egos more than anything else.
Proof comes from the lips of über-pretentious artist Gerhard Richter, who makes some interesting things but believes his own hype to the point of sickness. Positing that the church is "inadequate" to convey the transcendental, he feels virtually any artist can do it better.
"Now there are no priests or philosophers left, artists are the most important people in the world," he pontificates. "Art ... is the sole provider of religion." Except they are not providing that any longer, Mr. Richter.
This isn't a new place for art, but the end of a meandering 150-year journey away from meaning in general and Christian essence in particular. Art has been running away from home for a long time and has finally forgotten its parents.
Almost a century ago, De Witt Henry Parker bemoaned the ruinous disconnect between religion and art as a trend, noting that agriculture, science, art and all things "once governed by the Church" and assuming a divine sanction are now entirely under secular control. Much like Camille Paglia decades later, Parker marked that religion and art grew in unison in all cultures.
Because Western art was once thoroughly entwined with stories and ethics of the Bible, removing one is undoing the other. Art is only one of the casualties of a sterile, secular society though. As Parker warned, without religion both life and art will be "disappointing and lacking."
Gerhard Richter isn't going to make a suitable replacement for Jesus either.
- "The Principles of Aesthetics"; De Witt Henry Parker
- Gerhard Richter. Writings, Interviews, Letters 1961-2007
- Archibald MacLeish: Reflections
- Sandra Bowden