The Place of the Artist in the Christian Community

I used to be much more sanguine about the possibility of historical precedent being of some help in any formulation of specifically Christian aesthetic principles than I am now. I simply am not at all sure anymore that this will be the case. A couple of years ago I attended the biennial conference of CIVA—Christians in the Visual Arts. It was in many ways a very encouraging few days, but after talking with various artists struggling to put their faith and their art together, it became clear that they were virtually all operating out of an essentially modernist position. This should not be surprising, I suppose, given the sort of training that anybody gets in the visual arts these days, but I was nonetheless startled. For no good reason, I now realize, I was expecting to find that faith had transformed their professional training. Faith transforms people, not training. It may inform training, but it does not do away with it, or set it aside, or make it something other than what it was. You may paint to the glory of God, you may even mix colors to the glory of God, but faith does not alter the fact that blue and yellow make green. I am beginning to think that the possibility of any kind of meaningful reconciliation between the Christian community, particularly the Evangelical community, and the small group of visual artists which wants to have a part in that community, is very remote. I hope that I am wrong. At any rate, what I want to do here is to set out some of the reasons I have for such a gloomy outlook.

There are two things that I want to do in this paper. The first is to give an overview of some of the ways that people in the past have thought about how art might be organized. This has to do with the methods, some of them pretty wacky, whereby artistic production was evaluated. Secondly I will sketch out a very brief history of how I think that artists got to where they are now. I am not going to present these as two separate issues, but rather as related topics—since that is what they are—so I will be switching back and forth from one to the other throughout the paper. I sincerely hope that my pessimism regarding the possibility of change is unfounded, but I believe that what I am presenting here is correct historically. I am old-fashioned enough still to hold to the view that the purpose of the historian is to do the best that he can to discover something of the truth about the past.

Art in the Ancient World, or Out with the Poets!
The standard view of art held by the ancient world, most particularly Plato, was that art was mimetic: that its one goal was to imitate the world. This is why Socrates had no time for art; why he wanted to keep the poets out of his ideal republic. Art was a lie, and the true goal of the good life was to seek for the truth. Aristotle was not quite so bigoted, but even with him art did not get a lot of encouragement. It is important, however, to remember that the ancient Greeks were great producers and enjoyers of the arts. Painting, sculpture, poetry, drama: all these flourished at precisely the time that Plato was grumping around complaining that this kind of stuff was a waste of time. I. F. Stone’s argument that the verdict in the trial of Socrates was a Good Thing, and that the old guy got what he deserved, should be a compelling one, at least to anyone who takes more than a “common sense” view of what art is.[1]

“Common sense,” which in this context is really nothing more than low-grade thinking, is virtually useless when it comes to talking about art. Nevertheless, this is the essential point of view of a great many people—inside and outside the Church—and is one of the reasons that so much art is so baffling to most people. I am not just talking about non-representational-abstract-art. One of the things that becomes very clear when you start to look into the way that people have thought about art in the past is that precisely this “common sense” view has been consistently condemned by the art theorizers for centuries. There have always been people for whom someone like, say, Norman Rockwell (in our own day) represents the pinnacle of artistic achievement. These are people for whom art is always and only imitative. In any sane discussion of art and its relation to culture—that is, to people—we must always remember this. Their name is Legion, and their view of art is painfully circumscribed.

St. Augustine and Imagination
St. Augustine introduced a crucial new aspect into the consideration of art; one that was to form one of the fundamental bases of thinking about art until about the eighteenth century.[2] Actually it was Plotinus who did this, but Augustine gave the idea its real intellectual legitimacy in the Christian world.[3] This new twist was the notion of “imagination.” Imagination is the thing, I want to argue, that is at the heart of essentially all later problems that developed concerning what art was supposed to do and how it was supposed to do it. Imagination is kind of like Free Will: it is the thing that makes art more than simply imitative, but it is also the thing that has allowed the possibility of corruption to creep into the picture.

Imagination is the name given to the artistic attempt to realize concretely what is not in nature. We will be coming back to this later.

The Middle Ages had some good ideas about art, but it would not be to the point to explore them very deeply here. Suffice it to say that the common Romantic view of the Middle Ages where art was wholly at the service of the Church is not supportable by the evidence. On the other hand, it is certainly true that there was a more generally understood place for the visual arts in medieval culture than there is now. Whether this was a good thing for individual artists is another question. In the Middle Ages, the artist was still essentially a craftsman. That is, he operated on the same level as, say, a plumber. If you had a leaky roof, you called a plumber and he fixed it, you paid him and he went away. If you needed a stained glass window, you called a window maker, he made it, you paid him and he went away. This all smacks of a kind of sturdy yeomanry, where people knew their place and stayed in it. Think for a moment though. In these little stories, we almost always unconsciously cast ourselves as the patron, summoning and dismissing plumbers and glaziers with a wave of the checkbook. But whether we think of ourselves as the summoners or the summoned, this is not the way the world works anymore. At least it is not the way that art works.

The Renaissance and the Rise of the Artist
At the beginning of the Renaissance the artist was a craftsman, and at the end of it, he was an Artist, capital A. This is the truly crucial transformation. I am not going to chronicle this in any detail, but simply state it. It is, in many ways, our real starting point. Leonardo da Vinci is the critical figure, for it was with him, at the end of the fifteenth century, that this transformation occurred.[4] It first happened in Italy, and slowly moved north of the Alps, and it took a long time for the change to be completed. Albrecht Dürer is the perfect example of an artist caught in the middle of this changing world.[5] In a well-known letter he wrote from Venice to a friend back in Nuremberg, he goes on about the weather (as Germans frequently do when they get to Italy, even today) and then he laments the fact that he is about to come home. “Here they treat me like a prince,” he says; “but in Nuremberg I am a nobody.” This was in the very first years of the sixteenth century.

This view is the result of that transformation I just mentioned. The one that Leonardo articulated for the first time. When Leonardo got into the painting business as a kid, he was a craftsman, but he wanted to be something more. He realized that imagination was what separated the artistic sheep from the tradesmen goats, and so he hammered at that.[6] Leonardo was the first one really to push the potential divinity of the artists. The steps were simple: God is the Creator. The artist, using his imagination, makes things that do not exist in nature, therefore he is partaking in the divine creativity. Ergo he himself is, in some small fashion, a creator too. There is still a lot to recommend this as the fundamental starting point for a contemporary Christian view of the arts. But Leonardo’s immediate goal with this formulation was plain: you don’t treat God like you would a plumber.

The Invention of Invenzione
By the time of Vasari, in the middle of the sixteenth century, there were three critical aspects to the visual arts.[7] They were formulated for painting, but, mutatis mutandis, they could be applied to sculpture as well. These were drawing, coloring, and invention. The first two were the chief battleground for art theory for the next couple of centuries, but invention—invenzione—was accepted immediately by everyone.

Invention, of course, is nothing but the Augustinian imagination, expressed more creatively. It was the thing that gave the artist his little bit of divinity. It also caused tremendous theoretical problems, since, although you might recognize it when you saw it, there did not seem to be anything that anyone could do to cause it to appear when it was lacking. This, in fact, becomes the central problem of art theory for the next several hundred years, until some time around the middle of the nineteenth century. Dürer, who was a Christian, of course attributed this capacity for invention to God. He also was one of the first to use the word that we still, instinctively it seems, use when we talk about this aspect of artistic creativity: genius. For Dürer, then, genius was essentially a gift from God. You could go a long way without it, but when you got it, as a sort of Grace, it was immediately evident.

The Great Mistake: Mannerism and the Perfectibility of Art
I am going to skip over the rest of the sixteenth century and Renaissance theorizing, except to mention one other thing. This has to do with the movement in art that has come in this century to be called Mannerism. Mannerism was, I think, an inevitable reaction to the fundamental historical position taken by the Renaissance vis a vis the visual arts. Renaissance means rebirth; and what was supposedly being reborn was the glory of the classical past. From the point of view of the fifteenth-century art world this was all a lot of nonsense, and Renaissance artists were not particularly interested in “reviving” anything, when it came right down to it. Like great artists of any period, they were busy making something new. But one thing that Renaissance theorizers about art bought into was the old classical notion that art was potentially perfectible: that there was such a thing as perfect, objective beauty, and it was the artist’s duty to seek after that perfection. This is a heady idea, and an exciting one until it started to seem like it might actually be achieved. This all came to a head in the 1520s.

The problem with the idea of perfect art, it turns out, is that if it is achievable, everyone is in trouble. The Renaissance party line—essentially the line articulated by Vasari—held that this perfection was finally reached by Leonardo and Raphael in painting and Michelangelo in everything: painting, sculpture and architecture. The trouble was that no one had really thought this whole position through. What do you do, once everything has been done? The Roman writer Pliny, in his chapters on the visual arts in Natural History, painted himself into this corner, though since he was no artist himself, he was able to avoid serious difficulties by a simple but enormous irrational leap. After chronicling the supposed achievement of perfection in classical Greek sculpture, Pliny merely said: deinde cesavit ars (and then art stopped).

Leonardo seems to have dealt with the problem by essentially giving up painting. He had always had a lot of trouble finishing his pictures, but in 1517 he got an offer he couldn’t refuse from the king of France and spent the last years of his life in genial retirement, intending to finish the pictures he was still hauling around with him. (This is why, by the way, his Mona Lisa is in the Louvre in Paris, and not in some Italian collection.) Raphael’s solution was to die in 1520 at the age of 37, adding another level of meaning to deinde cesavit ars. But for other, less fortunate, artists, the problem remained.

There are only three possible artistic responses to the situation of an actually perfected art. There is repetition. You can simply do the same thing over and over again. This is an awful thought to the modern mind, but remember, if you really believe that art is perfectible, and that it becomes, at some point, perfected, it is only logical to continue to make it. There is nothing better than perfection, and there is no reason why perfection cannot be repeated. No one ever claimed that perfection was singular.

The second response is to give up in despair.

The third is to rethink everything and rewrite the rules. This was the choice of the Mannerists, who threw out most of the artistic ideals of the High Renaissance. The thing that I am interested in here has to do with the Mannerist conception of the relation of the work of art to the world. In the Renaissance a picture was a part of the world; that is, it was imitation improved by invention. When Vasari talks about the Mona Lisa, he speaks of it in glowing terms, but he talks primarily about its realism, which is so convincing, he says, that it makes all other artists despair of achieving the equal. The Mannerists, on the other hand, began to claim that a work of art was valid solely for the “truth” that was invested in it by the artist. This was not primarily the truth of the subject, but rather was seen either as a more formalistic or a more subjective “truth in itself.” There was no longer much of an attempt to relate the work to anything outside of itself. This should sound familiar. This “art for art’s sake” view was effectively quashed in Roman Catholic countries by the Counter-Reformation, which put art back at the service of the Church. Protestant countries in the later sixteenth century avoided the problem by simply freezing art out altogether.

Going for Baroque
The Baroque period, the seventeenth century, saw several crucially important developments, of which I will mention three. The first, and perhaps the one that has had the longest-lasting influence in the world of art, was the development of the Academy: the art school. This happened first in France a little after the middle of the century, and it is a chapter in the history of art that is still not finished. Usually the invention of the Royal Academy is connected to the French preoccupation, under Descartes, with a hyper-rational view of the world, and the relentless drive to organize and codify everything under the sun. The fundamental self-contradiction inherent in the academic organization of art production is that there can be no place for genius, the highest peak of the artistic experience. You can teach a student a lot about artistic process, but you cannot hope to teach, or even to explain, how genius works. The solution to this problem was essentially to ignore, as much as possible, this whole aspect of artistic reality, and to concentrate instead on the things that could be codified and transmitted.

It must be admitted that the invention of the Academy was probably a good thing for French art, and European art in general, once the idea of the art school began to drift into other countries. The vast bulk of second-rate art that was produced undoubtedly got technically better than it had been before. And real artistic genius, when it occurred, was rarely stifled. The notion of a multitude of mute, inglorious Miltons, quashed by the rigidity of the Academy, is Romantic hogwash.

But what exactly did this academic reorganization of art training mean in practice? Artists were taught how to paint. The Renaissance categories of drawing, coloring and invention were preserved, as was the old idea of the fundamentally mimetic or imitative nature of art, that had been assumed since the supposed Renaissance rediscovery of nature. The seventeenth century, however, contributed the critically significant idea of decorum.

The artistic category of Decorum—from the Latin decus, which means lots of things including suitability and virtue—is founded on the idea that there is an inherent, objective relationship between artistic subject, the manner of its representation and the use to which a work of art would be put. To the modern sensibility, for which subject has become a completely irrelevant aspect of art, this is nothing but a quaint, vaguely comical, notion. Baroque art theory still provides some laughs for those willing to look into it far enough to dig out the lists of hierarchical subject matter, or charts rating the all-time great artists and giving their vital statistics (strong in drawing, weak in coloring, or the other way around).

But the application of this notion of decorum to art, for all of its potential for abuse (and it was abused), still was founded in the idea that art was a significant activity that based itself in the objective reality of God’s creation. Essentially the idea was that certain subjects were inherently better than others. This ordering was based on the hierarchy of creation. Man was made in the image of God, and so pictures of men were the best thing an artist could do. Below this came pictures with living animals, then landscapes, and finally still lives: paintings of dead animals, flowers and fruits. Once you understand the basic principle the whole system makes sense, even if it seems silly. But it was one of the starting points for the way art was understood in the seventeenth century, and it was elaborated in all sorts of directions.

For example, the first category of pictures of people was refined so that the greatest pictures were pictures of the greatest people. That is, the potential greatness of a painting depended not so much on the artist’s ability as it did on the choice of subject. This is the theoretical basis of pictures done in the “grand manner.” It was simply impossible to paint a great picture of a subject that lacked greatness in itself. As Sir Joshua Reynolds put it in one of his annual Discourses given at the Royal Academy of Art in the later eighteenth century: “the painters who have applied themselves more particularly to low and vulgar characters… deserve great praise; but as their genius has been employed on low and confined subjects, the praise which we give must be as limited as its object.”[8] In practice, the greatest pictures were of biblical or classical themes. Then came pictures of great men—kings, popes, etc. Then less great men, then well-to-do men, and finally insignificant men. A painting of a peasant was manifestly better than a painting of a cow, but it was not as good as one of a count, which was not as good as one of a prince, and so on. A reasonable attempt to make sense of art in its relation to the world had very quickly been sidetracked into absurdity by the confusion of a mutable social hierarchy with the order of creation itself. We can laugh at this now, but we have to recognize that people went to this trouble to make sense of art because it still had value. Sir Joshua Reynolds, quoted above, was a good example of how these Baroque principles of taste were still accepted, almost at the end of the eighteenth century, and his exposition of them in the Discourses on Art is still one of the best and clearest to be found anywhere.

Another aspect of this idea of decorum was behind the seventeenth-century battles concerning style: Realism versus Idealism. Style essentially is the visual manner in which an artist chooses to depict events. The Italian painter Caravaggio, an extreme realist, was at the heart of this controversy, and he could be vilified for painting a picture of a Madonna because the people shown adoring the infant Jesus were depicted as peasants with dirty feet.[9] This was a clear breach of decorum, since paintings about great subjects were expected to treat those subjects reverently. I don’t want to get involved with issues of style, here, however, so I will not pursue this further. The point is that artists were not free to paint anything they wanted to, in any way they wanted to. This led to artistic repression, but it was largely accepted because the belief that art was important was still commonly held.

To the development of the Academy and the generally accepted hierarchy of subject and treatment of subject can be added the whole concept of Taste. This was an idea that simply did not exist before the seventeenth century. “Taste” is something that entirely depended upon the codification provided by the semi-philosophical (or at least aesthetic) notion of decorum. “Good” taste was really nothing but the recognition of the principles of decorum, and bad taste was the unwillingness or inability to go along with what was self evidently “right.” One of the hotly debated theoretical topics of the day was whether artists could have taste without genius, or genius without taste. The answer to the first question was clearly “yes,” since this was precisely the kind of artist that was being turned out by the Academy. The answer to the second was also “yes,” though much more grudgingly admitted, since this was a state of affairs in virtual complete opposition to the goals of the Academy. I suspect the most well-known example of an artist in this second category would be the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, perhaps the most “tasteless” artist of the entire seventeenth century.[10]

One last thing has to be said about this essentially academic view of art and its relationship to genius. The two were not opposed, though they were not particularly comfortable with each other. Genius is something that, in the final analysis, just happens. In the seventeenth century it was still recognized as a gift from God: like Grace, it was something that was bestowed, rather than something that was inherent. The Academic problem with genius was that the people teaching in the academies frequently came to confuse genius with the perfected practice of the Academic manner. This led to the production of large numbers of enormous, and usually enormously dull, pictures by men who were hugely famous in their own day, and are all but forgotten now.

This practical codification of subject and mode of representation in the seventeenth century was taken up and became one of the bases for the abstract philosophical discipline of aesthetics in the eighteenth century, where it has remained until the present time. A vital part of artistic discourse has been rendered harmless and irrelevant, especially in recent years. The Academy is having its vengeance on the arts.

The Outbreak of Romanticism
With the rise of the Romantic sensibility in the middle of the eighteenth century, the concerns and preoccupations of the artist changed dramatically. This change was also the result of a fundamental revision of the uses of art and the modes of patronage. Without entering into a full-blown exposition of what happened to the visual arts as a result of all of this, nevertheless I want to sketch out in a few strokes the cultural development of the Artist—spelled always with a capital A now.

The view of Art as essentially the manifestation of a powerful personal sensibility is the result of the Romantic exaltation of the personal and the subjective over the social and the objective. This is the point where the visual arts began to lose, for most people, their connection with everyday life. It is not accidental that this is precisely the time when the new cultural institution of the museum was being invented.

Romanticism as a stylistic movement in the visual arts begins in the early nineteenth century. As I have mentioned before, I am not primarily interested in “style” in this essay, but rather in the intellectual and social changes which made possible the development of the modern conception of the Artist. Delacroix is one of the first really important artists in charting this change, not only because he was at the forefront of a change in style, but also because he was independently wealthy and so was in a position to be one of the first consistent defenders of the artist’s right to paint what he wanted to; he could afford to do this.[11] Delacroix was a key figure during the period when the old accepted categories of subject matter were being dismantled, and it was beginning to be possible for artists to create works simply because they wanted to, rather than in response to a commission from a patron. In fact, there were tremendous changes in patterns of artistic patronage already evident in the eighteenth century. Mostly this meant that the Church, which had been the most important and most consistent patron of the arts in Europe since the time of Constantine, in the early fourth century, had essentially gotten out of the business. This left an enormous gap in the art world, which was more and more being filled by aristocratic and royal patrons, and, as the Industrial Revolution picked up steam, by a growing middle class of people for whom art was coming to have an important status value. But in the early nineteenth century artists still did not routinely paint pictures or carve statues unless they had a commission to do so. Delacroix, as I said, was an early example of someone who painted what and how he wanted to. He could afford to since he was not relying on the sale of his pictures to pay the rent. This aspect of his situation was often overlooked by other, later artists, who admired him for what they called his epater la bourgeois attitude.[12]

The Artist and the Machine
Industrialization and the concomitant social changes played a key role in the redefinition of the Artist in the nineteenth century. Up until the end of the eighteenth century, most people had some personal association with craftsmanship and the creation of “things.” As this traditional aspect of making was more and more relegated to specialists, working somewhere else in factories, the intimate association between people and the things people made began to fall apart. It did not take more than about a generation to destroy the old sense of connection that had sustained for many people at least some level of instinctive feeling about made things. I do not want to make too much of this, but there nevertheless came to be, in the early industrial period, an almost complete separation for most people between their lives and the objects they used in their lives.[13] This, combined with the growing feeling on the part of the Artist that the most important thing was not the satisfying of a patron, but the necessity of remaining true to his inner feelings, created the situation in which there was no longer much possibility of true communication between the maker and the appreciator of art. The first—the artist—was coming more and more to resent anything that he saw as interfering with his art as an expression of himself. The second—the art consumer—simply had forgotten how to see anything of real, objective value in a work of art. This led, not surprisingly, to a condition of rapidly increasing mutual distrust between the artist and the public.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, Diderot had great success as one of the first popular art critics.[14] He was able to do this because there was still a shared concern between himself and the artists he wrote about and the public who read what he wrote. A half century later this was scarcely possible. Even the common assumptions that had allowed people to differ about the various schools and styles of art were disappearing. By the 1870s and early ‘80s, the Impressionists had won the battle that they had been fighting against the exhausted Academic art world. Their big step was that, for the first time, a group of artists had essentially forced a largely unwilling and uncomprehending public to accept a new kind of art; one that was cutting the last of the traditional bonds that had held art and non-artistic culture together. This was the relationship between art and nature.

Paul Cézanne, in the late nineteenth century, could say that art was a harmony parallel to nature.[15] No one, in or out of the art world, knew what he meant by this when he started to talk this way in the late 1880s. What it ended up meaning was the destruction of about a 600-year-old tradition of western art in which the work of art was fundamentally and visually related to its subject. From now on, the only valid reference for a work of art was the work itself. It no longer needed to have any significant connections to the world around it. But what was even more dramatic, at least in retrospect, was that the public no longer cared. By the time art cut its last ties to the natural world and broke through into complete non-representation, around 1914, most people, it has to be said, did not notice. Most people do not notice things that are not important to them. For the last hundred years and more, artists have been able to live their lives as Romantic rebels, as the perennial cultural outsiders, because they have finally convinced culture—society at large—that what they do is of no real significance. Artistic battles were fought, and continue to be fought, by a very small number of people who manage to make a large amount of noise but little else. Culturally, the art wars have become like Macbeth’s idiot’s tale: full of sound and fury, but more and more signifying nothing.

Sad Conclusions
To return to the pessimistic note I struck at the beginning, I find that contemporary Christian artists have largely bought into the Romantic myth of the outsider artist. They want the Church to appreciate what they do, but they are—many of them at least—completely unwilling to become accountable in any significant way to the Church, or to culture as a whole. If we are going to take the visual arts seriously, as Christians, then we have to face the possibility that we might have to undo two hundred years of separation between Church and art, and get back to a point where people think art is important enough to keep track of, and artists think it is important enough that they are willing to be held accountable for what they do. I see very little evidence that either one of these things is happening.

Further Reading
The Christian who wishes to explore some of the issues in this essay faces something of a dilemma. On the one hand, there is no shortage of art literature, especially given the explosion of information production in colleges and universities since WWII. There are whole lifetime’s worth of books and articles about any number of the aspects of 20th-century art that I have mentioned. With few exceptions, however, the approach taken by the producers of this information is either hostile to a Christian worldview, or, more commonly, ignores it; does not even take it into consideration. Thinking Christians should not be surprised by this state of affairs. The couple of exceptions that come to mind are not so much sympathetic to Christianity as contemptuous or hostile to recent and contemporary events in the art world. Christians should recall Francis Schaeffer’s old characterization of ‘co-belligerents’ in order to locate these critics in relation to themselves. Probably the most well-known general overview of 20th-century art is Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New (New York, 1980; revised edition, 1991), which was written as an accompaniment to a television series (something that Hughes now regrets). Hughes is not sympathetic to Christianity, but there is much that can be learned from his book. A more specific critique of American painting after WWII can be found in Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word (New York, 1975), a riotously funny examination of motives as well as movements.

The available literature which looks at these questions from an overtly Evangelical point of view is woefully inadequate. It is telling that the name of H. R. Rookmaaker stands out as essentially the only contributor to the discussion, and he died in 1977. His Art and the Public Today (1968) was a sort of slim warm-up for his Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP; 1970). This is badly in need of revision, but when it was reissued recently (1994) it remained unchanged. I suspect this was because no one was available who was qualified to revise it. Finally, his Art Needs No Justification (Downers Grove, IL: IVP; 1978) should be read as a sermon: an exhortation and a tacit admission that, in fact, in the Evangelical world, art needs enormous justification, which it is not yet receiving. What is most evident about all of the above works is that they were pretty much all written, or at least conceived, nearly a generation ago. There has not really been much thought given to these problems since the early ‘70s.

The world has changed drastically since what now seem to be the relatively gentle days of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The only consistent criticism of the contemporary art world that could be read with profit by the Christian is probably found in Hilton Kramer’s The New Criterion, a monthly publication he has been editing since the early ‘80s after he resigned as art critic of the New York Times. Although the tone of the journal is shrill at times, you have to remember that this is essentially the only point of resistance to contemporary postmodernism in the arts. Kramer and his colleagues are up against a lot. He is not a Christian, but the attitude of the magazine towards Christianity has become more accepting over the last several years. I think Kramer understands Schaeffer’s theory of co-belligerency, though he probably does not know of Schaeffer. The irony that an unrepentant modernist like Hilton Kramer can find himself in substantial agreement with a Christian view of the world should not be lost on the Evangelical world. Neither should this state of affairs be dismissed. In the contemporary culture wars, Kramer is a more substantial, and braver, warrior than any Christian I can think of serving on the artistic front.

Copyright @ 1996 Robert Russell


1. In what ways, if any, have you sensed tension between artists and the rest of the Christian community?

2. C. S. Lewis argued that our “taste” must be carefully trained, and that if ignored would tend toward mediocrity. In what ways has your taste in art grown? In what measurable ways have you matured aesthetically as a Christian? To what extent has your appreciation of art been defined by a “common sense” understanding? What serious reading have you done on the arts? On Christianity and the arts? How often do you spend time reflecting on art in galleries and museums?

3. If the command of Christ is for his church to be one, what can you do to help bridge the gulf between Christian artists and the evangelical community? What plans should you make?

4. Those who need an introduction to the topic of Christianity and the arts would do well to form a group to read and discuss State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe by Gene Edward Veith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books; 1991); and Culture in Christian Perspective: A Door to Understanding and Enjoying the Arts by Leland Ryken (Portland, OR: Multnomah; 1986).


I. F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates, Boston, 1988.

Augustine (354-430), bishop of Hippo, is undoubtedly one of the most important of the theologians of the early Church, responsible for an enormous amount of the shape of western theology, both Roman Catholic and protestant. Before he became a Christian he wrote a treatise on aesthetics: De pulchro et apto (On the Beautiful and the Fitting). Unfortunately very little is known of this (lost) early work.

Plotinus (c.205-270) was a Neoplatonist and a mystic. Although not a Christian, he nevertheless exercised much influence on the thought of later Christians like St. Augustine.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is undoubtedly the most well known of the Renaissance “universal men” and, along with Raphael and Michelangelo, one of the “big three” of the Italian High Renaissance at the beginning of the sixteenth century. His arguments for the exalted state of the artist in society were the earliest, and still some of the most sophisticated, to be made.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was the first artist from north of the Alps to introduce to the German-speaking world the new artistic and theoretical ideas being developed in Italy at the end of the fifteenth century. He became known as the “Leonardo of the north.”

In a famous story that Vasari relates in his life of Leonardo, the painter, who had been hired to paint his now-famous Last Supper on the end wall of the refectory of the monastery connected to Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, was being harassed by the abbot of the monastery. The abbot complained to Duke Ludovico Sforza, his lord and Leonardo’s patron, that the painter was loafing and spent hours just standing and staring at the wall he was supposed to be painting. When Leonardo was asked to explain his curious behavior he simply stated “I am working hardest when I am doing the least.” Not a particularly charitable man, another story circulated that when it came time to paint the face of Judas, Leonardo chose the abbot as his model.

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) was a painter and an architect of some talent, though he is most well known for his Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors (1550), one of the fundamental sources for information about Italian Renaissance artists. In many ways he is considered to be the intellectual father of the history of art.

The quote is from the Discourse delivered in 1788. Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was the first president of the British Royal Academy of Arts, in which capacity he delivered his annual lectures, or Discourses. He was one of the most important English painters of the eighteenth century, and the first really important English theorist about art.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573-1610) was an enormously important Italian painter of the period around 1600. He advocated an extreme form of realism, and boasted that if he could not see something he could not paint it.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) is undoubtedly now the most famous protestant artist in the history of western art, though this has not always been the case. [back] Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). His outspoken opposition to the academic standards by which art was conventionally judged in the early and mid-nineteenth century earned him the enmity of some of the most influential artists of the time, and prevented his election to the Académie des Beaux Arts—the French Academy of Fine Arts—until 1857.

The idea is to “startle the old fogies.”

This is one of the reasons why, in the great surge of romantic revulsion with industrial and technological society which occurred during the 1960s, arts—especially crafts—played such a prominent role.

Denis Diderot (1713-1784) was an important figure in the French Enlightenment, and one of the Encyclopedists, those compilers of the great monument to French rational materialism. He was, in fact, the editor of the Encyclopédie from 1747 to 1772. He was a pioneer in modern art criticism with the publication of his Salons from 1759 to 1771.

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) is one of the most important artists of the last several hundred years. He is generally acknowledged as the father of Modernism and credited as beginning the separation between the work of art and the natural world.