Poking the Bear: Why the Art World Needs Beauty Now More than Ever

February 10th, 2015

The bear lunges forward, hell-bent on destruction, its massive paws destroying everything in its path. She lashes out, her claws tearing, her teeth gnashing, her roar echoing throughout the wood.

She is chasing someone. A person.

A person who had the nerve to poke the sleeping bear with a stick.

In the rear.

A good, hard poke.

Not a pansy little poke. A serious poke.

And then, an all-out sprint away from an angry bear.

The human wheels around and does the unthinkable, punching the bear in the nose. The nose!

“Maybe,” the human thinks, “this might stun the bear, make the bear stop.”

But no. It only makes the bear more angry. Even madder.

Paws and claws still thrashing wildly.

The human manages to escape to a high rock out of reach of the bear, and the bear gets tired and wanders off. The human is safe. For now.

But the bear is sick. She needs help. If untreated, her condition will grow worse. The human wants to help, but offers no real solution.

This is what I see every day in the art world.

Artists smacking angry bears on the nose, then claiming immunity when the world gets mad that the artist has pointed out a critical flaw in the way the world works.

We saw this recently in the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Cartoonists teased the bear a little too much and got themselves killed.

Sure, the cartoonists had a point: religious extremism does more harm than good. But rather than offer any sort of solution, they continued to mock the people who killed them. The mocking got worse and worse.

That’s not bravery. That’s stupidity.

Over the past 100 years or so it has fallen out of fashion in the art world to create anything beautiful, anything uplifting.

If art pisses people off, great! Let’s shake the world out of its complacency! Convulse them! Shock them! The more shocking, the better! Paint with excrement!

The thinking goes something like this: if artists shock society enough with the right images, music, movies, et cetera, they can change the world for the better.

But instead, artists are punching an angry bear in the nose.

That might startle the bear for a moment, but it won’t change anything in the long run, unless you do something to kill the bear or otherwise render her unconscious. Chances are if she wakes back up, she will be even angrier than before.

I want to offer an alternative: create art that has a way out.

Give some kind of resolution. The trend for the past century has been to dwell on despair and not seek any sort of solution except more death, more destruction, more nihilism.

Create art that brings hope. Create art that is a light in the darkness.

Dare I say it? Create something beautiful.

Scream if you must.

Weep if you must.

Destroy if you must.

Create, because you must.

You are capable of the demonic and the divine.

Both creation and destruction are demonic and divine. Choose wisely. Don’t create art that just shocks and destroys for the sake of shocking and destroying. That shock, that jolt, can do some good. But provide that good.

This is why I try to show a glimpse of hope.

I embrace the fog of every day life. The uncertainties. Because life is uncertain, when you’re young and struggle to pay the bills and feed three small children.

But I also know that life is beautiful. That there is light beyond the darkness. That the world is broken and is crying out for redemption. Because beauty is all the more poignant when brokenness is restored. When hurts are healed.

Be the light in the world. Bring hope. Bring beauty.

image source: Thinkstock

What is Art, Anyway?

January 6th, 2015

When we don’t know what something’s purpose is, it confuses and frustrates us. Or, if it isn’t obvious what something is, it gets passed off as art.

Sometimes.

Let’s look at Stonehenge. What is it?

A monument? A meeting hall? A pagan sun worship temple? Art? All of the above? None of these? What is it for?

You can ask a lot of the same questions even about something that is obviously art: you want to know why it is there.

Every piece of art has a purpose.

We can deduce the evolving purpose of art by looking at the many roles artists have played over the centuries.

Remember, what we call “art” hasn’t always been called art.

It used to be called “craft.” A long time ago, there was no separation between the two.

Now art and craft are so divorced that there is in the art world a deliberate lack of skill. The less classically skillful a piece of art is, the more technically (and likely morally) crude a work is, the more praise it gets.

(At the same time, we are seeing a resurgence in “artisinal” everything. Artisinal light bulbs, anyone?)

The Renaissance ushered in a new wealthy elite. Along with it came a brand new patronage system where art became a status symbol and the artists became rock stars. Their art was beautiful, and it might be about Biblical themes, but beauty was the hero, not God.

Sure, beautiful art is made to elevate people’s feelings, to move them to an awed, inspired, uplifted state.

There is nothing wrong with that. Beauty is good. Ugliness serves a purpose, too.

By the end of the 19th century the “moving upward” purpose of art was discarded in favor of simply moving people.

Art might make you happy, sad, angry, confused. If it moved you at all, it had done its job.

The Greeks understood this.

Ancient Greek dramatic theatre consists of comedies or tragedies. In comedies, the boy gets the girl, with some laughs along the way. In tragedies, everyone dies, often heroically, and it is very sad. In either case, the audience is moved to laugh or cry.

Our movies today aren’t much different.

The point of art is to move people.

The stories we tell and listen to still move us.

Let’s take it further: the goal of art is to change people. To transform them.

Does that sound familiar?

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.– Romans 12:2

I take this command to heart. I want my to art be a transforming agent in the world.I believe in this so much that in a few weeks I will be teaching a Sunday School class called Christianity and the Arts. We will discuss how art relates to the Bible and how Christians can and should relate to the art world.

If you’d like to be there, join me on Sunday, January 18 at Donelson Church of Christ right after the worship service. It’ll be fun!

The Purpose of Art is to Transform

September 23rd, 2014

For hundreds of years, for many people, the purpose of art has been to be beautiful.

The 20th century changed all that. We saw a lot of upheaval. Art became ugly.

It became clear that the purpose of art is not so much to be beautiful or convey a sense of beauty or have an “uplifting-ness” (if that’s a word) but to move people.

But maybe that’s not quite it. Maybe it’s more than just moving people.

For a long time I thought the purpose of art was to move people, but now I think that the purpose is even greater and deeper: to transform.

Maybe the purpose of art is to transform the viewer.

Perhaps that transformation evokes a sense of beauty in the viewer. Or perhaps it evokes anger and confusion.

Either way, the viewer is not only moved, but transformed, because this is something they weren’t experiencing before viewing the art.

There’s a lot more than just simple movement. Good art will always leave a mark. Its viewers will be changed, different from before they saw it.

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Art and Truth

June 6th, 2013

Truth is one of those concepts that is so simple, complex, and profound at the same time.

It seems there is always some debate over what is true, as well as the nature of truth itself. I think Truth (capital “T”) is some kind of entitity closely related to God. In fact, Jesus calls himself “the way, the truth, and the life” in John 14:6.

I think where a lot of us get stuck and disappointed is we have this idea that if something is true, it is also beautiful.

There’s merit to that. John Keats in his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” declared that truth and beauty are one and the same:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
There’s a big part of us that wants truth to be beautiful, pretty, and uplifting.

The sad reality is that life is not always so.

Lies

“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth …” — Pablo Picasso, 1881–1973
I think what Picasso was getting at is that art is an edited version of what we see, feel, hear, taste, smell, or otherwise experience. Empiricism can only tell us so much, because our human condition colors so much of what we experience.

And if beauty and truth are the same thing, why are the realities of war and the world we live in so horrifying?

It’s like the scene in My Name is Asher Lev, where Asher’s father asks him why he doesn’t paint pretty things:

It’s not a pretty world, Papa.’

‘I’ve noticed,’ my father said softly.

And it isn’t.

There will always be horrors. There will always be war, sickness, pain, poverty, extortion, death.

But there will always be beauty: redemption, love, grace, hope.

Life is beautiful

“La Vita È Bella” (Life is Beautiful) is about a family torn apart by the Holocaust in fascist Italy. There are some funny scenes, some touching scenes, scenes of heart-wrenching beauty, and scenes of heart-wrenching horror.

The most beautiful part of the story is the father’s love for his son, and the sacrifice he made for his boy.

And that redemption — heartbreaking as it is — is beautiful.

I think the bottom line is this: the truth is beautiful. It just depends on which side of it you are on.

Photo Credit: Seattle.roamer via Compfight cc

Art & Beauty (Or: Why Modern Art is So Ugly)

June 4th, 2013

You’re in a museum. You’re surrounded by a lot of famous paintings and sculptures by famous 19th and 20th century artists.

But there’s one thing that really jumps out at you: a lot of the art is, well, ugly.

Colors clash, faces are distorted, and images are disturbing. There are themes of violence and sexual abuse. Sometimes the art hardly looks like art at all. Almost all of it is depressing.

How is this even art? Why isn’t any of it beautiful? Why don’t I feel better after looking at it?

To understand this, you have to understand how and why art got the way it is today.

A little history goes a long way

There are two big things that completely changed art from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. When you look back at it, you can’t imagine art going any other way.
  1. Photography
  2. Global war

Photography

“Painting is dead,” said Paul Delaroche, upon seeing the first Daguerreotype. Advances in photography did a lot to make the role of painters as documenters or portraitists outdated and outmoded. With cameras able to quickly, more cheaply, and more accurately reproduce what is seen, artists had to move beyond just portraying what they could see with their eyes.

This also coincided with Romanticism, in which art became more inwardly-directed. It’s a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment, which placed importance on science and technology. The Romantics put imagination at the forefront. Emotions ruled over logic and rationalism.

Romanticism in this sense isn’t sappy emotionalism, but a focus on imagination and internal truth and the idea of the mind as the ultimate thing that makes us like God, if reality is first conceived in the mind.

Global war

By the early years of the twentieth century, I suppose it all came to a head when rationalism and for lack of a better word, Romanticism, clashed and culminated in the first world war. I know that’s not the official story, but but when when you look at the rationalist underpinnings of fascism, you can see what I’m getting at.

You can’t deny that two world wars made man’s brutality unmistakable. We keep inventing more efficient ways of killing each other on a massive scale. And that’s a lot of what Romanticism was against, the development of technology for the purpose of killing or otherwise demeaning humanity.

The world got ugly and so did art

It’s said that art imitates life, but life imitates art as well. Art and life imitate each other, really. Everything was turned upside-down. People in power took philosophical ideas and twisted them into justifications for controlling and destroying those they didn’t like. The world got ugly, and art followed suit. People were stripped of their humanity, and massively destructive weapons were created.

There have always been bleak aspects to life, but up until the past 100 or so years, said bleakness was often a matter of course, due to famine, disease, and war. Now, massacre on an unprecedented scale was seen every day. Out of what can be boiled down to plain old meanness justified “rationalist” principles.

So it’s only natural that art became more distorted, more inwardly-focused, and more brutal. And more “rational,” ultimately so rational that painting was reduced to a single color spread on a canvas.

Just like our society. Self-absorption may be at an all-time high now. Everyone tries to justify their actions based on some rationale that makes it okay.

But where do I stand?

I hope this explains in part how we got here. The full story is much more complicated, of course, but it should give you some idea of how why art today is so “ugly.”

Personally, I think there is a place for beauty and a place for ugliness. I think in a hurting and uglified world, beauty and redemption are necessary. At the same time, one of the functions of art is to be a mirror and show the world to itself. A lot of the time, we don’t like what we see.

Let’s look at it another way. Think of your favorite songs or your favorite movies. Chances are pretty good that they’re not all uplifting. I bet one or two make you cry, and one or two make you feel like dancing and shouting.

The point is that good art will change you in some way. This is pretty widely accepted in the art world, whether artists and critics will admit it. A lot of artists take adopt a platform that is more complex than this, but this is what you will find at the core.

If there’s some sort of emotional impact, whether it makes you mad or thrills you or shocks you, a work of art is considered a success. A movie that has no effect on you is considered a failure. If it makes you laugh or cry, it’s done its job, right? Things are more interesting at the edges.

Plus, in this day and age where “happiness” is so accessible in the form of TV, drugs, food, and sex, happiness is a cheap commodity. So making art that raises people’s spirits is seen as a waste.

That’s my take on it.

I suppose my bottom line is this: the existence of beauty and ugliness in art really just depends on what the artist is trying to do.

Personally, I want art that makes me feel something, whether that is happy, sad, uplifted, or claustrophobic. I want to make positive changes in the world, but I am aware of the fact that sometimes I may have to make people uncomfortable with the realities of life.

What about you?

What’s your take on beauty in the arts? Is beauty necessary? Or do you think beauty in art is a waste? Let me know in the comments.

Photo Credit: katmary via Compfight cc