BY KAREY PARK
Through art we can know another’s view of the universe.
—Marcel Proust, Maxims
Last winter, I was fortunate enough to see an exhibit of drawings and oil paintings by the renowned Vincent van Gogh at the Seoul Museum of Art. The masses of patrons – some dilettantes, some connoisseurs, some dragged to the exhibit by their spouses – all under one roof, crowding every painting, left me with that fuzzy feeling inside that comes from witnessing the power of art bringing people together. Van Gogh, ignited with a youthful passion, became an artist out of noble intentions to serve God after years of preaching and missionary work, only to commit suicide ten years later.
It was van Gogh’s inability to find an outlet for the gifts that God had given him, and not his emotional instability, that led to his suicide. When van Gogh’s authorities decided that the Word preached was the most effective way of communicating, they overlooked the possibility that God’s Word is more than just words. Van Gogh put it this way: “To try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another, in a picture.”
Similarly, Jesus preferred stories over direct preaching as a means of opening the eyes of others to the truth that would set them free. We also read in Exodus that Bezalel was the chief craftsman and architect of the Tabernacle and also the first person in the Bible to be described as being filled with the Spirit of God (Exodus 31:3). This should not come as too big of a curveball to anyone; after all, is not artistic expression itself a deeply spiritual act? It is a miracle by which we bring forth something from nothing, transforming abstract material into soul-stirring human emotion, while bringing with it the joy and liberation that comes from knowing that we are made in the image of a God who is endlessly creative.
How, then, do we explain van Gogh’s strife, or works like Church at Auvers (1890), which features a dark cathedral that appears to have no door? The shift in spiritual values that had taken shape in the Renaissance altered course during the Protestant and Catholic Reformations and again in the Age of Reason. This shift had gained so much momentum by van Gogh’s time that the church, to him, was a cold, dark, and close-minded place, as opposed to a source of encouragement and inspiration.
The Renaissance was a time when the church was sanctioning and funding artists and, in general, was at the cusp of creativity and innovation. As a result, the church had a lot more influence in Renaissance culture. A survey of music in the Renaissance interestingly reveals itself to be virtually entirely “church music”! The biographies in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, Volume 1 (New York: Penguin Books, 1965 translation) are particularly memorable. Regarding Renaissance music, the best book I’ve read is Howard M. Brown’s Music in the Renaissance (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1976). At the risk of over-generalizing, it could be said that the shifting view of the capabilities and potential of humans favored a view of Christian culture that celebrated art and the development of the mind. Church authorities were quick and all too eager to hire and support great artists and composers, from near and far.
Vocal polyphony, the use of two or more independently moving melodic lines, reached its apex during this period, superseding Gregorian chant as the basic music of the church. At its simplest level, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is a kind of polyphony, a canon, in which the same melody reenters one or more times after given intervals. At the other extreme is Thomas Tallis’s “Spem in Alium,” composed c. 1570, for eight choirs of five voice parts each – forty independent melodic lines. A work of incredible complexity, its subtlety and beauty repays the deepest concentration.
The position of artists, as seen by their contemporaries, was one of a sort of quasi-divinity. For people like Michelangelo, with his Platonist background common to many during this time, beauty was a revelation of the divine. This gave a sort of theological mission to art, which Michelangelo paid homage to in his poems, architecture, and sculptures. This is critical to understanding the centrality of art in spiritual life in the 15th and 16th centuries, especially in light of the undermining of this perspective from later centuries and the Reformation.
It was during the Reformation when, to put it simply, the church was robbed of art. Erasmus was a sort of John the Baptist figure; his satires on the Catholic Church prepared the way for the Reformation. “Modern church music,” Erasmus wrote, “is so composed that the congregation cannot understand a word.” James Anthony Froude, Life and Letters of Eramsus (New York: C. Scribner’s, 1894), 130. Though a hyperbolic statement (I hope), this gave rise to a suspicion of ornamentation and anything elaborate. The reformed church cried for simplicity, sporting an obsessive preoccupation with making everything understandable. When Martin Luther, on the eve of All Saints’ Day, 1517, nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche (castle church), it was a critical moment in church history. The seed of conflict between beauty and austerity was now in its prime stage of growth. Many churches sold or removed their organs, putting many musicians out of employment, while others did not allow instruments in the church at all. Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964), 438-439. Furthermore, the removal of statues, frescoes that gave the church a feeling of warmth, and pictures on the wall would have been a culture shock to any churchgoer of a half-century earlier.
Along these same lines, the Puritans also left a very negative legacy on art, as explained by H.R. Rookmaaker:
We can only conclude that the Calvinistic and Puritan movement (at least from the seventeenth century on) had virtually no appreciation for the fine arts, due to a mystic influence that held that the arts were in themselves worldly, unholy, and that a Christian should not participate in them.H.R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1970), 30.
Shortly prior to the beginning of the Puritan movement, the general premise of which was to lead their followers into “proper” biblical behavior, William Byrd (1543-1623) and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) were the two giants of English church music. This was a time when England was becoming more famous for secular rather than sacred music. Sadly, their deaths coincided with the ascendancy of Puritanism in 1649, from which point English leadership in church music would disappear, never to resurface to the same degree ever again.
Lest we make the historically presumptuous conclusion that nothing beautiful came from the church after the Renaissance, it should be said that exceptions did exist, fortunately. I thank God tremendously for people like Johann Sebastian Bach, who, despite being a devout Lutheran, was haunted by memories of the great masters of Renaissance polyphony. Perpetually discontent with the poor quality of church musicians, he nevertheless pressed on, and managed to express this reverence in his “Mass in B minor” of 1749, which has been given the cleverly appropriate nickname of the “Protestant Mass.” About this work, Philipp Spitta said:
The structure of the whole work rested solely on the personal will of Bach, who found in the Protestant form of worship only the ruins of a magnificent liturgical work, which was both capable and worthy to be reconstructed in the spirit of the Reformation. Philipp Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach, Vol. 3 (New York: Dover Publications, 1951), 45. [emphasis added]
The ghost of antiquity that hung like a cloud over Bach’s artistic mind had the last word, so to speak: this was to be his last major work, and he died a year later, in 1750.
This Modern Age
The increasing dominance of secular music that began after the late 17th century has continued unabated, for the most part, through the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason to today. The seamless obsession of modernist thought, rooted in its scientific and rational reasoning that only that which can be proven by human experimentation can be known, gave rise to the subordination of Scriptural authority, aversion of the supernatural, and the elimination of wonder. If they have not been banished already, the mysteries of belief are under a huge threat, and the accelerated pace of life has made our encounters with God, art, and people much more superficial.
A more recent source of fuel to the fire is the phenomenon of otherwise honest, decent people readily exchanging software illegally over peer-to-peer Internet connections. A Christian perspective on art leaves absolutely no leeway for anything less than a militant opposition towards piracy. It destroys the human dimension of an artistic creation, trivializing its beauty and significance. It is a tour de force of degradation, a glorified prostitution hub for digital media, whereby people seek to save a few bucks at the cost of their moral consciences. Having a hundred gigabytes of illegally downloaded music with a dozen CDs added every week does not inspire enthusiasm and appreciation of beauty; it kills it.
Bob Dylan was right when he said that “the times they are a changing.” In Matthew 10:28, Jesus warns us: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Today, we no longer battle martyrdom and religious oppression (here in the United States, at least), and are free to believe whatever we choose. We battle something far worse, and far more dangerous: the weightlessness of God and the triviality of life, a sentiment that is beautifully mocked in U2’s 1993 album, Zooropa.
Art should aspire to be more than sonic wallpaper for social gatherings and decorations for our wall or computer desktop. It should inspire intense introspection, a desire to understand other worldviews, and a sense of awe and wonder that pushes us towards spiritual seeking, much in the same way that the golden cherubim, the candlesticks, and the golden altar for the Tabernacle probably did for Moses. I will end with a remark that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe made towards the end of his life on the fugues (keyboard works with several independent melodic lines) of J.S. Bach:
It was when my mind was in a state of perfect composure and free from external distractions, that I obtained the true impress of your grand master. I said to myself: it was as if the eternal harmony was conversing within itself, as it may have done in the bosom of God, just before the creation of the world.
This is the power of art.
- Bach, J.S., Mass in B Minor, Robert King / The King’s Consort (Hyperion)
- Victoria, Tomas Luis de, Tenebrae Responsories, The Tallis Scholars (Gimell)
- Brahms, Johannes, Ein Deutsches Requiem, John Eliot Gardiner / Orchestre Révolutionnaire Et Romantique (Philips)
- Tallis, Thomas, Spem in Alium, The Tallis Scholars (Gimell)
- Messiaen, Olivier, Quartet for the End of Time, Tashi (RCA)
- Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books, 2007)
- H.R. Rookmaaker: Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (Apollo Books, 1994)
- Neil Postman: Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin Books, 1985)
- Giorgio Vasari: Lives of the Artists, Volume 1 (Penguin Books, 1965 translation)
- Gustave Reese: Music in the Renaissance (Norton Books, 1954)