Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Art as a Cultural Force

The following article was first published earlier this year in our school newsletter. I teach at a private Christian school and this article reflects my faith as well as my opinions about art. But since it's my blog, you probably figured that part. :-)


“Humanity looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny.” —Pope John Paul II

As I learn more about the history of art I am constantly surprised by what an important role art has played in culture throughout history. Sometimes art has reflected the culture and sometimes art has shaped the culture. For instance, art in the French Rococo-style is ornate, with fine details and frivolous, frequently immoral subject matter. This art was created for the nobility and upper echelons and reflected their culture, while ignoring the world of the everyday people. When the revolution swept through, not only did the government and social structures change, artistic styles and subject matter underwent a revolution of their own, too. Gone were the highly decorative images of the court, replaced, instead, by the clean lines and noble themes of Neoclassicism. It would be easy to dismiss these changes as the fickle fads of fashion, but a look deeper shows that some artists were in a role of shaping culture at these pivotal times.

A good example of this situation is Jacques–Louis David, who painted many images promoting the revolutionary cause. His most famous is The Oath of the Horatii, which exalted the sacrifice of self for the state. David went on to become the official painter for Napoleon and his masterful Napoleon Crossing the Alps is a classic example of art as political propaganda. The painting shows Napoleon on a powerful, rearing steed with his beleaguered troops moving behind him (there are four versions of the painting, with slightly varying names and horses, but all show the same scene). In the foreground the rocks are carved with the names of Charlemagne, Hannibal and Napoleon himself, to forge a link in the viewer's mind between the great generals of the past and Napoleon. In fact, he crossed the Alps several days after his troops on a donkey. Even after Napoleon fell from power and David was forced into exile, he still exhorted his artistic followers to use their art to restore the glory of the Republic.

The influence of art and its use as propaganda was not lost on another famous tyrant. Robert Edsel's fascinating book Rescuing da Vinci tells the story of Hitler's infamous taste for art and the allied Monument Men, who were given the task of sorting out and returning Nazi loot after the war ended. Hitler wanted to be an artist, and he took his rejection by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts very personally. His disappointment rapidly grew into bitterness and he developed a plan to create the finest art museum possible in his hometown of Linz, Austria as a way to humiliate the Vienna Academy. As his armies invaded a country, Hitler's staff had lists of art pieces to send back to Germany to eventually be placed into this museum. Not all pieces of art were the same in Hitler's opinion, though, and art that he did not understand or like was deemed “Degenerate Art” and either sold to raise money for weapons or destroyed (at these times when an air of respectability was needed for resale, he changed the laws to strip people of their citizenship and property rights so that the state's commandeering of art objects didn't appear to be outright theft; very little money was actually raised by these sales). Museums and galleries across the continent closed and began hiding their art treasures.

Hitler also saw the value of these art pieces as propaganda, however, and made a show of destroying art created by artists whose ethnic or cultural heritage was “undesirable” to further promote his own twisted plans. For example, the cultural treasures of Warsaw, Poland were demolished because the people were of Slavic origin, while the cultural treasures of Cracow, Poland were not because the people were considered of Germanic origin. When the Allies began to make their way through Italy, Hitler used their initial ignorance of the importance of preserving art and architectural monuments against them, casting Americans as barbarians eager to sack and pillage European culture. Once the Allies realized the damage being done they went to great pains to preserve these treasures, although mistakes sometimes still happened. An errant Allied bomb destroyed most of the Santa Maria delle Grazie, better known as the home of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper fresco. The fresco wall survived because it had been encased in sandbags held in place by scaffolding and wood planks.

In our own time art is still a powerful cultural force, although its appearance may not be as refined as previous centuries. Unfortunately much Christian influence has been lost in the arts in the modern era, and when Christian imagery is used it is frequently meant to be divisive and controversial, or used for shock value to make a quick name for the artist. Much of what is new and considered chic in the fine art world is based on shock value. I've seen several such examples in the same institutions that house world-famous paintings. At one of our country's finest art institutions, not only did I see paintings by Guercino, Monet, Seurat, Whistler and Cassat (to name just a few), but also a bar of used soap decorated with a spiral of hair. I guess it was hip or something—I just wondered how much they paid for it and who was the bigger fool (professing themselves wise...). The famous American novelist Edith Wharton once said “Another unsettling element in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before.” Since she died in 1937, she must have been referring to early 20th-century art and had no idea how much stranger art could get.

As discouraging as the state of most modern art can be, though, I like to remember that all things in our world can be redeemed through the power of our Savior. As Christians we need not fear art, but learn to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” ( II Corinthians 10:5 ) and “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8 ) So rather than focus on the dismal state of much of modern art, I like to think of the opportunity we have to grow up a generation of artists who desire to glorify God in our culture—and that is a marvelous destiny indeed.

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