Together, the man and woman ascend the granite steps to the art museum. It’s early in their dating relationship, and though they are new to one another, they share old ideas. They also know they are in for something quite interesting, to put it mildly. The exhibit focuses on American art produced during and following the year 2000.
Together, they walk through the galleries filled with paintings and sculptures, machines and contraptions; videos projected on walls, ceilings, and floors. They are both fascinated and horrified, though not radically so. They knew what to expect.
Still, they maintain their composures, but each can sense what the other is thinking. Quick glances say as much as many words would.
“I should change careers,” she quips in a low voice. “I could do this. I could make money at this.”
He wisely reminds her that the pretension that such an endeavor would require would be soul-damaging, that her principles would ultimately not allow her to maintain such a farce.
Sometimes, to their surprise, they see pieces that are truly thought-provoking. One in particular captures the woman’s attention. In a series of videos looping on a screen, a mother films her small child as he wanders in a field. As he gets further away, to the point of almost vanishing, viewers suddenly witness the mother running after him. The display of maternal instinct and care speaks to the woman. Perhaps truth is there. Still, the man and woman wonder if this is art. Does it take skill? Does it both delight and instruct, as all good art should? Or is it just a visual think piece?
Not all of the exhibitions, though, are so restrained. Some, frankly, are outright disgusting, obviously divulging the artists’ desire to shock and to “rile up” their audience. Often, intentionally or not, the artists mock what they purportedly revere. One exhibit in particular is meant to celebrate womanhood, but its use of violent reds, torn fabric, and, shockingly, bodily fluids belie this intent. The woman feels nausea creeping upon her as she looks at the assault; the gloominess stays with her when she recalls what she saw.
Throughout each room of the exhibit, with each piece and in each description, beauty is absent. Chaos and confusion rule. Colors and shapes are mixed incoherently; balance and proportion are abolished entirely, a veritable fever dream for the man and the woman.
However, in the midst of this confusion, the howl of dogma is clear. The man recognizes that each piece “invites” the viewer to ponder some message, typically of a neo-socialist sort.
“Can’t you see how terrible capitalism is?” one demands.
“Who are you to question my self-constructed identity?” another snaps.
The description placards add to this chorus and are somehow worse than the pieces they explain. In them, the viewers can hear the sanctimonious questioning, the sneering invitation to cast off the shackles of traditional thinking and of the traditional understanding of humanity and society.
Art has never needed so much explanation in order for the audience to “get it.” It teaches, but it fails to delight, and, in actuality, it is a poor instructor, requiring the preaching of the placards to get the point across.
Absolute egalitarianism is the incontestable lesson of the sermon. The pieces insist that the viewer be totally aware of his privileged status, that he feel guilty for it, and that he be converted to hate the society in which he lives because of it.
The man recognizes that, in many ways, these artists have become the Victorians of the day, believing that anyone or any concept in disagreement with their assumptions is inherently immoral. They blush at what is truly good and beautiful and replace it with what is shocking and ugly for the sake of their own moral superiority.
Perhaps, though, some of these artists aren’t so concerned with “message.” In some instances, pure self-expression is the sole motivation for art. These libertines could hardly care less about what their audiences think or value. Being true to their own primal instincts and desires is all that matters.
The man and woman know that each work, whether by nouveau Victorian or self-expressionist, displays the artist’s worldview, with or without a clear or discernable statement. Often, the form of these works renders their content indecipherable and obscures their intent. No wonder, then, that didactic description placards are necessary.
Ultimately, though, these artists are simply reflecting what they have come to believe about the nature of reality:
There is no truth.
There is no meaning.
There is no real reason for human life.
There is no beauty beyond what is in the eye of the beholder.
There is no purpose altogether, only struggle.
Despite everything, the day hasn’t been wasted. The man and woman take what they have witnessed seriously. They do not callously disregard the artists’ statements. Instead, they know they must respond carefully and compassionately to the culture around them.
As they reflect on their experience over a good cup of coffee, they conclude that, regardless of all the shock, the chaos, and struggle on display, their first and strongest emotional response to the exhibit is sadness: sadness for people who don’t know the truth or who actively combat it, sadness for people who truly believe that there is no meaning in life, sadness for people who ignorantly or pretentiously praise these works as products of genius.
Together, the man and woman dissent. They dissent from the ideas the art communicates. They dissent from the form used to present those ideas. So they’re back to their original question:
“Where was the beauty?” she ponders aloud.
“Where was the delight?” he responds.
Failure on both fronts, they conclude. What they have seen is, really, not true art but false art, the art of ideological tyranny, art that holds one at the tip of a sword and demands complete reverence. True art, instead, requires no such brutal force. Its inherent delight winsomely convinces its audience of the truth it teaches. Its beauty needs no smug explanation or demand.
Together, the man and woman react. They know what they believe about the nature of reality:
There is truth.
There is meaning.
There is a reason for human existence.
There is a universal ideal of beauty.
There is purpose in hopeful struggle.
They know the whole story. They recognize that the West did not suddenly accept this cultural farce. They are aware of the perpetual struggle between renaissance and decay, between the rediscovery of absolute truths and rejection of them. They’ve read Francis Schaeffer, H. R. Rookmaaker, and Roger Scruton.
“What is the solution, then?”
“Laud truth, love beauty, pursue goodness. Critique with the grace of a well-informed mind. Produce excellent culture that, by its nature, gently but powerfully challenges the status quo.”
“Question the idea that Christians must adopt contemporary artistic mores to reach the world around them. If the form of false art can’t convey false ideas well, it certainly cannot communicate truth.”
“Question the idea that Christians should form their own micro-culture; one separated from the culture at large; one that affixes crosses or fishes or Christian slogans to paintings, songs, or t-shirts and calls them good; one that produces culture for the faithful only.”
“Realize that art and culture matter. As beings made in the image of God, humans have been tasked to be ‘sub-creators,’ to make paintings, sculptures, poetry, music, and books that reflect the beauty of world God has created, of the eternal truths found in Scripture, and of the order He has given to the universe.”
Together, and most importantly, the man and the woman know the end of the story. Christ, the Redeemer who gives life and establishes truth, is renewing all things. Through Him, His people can take part in transforming culture by understanding art and by creating excellent art that faithfully represents lives and views transformed by the Holy Spirit to be like Christ.