Is Art Really about Self-expression?

My wife Megan and I were on a date in an establishment that provides three-hour painting sessions with general instruction. From across the room, I heard the teacher reassuring a student, “Art isn’t about rules. It’s about being free and expressing yourself.”

As I struggled to paint a realistic forest on my canvas, I thought about how cavalierly the instructor had just rejected and accepted whole philosophical systems without a moment’s consideration. Let’s consider how this teacher’s philosophy of art developed, before drawing some conclusions.

A Delicate Balance

Traditionally, visual artists were only tangentially concerned with self-expression. Art critic Kenyon Cox (1856-1919) explained that artists of the Western tradition prior to the nineteenth century used art to communicate Truth (i.e., universals, ideals) and traditional ideals to the public.[1] Therefore, artists were more concerned about movingly depicting the grand ideals of humanity—justice, duty, honor, faithfulness, courage, and so on—than they were about portraying their personal feelings or thoughts.

In order to communicate well, artists spent years training under masters, honing their craft and learning the rules of art. During their training, they learned the essentials of communicating with excellence. They learned to “balance realism, the depiction of natural appearances, with idealism, the effort to communicate large ideals that move and enrich” the viewer.[2] If either emphasis dominated, the artwork suffered, and the artist’s ability to engender virtue in the viewer faltered.

The Dutch Renaissance master Jan Steen’s Feast of Saint Nicholas (1665-68) provides an excellent example of this balance. Steen’s painting portrays a Dutch family gathered in celebration on a holy day. However, Steen didn’t photographically represent the commotion of a Dutch Renaissance home (realism). Nor did he present a stiff tableau of familial relationships (idealism).[3]

Instead, Steen depicted the Truth of family by using the space in his painting to guide our eyes and thoughts.[4] Diagonals connect the family directly, such as the line that connects the heads of the grandmother in the right foreground to the young girl, grandfather, and finally the mother in the left background.

However, Steen moved deeper, showing the complex interrelationships of families by interweaving these lines in complex patterns. The mother who is holding the shoe connects the boy, crying on the left, to his sister who has been teasing him. In addition, he is connected with his baby sister holding the nutcracker in the center foreground playing with their grandmother. This relationship is further deepened by the line of sight of the grandmother and grandfather converging on their granddaughter in the foreground.

All of these relationships are ultimately tethered to God. The holy day celebration is the cause of this gathering. In addition, the father and son in the right background are pointing and calling to someone above their heads and outside the frame of the painting.

The final result is a well-balanced painting. The family is both universal and familiar. In this artwork, viewers see the ideal family full of love and comfort with countless overlapping shades of relation. Yet the family is approachable. This is what all families strive to be, and perhaps at our best we achieve.

Steen’s message requires the rules and structure of painting. In order to communicate ideals, the artist needs to interpret, organize, and present them in an understandable and moving way within a tradition that people understand.[5] However, artists began to abandon this balance of realism and idealism after the Enlightenment.

Enlightenment Optimism

During the Enlightenment, literary figures and philosophers excluded divine revelation from their search for universal Truth and relied on reason alone in this pursuit. They hoped, optimistically and yet foolishly, to reproduce the individual freedoms of eighteenth-century England without the Christian doctrine of responsibility before God. Their thinking strongly influenced the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) rejected Christianity’s claims about morality. Instead, he argued that people should curb their desires only as much as society required. Under this paradigm, the final good of life is complete autonomous freedom from restraint. Ideally, this freedom would be reflected in the will of the majority (General Will).[6] However, Rousseau’s theory has a dark side. Anyone who differs from the majority opinion must be forced to embrace the “freedom” of the General Will. Thus, the majority became totalitarian.

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) portrayed Enlightenment optimism in stunning works of art, including The Tennis Court Oath, 20th June 1789 (1791). In this painting, the Third Estate is taking an oath to form democratically a new constitution and government. The arms of the crowd are raised in triumph and point to the lone figure in the center of the room, who stands reading the oath with his hand raised. Here, David portrayed the republic as the universal truth that gives reason to life.

Realism and idealism are still balanced in this late eighteenth-century painting. However, the optimism of the French Revolution quickly devolved into the murderous chaos of the Reign of Terror and then the totalitarian rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. At the same time, artists and philosophers began to lose confidence in knowable Truth beyond the material universe.

Disillusionment Leads to Self-expressionism

After the French Revolution failed to deliver on the promises of autonomous reason, philosophers and artists drifted toward pessimism. Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel (1770-1831) posited not Truth but synthesis. As a result, enthusiasm provided the meaning for existence.[7]

Artists followed Hegel’s pessimism by first rejecting universal ideals in their art. However, without universals they had only the material universe. For a while that seemed enough, but by the end of the nineteenth century, the Post-impressionists were left with only their own voices crying into the nothingness.

Francisco Goya was one of the first Realist artists, who portrayed the universe as a closed system without universals. [8] His The Execution of Spaniards by the French, 3 May 1808 (1814) shows men fighting in the street without any sense of honor. There are no heroes or villains under this dark sky, simply men executing other men like animals. No one in this painting is concerned about judgment, justice, or morality. As Rookmaaker says, “The sky is closed.”[9]

Impressionists like Pierre Auguste-Renoir (1841-1919) went further, rejecting classical or religious subjects in their art. Instead, they depicted modern, urban, middle-class social life and leisure activities. In this way, they emphasized the momentary and banal over the transcendent and exemplary.

Additionally, they pushed beyond Realism by portraying unfocused visual experiences, using myriad, short, broken brushstrokes to depict light reflecting off the material universe into the artist’s eyes. Renoir’s Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) exemplifies this movement, focusing on the dappled light filtering through the trees and resting on the clothes of the partygoers.

This was the first time in history that artists used light to blur and corrupt the structure of things. Artists before this time “would have thought that this falsified reality,” because reality for them had cohesion and meaning.[10] Impressionists rejected all ideals, even the notion that the material world was ultimately knowable beyond sensory experiences.

With nothing but experience to build on, art became individualistic self-expression. The Post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) painted not what his “eyes saw, but expressed his feelings, his experience when confronted with reality.”[11] These personal statements of intense emotion provided Hegelian validation for life.[12]

By dismissing accurate depictions, Post-impressionists masked many artists’ poor technical ability.[13] As a result, Cox argued that most Post-impressionist works were so “poorly executed” that they were unlikely to communicate the artist’s feelings fully or accurately.[14] Without discipline, artists couldn’t actually fulfill their stated desire to communicate their individual feelings.

When artists abandon the rules of art learned through training, art becomes self-gratification. Art critic Frank Jewett Mather, Jr. (1868-1953) aptly summed up this change in art, saying, “Already art had been reduced to a vividly quick transaction between the individual soul and nature. Now nature is abolished and the soul communes spasmodically with itself.”[15] Thus, Post-impressionists turned art into a means of raw self-gratification, rather than a medium of communication.


Solomon writes, “A fool does not delight in understanding, But only in revealing his own mind” (Prov. 18:2, NASB). Seemingly, Solomon is talking about rejecting discipline for self-expression. Could this not also apply to art? If art is truly only about free self-expression apart from rules, then art is a fool’s errand. However, art is not foolish.

We need to reclaim a classical or traditional understanding of art. Art should convey universal ideals received from God and tradition. Such idealism needs to be balanced with excellent natural representation in order to communicate well. Many Christians have adopted (mostly unwittingly, but sometimes consciously) a modern understanding of art, because the world treats any other view as backward and ignorant. We needn’t cower under such insults.

Artists from earliest antiquity to the Renaissance maintained that art taught virtue in form and content. We should be happy to stand with them.


[1] H. Wayne Morgan, Keepers of Culture: The Art-thought of Kenyon Cox, Royal Cortissoz, and Frank Jewett Mather, Jr. (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1989), 42.

[2] Ibid., 43.

[3] H. R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, 2nd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), 24.

[4] Ibid., 24.

[5] Morgan, 43.

[6] Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture L’Abri 50th anniversary ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), 155.

[7] Ibid., 162-63.

[8] Rookmaaker, 52.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 83.

[11] Ibid., 94. Depth of emotion was the point, rather than specific emotions. Sometimes van Gogh expressed deep joy (see The Sower [1888]), but his personal despair (he committed suicide) is palpable in many of his paintings, including his many self-portraits.

[12] Morgan, 124.

[13] Not all Post-impressionists were technically poor artists. Some, like van Gogh were extremely talented and disciplined in their approach.

[14] Morgan, 42.

[15] Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., “The Present State of Art”; quoted in Morgan, 124.

Author: Phillip Morgan

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