This morning I ran across on old conversation between myself and a former online student concerning Modern Art (c.1890 – 1945). My student insisted that Modern artists were the first in human history to “think and create on their own” – without being told what to think by either the Church or the State.
Here is the quick response I wrote, but despite its informal (rushed?!) tone, it captures the essence of this student’s – and our society’s – collective misunderstanding of Christianity’s role in Modern Art:
Not trying to burst your bubble, but the truth of the matter is that most Modern artists painted either in defiance of religion (i.e., Christianity) or at the behest of the State (whether the Works Progress Administration and Rosie the riveter or the Nazis or Soviets or Fascists).
A protest of what many artists viewed as the bourgeois acceptance of religion (Communism and Christianity have difficulty coexisting!) led to much Modern art – so in essence, it’s just a 180 degree turn from embracing Christianity to rejecting it. But it is still very much the subject of Modern art – as is spirituality in general (think Kandinsky, Pollock, etc.)
So even though many of us now view Modern art as breaking free from the traditional ‘chains’ of the pre-Enlightenment era, it is really a simple rejection of what was, and a reiteration of Enlightenment ideas as the status quo.
That is why today we have so many ‘radical’ ideas that are in reality mainstream – body piercings, tattoos, environmental awareness/activism, pluralistic spirituality (Christians who yoga, Catholics who channel, Buddhists who take communion, etc.), legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage, etc. These ideas or practices are still labeled counterculture – but we all know that they’re mainstream: the polls show it, people are talking about them, they are common now.
It’s the same thing that happened in the Modern period – it seemed counter-culture then, and in many ways it was – but now we see that what the artists were doing were taking Giotto and Masaccio and Michelangelo and Rembrandt and Titian and Turner and Delacroix and Goya and Manet and Van Gogh and Gauguin and Cezanne – taking them to the end of the road – which is formalism – Pure Art.
You see, subject matter never changes. It’s the human condition. Either we’re being inspired by or rejecting religion, and the State either approves of us or censors us. The only difference in the Modern period is that they reached the end of the road with the formal consideration of Art. Those who came after are still struggling with this finality, along with the technological implications of pixels and alternate realities.
But the song remains the same and we’re all still being born, living life, and dying. And what Gauguin sought is ageless (Whence Come We? What Are We? Whither We Go?). It’s just that each age seeks in different ways, and from our vantage point 100 years later, it seems to our young eyes that the Moderns were the first artists to break free.
But they didn’t. Nor have the Postmoderns. Nor will whoever comes next, nor those after that.
Because we’re all humans, bound together by dirt and blood and air and water and the tick tock of time and the cry of new life and the wailing of life lost and the wonder of it all.
Didn’t mean to get overly philosophical, but I don’t want you to be deceived by the siren call of the Moderns – that they were the first to be really imaginative and free to create and to conjure up ex nihilo grand new ideas and feelings and experiences none of the rest of humanity had ever been privy to…