Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Art?

How do Christians think about contemporary art and the gospel while remaining committed to the rigorous practice of successful artmaking or theorizing? Are these two often-contradictory pursuits possible?

Lately, I have been thinking hard about these questions. A paradox at best, I am an artist, historian, critic, wife of a pastor committed to Reformed theology, and—most importantly—a follower of Christ. I recently read D. A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited. Although an unlikely source, Carson’s book provides serious insight for considering contemporary art (art made post-1945 to the present) in light of this tension between the secular and the scriptural. As the book title suggests, Carson explores the intersection between Christ and culture—”a system . . . by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life” (205). Carson begins by critiquing Niebuhr’s seminal text, Christ and Culture (1951). He then discusses the relationship between Christ and culture to biblical theology, postmodernism, and the separation between church and state. In conclusion, Carson explores six methodologies Christians have used to come to terms with secular culture.

One example caught my attention, what he calls “minimalist expectations,” a stance perpetuated by historian Darryl G. Hart and other scholars. Carson echoes this perspective in saying that we ought not speak about “redeeming culture.” As Carson explains, “if we lose the unique significance bound up with the redemption secured by Christ in his death and resurrection, we lose the ongoing tension between Christ and culture that must subsist until the end” (217). However, he acknowledges that “improv[ing] and transform[ing] some social structures . . . may help . . . thousands develop a countercultural way of looking at all reality under the Lordship of Christ [and it can] sometimes . . . produce wonderful work that inspires a new generation” (218). Ultimately, we must test each approach to culture against Scripture, specifically biblical theology as seen through the pivotal turning points of: creation and the fall, Israel and the law, Christ and the new covenant, and a heaven to be gained and a hell to be found.

Carson does not advocate that by putting on biblical theology glasses the intersection between Christianity and the secular world suddenly becomes clear. Instead, he suggests that looking to Christ first effectively works out how we live in our specialized horizontal spheres. Carson mirrors Paul’s prescription in Colossians 3: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God . . . put off the old self with its practices and . . . put on the new self.” Beginning with an eternal focus allows us to rightly align our worldly passions and pursuits to the desires of Christ.

Carson’s caution about the “minimalist expectation” of Christ and culture does not demonize Christians who attempt to merge the gospel and the arts; instead, he gently reminds them that all study must be subordinate to the lordship of Christ. In fact, he acknowledges that “doing good to the city . . . is part of our responsibility as God’s redeemed people in this time of tension between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet'” (218).

Dividing Point

With these thoughts, Carson provides a helpful diving point for the Christ-follower who is also a professional artist or art historian. How does this tension between the “already” and “not yet” play out in our lives?

1. We recognize—and embrace—this tension. We abstain from figuring out ways to fix or “redeem” contemporary art but instead accept it. Likewise, we don’t ignore the art world but instead pursue Christ within it so that others might come to know him through the relationships we build with members of that community.

2. We must understand our role as ambassadors of Christ within that tension. Daniel Siedell, writing in God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (2008), encourages Christian artists and intellectuals to realize and embrace their “homelessness” or their set-apartness (123). As specialists in an already specialized field, he maintains that we stand out from the rest of the art world but remain committed to that world; again, we are not called to isolation but instead tension or discomfort within the confines. 

3. Therefore, we make art well by the standards that have been set forth in academia, art history, and the art world. We diligently pursue art that is subordinate to the lordship of Christ while working in a secular sphere. Because our Creator made good, perfect, and beautiful art that surpasses the highest forms of artmaking in this world, we should emulate him and make critically stimulating work that values craftsmanship and conceptual thinking over mimicry, kitsch, or market-based trends.

4. We stop avoiding contemporary art out of suspicion or fear. If creation and general revelation reflect the Creator, then there is merit—somehow—to contemporary art, even if not easily ascertainable. 

5. We, as Christian intellectuals, must teach and discuss art within secular art institutions while reflecting the gospel in our lives as we proclaim the good news. We must think strategically, searching for alternative narratives for theorizing and writing about art, while remaining committed to object-based analysis. These narratives must be shaped by the Scriptures as seen through the pivotal moments of biblical theology. At the same time, we don’t isolate ourselves in the ivory tower of academia, but instead use our position as artist or art historian and Christ-follower to creatively foster spiritual growth within the church.

By embracing this tension and placing the gospel first in our pursuit of visual art, we might discover the benefits of contemporary art within its specialized field.

  • MF

    Who’s afraid of contemporary art? I’ll admit that I am. :-)

    Modern and contemporary art is impenetrable to me. I’m happy to be a rube in this respect.

    Now, I’m not totally ignorant. For a summer I studied Renaissance art in Italy, and I enjoyed seeing the progression from the Byzantine style of Cimabue to the more realistic work of his student Giotto and the other Quattrocento artists on into the High Renaissance of Leonardo, Michaelangelo, and Raphael (sorry, Donatello). To a lesser degree, I have studied some other art, such as that from the Dutch Golden Age and the likes of Rembrandt.

    Yet I still can’t grok modern art. My art teacher in Italy said that modern art is the internal and psychological externalized, not the external and objective world represented, as in pre-modern art. That makes sense, but it doesn’t make me like it.

    Likewise I can’t get on board with the attraction of evangelicals to the modern art of Makoto Fujimura, who has been praised and featured on the Mars Hill Journal, interviewed by Challies, and promoted on Justin Taylor’s blog (to name a few). I was interested in getting his illuminated manuscript of the Gospels — until I saw it. Yuck. The gospels are sullied by his chaotic, displeasing art.

    Stephen Colbert spent virtually a whole episode on contemporary art — much of it satirizing its redonkulousness. The whole episode is funny, but here are the best clips: his two-part interview and quiz of comedian/actor/art collector Steve Martin.

    I also watched this interesting documentary called Exit Through the Gift Shop (it’s free to stream if you have Amazon Prime). Here’s a summary. In short, it’s about street artists taking the art world by storm. In it, one gets a glimpse behind the creative process of modern artists and how value in the art world is arbitrary. It is an indictment of the whole enterprise, IMHO.

    The absurdity of contemporary art is apparent in my favorite (as in “love to hate”) piece of performance art that graced the halls of MoMA — “Marina Abramovic’s Silent Sitting at MoMA Reaches Finale” (the title says it all). See also the more personal reflection of this art in “Sitting With Marina.”) And note that this is in the New York Times, not some free and whacky arts mag.

    • Chris Julien


      I think we’d have a great conversation if we were to chat in person. Any chance you live in Philadelphia? :)

      I highly recommend to you “Irrational Man” by William Barrett. It’s an exploration into existential philosophy, but the initial chapters contain wonderful insights on the transition from pre-modern to modern times, and he writes about art specifically. It may put some more meat on the bones of what your teacher in Italy said to you.

      I studied art under an excellent Christian professor during college, and also studied in Rome for a semester :) Couldn’t get enough of the works of Caravaggio and Bernini around every corner…

      God bless!

      • MF

        Thanks, Chris. Alas, I’m a long way from Philly.

  • Dean P

    MF: Are you defining “Modern” as a particular time period of art or are using the word in a literal since?I’m just curious because if you are using it in a literal sense it’s a pretty broad and diverse category for you to reduce it down as much as you are.

    • MF

      I’m using “modern” as basically synonymous with “contemporary” in the sense of “modern” in MoMA.

      I should clarify — not all modern art offends my aesthetic sensibilities and/or strikes me as absurd and/or non-art, but so much of it that is well-loved by others does (e.g., Abramovic and Fujimura) that I feel okay generalizing by saying I don’t like modern art and that the modern art emperor has no clothes. :-)

  • David

    The real problem isn’t with modern art per se, it’s with the idol of self-expression that is rampant in the art world which has also sadly permeated much of the Christian art world.

    • http://www.christianvagabond.com Christian Vagabond

      All human communication is self-expression. Your post is self-expression. Renaissance Art is self-expression. You can’t divorce the creator from the creation.

      • MF

        Sure, but not all self-expression is of equal value. That’s my point.

        • http://www.christianvagabond.com Christian Vagabond

          Who gets to decide what self-expression is of value? You can’t just say “God,” because you’ll get a million interpretations as to what kind of self-expression God approves of.

          • MF

            Aesthetics is a branch of value theory, along with ethics, and could be explored along those lines, but in short, I don’t have a good answer for which forms of self-expression are of objective value other than by what pleases God, which I don’t have much access to. Some works may be of subjective value, and for me, most modern art has little to no subjective value.

          • MF

            As a postscript to this discussion, Notre Dame’s Gary Gutting has a piece over at the NYT’s philosophy blog called “Mozart vs. the Beatles” that explores relativism in aesthetic judgments and the gap between “high art” and “popular art.” Here’s the gist:

            “[G]iven the standards fans [of popular art] use to show that their favorites are superior [to other expressions of popular art], we can typically show by those same standards that works of high art are overall superior to works of popular art. If the Beatles are better than the Stones in complexity, originality, emotional impact, and intellectual content, then Mozart’s operas are, by those standards, superior to the Beatles’ songs. Similarly, a case for the superiority of one blockbuster movie over another would most likely invoke standards of dramatic power, penetration into character, and quality of dialogue by which almost all blockbuster movies would pale in comparison to Sophocles or Shakespeare.

            “On reflection, it’s not hard to see why — keeping to the example of music —classical works are in general capable of much higher levels of aesthetic value than popular ones. Compared to a classical composer, someone writing a popular song can utilize only a very small range of musical possibilities: a shorter time span, fewer kinds of instruments, a lower level of virtuosity and a greatly restricted range of compositional techniques. Correspondingly, classical performers are able to supply whatever the composers need for a given piece; popular performers seriously restrict what composers can ask for. Of course, there are sublime works that make minimal performance demands. But constant restriction of resources reduces the opportunities for greater achievement.

            “Looked at this way, the superiority of high art is almost a truism….

            “[Some contemporary pieces] attract simply because they connect to what currently seems most vivid and fascinating; they speak to the ‘way we live now.’ Many of these reasons have little to do with the purely aesthetic qualities of the work. The same can be true of works of high art, which may attract us more as expressions of the artist’s personality or as evocations of a fascinating age than for their aesthetic merit.”

          • MF

            Here’s another piece of non-art on display at the MoMA. This is a respectable piece for a science or children’s museum, but not for an art museum.

  • http://www.worldsendimages.com Ned Bustard

    I have been involved for two decades with an excellent organization which is trying to speak to both the church and the art world. It is called CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts – http://www.CIVA.org) and I recommend it to anyone interested in studying this topic more. Also, my publishing company, http://www.SquareHaloBooks.com has released many books on art and faith. Our book “It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God” has been used in many art programs across the country. And this November we are releasing a new book called “C.S. Lewis and the Arts.”

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  • Sarah, Winnipeg, Canada

    Thank you so much for writing such a clear and intelligent article. I wish more Christians would be brave enough to enter the art world, and not sequester themselves away in the “Christian art world.”

  • Martin

    MF, thanks for pointing out Makoto Fujimura – I really like his work.

    I am reminded of a favorite Superior, WI / Duluth, MN artist I know, Sterling Rathsack. I was very taken with his biographical series. When I asked him why he painted faces with so many colors – purple, blue, orange, yellow etc…, he said “because that’s what I see”.

    I very much prefer looking at a work of art that exposes secrets in objects and subject matter that I would normally not perceive. I want to see things in a new way; learning, appreciating and understanding more than what we usually know as reality – because there is so much that we miss in through our limited perspectives. Of course, not all modern art does that. But, much of it does.

    However, whatever we create (be it visual art, poetry, music) should reflect the truth and beauty of God. We should keep in mind that we are not all alike in how we perceive.

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  • http://www.redcape.com Mark Allen

    Such a difficult topic to address in a thousand words or less! I applaud the reminder that there is merit in all art, even if it’s hard to find. I also appreciate the encouragement to acknowledge contemporary art instead of hunkering down in churches plastered with Thomas Kinkade wallpaper and limited edition throw pillows. Overall the author does a great job of balancing out a number of extreme views. However, I can’t help but wonder how she is using a few words.

    What exactly does it mean to “embrace” the tension of contemporary art? Especially in light of her encouragement to emulate God’s creative genius (often seen as objectively beautiful) and to create work that “values craftsmanship and conceptual thinking?” Many contemporary artists, art historians and philosophers of art would immediately object to such a narrow definition that invokes the necessity that art must *do* anything.

    I also wonder what institutional “standards” she has in mind, because standards of any kind were automatically seen as suspect in my art school experience – despite being surrounded by some of the most artistically opinionated people I’ve ever met. With this, Mrs. Adams seems to assume an institutional theory of art but, over the very short span of the article, she appeals to several opposing theories – all hotly debated standards in their own right.

    These debates aside, I think it’s the more obviously nonsensical works that most critics of contemporary art are “afraid” of (as the title of the article suggests) and it’s unfair when dissenters, who are justifiably unimpressed, get automatically written off as uncultured simpletons just because they disagree with the contemporary art establishment. There’s a lot of really spectacular art being made right now, but there’s also a lot of junk out there. Though Christians would do well not to dole out so many rash, uninformed opinions about contemporary art, I think it’s important to leave room for calling a spade a spade (or a urinal a urinal) because there’s a difference between qualified subjectivity and blind relativism.

    Mrs. Adams has offered some great things to consider here, it’s just that this is one of those supremely complex situations when giving five simple steps, points or characteristics gets you into trouble really quickly. This comes as no surprise since attempts to define art itself have suffered the same frustration. But I’m sure she would have much more to say given a different context. I’m convinced that this difficulty is one reason why the simplicity of the relativistic aesthetic found within contemporary art circles is so attractive. I am equally convinced, however, that this same difficulty will prove to be most fruitful when efforts are set on finding the sweet spot in the tension between art, beauty and the Gospel – which is exactly what Mrs. Adams is attempting to do.

    • Sarah, Winnipeg, Canada

      Hmmmm. Well said, Mark Allen. Perhaps Mrs. Adams should write a more expansive article. I would be very interested in reading more.

  • AStev

    I’m pretty critical towards a lot of contemporary art, but I do like Makoto Fujimura because his work contains real beauty. It doesn’t strike me as chaotic any more than the mountains or woods are chaotic, which is to say, perhaps only on a passing glance.

  • Trevor Minyard

    Everyone just google “Banksy” and realize that contemporary art is a lot cooler than you think.

    • MF

      Banksy made and appears in the film Exit Through the Giftshop, mentioned above. It details the transition of guerrilla street art and graffiti like Banksy’s to high art sought after and paid for by collectors, and it shows how silly and arbitrary modern art can be (n.b., not “universally is”).