Saturday, March 7, 2009

Truly Beautiful or Beautifully True?

Francis Schaeffer said that art must have Truth and Beauty. Touring the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis with my relatives today led me to wonder: is there truth and beauty in modern art? 

I used to believe that modern art was rubbish, no exceptions. The piece that began to change my mind was Frank, by Chuck Close, at the MIA. When I first saw it at the end of a long gallery, I thought for sure that this monstrous (108 in. by 84) black-and-white picture was a photograph. As I walked slowly through the gallery, the picture loomed above me. When I finally reached it, I was shocked to see that it was a regular painting on canvas. Looking closely, I could see the minute brushstrokes. The other pieces in the room were Andy Warhol and Roy Liechtenstein--empty pop art with no deeper meaning and certainly no truth or beauty. This piece was different. The hyper-realistic style was quintessentially modern, like the other artworks in the room. What was different? 

This painting had truth. This religiously accurate reproduction of an 8 by 6 photograph writ large was undeniably truthful. It did not embellish, beautify, or change the original photograph. Yet it was not a copy. While the photograph was an emotionless, perfect reproduction of a scene, the painting is flawed. I could find no flaws in the painting, but I'm sure if I looked hard enough I could. These flaws are the cracks on the Mona Lisa, the missing body parts of the great Greek and Roman statuary. Without them, the artwork would somehow be inhumane. One of the definitions of art is that it must be an object created by human endeavor. Another definition could be that it must be flawed. There is nothing like perfect art. Art created by imperfect humans has no perfection; its glory is in the fact that it reaches towards perfection. Frank is a unique painting; a unique project of human endeavor. It has no heavy handed symbolism; no references to something familiar, no pleas to be acknowledged, no obvious meaning. We measure the meaning of something against other objects or ideas. Frank should not be judged meaningful against another piece of modern art, or a Rembrandt. Instead, these things should be judged against Frank. It is a touchstone, it is a fulcrum, it is a lever. It has truth. Francis Schaeffer would be proud. 

Truth, however, is only one half of Schaeffer's bicameral definition. To be true art, Frank must be more than true. It must be beautiful. But beauty is subjective and truth is not, right?   Or is it? Beauty, in a way, is truth. In the postmodern world, truth is being made "open to variant interpretation" to use pop psychobabble. In other words, meaningless. The prospect of truth with no meaning is, on a deep level, incredibly frightening. The prospect of a sinful mankind living with this philosophy is far worse. This degradation of meaning has already began, and will continue. Beauty, however, has always been "subjective." I may think a piece of music or an artwork is beautiful, and anyone else may disagree. I think this is because there is no self-evident beauty as there is self-evident truth. Perhaps beauty exists on a deeper level, and humans contemplating the beauty value of something are only judging one part of a whole too great for them to comprehend It is undeniable that there is a "layering" of meaning in this universe. The human race is, after all, six and a half billion variations on a single theme; like Monet's water lilies or the a musical scale in a Bach fugue. Each of Monet's water lily paintings, each part of a fugue offers a slightly different interpretation of its theme. So it is with humans. We who are slightly different variations on God's eternal theme see things in slightly different ways from one another. So, confronted with something that is beautiful at its core, one of us might feel that it is ugly whereas someone else sees it as beautiful, but not for the reasons it is truly beautiful.

I see Frank as a beautiful work of art. And it is, in fact, a real work. I can only imagine how many long hours and painstaking attention to detail it took to produce this painting. You may disagree with me. As variants on a theme, this is our curse and blessing. Spiritually, this means that we are not called into mindless uniformity of faith. God is the ideal of beauty and truth, which humans cannot fully perceive. In creating us, the Artist made us unique and different in one another. We do not sacrifice that when we throw away the sinful nature and run to Christ. In fact, the sinful nature is conformity and alien to our uniqueness. We do not strive to surrender our identity to God. Instead, like every great work of art, we are destined to become one with the Artist. How can one define Monet's paintings without Monet? How can one define Man without God? It is the latter fallacy, which underpins the idea of denial of God, which has led to the slow, frightening abandonment of truth I mentioned earlier. I can hardly imagine anything more frightening. Perhaps the endpoint of this horrifying downward spiral will be the cue for the sounding of the last trumpet. "Come, Lord Jesus, come!" 

Until I saw Frank, I believed unconsciously that artists had forsaken true art right about the time of the death of Monet. I saw no beauty or truth even in the pre-modernist works of Picasso. Looking through the Walker, I believe that truth and beauty are rare in art. The scarceness of modern pieces in the Walker that I felt had both truth and beauty is not necessarily part of an abandonment of the qualities of true art, but rather a continuation of the status quo: there is art, and then there is beautiful and true Art. This has been going on, I believe, since at least the beginning of western civilization and will continue. Then again, I believe the rotting of truth has led to a much higher ratio of art that is not Art in the modern era. I have some horror stories about meaningless pieces in the Walker. One painting was an rectangle of canvas covered entirely in black paint. That was it. It took ten minutes. No beauty, no truth. Another piece was a mishmash of geometric shapes in green, blue, and yellow. The title? "A View of Cape Cod." Please, a 6-year-old could have done it. 

No piece stuck out at me like Frank did at the Institute, but I had to acknowledge that truth and beauty were present at the Walker, rather like a tantalizing zephyr of spring. Which, coincidentally, is just around the corner. Stuffy human artists have tried for thousands of years, but they haven't come up with anything yet as tantalizing, truthful, and beautiful as spring. They never will. That's why the Master Artist deserves our love and devotion; more than the salvation he has offered us, the beauty and truth he has blessed us with.