Sunday, February 25, 2007

Art Appreciation and Christian Values

I have no formal training in art theory, so readers will forgive me for these erratic thoughts as I try to piece together a coherent thesis.

I have, of late, developed an appreciation for the Art Deco period of illustration, design, painting, and sculpture. I have described it as "a geometry of clean, crisp lines drawn in broad, sweeping gestures" that makes no pretense of subtlety or attempt to mask its aesthetic yearnings. It is not in any way ashamed of being beautiful. But there are many different kinds of beauty, and Art Deco (and to a large extent its parent movement, Art Nouveau) is one in particular: elegance. Elegance is the glorification of the elite -- of refinement, poise, and finesse -- and seen as qualities of the upper tier of society.

As I've developed this appreciation for the Art Deco and Art Nouveau movements, I have at the same time been bothered by certain values conveyed by them. They glorify and even deify science and technology as the saviors of humanity. And perhaps most disturbingly, they idealize wealth -- that to be rich is the best of all possible worlds. This idea, of course, stands in sharp contrast to Christian values. One cannot be both wealthy and a Christian. 'Wealthy' is a subjective term, and I suppose that as a Christian grows richer, s/he tends to define the term ever upward. But whatever we may definitively nail down as 'wealthy' is alien to Christianity. And yet Art Deco glorifies wealth, suggesting that one should not be ashamed of being rich.

Let me provide an example of the contrasting concepts of beauty in Art Deco and Academicism. This is Young Shepherdess Standing by the Academic Neoclassical master William Adolphe Bouguereau. Depictions of barefoot peasant girls were among Bouguereau's most common subjects. He idealized the lifestyle of the poor rural Frenchman, attributing Edenic qualities to the agrarian lifestyle. This shepherdess is not an icon of beauty for her splendor and grace, but for her simplicity. The fact that she smells like sheep and will lose most of her teeth by the age of 30 is unmentioned. Bouguereau suggests that true beauty is found not in wealth, but in poverty.







Now a contrasting image: This is Dancers by Art Deco sculptor Demetre Chiparus. These are not peasants, but the wealthy elite of society. The woman is not dressed in a converted flower sack as the peasant girl above is, but a carefully designed and tailored gown. She wears high heels, an item of fashion which prevents a person from engaging in manual labor (and is therefore a conspicuous display of wealth). The couple is engaged not in an effort to create food and clothing, but an economically useless activity: dancing. This sculpture is a rejection of Bouguereau's concept of beauty, and instead replaces that definition with one of wealth and high social class. Both images express beauty; both define them very differently.

So am I moving away from Christian values by appreciating a movement which highly esteems wealth (Art Deco, Art Nouveau) instead of one that highly esteems poverty (Academic Neoclassicism)? Ah, but here is where the ethical formulation gets complex! The Bouguereau in question was produced once and is worth millions of dollars, whereas the Chiparus was mass produced and is worth thousands of dollars.

So a century ago, a profoundly wealthy person might have had one of Bouguereau's peasant girls hanging on his wall. He might think to himself "If only I were a simple peasant, without a care in the world, instead of having to worry about my many investments all hours of the day!" And a middle-class person might have a Chiparus knock-off (or maybe an original) on his mantle and say to himself "If only I were rich, dancing without a care in the world, instead worrying about the mortgage all hours of the day!" The rich glorify the poor, the poorer (comparatively, but not absolutely) glorify being rich. To each, the grass is always greener on the other side.

So even though Art Deco glorified wealth, its decisive element was not a particular concept of line and form or color, but mass production. What makes Art Deco Art Deco is that it was produced in vast quantities by machines. There are exceptions, of course, such as painters whose work could not mass produced (until the advent of clever businessmen like Thomas Kinkade). Whereas once art was the sole possession of the very wealthy, thanks to the tools of capitalism, it is now available to everyone. Art Nouveau and Art Deco represented the new Age of Capitalism -- when the rising tide lifted the boats of all people, most especially the poor. Capitalism invented the middle class, which took advantage of its newfound wealth to access the arts once restricted to the elites. And that's a good thing, because being poor sucks.

Still, these movements glorify wealth, though they make art accessible to the non-wealthy. Its predecessor did not glorify wealth, but was only accessible to the wealthy. Here is a reflection of one of the ironies of Christian ethics. We are told to give our resources to the poor so that they may no longer be poor. But what if we succeed and the poor become rich men stuck in the eyes of needles? We are told that greed is evil, but greed is the essential motive of capitalism, which among all economic systems does the most good for the poor. Christian objectives and the means to achieve them seem to be in conflict.

Now I've written myself into a corner as my attempt to synthesize my faith and my aesthetics is still fuzzy. This is a work in progress. What do you think of the ideas that I have put forth here?

14 comments:

bob said...

John, I don't think Christianity and wealth are at odds. The problem as I see it with wealth is if it consumes your time and thoughts making it an idol to be worshipped.

Dan Trabue said...

You stated at your linked site (about being poor):
"If there's a problem, it isn't that America uses so much energy; it's that most other nations use so little..."

And you went on to aver that you were serious in making this statement. I find that hard to believe, but let me just respond to this, if it's not too far afield (I think it does relate to the topic at hand).

Would you say of the person who is spending more than they make that the problem is that other people are not also spending more than they make?

We are spending more energy than we can continue to make. We're living beyond our means and spreading garbage and toxins in our wake. How is that an ideal to be emulated?

John said...

Bob wrote:

John, I don't think Christianity and wealth are at odds. The problem as I see it with wealth is if it consumes your time and thoughts making it an idol to be worshipped.

I'll let the Bible do my talkin':

Mat 19:24: Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Mar 10:25: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Luk 18:25: For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Mat 6:19-21: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Mat 6:24: No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other You cannot serve God and wealth.

1 Ti 6:9-10: But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. Forthe love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

1 John 3:17: But whoever has the world's goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?

John said...

Dan-

I wrote in response to hypventilating protestors whose efforts are directed not at lifting the world's poor out of poverty, but reducing the world's rich to poverty. But making the rich poorer will not necessarily make the poor richer.

What I am proposing is that other nations use their natural resources and more efficient (and cleaner!) power sources as the United States and other developed nations have. The problem is not that we are using our natural resources very efficiently; the problem is that other nations aren't. Our efforts should focus on lifting up these poor nations by developing their economies.

We are spending more energy than we can continue to make.

How is that even possible? How can we spend energy that we do not have?

We're living beyond our means and spreading garbage and toxins in our wake.

Are we? Quick: would you rather drink tap water from

A. USA
B. Nicaragua
C. Zaire

Your answer will indicate what nations have problems with toxins and garbage, and which don't.

Michele said...

I've often enjoyed this blog but I've never left a comment before. I decided to comment now because I'm one of those rather rare creatures - a Methodist who lives in poverty.

Please forgive my presumption, but from my perspective this conflict between Art Nouveau and Art Deco is a bit bogus. This Bouguereau portrait is lovely. And it has almost nothing at all to do with poverty.

The subject is certainly a poor woman. But her poverty is idealized beyond recognition. Her skirt is made from a flour sack, but with Bouguereau's artful shading and slight blurring, it looks graceful and pleasant. There is no hint that it may be so rough as to be painful to wear. Her top, the little we see of it, reminds me of a very comfortable blouse I owned about twenty years ago.

The background is peacefully idyllic. No evidence here of the tiny shack she would call home. Only a couple of smelly sheep.

The only indications we have that she is poor are her feet, and the way she holds herself. Her feet are a trifle swollen, probably because she stands all day. She cannot afford shoes. The way she stands, leaning on her staff, suggests that she is tired and that her feet hurt her a bit.

But all in all, this picture celebrates simplicity, a very different thing from poverty. As far as it concerns poverty it portrays it as a rich man might like to envision it - simple beauty with little pain.

As for the Art Deco piece, personally, I like it better. Heck, I like all Art Deco. And not because it glorifies wealth. I enjoy the clean, geometric lines and the simplicity of it. And I like this sculpture for more personal reasons.

The main cause for out family's state in life is that my husband suffers from crippling arthritis and a host of other ailments. Yesterday I heard a minister say that when he gets to Heaven he wants to play second base. When I get to Heaven I want to finally dance with my husband.

I apologize for the length of this comment, but I want to say one last thing about the Christian ethics part of your post. In my experience Capitalism is not the most helpful economic system for the poor. That would be socialism. Not the communistic variety but the pure socialism that has seldom been practiced at all, and never on a large scale. Capitalism is better than serfdom or communism, but that's not saying much. What poisons it is precisely the greed that makes it possible. If this greed is carefully regulated and controlled, capitalism can be made to work for the poor. But when greed is allowed free rein, as is happening in our society now, capitalism eats us alive.

I live in Collin County, one of richest counties in the country. It's also one of the toughest places to live if you're poor. If you need proof that wealth and a Christianity are basically at odds, you should come here. If the gospels had recored none other of Christ's sayings, the verses John quotes above would prove that He was very wise about human nature.

John said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Michele. Bouguereau, if he were alive today, would wash your mouth out with soap if he heard you call him an Art Nouveau painter, but I follow your point. His depictions of rural life are nowhere near reality. I point out the bare feet because all of his peasants have bare feet -- and always clean. In utter contrast to all reality. But such were the Romanticists.

Capitalism does not work perfectly. It just works better than anything else. And capitalism works best when the people within that system are motivated by a large measure of mercy -- that is, where people feel morally but not legally obligated to help the poor.

Christianity and wealth are definitely at odds, and it is to the shame of the Church that it does not often directly call it a sin.

Anonymous said...

I dont want to get into the religious argument. I just want to say that I don't think that the figure you show "dancers by Chiparus " is by Chiparus at all. This is a modern figure produced by a foundry in California, I think, which also produces Preiss figures which Preiss never sculpted!! You wont find this figure attributed to Chiparus in any reptutable auction catalogue nor in Shayo nor in Catley.

Anonymous said...

Art Nouveau and Deco are entirely different forms. I find wealth is at odds with Christianity myself and have finally accepted I'm not a Christian, simply because I've learned what's behind Art Deco and still love it.
My book is entitled, "Invisible Temple," and I'm still in the process of writing it, but it's a solid argument, from the mouths of those involved, that Are Deco is part of an Invisible Temple that the Freemasons are building for non-masons, with the inspirations from the Kingdom of Nimrod and the City of UR, 4,000 years ago.
-Brandon H. Mohago

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feelings said...

Christianity and wealth are at odds but only to a certain extent. To be wealthy certainly does not mean you are not Christian and in order to be a christian does not mean you cannot be wealthy. Mat 19:24: Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." This is the story of the rich young ruler of course you already knew that. Whether Jesus meant the camel going through the gate in the wall at Jerusalem or a rope going through the eye of a needle or even if he actually meant it as he stated it an actual camel going through the eye of a needle, he closely followed with the statement that it is not impossible with God. God wants us to be blessed and live in true prosperity, after all he did come that we might have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). The problem with SOME rich people is their unwillingness to let go of what they do have. They become greedy, selfish, prideful and they trust in their money. They literally become slaves to money, trying to obtain and maintain it by any and every means. If the rich young servant would have been willing to give up everything he had and put God first over ever aspect of his life and mainly in this passage his money, God would have blessed him with 100 times what he had from the beginning. Mark 10:29-30: So Jesus answered and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for my sake and the gospel's, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time-houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions-and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first."

feelings said...

Jesus could have very easily yelled to the rich young ruler and told him this but if he would have told him then the young ruler wouldnt have acted on faith. Alot of christians these days believe that Jesus is calling them to be poor just like the rich young servant, but the truth is he has more in store for you that you can imagine, all you need is FAITH! We can honor God with our money. When we use our money to do the will of God, giving to the poor, tithing, etc.., we are honoring God. Read Malachi 3:10. God literally tells us to put him to the test! He says bring the tithes into the storehouse that there may be food in his Temple, and he will pour out a blessing that we will not have room to receive. Then he straight up, no way around it, no strings attached says PUT ME TO THE TEST! Crazy huh? have you put God to the test with your finances? or do you just listen to some preacher/teacher that you admire tell you that in order to take up the cross and be a true christian you have to be poor, and that money is the root of all evil. MONEY IS NOT THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL!! the LUST/LOVE of money is.The Bible says you cannot serve both God and money. It ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT SAY ANYWHERE IN PRINT that You cannot serve God with money. It actually says the exact opposite and if you read Malachi 3:10 you would very clearly see that.

feelings said...

Where did you ever read that Jesus begged? or Jesus was short on cash? Jesus' ministry was always funded and taken care of by God because of his faith. Did you know that Judas was Jesus' treasurer? John 13:29, and John 12:6. If your poor you don't have money, let a lone a treasurer, that sums up the whole you cant be rich and be a christian case. A lot of christians are in bondage to the devil in the area of finances, they actually believe the LIE that God wants you to be poor, just like alot of christians believe that God gave them some kind of sickness or disease or ailment to glorify His name and that God wants them to be sick to humble them and that He doesnt always heal. PRAISE GOD THAT THOSE ARE BOTH LIES FROM THE DEVIL AND THAT GOD, MY GOD, THE ONE AND ONLY GOD, THE SAME GOD THAT SENT HIS ONLY SON TO SAVE ME FROM EVERY EVIL THING, MY GOD THE KING OF THE JEWS AND THE ONLY ONE QUALIFIED TO BE AN ALL-SUFFECIENT SAVIOR DOESNT FIND JOY IN HIS SERVANTS BEING POOR OR SICK !! after all the Bible clearly states that the devil is the father of all lies, and that he came to kill, to steal, and to destroy, he is a devourer! hate to break it to ya brotha but poverty, along with sickness and disease are curses!! God is OUR provider! Phillipians 4:19: And my God shall provide ALL of my needs according to HIS riches and glory in Christ Jesus. He did not say according to my riches, he said according to HIS riches and glory. so are you telling me that God is limited in money and resources, i sure hope not. God calls us to help the needy and give to the poor. does he not? how can we give if we dont have anything to give? just say it. GOD IS OUR PROVIDER AND HE WILL PROVIDE ALL OF OUR NEEDS. Wealth and prosperity are a blessing FROM God!!! and when you cease to give and let your money overtake you and let it become a god in your life and take precedence over your relationship with God, you stop the blessing of God from flowing into your life and other peoples life. Proverbs 10:22: The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich, and He adds no sorrow to it. PRAISE God huh? The blessing is like a stream it flows and all of us are to benefit from it, but when you stop tithing and giving and start becoming greedy and selfish you stop the blessing from flowing by creating a dam and thats when stuff gets messy. When you stop doing the work of God and doing God's will with your money you create a dam. pretty much a bank account. your bank account is like a dam. the more you store up the less you and other people are going to benefit from it. Trust God and you'll have all that you need. Money aint a thing!!!! 2 Corinthians 8:9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich. take that one to the bank ! Just remember the blessing of the Lord is always going to be more than what you could ever imagine so do yourself a favor and stop underestimating God. MONEY IS A BLESSING FROM GOD AS IS HEALTH AND PROSPERITY . and being rich is not a sin it is actually a huge blessing. you can accomplish so much more for God by being rich than being poor! GUARANTEED FACT !!!! Psalm 103:2: Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget not all His benefits !!! I pray for you, may your eyes be opened, God bless you brahh!

feelings said...

Where did you ever read that Jesus begged? or Jesus was short on cash? Jesus' ministry was always funded and taken care of by God because of his faith. Did you know that Judas was Jesus' treasurer? John 13:29, and John 12:6. If your poor you don't have money, let a lone a treasurer, that sums up the whole you cant be rich and be a christian case. A lot of christians are in bondage to the devil in the area of finances, they actually believe the LIE that God wants you to be poor, just like alot of christians believe that God gave them some kind of sickness or disease or ailment to glorify His name and that God wants them to be sick to humble them and that He doesnt always heal. PRAISE GOD THAT THOSE ARE BOTH LIES FROM THE DEVIL AND THAT GOD, MY GOD, THE ONE AND ONLY GOD, THE SAME GOD THAT SENT HIS ONLY SON TO SAVE ME FROM EVERY EVIL THING, MY GOD THE KING OF THE JEWS AND THE ONLY ONE QUALIFIED TO BE AN ALL-SUFFECIENT SAVIOR DOESNT FIND JOY IN HIS SERVANTS BEING POOR OR SICK !! after all the Bible clearly states that the devil is the father of all lies, and that he came to kill, to steal, and to destroy, he is a devourer! hate to break it to ya brotha but poverty, along with sickness and disease are curses!!

feelings said...

God is OUR provider! Phillipians 4:19: And my God shall provide ALL of my needs according to HIS riches and glory in Christ Jesus. He did not say according to my riches, he said according to HIS riches and glory. so are you telling me that God is limited in money and resources, i sure hope not. God calls us to help the needy and give to the poor. does he not? how can we give if we dont have anything to give? just say it. GOD IS OUR PROVIDER AND HE WILL PROVIDE ALL OF OUR NEEDS. Wealth and prosperity are a blessing FROM God!!! and when you cease to give and let your money overtake you and let it become a god in your life and take precedence over your relationship with God, you stop the blessing of God from flowing into your life and other peoples life. Proverbs 10:22: The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich, and He adds no sorrow to it. The blessing is like a stream it flows and all of us are to benefit from it, but when you stop tithing and giving and start becoming greedy and selfish you stop the blessing from flowing by creating a dam and thats when stuff gets messy. When you stop doing the work of God and doing God's will with your money you create a dam. pretty much a bank account. your bank account is like a dam. the more you store up the less you and other people are going to benefit from it. Trust God and you'll have all that you need and them some. God wants us to be wealthy and happy and joyful. 2 Corinthians 8:9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich. take that one to the bank ! Just remember the blessing of the Lord is always going to be more than what you could ever imagine so do yourself a favor and stop underestimating God. MONEY IS A BLESSING FROM GOD AS IS HEALTH AND PROSPERITY . and being rich is not a sin it is actually a huge blessing. you can accomplish so much more for God by being rich than being poor! GUARANTEED FACT !!!! Psalm 103:2: Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget not all His benefits !!! I pray for you, may your eyes be opened, God bless you brahh!