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?