On Sunday, 20 June, the Guardian posted an article titled, ‘Why Modern Art is all in the Mind,‘ reviewing a forthcoming book titled, ‘How Pleasure Works’. The book argues that there is no such thing as pure aesthetic judgment – our preconditions and perceptions form what we believe and feel about a work of art rather than the work of art itself. The author takes it one step further and suggests that the art we collect is motivated less by what we like and more by how we want others to perceive us to be. The author uses as an example a Picasso painting that was sold at auction just this past Thursday. It sold on the lower end of what was expected – £31m – but, as the author of the book comments, the previous value of the work had plummeted because of the suggestion that it had been looted by the Nazis. The author’s point is that despite the paint on canvas not changing, the value of a work fluctuates in line with its public perception. The author believes the same dynamics of perception happen in traditional art — while ‘any dope can marvel at a Rembrandt’, only a few have the special expertise required to appreciate modern art. From his perspective, ‘Humans are incapable of just getting pleasure from the way something looks.’
As I’ve reflected on this article, my thoughts turned to the impact public perception of ‘Christian’ art has had on both its creation and reception. On a whole, we are told that ‘Christian’ art is bad. I don’t know how many times I’ve read about its sub-par nature aesthetically or how many times I’ve been told by Christians who are artists that it’s not professionally (or financially) viable for them to align themselves with ‘Christian’ art. They fear being linked with what they perceive to be sentimental, saccharine, and thus inauthentic art.
And yet, if the basis of this author’s assertions are true, then could it not be that the public perception of ‘Christian’ art gets in the way of how we receive it? Do we come with a bias before we even consider a work? I must admit that I do not enter a church exhibition with the same anticipation as I would going to the National Gallery or Tate Modern. At the former, I find myself coming to prove my thesis that Christian art has such a long way to go. At the latter, I find myself anticipating the discovery of how far art has come. And while my expectations might be fulfilled in both categories, I wonder what would happen if public perception were different.
This perception, I think, negatively impacts how artists who are Christians engage with the Christian worldview in their work. I think that many have decided that they shouldn’t (for fear of the label) before they even try — I know I have. And as a result, there is never any legitimate reason for public perception about ‘Christian’ art to change. I am not advocating the development of ‘Christian’ art (I think there are many problems inherent in using ‘Christian’ as an adjective – perhaps for a later post), but the reason why any ‘dope can marvel at a Rembrandt’ is because the subject matter taps into something eternal, making it accessible to us as humans, rather than furthering an elitist view towards art where only a select few can fully engage. Surely, as Christians who believe in God as our Creator and the Holy Spirit as our Inspiration, we should be striving to create art that engages humanity in an accessible way.