We Can Do Better: A Reply to John Starke

You may have noticed that The Gospel Coalition has recently produced videos and blog posts that explore the relationship between Christianity and the arts. For an evangelical Christian who loves the arts, I am encouraged to see some evangelical leaders taking the arts seriously.

John Starke has written just such a blog post, titled “Bad Art Doesn’t Exist Apart from the Good.”  There is a lot to admire about this post. Starke engages with a contemporary artist named David Shirgley (see right). He attempts a theological critique of Shirgley’s work by drawing upon Andy Crouch’s recent work, Culture Making (IVP 2008). Quite simply, Starke judges that Shirgley’s art is bad because he deliberately uses poor technique, and this does violence to the imago Dei. Human beings image God by making well-crafted culture and not by making crappy culture. I couldn’t agree more.

In several ways, however, Starke’s critique misfires. I have no need to defend Shirgley’s art, but, evangelicals, we can do better. I want to propose three ways that Starke’s critique, as well as conversations between evangelicals and the arts more generally, could be improved.  In a nutshell, I think we could be more attentive, more informed and slower to judge.

First, take a more open and attentive posture to the artist’s work.  Starke’s engagement with Shirgley’s drawings is almost entirely negative.  Although he recognizes the humorous quality of Shirgley’s work, Starke concludes that Shirgley has “…menacing motives. This is his underlying message: I could do some good art here, but I won’t, and you’ll like it.”  This is quite an accusation to level at someone. Rather than writing off an artist’s work as simply “menacing,” it might also be helpful to point to some positive aspects of an artist’s work.  For example, one could point out that Shirgley’s drawings represent human self-doubt and insecurity particularly well.

Second, take the time to be more informed about contemporary art. The central problem with John Starke’s critique is that he assumes Shirgley is a “modern artist.” It makes more sense to label him as a post-modern artist because Shirgley’s work is clearly shaped by developments in a post-Marcel Duchamp art world. Yes, Duchamp is that guy who put a toilet in an art gallery. He and other artists ushered in a form of art often called ‘conceptual art.’ Unlike traditional forms of art, the conceptual artist is more concerned with inducing self-reflection in the viewer than he is in crafting a physical object. This self-reflection could be, as it is in the cause of Duchamp’s toilet, a questioning of one’s assumed definition of art. In the case of Shirgley’s art, as Starke does note, one begins to question one’s assumptions about what it means to be human, and what it means to be an artist.

Third, don’t assume that you (and all of your readers) have a clear idea of what good art is. Now, I’m not saying that there is no such thing as good and bad art. But if one is going to judge that someone’s art is bad, then this judgment needs to be won with sweat and toil. If nothing else, more attention needs to be paid to Shirgley’s work than Starke gives it.

More importantly, Starke fails to recognize that conceptual art evades traditional ways of judging art. For conceptual art, the value of the work is not judged upon aesthetic properties but upon an aesthetic experience. An aesthetic experience might be the feeling of dizziness when looking over a cliff. The beauty of the waves crashing against the cliff is an aesthetic property. Shirgley doesn’t care that his drawings are technically bad because he knows they will be judged according to aesthetic experiences and not according to aesthetic properties. His drawings do include aesthetic properties, but they also induce certain aesthetic experiences when they are shown in a gallery or published in a book. These experiences might be categorized phenomenologically as disgust, confusion, hilarity, embarrassment, etc. Ironically, Starke’s response to Shirgley only shows how successful Shirgley’s art really is.

I offer these three suggestions not simply to Starke, but also to the wider evangelical community. The relationship between evangelicals and art would be much improved if evangelicals were more attentive, more informed and slower to judge.

PS: For a really great introduction to conceptual art, see Peter Goldie and Elisabeth Schellekens, Who’s Afraid of Conceptual Art? (London: Routledge, 2010).

Image used with permission from the artist.

13 Comments

  • Andrew Finden says:

    I read something recently which challenged whether we should even be talking of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art, but rather about how ‘successful’ it is.
    I think there’s probably some merit in that idea, though I think we probably can talk of how good or bad the skill or technique of the artist is (though this becomes much more subjective in post-modernism)

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Andrew, thanks for your comment. I think that it is possible to evaluate works of art, but I think that it is a very complicated matter. Your suggestion that one use the language of ‘successful’ seems to point to that complication. From a Christian perspective, I think it would be important to develop a concept of connoisseurship, which resists evaluative criteria that are wholly subjective or objective. I’m not saying that I could do that, but that’s where I would start.

    Do you, yourself, find the language of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art to be helpful? I find it almost impossible to avoid, but I also get frustrated when I see it used to thinly mask one’s prejudices or ideology (just to be clear, I don’t think that is what Starke is doing in his post).

  • Cole Matson says:

    Jim, I’m printing this out and putting it above my desk. You’ve hit my own weak points. Thanks.

  • Eric J. Kingsepp says:

    Thank you very much for this, Jim! As I said when I shared this link with our followers, you offer clear, practical, and (Cole’s right) humbling suggestions to help Christians be more open to what art has to offer. Of course, these suggestions aren’t just for the evangelical community: Everyone, especially all Christians who (rightly) value the wonderful truths of Christ’s revelation, can benefit from being “more attentive, more informed and slower to judge” the efforts at artistic expression that we encounter.

    I really think you provide here an important aid to the Church in its struggle and mandate to know the world in order to evangelize it. With the decline of Christianity in much of society, Christians of all flavors have largely neglected the creative and artistic in order to shore up the defense of the true and moral. As a result, we tend to treat art on a rather superficial level, missing opportunities to connect with other souls through artistic expression, and to find truth or edification in places we would not expect.

    Kudos.

    • Jim Watkins says:

      Eric, thank you for your kind words. Your suggestion that Christians sometimes treat art on a ‘superficial level,’ and that this in turn involves missed opportunities, certainly rings true with my experience. It encourages me to know that others also want to approach the contemporary arts with more charity and seriousness.

  • jfutral says:

    ‎”A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.” Mark Rothko

    “It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.” Mark Rothko

    ‎”Everyone wants to understand painting. Why don’t they try to understand the song of the birds? Why do they love a night, a flower, everything which surrounds man, without attempting to understand them? Whereas where painting is concerned, they want to understand.” Pablo Picasso

    ceci n’est pas un pipe, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Treachery_of_Images

    I’m not sure why Modern man has this unquenchable drive to create a quantifiable measure for art, other than to be able to exert power and authority.

    To entirely miss the point is such a tragedy. To do so authoritatively is just embarrassing (speaking from personal experience.)

    Joe

  • Beth Reitmeyer says:

    Jim – thank you for your thoughts! I think a lot of time people confuse “I like it” and “I don’t like it” with “good” and “bad.” I also think we need to step back and define “What is art?” before declaring it is good, bad, successful, unsuccessful.

    As you stated above, art can be many things – an idea, an experience, an expression, inspiration, a representation; it can be about itself; it can teach. Often the church focuses on art as representation, which can be critiqued by comparing the original object/person to the work as created via the artist’s craft/skills, and art as pedagogy, i.e., what it teaches us about God. If we judge a conceptual or experiential work by its representation and pedagogy, we may miss and/or misunderstand its meaning. This reminds me of the Biblical story of God sending Samuel to Jesse’s sons to anoint Israel’s next king. Samuel “looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘. . . the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.\'” (1 Samuel 16:6-7). It takes time to engage a work and to discern the heart of its meaning.

    And I see the imago dei in Shirgley’s drawings. The drawing posted here is a addresses how the value of a painting is assigned, and it’s not at a glance. Shirgley’s work shows us it takes time to comprehend value; small moments and decisions can have great worth and consequence. Often those moments, gestures, and people have greater value than we think and do not make sense to us. Shirgley’s craft reasserts these ideas. If his drawings were created using Leonardo da Vinci’s sfumato technique, they would lose a lot of their meaning. God created the great and the the small. Shirgley’s drawings remind me that Jesus taught us to consider of the “least of these.”

    One additional note: focusing on a work’s artistic and technical merits has one major pitfall: often the artist is glorified at the expense of everything else, including the divine. Consider Leonardo da Vinci’s work. Do we think about how great God is? Or do our thoughts turn towards how great Da Vinci was?

    • Jim Watkins says:

      Beth, thank you for these thoughts. I think you are absolutely right to point out the need for more Christian reflection on philosophical questions such as ‘What is art?’ The best book I know of that does this very well is Nicolas Wolterstorff’s ‘Art in Action.’ While it is both philosophically and theologically astute, it is also almost 30 years old. There is much that can be added to and critiqued in Wolterstorff’s book, and the contemporary arts are often a catalyst for new philosophical thinking about the arts.

      It is interesting that we often hold these assumptions about the nature of art uncritically and tacitly. One of the reasons that I like Shirgley’s work, and the work of other conceptual artists, is that it forces me to take a more questioning posture toward those assumptions.

  • David Taylor says:

    Jim, nicely put. I’m glad you tackled John’s piece. Two pennies I’ll add to the mix.

    One, concepts of artistic and aesthetic excellence, as you well know, are intensely contextual affairs–relative to historical time period, cultural context, geographic location, functional purposes, and so on. John appears to have no knowledge of this fact, at least from the contents of his post.

    Two, ad hominems are rarely effective means of critiquing the work of an artist. More often than not, such an approach presumes an extraordinarily comprehensive knowledge of the artist’s intentions for the artwork and concerns for life in general. Surely Shirgley’s work cannot be summed up and tossed off in such a short span of words.

    In the end, I’m afraid John Starke perpetuates the kind of lazy, and I hesitate to say this, but also ignorant, thinking about contemporary visual art (and the other art media by association) that only muddles the waters further for conservative Protestants. Worse, he comes across mean-spirited. And just a bit snobbish, I might add. But mainly I’d charge him with intellectual laziness. And quoting John Updike does not make him sound smarter; it makes him sound sophomoric.

    You were gracious in your response and appropriately so. For the moment I’ll take a different tack and be a little more blunt: he shouldn’t talk about things he doesn’t understand. At least not on the Gospel Coalition website. In public. In such a reckless, impudent fashion.

    There. I said it.

    • Jim Watkins says:

      David, thanks for this comment. I completely agree with you about the importance of context for making artistic and aesthetic judgments, and I also agree with your suggestion that ‘ad hominems are rarely effective means of critiquing the work of an artist.’ Thanks for adding these points to my list and for adding your (blunt, but insightful!) views to the mix.

  • jfutral says:

    I’m just tired of predictable Christian critics/cynics looking for the boogey man under every rock. There are a lot of artists who practice and believe that the truest expression of art is free from the bounds of technique. To them technique is something that gets in the way. Artists like those from the Bauhaus group or Rothko were drawn to the primitives and even children’s art because they seemingly just created without worry of technique while being clear with their expression. I won’t even get into the psychotherapy of Authentic Dance.

    Criminy,
    Joe “my own cynicism” Futral

  • John Starke says:

    Thanks for your response, Jim, and for your graciousness. My post wasn’t meant to be a full-on critique of Shirgley, but more of a somewhat humorous/fun piece on worldviews. If this was a real critical piece, it probably would’ve taken a different form—and probably a different author!

    However, I have liked Shirgley’s humor, despite his art, for a while. He’s quite a hot topic here in NYC. But the article in NYT mag was too much of a temptation not to show worldview considerations and problems in some of his statements. So his work was more of an occasion or hook, rather than pure subject.

    However, I will take issue with a few bits of your article. You have to be aware that no one can say all there is to say about someone like Shirgley’s art in 800-1,000 words and on a website like The Gospel Coalition. So I’m asking that you be gracious with those who write about art at TGC, since they are given limited space and have a limited audience. So maybe give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re a bit more knowledgable about the subject and the editors edit out what might be beyond the usual TGC reader. Though, I exclude myself in this qualification.

    Also (I’m assuming I won’t win you over on this point), I’m a Kyperian when it comes to society and art, so I’m not going make such a distinction between aesthetic properties and experience. I’m not suggesting formalism, but such hard distinctions is a false move, in my opinion.

    And I’ve had that John Updike quote waiting in the wing forever and if his reference to the Larry Flint trial is going to make me sound foolhardy and sophomoric, well, so be it—I suppose my Tom Wolfe allusion didn’t help either. Sorry, David Taylor.

    Thanks, again.

    • Jim Watkins says:

      John, thanks for reading my response, and for offering your thoughts. I appreciate the difficulty involved in writing about an artist’s work. There is often too much to say and too little space to say it in. I also appreciate that you have not written a ‘full-on critique’ of Shirgley’s work. 800-1000 words is a short limit (although, at Transpositions we try to keep our posts in the 500-600 range). I hope my response was reasonable given the context and nature of the piece.

      I greatly appreciate the recent willingness at the Gospel Coalition to engage with questions about art. One of the reasons that we created Transpositions was to encourage Christians to think more carefully and critically about the arts. I responded in the hope that I might contribute to the conversation on the Gospel Coalition, and encourage a careful, critical engagement with the arts.

      If your post really was ‘a somewhat humorous/fun piece on worldviews,’ it would have been helpful to signal this somehow to the reader. Having re-read the piece, I find the concept of worldview to be only implicit. Perhaps because I am not a regular reader of the Gospel Coalition, I did not pick up on what you were really doing.

      Even if that is the case, I’m not sure how fair it is to approach an artist’s work as an ‘occasion or hook’ if you do not clearly say to the reader that you are not really critiquing the artist’s work, but actually critiquing a worldview. I think the same sort of thing is going on in Nancy Pearcey’s book ‘Saving Leonardo.’ While I’m open to the idea that works of art may provide interesting illustrations of worldviews, I think that approaching a work of art as a way into conversations about worldviews hardly does justice to the art itself.

      At any rate, as you point out, we are probably coming from different theological perspectives on culture. So, I’m sure that there are some things we can happily agree to disagree about.

      I would be interested to know why you think the distinction between aesthetic properties and aesthetic experience would not work in a Kuyperian understanding of culture. From my point of view, conceptual art simply challenges pre-conceived (modernist) definitions of art by being a form of art that eludes them. Some people have subsumed conceptual art within a modernist view of art by seeing it as anti-aesthetic (the material gets in the way of the message), or by seeing it as simply a weird anomaly within a larger tradition. I’m happy with some form of an institutional definition of art, and, from this perspective, it is easy to incorporate conceptual art as entirely its own form of art alongside painting, sculpture, etc. As a form of art, conceptual art seems to specialize in aesthetic experiences rather than aesthetic properties.

      Thank you, again, for your comments. I do very much want to be gracious toward anyone I am critiquing, and so I will take your suggestion about how to approach the Gospel Coalition to heart. I hope that you and other writers at the Gospel Coalition continue to explore the complex relationship between Christianity, culture and art.

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