Art and Mind Games

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.


  • Sara Schumacher is the editor and a regular contributor to Transpositions. Prior to life in academia, Sara worked as a graphic designer in Oxford where her experience as an artist and a Christian raised many questions, ultimately leading her to pursue further study in theology and the arts at St Andrews. Sara holds a B.S. in Graphic Design and an A.A. in Cross-Cultural Services from John Brown University and has recently completed an M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD at St Andrews, focusing on church patronage of the arts.

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  1. says: Anna

    Sara, i’ve been reading Alvin Plantinga’s “Advice to Christian Philosophers” and it’s sort of wonderful to me how your article resonated with me in light of it.

    In one place, Plantinga says:
    “So the Christian philosopher has his own topics and projects to think about; and when he thinks about the topics of current concern in the broader philosophical world, he will think about them in his own way, which may be a different way. He may have to reject certain currently fashionable assumptions about the philosophic enterprise-he may have to reject widely accepted assumptions as to what are the proper starting points and procedures for philosophical endeavor.”

    One wonders whether or not we all need this advice? whether a philosopher or an artist. and whether it is applicable to the artistic endeavour? What is interesting is that I don’t think it challenges your reticence to develop “Christian art” as a discrete movement but rather explores the mindset of the individual artist moved and challenged who (as you say) “believe[s] in God as our Creator and the Holy Spirit as our Inspiration” and consequently “striv[es] to create art that engages humanity in an accessible way.”

    1. says: Sara

      Thanks for the comment, Anna, and for broadening the discussion into other related realms! I do think that we all do need such advice and perhaps encouragement to pursue awareness of the ‘widely accepted assumptions’ and then have the courage to break with them. And while we all need to be reminded and challenged to be aware, I wonder if there is a special role for artisans to bring to attention those assumptions, visualise them to some degree, and help the wider community to fashion new starting points. What do you think?

  2. says: Ben

    Not particularly relevant to your post’s main topic, but I found it strange that the Guardian review of the book painted it so radically differently than the New York Times review I happened to have seen a few days ago. The latter review opens with a story from the book about cannibalism. The link is here:

  3. says: Bruce

    Might not Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire have some purchase here? (His idea is that human culture is predicated upon “mimetic desire” — ie that we desire what the other person desires, and thereby value something and ascribe meaning to it.) The idea that the pleasure derived in modern art is not primarily sensory, but rather a referred value or “mental” pleasure is tenable, I think, on Girard’s thesis. But the problem Girard points out is that mimetic desire almost invariably leads to competition and eventually a “contagion of violence” as the chaos of covetousness descends on the tribe. That modern art might have at its core this problematic pleasure is intriguing to me given the fact that much of modernism grew out of a response to and even participation in the one of the bloodiest centuries on record.

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