A Little Child Shall Lead Them

A few years ago an unknown artist was showcased by the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts. Judges selected a watercolor entitled "Rhythm of Trees"-which displayed, they opined, "a certain quality of color balance, composition, and technical skill." The artist, it turned out, was a four-year-old child. How have we come to this point-where art critics cannot tell the difference between the work of a trained artist and the dabbling of a four-year-old child? To answer that question, we must understand that art expresses a view of the world, a philosophy. Through the history of art we can trace the way people's philosophy has changed. Join me for an imaginary tour of an art museum. Beginning in the medieval section, we see figures that are stiff and formal, set against gold backgrounds. This is art expressing an otherworldly philosophy of life. Next in our museum tour is the Reformation. Figures begin to look like real individuals instead of symbols. Reformation artists believed God could be represented not just by icons but by paintings of real human beings, who are made in His image. They also began to paint real landscapes, expressing their belief that the world has great value as God's creation. Around the same time came the Renaissance, which revived classical culture and inspired modern humanism. Renaissance paintings often show scenes from ancient Greek and Roman mythology. Next we come to the Enlightenment, the age of reason. Paintings show respectable figures in fashionable dress. Landscapes consist of neat, orderly fields. This is nature under the dominion of reason. But in the next room, the plowed fields give way to craggy mountains. Romanticism in art celebrates wild, untamed nature, the Noble Savage, ancient legends. Finally we come to the room housing modern art, beginning with Impressionism. During this period, art was taken over by subjectivist philosophies: Definitions of art shifted from the subject matter being portrayed to the way light strikes the artist's eye; from great themes of human drama to daubs of paint on canvas; from the objective standards of beauty to the artist's psyche. Expressionism and Surrealism probed still deeper into subjective experience. Eventually art lost sight of any objective standards of form and beauty. Art became defined as whatever an artist does. Today art has become so subjective that many people sincerely cannot tell the difference between works that have aesthetic merit and works that don't. Modern art museums might display a stack of bricks beside a van Gogh, literally unable to say why one is art and the other is not. This explains why the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts could be fooled into giving an award to daubs of paint by a four-year-old child. Without objective standards of form and beauty, even unformed, random marks on canvas can be regarded as art. Modern art seemed to make a promise: Free yourself from restrictive standards, and you will be truly creative. But the loss of standards has not liberated art; it has destroyed art. Just how much it has destroyed art, we will see in the next commentary.


Chuck Colson


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