The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.

—Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible

I have taught art and humanities courses for many years; in fact, one of my current classes covers the span of 3,000 years of history told through the arts. Typically, when our studies enter the 20th century, the classroom commentary ranges from “that’s ugly” to “I don’t get it.” Occasionally, the comments are less kind, like “I painted like that when I was three,” but I caution against categorizing all modern art as ugly before we give it a chance to speak for itself. In his book Art and the Bible, Francis Schaeffer wrote that “Modern art often flattens man out and speaks in great abstractions.”1 Often, but not always. There is goodness, truth, and beauty to be found in many pieces created in the 20th and 21st centuries; there is even transcendence, if we give in to curiosity and take time to truly see the magic and the message. To aid your understanding, I have included the name of a significant painting by each artist as an easy reference while you read this essay.

Modern art is often used as a blanket term to cover any recent art, primarily visual pieces, that seem abstract, undefinable, or confusing. However, the true modern art movement is not a 20th century reaction to tradition. Critics and historians debate exactly when modernism began, often crediting Gustave Courbet, a Realist-era artist as the primary influence. Courbet created a sensation in France by painting the common man in everyday moments, rather than wealthy subjects stiffly posed in elaborate settings. While he may have been controversial in his day for his nudes, hunting, and ordinary landscapes, his claim to notoriety may be weak. Centuries prior to Courbet’s work, Rembrandt, Dutch master artist of the 1600s, painted similar images of hunting dogs, dead hares and portraits of street folk centuries before Courbet. Common to both artists is the penchant to paint more introspectively, rather than what was popular in their respective times. Rembrandt refused to imitate the popular classical and dynamic Baroque style, yet still retained the Christian imagery and chiaroscuro technique. Courbet was accused of painting the ugliness of reality and the lower classes in society. Both men pushed against established and valued norms in traditional art circles.

History does not include a proven pivot point where modern art began, but we can observe a slow change in the vision and purpose of what art would represent. Over the centuries, themes in painting and sculpture changed from da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” with its visual storytelling embedded with theological symbolism, to Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 work “Fountain,” the legendary urinal, signed “R. Mutt 1917.” Duchamp’s creation was displayed in a gallery as a “Readymade”—the term to describe “an ordinary manufactured object designated by the artist as a work of art.”2 Biblical themes faded into history as secular statement pieces came to the forefront.

Society, especially as it relates to the field of art, has moved from a desire for transcendent meaning to shifting relativism and from visual narrative to abstraction. Why is it that we have a visceral reaction when looking at modern art? Is it because it is fragmented and without meaning? The slow progression over the past 400+ years of human creativity shows us the important influences that set us on our pathway to modern art. The work of the pre-Renaissance artist’s vision demonstrated an outward purpose of religious revelation, piety, and reverence, which eventually changed to the 20th century’s inward purpose of the modern artist’s desire to focus on his or her personal statement and values. Historically, art and image-making reflected goodness, truth, beauty, and storymaking. The past century has revealed a shift to art for the sake of social commentary, with obtuse images of themes, media, and techniques representing individual meaning or as a protest piece for the artist. Does that render the art unrelatable or not even worth pondering? Why should we bother to try and understand?

For the purpose of exploration of the modern movement, we need to examine painting and sculpture, as well as the newer media of photography. In Visual Faith, William A. Dyrness writes, “Culture has made a turn toward the visual, and with the rise of new media, the visual image has come to occupy an unprecedented central place in our lives.”3 We should consider the modern importance placed on the visual “hit,” where the viewer is shocked into attention, versus a more cerebral approach where the reader is drawn into the classical piece to ponder its complexity, symbolism, color, and design elements. There can be merit in modern art; for example, some pieces tap into the techniques of the old masters during the time of the Renaissance. Stratford Caldecott dedicates entire chapters in his book, Beauty for Truth’s Sake – On the Re-enchantment of Education, to the mathematics and symbolism of the sacred numbers, irrational beauty, Fibonacci sequence, and golden ratios. Artists and architects have incorporated these principles into their work for centuries, creating visual stability. Those ancient design practices can be found in modern art as well. Caldecott writes, “Both Leonardo da Vinci and Piet Mondrian used such rectangles frequently in their paintings, and the [golden] ratio itself can be found governing the lengths of sections in many Beethoven movements.”4 At first glance, Mondrian’s painting Broadway Boogie Woogie (1943) looks like an assemblage of colored squares, but the artist used golden ratios to create a visually pleasing exploration of line and color.

Because our lives are inundated with images that challenge our senses and comprehension, we are inclined to dismiss any urge to study modern art. Viewing Pablo Picasso’s distortions and Jackson Pollock’s paint splatters challenges our imaginations. But understanding the purposeful design and motivation in modern art is worth the study. Some suggest that there has been a devolution in art in the 20th century. Certainly, signed urinals [Fountain, Duchamp (1917)] and geometric figures centered on the science of motion [Nude Descending a Staircase, Duchamp (1912)] were created to challenge our understanding of the purpose of creativity or even what defines an object as art. Dadaists, who included avant-garde artist Duchamp and photographer Man Ray, reacted against WWI and used art as objects of protest against cultural norms and traditions, challenging society to define art.

Do we feel ill at ease with modern art because it appears fractured, outside of creation, and irrational? There are many factors to consider before a quick judgment is made, for instance: subject, balance, color, line, texture, space/mass/volume, perspective, proportion, the influence of the sacred numbers, Golden Mean, Phi, and the Fibonacci sequence. Modern art explores the intersection of composition, color, and shape, so we can find beauty even in some abstract art because it was purposely designed. The paintings of Paul Klee [Twittering Machine (1922) and Ships in the Dark (1927)] appear cartoonish and random. Then you discover that “Klee was a natural draftsman who experimented with and eventually deeply explored color theory, writing about it extensively; his lectures Writings on Form and Design Theory, published as the Paul Klee Notebooks, are held to be as important for modern art as Leonardo da Vinci’s A Treatise on Painting was for the Renaissance.”5

Modern art has largely become a statement on culture or what is happening in society. The themes and images have morphed from expression and reverence and looking toward a creator to art that is meaningful only to the artist. Focus has shifted to how the artist feels, disregarding how other people are affected when looking at the piece. Many times, it’s all about “me, the artist”, not the Creator who inspires and who created us in His image, giving us the joy of co-creating as an act of worship. Art can be used as a political statement or social commentary, or perhaps spur society on to change. 20th century non-representational art is not only image driven; it is also theory driven and experimental, moody or playful, and challenging to comprehend.

Modern art was created as a reaction to the times in which the artists lived: the cruelty and suffering of WWI, The Dust Bowl and Depression, atomic war, industrialization, the worldwide rise of dictatorships, commercialism and loss of identity of the 1960s, and the secularization of societies once grounded in faith. The canvas was their sounding board where they expressed frustration with the status quo of art and society. And as those secular voices rose, the voice of the church that knew beauty and wonder stepped back into the shadows, removing itself from the cultural conversation instead of actively engaging with the progression of the arts. Christians find themselves poorly equipped to engage in the present conversation because they cut themselves out of over 100 years of the cultural arts movement. We do not frequent museums or value the visual arts, nor do we challenge younger generations to study the humanities and eras throughout history. John Skillen, author of Putting Art (back) In Its Place, writes, “Most of us remain poorly equipped by our own cultural training to seek out, or even to expect, let alone to understand, the relationships once at work between artworks and their architectural, liturgical, and narrative settings.”6 If we cannot speak the same language as the creators, we cannot understand what they create. The Christian voice has become culturally moot.

But I consider this a pause, not an end. Christian artists are once again engaging in the community of makers, not creating as had always been done, but with surprising abstractions and deeper meaning. Josh Tiessen7 makes his mark in Christian art by returning to the symbolism and hyper-surrealism, inspired by his definition of the “holy weirdness” in scripture and the works of medieval painter Hieronymous Bosch [The Last Judgment,(1482) and The Garden of Earthly Delights, (1515)]. Tiessen wrote, “In my escapades through art history, I’ve found many artists of faith who have integrated the wild and wonderful in their work. Perhaps we can look to them as guides, or at least conversational partners as we aim to reconcile an ancient faith with a postmodern world.”8 God spoke creation into existence. He spoke in representations of goodness, truth and beauty, not religious art. We live in His divine, three-dimensional masterpiece. A Christian artist does not need to concentrate on religious subjects to convey sacred meaning.

There are modern artists who embrace the abstract, a peculiar kind of illustration, using unusual and rare materials as a reflection of the priceless design that our Creator used in creating us.

Makoto Fujimura, founder of the International Arts Movement, Fujimura Institute, and co-founder of the Kintsugi Academy, has been connecting his Christian faith with modern arts culture for over thirty years. I encourage you to study his paintings, especially his Four Holy Gospels.9 Mako approaches his work as a spiritual necessity, connecting with God’s inspiration to create pieces that reflect the intersection between awe and wonder with scripture and nature. He believes that “artists are the conduits of life, articulating what all of us are surely sensing but may not have the capacity to express.”10 The act of making guides us into a richer understanding of God’s grace, mercy, and love as we become co-creators with Him here on earth.

How do you begin to understand the complexity of modern art? Find a museum with galleries displaying the work of modern masters, including Salvador Dali’s Surrealism [The Persistence of Memory] and Jackson Pollock’s immense canvases of splattered and streaked color and dimensional texture. You will gain a deeper appreciation of the artist’s media technique and the subtle touches in color and brushstroke. Pollock’s work is an expressive deep dive into emotion and color. Ask the docents for interesting facts. Oftentimes, they share obscure insights! I stood in front of Pollock’s Number 1 (Lavender Mist) (1950) at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, and asked the docent what he thought of the painting. He smiled and pointed out a burnt cigarette and raisin stuck in the paint and an unfortunate cockroach that had plowed itself into the wet media to become part of the work. At that moment, Pollock’s studio became a real place to me.

Is all modern art ugly and unredeemable? Certainly not. There is order in what first appears to be chaos. Modern art explores the intersection of composition, color, and shape to make even abstract art feel as if it makes sense. On the other hand, during a visit to the Museum of Modern Art at the NGA, my young daughter walked up to a large metal box surrounded by perforated metal and tossed in her candy wrapper. In her defense, the sculpture looked like a trash can. Some art demands a herculean effort to understand and appreciate.

What does modern art ask of us? Patience. Curiosity. A sense of wonder about the artist’s voice and what is expressed in the work. Christians must find a way to integrate back into the art scene— not taking over, but reestablishing our place in the creative conversation. A helpful step to that end is to familiarize yourself with what feels like strange territory. The bibliography of this essay will provide texts to help you navigate through the ideas shared here. We need not be intimidated by the modern art movement.

May we steward well what the Creator King has given us, and accept God’s invitation to sanctify our imagination and creativity, even as we labor hard on this side of eternity. May our art, what we make, be multiplied into the New Creation.

— Makoto Fujimura, “A Benediction for Makers,” Art + Faith

Notes:

1 Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 90.

2 Tate Museum U.K., Marcel Duchamp “Fountain” 1917, March 18, 2024. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573.

3 William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith-Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 156.

4 Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake-On the Re-enchantment of Education. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009), 67.

5 “Paul Klee”, Tate Museum, accessed February 28, 2024. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/paul-klee-1417#:~:text=Klee%20was%20a%20natural%20draftsman,for%20modern%20art%20as%20Leonardo.

6 John Skillen, Putting Art (back) In Its Place (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2016), 219.

7 If you would like to learn more about Tiessen’s inspiring life, art, and exhibitions, please visit his website: https://www.joshtiessen.com/.

8 Josh Tiessen, “A Call for Weird Christian Art,” Ekstasis Magazine, February 2024. https://ekstasismagazine.substack.com/p/a-call-for-weird-christian-art.

9 Makoto Fujimura, Four Holy Gospels, historic commission of paintings rendered as illuminations commemorating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, 2011. https://makotofujimura.com/art/portals/four-holy-gospels.

10 Makoto Fujimura, Art + Faith (Yale: Yale University Press, 2020), 107.