What is “Christian Art,” and Does It Have a Slant?
Calvin Seerveld, professor Emeritus at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, thinks Christian art does have a particular slant. In his book A Christian Critique of Art and Literature (CCAL), Seerveld defines art as “the symbolical objectification of certain meaning aspects of a thing, subject to the law of allusivity.” In simpler terms, art is the imaginative symbolization of reality. For example, Van Gogh’s The Countryside Near Auvers does not simply represent a beautiful field. This painting catches symbolically, or represents in an imaginative way the true meaning of that countryside according to the vision of Van Gogh.
You might already disagree with this definition of art, but allow me to plow forward and offer Seerveld’s definition of Christian art, which has a particular slant. According to Seerveld, Christian art has a particular style that captures the grace of God amidst a fallen and broken world, imaginatively symbolizing the sin and joy in the theatre of God’s glory. Seerveld draws on the example of Rembrandt’s The Carcass of an Ox, which illumines the dignity of a slaughtered ox while still recognizing the necessity of this act in a fallen world (CCAL, 60). Seerveld also uses examples such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literature and the music of Black Spirituals to exemplify art in which sin is not flippantly dismissed but points to the transformation of sin and brokenness through the grace of God. As a negative example, Seerveld mentions a lack of Isaiah 53 and Romans 8 (passages that take sin seriously yet point to redemption) in Mozart’s music; Mozart tends to push the power of sin and redeeming grace under the rug (CCLA, 68).
What can we make of Seerveld’s Christian philosophy of art? One may start with his definition of art itself. Is it too specific? What about the art of Jackson Pollock? Does his dribbling on the canvas represent the symbolic objectification of reality, or is it art simply by being dribbling on a canvas and nothing more? According to Seerveld, however, the production of art requires an object, concept, or any piece of data from our experience in this world, as well as a symbolization of the data’s meaning. But if art does not involve imaginative symbolization of reality, what is it?
In regards to Seerveld’s perspective on the particular slant of Christian art, other problems arise. First of all, there is the problem of using “Christian” as an adjective. If any art that has a unique blend of sin and grace can be labeled “Christian art,” then couldn’t everybody be making “Christian art?” On the other hand, would it not be entirely possible that Christian artists could be failing and making “non-Christian art?” Second, is it really the case that all “Christian art” needs to present both the Fall and Redemption? What about works of art that focus primarily on sin, and others that focus primarily on redemption? Is it still the case that the entire corpus of an artist’s work should imaginatively symbolize the reality of God redeeming a broken world?
There are obvious problems with Seerveld’s Christian philosophy of art, but nevertheless I think he raises great questions, and I admire his boldness. Instead of drawing this out further, I would love to hear from you. If Calvin Seerveld is off regarding the particular slant of Christian art, then what is the difference between the art Christians make and the art non-Christians make? Is there or should there be any difference? Why or why not? I look forward to your thoughts!