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What is “Christian Art,” and Does It Have a Slant?

August 25, 2010

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!

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. John Franklin permalink
    August 25, 2010 4:55 pm

    Thank you for the review of Calvin Seerveld’s book – he is an author that deserves much more attention. I want respond briefly to your remarks on “Christian art”. The blend of sin and grace that Seerveld calls for does in fact mean that non-Christians can do art that resonates with Christian sensibilities and a Christian is certainly capable of doing work that fails to resonate with those same sensibilities. It seems you are suggesting that for art to be Christian it is sufficient that the artist be a person of Christian faith. There is good art and bad art but whether the artist is a believer or not is not the test for art that is Christian.

    Another way to get at this – one I prefer- is that art at its best is trueful – and for a Christian this means noting somehow both the darkness and the light – sin and redemption, dispair and hope. Your counter example of “primary focus” on either sin of redemption – fits with what Seerveld is saying – it is having a thread – a glimpse of the other side – beyond the primary focus – that is important.
    The difference between art that Christians make and the art that non-Christians make has to do with the soil in which the art is birthed, the understanding of the world with gives it shape, the meaning or lack of it that drives the project, all of which the work itself may not disclose in an obvious way.

    John Franklin – Toronto Canada

  2. August 25, 2010 7:05 pm

    Thanks for your engagement with this post, John. I definitely do not want to suppose that being a Christians means you will make Christian art. What I am wondering is this: does all art that we call “good art” have to necessarily resonate with “Christian sensibilities?” Is art good to the extent that it is truthful?

    I like the idea of Christian artists having a soil from which their work grows, which resonates with one essay in the book that we recently reviewed in Transpositions that uses the metaphor of nurturing art and artists just as a farmer nurtures the fields.

    Thanks again for your comment.

  3. August 27, 2010 11:12 pm

    This is a topic I find fascinating. I’m not familiar with Seerveld’s work; but I am curious as to what criteria he uses to determine the “Christian-ness” of art. It does sound like, judging from the Van Gogh case, he considers an artists’ entire body of work in his assessment. It would be hard to label that Van Gogh painting “Christian” in and of itself. I’m not sure how he can argue that Mozart’s work “lacks” certain scripture passages — unless he is only evaluating Mozart’s compositions that include text.

    In response to Wes’ question about whether “good art” necessarily needs to resonate with Christian sensibilities: I think we need to acknowledge that there are different aspects of evaluating art. Technical soundness is one; content is another. There is definitely lots of technically great art that is not true according to biblical standards. Conversely, there’s a lot of art that agrees with biblical truth but fails technically.

    I think we can — and should — appreciate the technical mastery of an artwork that lacks biblical soundness, so long as we distinguish what part of the art we are praising and what part we disagree with.

    Thanks for bringing up this subject. I think it’s well worth careful consideration.

  4. August 28, 2010 6:57 pm

    Seerveld nuances and fleshes out clarifications to a lot of the questions posed here in many of his other writings, of course. CCAL skews toward the simplification required of publications written for a popular audience.

    I had many of the same questions when I read some of his other popular works, such as Rainbows for a Fallen World, and Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves. He directed me toward other essays, one of which brilliantly, albeit indirectly, addresses this dynamic tension between an acknowledgment of a sin distorted reality within the present reality of redemption and an unfolding new creation. The essay is called “Christian Aesthetic Bread for the World” and can be found in the journal Philisophia Reformata.

    Re: “What about the art of Jackson Pollock?”

    I think if pressed on it, Seerveld would acknowledge that “representation” operates in a variety of ways beyond just the symbolic. One of those ways, which I’ve adopted from the writings of W.J.T. Mitchell, is the index, or “indexical” representation.

    Mitchell writes that semiotics generally agrees on “iconic” representation as somehow relating to “resemblance” or some visual, or aural similarity. This is when what is used to represent one thing is actually crafted to look like, or sound like that thing. Mimesis is a common term used here.

    The “symbolic” would be representation by what Mitchell calls “arbitrary stipulation.” We all, as a larger culture or small sub-culture can come to some agreement that thing “x” will represent thing “y” in whatever context. For example, while there is no necessary connection between the Annunciation and open windows, lilies, or books, all of those things have become symbolic of the Annunciation.

    Indexical representation is exactly like CSI Miami and whatnot. When a person leaves a hair at the scene of the crime, while it does not either visually resemble that person in any arguable way, or represent them by social agreement, it does represent their presence at the scene of the crime (through a DNA match). It is an “indicator” of their presence, and thus a form of representation. (Mitchell, “Representation,” 4)

    The writings of Pollock and other action painters within the AbEx movement communicate their insistence that the mark-making they employ represents the presence and movement and intervention of the artist in physical space as it relates to the canvas and the materials used for mark-making. This would make the work of Pollock an example of an index, or representation by means of the marks becoming indicators for the thing being represented. So, the work of Pollock, is the “imaginative indexing of reality.” And I’d argue it’s the imaginativity involved (to use Seerveld’s term), that makes it art, as opposed to just statistics or some form of aesthetic forensics.

    So, I imagine, if pressed on it, Seerveld might say that art is “the symbolical, iconic, or indexical objectification of certain meaning aspects of a thing, subject to the law of allusivity.”

    And, on another note, his essay in CCAL titled “The Myth of Inspiration” is a real gem.

    • Jim permalink*
      August 29, 2010 8:17 am

      Dayton, thank you for this very helpful comment. Is there a good place to start in the writings of WJT Mitchell if one wanted to understand the idea of indexical better? This notion of index is interesting to me.

    • August 29, 2010 10:49 am

      Thanks for the fascinating remarks on Pollock and indexical representation, Dayton. This highlights the way ‘imaginativity’ or ‘allusivity’ functions in a variety of ways within the artistic process. I am glad to hear that Seerveld addresses these issues elsewhere, and I look forward to reading the essay you mentioned.

      On a related note re Pollock, what would be your perspective on looking for the imaginative representation of sin and grace in his chaotic canvases? Is this a legitimate way to attempt to interpret these paintings?

  5. August 29, 2010 9:41 pm

    I’ve included the (somewhat long) link to a PDF of Mitchell’s essay “Representation” at the end of this email. This is the essay that I’ve referred to specifically, and also includes a number of suggested readings at the end of the essay. The essay itself is part of a collection of essays called Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (Chicago, 1990).

    Another good book is his The Language of Images. A description: “A remarkably rich and provocative set of essays on the virtually infinite kinds of meanings generated by images in both the verbal and visual arts. Ranging from Michelangelo to Velazquez and Delacroix, from the art of the emblem book to the history of photography and film, The Language of Images offers at once new ways of thinking about the inexhaustibly complex relation between verbal and iconic representation.”

    RE: On a related note re Pollock, what would be your perspective on looking for the imaginative representation of sin and grace in his chaotic canvases? Is this a legitimate way to attempt to interpret these paintings?

    To respond to your second question first, I generally start with the presupposition that we live in a meaningful world, and that that meaning finds its genesis in the God who has ordered reality in meaningful way. So, yes, I think it’s always legitimate to engage works of art by utilizing a lens that frames artifacts in terms of the narrative arc of the dramatic narrative revealed to us in scripture. However I’m also adamant that we pay close attention to the narrative that the artist constructs. It is all in play, variables and visual characteristics overlapping with an infinite number of nooks and crannies and permutations, so we should love the artist by accounting for their perspective to whatever degree is possible.

    Was Pollock attempting to represent sin and grace in any deliberate way? I don’t know, but I’ve never read anything to that effect. However, if we look at the Genesis narrative regarding creation, we see a God who takes that which is “formless and void” and begins to order it, layer by layer, realm by realm. I begin by default to think of all art as reflecting this in a formal sense, regardless of what is being deliberately represented, because “making things” frequently (though possibly not in every case) involves some sort of ordering of chaotic materials. This motif in scripture is repeated, as the chaos of the fall, is re-ordered through the redemptive activity of God within the cosmos.

    So, what are Pollock’s “chaotic canvases” if we take a step back? They begin as ground rocks and minerals, added to some synthetic vehicle, then that paint is dripped through deliberate human movement, using animal hair affixed to the end of sticks, onto what began as cotton balls and maple trees, spun, woven, milled, constructed, stretched, and tacked. Already, common grace has been made manifest, chaos has been transformed into order through human activity.

    The drips themselves, the color choices, (in the case of Jackson Pollock) I see as no more chaotic than the unpredictable pallete of the leaves on a tree, or the surprising and delightful zigs and zags of a tree branch. We see order when we see trees, but that assumption of order cannot be defended easily by an analysis of the seemingly haphazard meandering of a single twig (notwithstanding Fibonacci sequencing and the like) . We take a gestalt view of nature in general when we speak of order, and I think in Pollock’s work a similar application of that gestalt perspective reveals chaos (raw material – house paint – formless and void) brought into a subjected order — while still celebrating and defending our freedom to not always be in control. We don’t make order. We tease it out of God’s ordered world. Pollock does this by assuming that the articulated movement of his bones and muscle and sinews are worth recording. I’d call that grace.

    This is a generous take, of course, and any critique must poke all over the place. But if I were looking for a representation of sin and grace, that’s where I’d see it. And it’s where I start with my students. Christian art students are often completely preoccupied with making things that are meaningful as it relates to their faith. They end up weighing the work down with a boring literalism, recycling tropes and metaphors that have been beaten to death for all intents and purposes. I try to teach them freedom of imagination by saying that the moment they strike a meandering graphite line across a page, they have brought the tiniest order out of chaos, and Christ, in his grace, is glorified. Now, in the freedom of that grace, work hard making that mark smarter, and more complex, more nuanced, and more imaginative.

    W.J.T. Mitchell, Representation: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=9&ved=0CEEQFjAI&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.as.ua.edu%2Frel%2Fsecure%2Frel4801and2mitchell.pdf&rct=j&q=mitchell%20representation&ei=krd6TO_MG8ihngeL0e33AQ&usg=AFQjCNFY-84BBmOV8HvSQJKo4eEX4ATd_w&sig2=Qne1FLfeWqqGi0Ui1bg59g&cad=rja

    • August 29, 2010 9:42 pm

      LOL… geez. I had no idea how long this ended up being until I hit submit. Mea culpa!

    • August 30, 2010 10:43 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts about Pollock! I don’t have time to respond in detail, but your analysis represents how Christians should be engaging with art in a robust, non-moralistic manner. Thanks for adding your thoughts to the conversation, and thanks for the links!

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  1. Does Christian Art Have a Particular Slant? « Reflaction
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