modern art and the death of a culture
looking on the title page of my copy of this book, i see i have dated it 1998 - which means that it's taken me almost 10 years to get around to reading it. the daunting and critical-sounding title made me wonder if i wanted to. i'm glad i did.
the field of christianity and the arts is beginning to grow these days (both academically and in practice), but 30 years ago most christians didn't want to touch modern art with a ten-foot barge pole. into that gap stepped francis schaeffer and his friend hans rookmaaker (a jazz critic and art historian). 'modern art and the death of a culture' was rookmaaker's major work in this area, and the lack of other writing by christians on this subject at the time makes his book a seminal masterpiece.
the book was published in 1970, just as modern art was climaxing - by that year, virtually everything that you could do in art (barring technilogical developments) had been done. this of course included some extreme and freaky work, but even at the less extreme end, people (especially the majority of christians) found contemporary art to be distasteful and abhorrent - many of them were still 'coming to terms' with modern art that had come out in 1910 (some of them still are).
rookmaaker's masterstroke was engaging with the art world rather than condemning it. in this book he heavily critiques modern art, but he mines out what he believes is essentially at the heart of the apparent destructiveness of it - a sense of loss and despair. and again, rather than condemning this fact, rookmaaker examines that this is the natural result of the process of humanism and the enlightenment. and so, he says, modern art accurately represents where western society has come to as a result of the enlightenment framework. he doesn't dislike modern art at all - he simply wants it to have more hope and beauty.
he argues that bourgeois niceness is not the answer - it is equally as bad, if not worse, than the negative elements of modern art. instead he challenges christians to meet the modern world where it is, and offer alternatives.
there is so much in this book, that i couldn't possibly summarise it all here - in fact what i have just written is really only my take on what rookmaaker is saying.
for me, what i found interesting was examining rookmaaker's predictions about the future as he saw it in 1970. i'm not an expert in this, but i think some of rookmaaker's predictions have come true, and on the other hand, i feel that the art world has stepped back from the precipice it was on the edge of in 1970. the main reason is that there is nothingness over the edge. and so the art world has struck camp 100 metres or so from the edge, and stretches back from there. if this is true, then we can see what modern art accomplished as being a true revolution, complete with violence and harm but in the end creating significant freedom.
the other great thing about the book is the challenge it lays down for christians - the challenge, as i have said, not to retreat into bourgeois niceness but to get out there and engage. i believe there is now a definite christian arts movement under way - i can see it gathering momentum even since the late 90s when i was at university - and i think rookmaaker would have approved. but his challenge still rings true and relevant.
for it's on-going relevancy and its historical importance, i think 'modern art and the death of a culture' should forever remain a crucial text in the tradition of christian cultural study and practice.
on the headphones: 'attack el robot! attack!' by calexico, from the album 'feast of wire'.
warandpeace-o-meter: 553/981 (volII, bookX, chapI)