So, Two Christians Walk Into A Contemporary Art Museum…

Last Friday, my wife and I took the day off to go visit the new contemporary art wing at the St. Louis Art Museum. The original building, constructed with an air neoclassical france (full of flourish, sculpted details, and mythological import) for the 1904 World’s Fair, is a stark foil to the new wing. It’s dark, rectilinear, polished concrete exterior is as much a testament to minimalism as the old building is to extravagance.

The buildings symbolize the arts they house. The old building, with it’s folk art, medieval tapestries, renaissance, and impressionistic paintings is laden with symbolic meaning. The art there tells stories. Take Van Gogh’s “Factories At Asnieres Seen from the Quai de Clichy.” 
He painted at time when factory workers were often under paid, over worked, under protected, and under age. Van Gogh illustrates the loss of human dignity in these factories by painting two human figures with nothing but globs of pigment. They’re easily lost in the brush strokes about them, just as people were lost in the bowels of the factory.
These paintings tell stories. They invited my wife and I into a dialogue with the artist. It’s a communion of sorts, wherein two parties share ideas and experiences. As a creator, I take a risk sharing my creations with someone. I’m letting them experience, engage, and critique something I love. Thus, when an artist offers me his art to view, I’m honored. I take it as a gracious act of love.
As we progressed through the old museum, the art became increasingly more contemporary. We viewed a powerful piece of cubist art, “Temptation”, that captured how sin in the garden tears human life apart. We turned a corner to view Matisse’s angst-filled “Bathers With a Turtle,” and then finally stepped forward into the new wing. 
Through the glass doors stood a painting by one of our favorite artists, Mark Rothko, titled, “Red, Orange, Orange on Red.”

In some ways Rothko is the perfect bridge from the old art to the new art. In the new wing most of the art avoids representation. Abstraction is king. We entered a world with shapes, colors, and objects. In the new wing, it’s harder to feel like you’re communing with the artists. Instead, I found myself wondering, “What was he thinking?” or “That’s pretty,” or “How strange!” The few examples of representational art were often unnerving.

Rothko is the perfect bridge, because as an abstract expressionist he wasn’t trying to alienate viewers. He believed in a Fruedian psychology, and thus the sub-conscious. Abstract-expressionists avoided representational art, because they wanted to avoid the conscious’s pesky tendency to interpret, understand, and contemplate. Instead, they tried to communicate an experience, straight to the sub-concious, of ineffable transcendence.

Thus, it’s not easy to articulate what you experience when you look at a Rothko. But it would be misleading to say he wasn’t trying articulate. Although I’m forced to read myself into it, I do experience something before a Rothko. A red and orange painting evokes a sense of death, sacrifice, blood, and rebirth. It summons Christian ideals of love through sacrifice, and victory through weakness.

Did Rothko intend that? Probably not. But he did intend an experience. As I moved beyond Rothko, I the artists communicate less and less. If Van Gogh was the thick end of the communication wedge, then Jackson Pollack’s “Number 3,” was the thin end.

This painting communicates a whole different “truth” about life: life is random chaos. It’s all chance. Like paint dripped and splattered onto canvas. This work communicates, but it communicates alienation. All that we cherish, love, friendship, truth, and virtue, are figments of our imagination, produced out of the chaos.

Minimalist artwork, following the train of Piet Mondrian, attempts to communicate less by boiling art down to it’s barest pieces.

Color. Shape. Line. While it’s pleasant to look at (I love the colors in Joseph Alber’s Homage to the Square, seen above) or imagine as a home decor, it doesn’t invite a full communion with the artist. In fact, it darkly suggests, “Look at these lines, look at these pigments, and know that’s all art really is; the rest is your mind overlaying it with meaning.” 

It undermines communication by suggesting that all painting is an optical illusion, the work of an over-active brain converting pigments into cohesive images. Thus, what I see in a painting is only what I subjectively see. It’s not what the artist intended or saw. “The painting means something different for everyone.” But this subjective, individualistic mantra condones artistic violence, wherein the artist has no responsibility to the viewer and vice-versa. There’s no communion, no transmission of experience or ideas; it’s selfish art.

The color field art of artists like Kenneth Noland deconstructs art in a different fashion.

These pieces, with their strange shapes, and lines emphasize that all art is nothing but an object. It’s just a canvas, with some paint. And as an object, it’s not a place for communication, or experience. It dehumanizes art by objectifying it. This commodification alienates the work from the artist and the viewer, rending all communication void. It mocks the idea of differentiating art from any other object.

The whole structure of the new wing, with it’s concrete rectangles and high ceilings, evokes a bunker more than a gallery. Like Noland’s work the architecture suggests that it’s content isn’t art, but objects. The building feels carefully designed to disconnect individuals from the idea that art is art. Thankfully, there were some bright lights in the new wing, like Tom Friedman’s “Untitled (Seascape).”

It’s a single sheet of paper in a frame. Simple, abstract, and minimal, like much of the work we’ve looked at.

But with a single word in the title, “Seascape,” Friedman opens the door for communication and experience. We see the horizon creased down the middle, and the crinkled paper rolls like waves. The taut paper evokes suns rays spread at midday. This painting, rather than deconstructing our human ability to find and see meaning in art, celebrates it! It celebrates our ability to see the sea on the most mundane medium. It’s an amazing testament to our mutual creator: we can all find and share and enjoy the ocean’s waves in a paper’s wrinkles.

My experience in the new wing was provoking. While there I reflected on many conversations with friends about the nature of art, and I came to at least one conclusion: as Christians our ideal art is not limited to representational art. It’s not from one time period. It’s not one style. Our ideal art follows an ethic of love and communion. It offers opportunities for artists and viewers to communicate and share experiences. In a sense, it’s an artistic offering of the self for the good of others. We root our communion in a firm belief that men and women are created in the image of one God. Our shared image, protects us from embracing alienation. We communicate. We authentically connect. We share a maker. We share an image.  So we share in art.

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