Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (English)

Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?[1]

  1. The Tangible Zeitgeist

The modern arts[2] hold a special place in my heart, as it forced me to reconcile many things that seem paradoxical at first: beauty and ugliness, hope and despair, faith and life itself. Many of us have been taught to love the so-called ‘exquisite’ Christian fine arts—those which expound biblical truths through mediums that are apt with beauty. I found it easy to love such art pieces. They convey what I have already believed beforehand, and their beauty renders me amenable to their messages.[3]

Bacon, Head VI (ca. 1949).
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But it is not so with modern arts. The art seems to portray a peculiar type of aesthetics. I often found my gaze turning away from modern art pieces, because those pieces seem to accentuate sexuality, grotesque forms, cruelty, absurdity, and many other elements which showcase the dark realities of life.   

I dare to say I am not naive. We all know that life is full of suffering, and that sin has thoroughly corrupted the world. But what do those pieces try to convey? It feels like they are crying out, but their voices sound unintelligible. Are they saying something important? Or is it merely a childish tantrum, one which they voiced out due to their inability to accept the harsh realities of life?Text Box: Bacon, Head VI (ca. 1949).
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Rookmaaker disclosed a very important fact in his book. Arts, especially the work of those who ‘shifted’ the course of history, are in fact tangible manifestations of the spirit of the age in which those artists lived (zeitgeist). The shift of focus in messages and mediums found among influential art pieces occurred in advance of, or at least together with, the shift of presuppositions held by the lay public. In this sense, we can say that artists are spokespeople of their age. We may discern how a good portion of the public perceive reality through the ways their contemporary artists convey reality.

But artists do not always play the role of voicing out what is popular. Rookmaaker asserted that there always exists a couple of small streams within the history of art—a small number of people with peculiar outlook—whose works are ‘prophetic’. They often proved to be among the first who discerned the underlying philosophy in their age, worked out its implications, then showed the lay public where they were headed if that philosophy is kept at the driver’s seat.

Rookmaaker[4] focused his attention on this ‘prophetic’ group of artists along with their monumental works. Throughout his book, Rookmaaker traced down the philosophies which affected the rise and fall of various worldviews through the lens of art history. He showed how these changes eventually led to the birth of a certain art style, one which is apt with bitterness, nihilism, absurdity, and other similar cries which should make faithful Christians weep and lament. We now call it modern art. In his words:

“This art is the work of your neighbors, your contemporaries, human beings who are crying out in despair for the loss of their humanity, their values, their lost absolutes, groping in the dark for answers.”

Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (ca. 1600).
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Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon / The Young Ladies of Avignon (ca. 1907).
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The book consists of nine chapters. In the first chapter, Rookmaaker showed how paintings disclose their painters’ interpretation of reality. Then, in the second chapter, Rookmaaker proceeded to discuss how the enlightenment era and its high opinion of reason has led people, especially those who live in the West, to become confined within their own thoughts. The third until seventh chapters portray crises faced by the ‘prophetic’ artists. The spirit of the age ‘forced’ them to gradually lay down their humanity, and Rookmaaker guided us to see how their works eventually displayed an understanding of reality which is too far off from the biblical truth. The last two chapters discussed how Christians should have responded throughout these ordeals. Rookmaaker wrote the book from a Reformed Christian perspective, yet he did not shy away from exposing various shameful failures that we, as Christians, made throughout history in regards to redeeming art.

  1. Distorted Views of Reality

A critique of fine arts, especially of paintings, must start with the realization that every piece provides us a glimpse of how the painter interprets reality. Standing before a painting inevitably leads us to a dialogue with its painter. We give the painter a chance to convince us of what is true and what is not, what makes up reality, and what the painter thinks is noteworthy in life. A great painter will try to do so through a skillful weave of shapes, colors, space, and rhythms. All these construct the visuals, yet they are not the only aspects of the piece. What is equally important, or even more important, is the reality it depicts. Is it true?

Goya, The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters (ca.1799).
Image courtesy of

Being true here does not mean it is a mere imitation of what we see. Such painting is actually worthless, because it does not speak beyond what can be seen. But as Rookmaaker pointed out, what lies behind the visuals are the painter’s conception of life. Everyone understood reality in a certain way. The painter holds a set of beliefs and values (which are definitely influenced by what they believe about God), and we can glean this information by ‘reading’ their painting, just like how we can understand someone’s outlook on life by talking to them or reading their writings:

“Art is bound up with the deepest things in life, that it reflects and expresses a particular view on life and its deep ultimate values”[5].

This is more so in the context of arts because painters always try to convey something through their work. Then, what Christians should know when they see a painting is whether the painter’s interpretation of reality, which is shown through this painting, falls within the bounds of biblical truth. A painting might have the sky colored in red, but that is true as long as the painting tries to depict the day of Judgement. On the other hand, a painting might show Christ as a human, but that is false as long as the painting tries to depict Christ as mere human without Godhead.

Rookmaaker critically assessed the modern artists’ conception of God in every painting he chose to discuss. He always started with the following question: what does this painting say, either consciously or unconsciously, about God and his truth? If it does not conform to the Bible, then however beautiful the painting is, it is not true. It is a lie. And nothing can be further from beauty than lies are.

At this point we have the tools we need to appreciate modern arts. Modern artists wrestled with some of the toughest theological and philosophical questions. Does God exist? Can we objectively define good and evil? Is there reality outside the physical senses? What is reality? These are the kinds of questions that the great painters—Goya, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso, and many others—tried to answer throughout their career, and their paintings tell us the answers they settled for. Their paintings convey reality as they see it. But is what they say true? If Picasso, through his “Young Ladies of Avignon”, says that there is no such thing as morals, that prostitution should neither be condemned nor encouraged, should we accept it? If through his cubistic depiction of the ladies, he says that individuals should disappear and give way to ‘the universal’, should we believe it? If Gauguin, through his “Whence, Wherefore, Whither”, says that men lived their entire adulthood questioning, spent their old age crying, then died without finding any joy nor solace throughout their lives, is that true? Is that reality? No, they are not true, and we do not need to believe nor accept them, because they contradict reality as depicted in the Bible.

Gauguin, Whence? Wherefore? Whither? (ca. 1897).
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Yet God’s grace, freely given to us through Christ and which we also ought to freely give to others, compels us to listen to them and consider their thoughts. Their answers are ones which should make Christians weep. They failed to find the whole truth and were forced to live a fragmented reality. Some painters ceased to produce great paintings because they did not have the courage to act on their newfound answers. They knew there are boundaries which should never be crossed. Some painters followed through, consistently marching past those boundaries and produced many great paintings throughout their career. Yet we see how their understanding of reality became more twisted as time went by. Their paintings were increasingly filled with suffering, emptiness, absurdity, and hatred towards the world.

  1. A Christian Cause

The birth of modern art is a tragic tale which narrates how humans, as they casted away God and turned a blind eye to His truth, inevitably ended up discarding their own humanity. Worse still, when the act is done collectively by those who hold considerable influence in their field, the world watches in awe as a field which used to edify humans morphs into a grotesque pool of wails, ugliness, and absurdity. Fine arts used to teach people about God, love, truth, beauty, and many other things which add substance to human lives. Now it encourages people to curse at Him and His creation.

Thus I found myself ‘forced’ to love modern art[1] . What kind of Christian does not? If we are incapable of loving, at the very least we need to lend our ears to its cries. This art is a cry from those who, whether knowingly or unknowingly, thought they could live without God, only to find themselves foolish and sorely mistaken in the end. They are people who need the Gospel. Rookmaaker then shows how Christians failed to give a Christ-like response. Not only are we blind and deaf towards the whole thing, but we also shamefully casted a stigma on the arts.

I can’t stop myself from thinking about which other fields we have abandoned. Thousands, probably millions of people are crying out for Christians to share the Good News in their fields, yet our ignorance has left them in the dark. They might have no other choice than to believe the lies which this world continuously whispers in their ears. They might be forced to agree that there is no such thing as hope, beauty, goodness, nor genuine love in this world—the exact realities we should have manifested in this world as Christians.

But Rookmaaker closed his book on a hopeful note. Not one which is unfounded, but one that is promised by God himself. For Psalm 136, as it narrated the various acts God has done in the past, repeatedly say:

His mercy endures for ever.

And we know this promise holds true even now. It will not be our power which upholds the culture, it will be His. But He called us to be His co-workers. It is a great privilege and responsibility. Can we do it? Surely, because it will not be us, but Him who lives in us. For His mercy endures forever.

By Martin Lutta

Title                 : Modern Art and the Death of a Culture

Author             : H. R. Rookmaaker

Publisher         : Crossway

Year                : 1970

Pages              : 255

[1] H. R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (Crossway, 1994), pg. 9. It is a quote from the song Ballad of a Thin Man by Bob Dylan.

[2] Just like Rookmaaker, we mainly focus our attention on the visual arts.

[3] This statement assumes that a message and its medium are two separate entities, yet that is not necessarily true. Ever since the invention of television and its widespread usage for mass communication (ca. 1950s), many communication theorists started to note how a medium—which was often thought to be neutral and serve only to amplify the message it carried—could affect the receiver as much as its message. If this is true, then the message is not only in the medium, but the medium itself is a message. Contemporary artists explored the concept by working with unconventional materials.

[4] H. R. Rookmaaker spent his childhood in the Dutch East Indies (i.e. Indonesia). During his doctoral study, he became acquainted with Francis Schaeffer, who is widely regarded as one of the leading 20th-century Christian thinkers in the United States. The two became close friends—thus an astute reader might find echoes of Schaefer’s thoughts in Rookmaaker’s writings and vice versa. Upon graduation, Rookmaaker went to the Vrije Universiteit (VU) of Amsterdam to become its first Art History department chair. It is interesting to note that VU Amsterdam itself was founded by Abraham Kuyper, a former Dutch prime minister who greatly influenced our church’s stance on public theology. Some of our pastors hold a master/PhD from the university.

[5] H. R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (Crossway, 1994), pg. 170.