It was wooden icon from Russia, made of three small panels of wood attached together like a science fair display board. But the painting did nothing to recall a science fair. It was a newer icon than some of the others in the display, and perhaps more beautiful, with saints I did not know painted across it. At the top was God the Father, bearded, and with the Child Christ glowing golden in his lap. Near them hovers the Spirit, a dove in a circle of blue, ringed with gold.
I went around the room, looking at icons, all Russian, and most of them medieval. A few were crude or badly worn. Others were complicated, and rows of saints stood atop each other. St. Nicholas appeared with at least as much frequency as the apostles, and perhaps more. At last I came to an icon of the Christ Child with his mother. They were not beautiful. The painting was well done, but Mary, narrow-nosed, looked as though she had swallowed a pickle. She held Christ close on her lap, but she looked out with grave eyes.
My eyes were as grave as hers that day, which was earlier this spring. It had been a difficult week. As I looked at the painting, and at the small figure of Christ, something inside me changed. My eyes grew wet, and I very nearly cried, which I do not do easily. I looked at the Child Christ, and thought of the Spirit painted as a dove, wishing to carry it with me as I left.
Maybe it was the strangeness of the Russian artwork that moved me when I went to that museum. Or perhaps it was my emotions, which were not being cooperative that day. But there are pictures of Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, that if I had seen probably would not have affected me in the same way. I left the museum feeling as if I had been ministered to. The iconography on display reminded me of just how real my God is, and of how He is greater and older than any set of circumstances.
“Properly considered,” writes Gene Veith, “the arts are inestimable gifts of God.” My experience at the museum certainly attested to that. But I had visited another museum a few weeks earlier that was exhibiting more modern artwork, and I had responded far differently. Some of the paintings I enjoyed, but others were strange, and still others seemed to suggest a worldview far different from my own—a worldview in which evil is ultimately meaningless. Yet confining my appreciation of art to medieval Russian iconography is no solution to the problem.
“In every dimension of our lives,” Veith continues, “we need to be able to discern between good and evil, truth and falsehood. Art calls also for another level of discernment—between the aesthetically good and the aesthetically bad. If much of art is tasteless or idolatrous, much is excellent.” Veith goes on to do exactly that in his book State of the Arts.
I read State of the Arts shortly after finishing an art appreciation course at a Christian college that really did not teach me how to appreciate art at all. We learned some basics about art technique, and we learned art history. But I was sincerely bothered by my instructor’s seeming indifference to how worldviews themselves expressed in art.
That may have been an unfair perception. My instructor was certainly a thinking man—one who would spend hours with his brother arguing about the definition of art—and, looking back, I recognize that he wasn’t entirely indifferent to worldview. But he was an artist with a preference for modern art, and it apparently did not occur to him that the roomful of non-art majors, most from very traditional backgrounds, might benefit if he explained his reasoning. To expect us to value modern art of all kinds, without question, was asking a bit much.
For me, reading State of the Arts was one of those “ah-hah!” moments. I thought, “So this is what I missed out on in my art appreciation class.” Veith deals with art history, as my course did; but he explains the worldviews driving various trends in art. More importantly, he explains why the arts are important for Christians to appreciate, as well as laying out a basis for a Christian view of art.
Veith is not an anti-modernist. In fact, in chapter 10, he highlights a number of contemporary artists, all Christians, and all of which use a modern style. But he explains how a modern style can be used within the parameters of a Christian worldview, as well as when a modern style becomes not only not Christian, but also not art. Veith’s point is clear: art is absolutely not whatever the artist does. Art involves artistry (as do all occupations) and must be excellent in form. And, unlike my art appreciation course, Veith explains exactly what excellence in form is, and what it is not.
State of the Arts is geared toward Christians who want to appreciate art, but who may not be sure how to deal with the current fashions (and perversions) in the art world. Easily readable, but extremely thoughtful, this books is an excellent introduction to a Christian view of aesthetics. It is also the best anecdote I have come across for those of us who suffered through art appreciation courses without learning to appreciate anything.