Art Needs No Justification. Preface, Intro & Chapter One. Hans Rookmaaker

I’m leaving on a writing retreat (next book due to publisher December 2005) AND many of you expressed interest in this out-of-print-piece by Hans Rookmaaker. So for the next few days enjoy the four installments in my absence.

Professor Rookmaaker was working on this book at the time of his death on March 13, 1977. His intention to write a postscript was never fulfilled. The material has been rearranged and revised, but is essentially what the author wrote. In our attempt to be faithful to his intentions we have been greatly helped by his colleague at the Free University of Amsterdam, Dr. Graham Birtwistle. This book is not a technical work, neither are its contents exclusively for the artist. It is for all Christians who are willing to see that their God-given talents can be used to the glory of the Giver. It is not a survey of the art scene, nor a detailed analysis of the origins of the problems facing civilization. It is a prophetic call to Christian artists, craftsmen and musicians to “weep, pray, think and work” before it is too late.

Artists in our society are in a very peculiar position. On the one hand they are regarded very highly, almost like high priests of culture who know the inner secrets of reality. On the other hand they are completely superfluous people. Respected, yes. But others are still quite ready to allow them to starve. We want artists to be serious and create deep things that have almost eternal value, things that people of culture can talk about centuries later. But if artists want to be success ful, they have to bow down to present tastes, be commercial and play the clown rather than the sage. Of course this is not a new problem. It has been like this since the eighteenth century when the old concept of the artist as craftsman began to be exchanged for a concept that saw him as both a gifted genius and a social and economic outcast. Artists who are Christians also struggle with these tensions. But the problems of Christian artists are often greater because it is difficult for any Christian to live in a post-Christian world. Artists are expected to work from their convictions, but these may be seen by their atheistic contemporaries as ultraconservative if not totally passe’. On top of this they often lack the support of their own communitytheir church and family. To them artists seem to be radicals or idle no-gooders. They are branded as being on the wrong track even from the start. Thus Christian artists are often working under great stress. On the other hand we very much need art which is healthy and good, and which people can understand. If Christians can do such work they may not achieve great fame, but many will love their work. And many artists will be able to make a living from it. So there is no need for selfpity. There is a contribution to be made to an age that is often anti-Christian in the most outspoken way. To the many Christian artists whom I have had the honor to know and whose work I think is important in many ways, this little study is dedicated. In fact, this book is the working out of an address delivered at the 1975 Arts Festival in England attended by a few hundred, mostly young, artists who professed to be Christian or at least quite interested. I must thank Nigel Goodwin and his staff, who organized this and similar conferences, for the invitation, one of the many tokens of friendship based on a common faith and a common interest. It may be clear that I speak in the first place to the painter and sculptor, the creators of the visual arts. I do this because my knowledge lies primarily in that field. But I think that the situation and problems are more or less similar with many kinds of artists musicians, composers, actors, writers, dancers, comedians and others.

Chapter One


The role of artists was not always what it is today. In most cultures, including our own before the new period that began somewhere between 1500 and 1800, artists were primarily craftsmen: art meant making things according to certain rules, the rules of the trade. Artists were accomplished workers who knew how to carve a figure, paint a Madonna, build a chest, make a wrought-iron gate, cast a bronze candlestick, weave a tapestry, work in gold or silver, make a saddle in leather and so on.

Artists were members of guilds just like other skilled workers. Some were master artists and took the commissions for the shop. Others were helpers, apprentices, servants. A studio was in fact a workshop with a subtle division of labor under the leadership of the person we now would call the artist and whose name we sometimes still know. But even if artists did not have the high honor we tend to grant them today (there were exceptions in the case of artists who were honored by their patrons), they did make beautiful things so beautiful, in fact, that we so many centuries later still go to look at their works and often pay much to have their works restored in order to hand them down to the next generation. There is not a tourist brochure of a city or town or county that does not show with pride the lasting monuments of the past. And whatever those artists gained in making those treasures – churches, statues, grave monuments, wall paintings, reliquaries, lamps, stalls, paintings, illuminated books, houses, stained-glass windows and so much more – today they are certainly of great economic value for the tourist trade.

Why are their works still worth looking at? Of course some are masterpieces, but not all of them. Yet most of them have a reality, a solidity, a human value, that testifies to great craftsmanship. They worked in the line of a strong tradition that handed over patterns and schemes, knowledge of techniques and tools and the handling of them; they were, and felt themselves to be, heirs to the achievements of their predecessors.

Not originality but solid and good work was looked for. Beauty was not an added quality but the natural result of the appropriate materials and techniques handled with great skill. Their works were not things that asked for intellectual debate and a specialist’s interpretation, even if sometimes their works were discussed, praised or criticized. The great St. Bernard of Clairvaux, leader of the Cistercian order in the twelfth century, took exception to the strange carved creatures, monsters or fantastic animals that were to be found on the capitals in the cloisters; but even if he condemned them, he did take account of them and criticized their inappropriateness not their beauty or workmanship.

This art was the expression of a common quality and understanding of life much deeper than affluence and status. But within this tradition, this strong framework of skills, of rules and standards, there was freedom. If one was asked to copy a certain work, one was not supposed to be slavish in execution but could still show one’s own hand and qualities. Quality, rather than originality or novelty, was cherished, but artists could be themselves.

Only in this way can we understand the mass of work that is still to be seen throughout Europe. Even if we do not want to romanticize those times when hard and long work was required and payment usually limited, all those old monuments testify tothe fact that the work of art was not simply something that was added on. Rather it formed an integral part of the design of a building. What we call art was the natural beauty that was expected of humanly made things. And therefore there was no sharp distinction between the art of painting and sculpture and what we now call the crafts. Skill, quality and appropriateness would be the yardstick.

Art with a Capital A

The role of artists, as well as of the arts themselves, began to change in some European countries during the Renaissance. This movement gained momentum and made a breakthrough in the eighteenth century, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment. Art became fine art, and the crafts were set aside as something inferior. The artist became a genius, someone with very special gifts which could be used to give humankind something of almost religious importance, the work of art. Art in a way took the place of religion. Descartes, in his philosophy, said that only those things which he could understand rationally, clearly and distinctly, were real and important. Baumgarten, working from the same Enlightenment basis in the middle of the eighteenth century, wrote a book called Aesthetics. He dealt with those things that were not clear and distinct, those that preceded clear knowledge and were based on feeling, the aesthetic things, the works of art. In this way the breaking of our Western world into two cultures, the sciences and the arts, became a reality that is still with us. Much was written on art in the eighteenth century, not least in England, on taste, on the beautiful and the sublime, and on the principles of art. Here we see the very beginnings of modern art history. Much of this was tied to the world of the connoisseur, the person of taste and knowledge, the collector of works of art. Art became disconnected from the normal functions of life, and beauty was seen as an abstract quality unrelated to what is depicted, carrying its own meaning.

With Kant and, in his wake, Schelling and Hegel, art was considered to be the final solution of the inner contradictions of the philosophical systems designed to form an integrated understanding of reality. Humanity is free and yet bound to a mechanistic universe, and it is art which can reveal inner unity and bypass the rational tensions. Perhaps for this reason music became the greatest art: it overpowers us emotionally, and yet it cannot be analyzed easily. Its content as such is beyond what we can verbalize.

Before this time, no works of “art” were made. Altarpieces, portraits, landscapes, paintings or sculptures were designed to fulfill a specific function, either to decorate or to stand as a high metaphor for the greatest values, representations of the Holy Personages, the Virgin and the saints. But works of art came to be considered independent of context, and somebody in the middle of the nineteenth century could write that a still life of a lobster by Chardin was just as important as a Madonna by Raphael. Subject matter slowly became more and more secondary, leading in our century to the rise of nonfigurative art. Photography may have played a part in this, but the trends were there before photography was invented. Art in the nineteenth century expressed new approaches to reality. It showed that the old norms and values were gone, that Christian concepts had lost their hold over people’s minds.

One more thing is worth thinking about. The eighteenth century was, if not overtly anti-Christian, certainly searching for an a-Christian world. Religion was fine as long as it was purely private and did not interfere with the important things in this world, science, philosophy, scholarship, the high arts. And so the principle of neutrality was developed: in scholarly work we should leave behind those things that are irrelevant and totally subjective, such as our religious convictions. We should look for the objective, that which is true regardless of our faith.

In passing, the terms subjective and objective are themselves defined by the Cartesian trends in thinking that were the driving forces in the Age of Reason. These words only have meaning in a framework of thinking which begins with a more or less autonomous and rationalistic human race seeing itself as relating to, and confronted by, an objective nature, ruled by “eternal laws” like 2 x 2 = 4, which has its own kind of autonomy. It is a closed system, to which God or any other non-human or non-natural force has no access – a world where the principle of uniformity reigns and where no other forces than those we know in the world today, those we can see, measure, control, understand, have worked or will ever work. This not only influenced the vision of artists but also that of art historians.

If today we study the great artists and their achievements, we are never told what was the driving force in their life, what they believed, what they stood for. Those things, being seen as subjective, are left out of the picture. We are given the impression that those great people in the past could make their masterpieces out of their own genius, talents and insights alone, and that religion had little to do with it. We must be aware of this, and not fall for this inherent perversion because it is fundamentally untrue. Modern scholars, historians, art historians and philosophers (as well as artists), do more than just follow trends. They work from a basic outlook on life and reality. This outlook is often a kind of irreligious religion.

A Crisis in the Arts

Out of all this came a crisis in the arts. Art was called to be a kind of religion, a revelation, a mystical solution to the deepest quests of mankind, but artists were often hungry and alienated. Unless they bowed down to poor taste and could allow themselves to express cheap sentimental content, they were left alone. Art, high Art, was lifted out of daily reality and placed in its own temple, the museum, where the catalog provides the guide to the liturgy.

This has made life very difficult for many artists and art students. Why are they working? What are they working for? For many it has become an individualistic search for their own identity through and in their work. They are like a person looking in the mirror; everything is an expression of self, and everything else becomes unreal. Art is supposed to be the expression of our innermost being, but what if you find little inside?

Artists are supposed to be geniuses, but geniuses cannot be taught, we are told, and their delicate subjectivity should not be upset by others who say there is something to learn. Young artists are thus left to find and express themselves. Some reach despair, but they are reminded that it is art itself which will bring deliverance. The poor works of these sad artists often crumble under the load and disintegrate. Basically artists are being asked to design their own religion which we can talk about but are never asked to believe completely. Unless an artist is strong and endowed with great talents or filled with a powerful ego-drive, it is hard for him or her to succeed in the art world.

Art became art for art’s sake, a kind of irreligious religion, in a world where religion has no clearly defined practical role. It means that art is such a rarified, special thing that people need art appreciation courses and lectures to have it all explained. Some indeed must feel as if they are looking at the Emperor’s new clothes.

As a result we see people everywhere searching for the meaning of art. The fact that so many books are published that deal with the arts is not a proof that people are sure what art is all about, but rather the opposite. This quest for the meaning of art is a sign of crisis. But too often this search ends in contradictions. Art has to have a message, but it should not be didactic; art has to enrich life, but it is only for the rich and those with specialized learning. In a way the really good art of class and fame is too far away from the people, and the arts that are popular are seen as below the level of acceptability. Of course differences in quality and kind have always existed, but the sharp division of today is a new phenomenon.

I see this as the result of placing art on too high a pedestal, lifting it out of its ties with daily realities to the level of museum art, the work of a genius. Art has suffered from this. High Art has shunned all practical demands such as decoration, entertainment or any role that might smack of involvement in real life. Yet this type of art inevitably attracts almost everybody who has some talent. In the art colleges are many who study painting or sculpture as a free vocation, and they will become the “free” artists of tomorrow, most of whom will not be able to live from their work.

But inevitably the “low” arts have suffered as well. They became the “popular” arts, sometimes called “commercial.” It is art in the service of Mammon. As all genuinely talented people tend to shun this field, its quality has deteriorated, and too often what is produced lacks all imagination or quality. And because that is usually the art that is offered for consumption, it means that everybody, knowingly or not, suffers. It has its share in the ugliness of our world today.

At the beginning of the last quarter of the twentieth century, it is good to balance the books and ask what we are doing, and how far we have come. A friend of mine said to me some time ago, “When you published your book on the death of a culture I thought you were much too pessimistic. Today, as I look around in the field of the arts, high, low and in whatever medium, I think you are right.”

There are always exceptions, for example in the graphic arts and industrial design even if here not much exciting and new is to be found. But if these fields are better, it is certainly the result of the work of many concerned people. Laments over the low quality of the arts that were produced, especially in the field of the crafts, the aesthetic design of things for daily use, had already begun in the last century. I can cite the names of Ruskin, Morris and his Arts and Crafts movement, and many more. In our century we cannot bypass the Bauhaus which had a healthy influence on design in general. But looking at all those efforts we cannot say that the goals set more than a century ago were achieved.

Maybe it was onesided to look mainly at the design arts as needing renewal and strengthening. Perhaps there ought to have been more discussion about the pretentiousness of high Art. But certainly those who were involved were usually concerned for the good of society and not only for aesthetics and artistic quality.

A Crisis in Our Culture

Most of the activists, critics and artists who tried to renew the arts and give our world a more beautiful face did argue in one way or another that just to face problems in art was not enough. They understood, more or less, that the crisis in the arts is an expression of a much greater crisis in our whole culture. That greater crisis is a spiritual one which affects all aspects of society including economics, technology and morality.

The quality of our lives is tainted, and words such as alienation, despair, loneliness, in short, dehumanization, are all relevant and have to be used too often. This is not the place to go into an analysis of all these things. Certainly the problems are related to the fact that since the Age of Reason our culture has focused on the relationship of mankind with nature in order to master reality and use it to our advantage. But as C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man has analyzed so ironically, to master nature and be able to use its powers is usually only the privilege of the few. The few are therefore better able to exert power over the many. Manipulation and loss of real power to live the life one wants to live are the result. Counterefforts are made everywhere to change things or to try to overcome the evils of the system. The Marxists are conspicuous in this. Many listen to them since they at least signal the evils. But whether their remedy is not worse than the illness is a real question. If alienation only means that our relationship to things is broken, if the overpowering of nature is still seen as a goal, if material values are still the primal aim, and if the problem of sin is avoided, then the most serious questions remain.

Yet, if we work for a better society and for a resolution of the crisis in the arts, changes will have to come. It is important to think these problems through. We must not expect solutions to arrive on our doorstep. Time will be involved. But we should be on the move, all of us, including artists.

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