The Postmodern Experience of Art

An odd thing occurred during the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s Oxbridge Summer Institute this year: A genuine exchange of ideas. I say “odd” because so much of the discourse that happens these days is so altogether gimmicky (the media, whether conformist or alternative) or stupefyingly cryptic (the learned crowd) as to be nearly useless in the service of anything other than engendering, or worse, practically ensuring, incredulous chuckles, anger or alienation/indifference. The Oxbridge Summer Institute, a triennial gathering in Oxford and Cambridge of biblically based scholars and otherwise thinking “mere” Christians, furnished a platform for the exploration of the theme, “The Good, the True and the Beautiful in the 21st Century,” thus promising some serious inquiry into how biblical truths might retain their vigor in a culture besotted with subjectivity.

That this loyalty to all things subjective is seen not only within academia, with its emphasis on postmodern thought and methodology, but also within popular culture, with its emphasis on the insipid rebellions of “have it your way” burgers and mass-produced “alternative” trinkets, bespeaks not so much an infusion of academic principles into consciousness at large but a general cultural urge (attributable to many things) to upset seemingly oppressive ideology and standards of conduct. Like the body of thought commonly referred to as “existentialism,” postmodernist theories cannot be grouped together according to a shared set of identical aims, but are properly understood as having in common that to which they seek to respond—namely, metanarratives, or overarching explanations for things.

In this writer’s opinion, there is validity in recognizing the existence of multiple meanings and conferring legitimacy upon a variety of perspectives and preferences, even in the case of those that are wildly divergent and dangerously wrongheaded to characterize all “subversive” cultural activity as folly or antagonism. That said, we also do ourselves a frightening disservice when we throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater by doing away with Truth, or reducing all discourse to a protracted quibble by letting the “fallibility of meanings” trump common sense and good humor.

The aforementioned exchange of ideas at Oxbridge, though present in quite a few forms, was best expressed in the ideas exchanged by two of the conference’s most notable speakers: Louis Markos, Professor of English Literature at Houston Baptist University, and Susanna Caroselli, Professor of Art History at Messiah College. Though neither made overt mention of the other, both are emblematic of the two primary ways in which a Christian might respond to postmodernity and can thus be viewed as occupying opposing roles in a larger, ongoing cultural debate.

Louis Markos is an insistent sponsor of the fairly common idea that postmodernist thought has resulted only in an acceptance of the Bad, the False and the Ugly, and worse still, in an almost pathological impulse to revel in such things as well. He cites the attempt to do away with beauty contests as evidence of this (peculiar in an argument upholding a transcendent, biblical beauty), as well as the existence of such phrases as “rap artist” and “youth culture” (both oxymoronic, in his opinion, and indicative of the total and utter collapse of judgment). His most basic premise is that certain standards of evaluation are divinely sanctioned, and thus ought to be brandished relentlessly by Christians if the world is not to be taken over by unsightly people extolling the virtues of sensationalistic nonsense.

It is necessary to acknowledge that there are some insights lurking about here; our culture is readily inclined toward that which is vapid, shocking and one dimensional, and this goes for the production of Christian culture as well. So how might we reconcile the troublesome tendencies of postmodernity without resorting to arbitrary and temporal value judgments, or going in an equally reactionary direction by clinging to an egalitarian approach for the sake of being democratic rather than expecting art to be good? As well, and this is significant, how might we learn to be better observers of art?

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Susanna Caroselli points out in her Oxbridge lecture, “Art Unleashed: The Death of the Absolutes,” that Absolutes have, in point of fact, been disputed and dismantled many times over in the form of things most people now consider canonical—think banned books and the Impressionists. By remarking upon this she doesn’t so much take up the project of defending postmodernity as she does capture the mysteries of making and looking at art. This might prompt us to ask not what art ought to do but rather what it does do, and in the process proposes that we legitimize subjectivity not as a concessionary gesture, but rather in the service of allowing ourselves to catch an unfettered glimpse of what a work is trying to say, and, moreover, why the urge to make art is so insistent.

Caroselli goes on to note that our finding it agreeable to be reminded of suffering does not necessarily evince a desire to frolic amid ugliness, but rather to be moved. In light of this idea, it becomes reasonable to say that it is not incumbent upon a work to be somehow revelatory of Beauty or even the Good, but rather to strive toward inventing a visual language adequate to the experience being depicted; when this is done well—and when it is, what an astounding thing to be in the presence of—therein lies Beauty. This is to say that we might do well to see the Good, the True and the Beautiful located within a finely wrought evocation or allusion rather than within a work’s pictorial methodology or conceptual framework. Instead of looking at a piece of “ugly” or “offensive” art and refusing any attempt to “get it,” we should let it speak to us; moreover, we should listen. If we view something like Picasso’s Guernica with intellectualized predispositions about aesthetic beauty and composition, we might never see the truth that it represents.

Art is at its best, I propose, when it strives to render the world as large and lovely and startling and bloody as our experience tells us it is. Yes, theoretical standards of evaluation are indeed necessary and desirable, but their usefulness is in direct proportion to the degree of accommodation they grant to what is ineffable and thus beyond codification.

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