Iconoclasm is a genuine recognition of the power of the work of art. Nigel Halliday


H.R. Rookmaaker - Art Not Neutral

Art not neutral

by H.R. Rookmaaker
A nineteenth-century poet once jokingly said of a preacher: ‘He had nothing to say, he was nobody.’ But everybody is somebody and is personal in his or her utterances. Not only people’s character, personal life history, knowledge and experience play a role in this but also their convictions. People who want to be neutral soon discover two things – and if they do not discover them, then their environment will – namely, in the first place there is only a semblance of neutrality, because unless you want to keep completely silent you always speak from your own subjectivity; secondly, that the attempt at neutrality brings frustration and deception to your words and deeds, because then you are not yourself anymore, and sometimes keep quiet about what is most essential, which leads to poor communication.
In art it is no different. There is no art in which the artist does not express her or himself. Sometimes artists will consciously and very explicitly depict or put in words certain visions that they have and find important. But there will also be things of which they are not so consciously aware that still become visible in their art. As with every human being, even they do not intend to bring a specific message, yet insights, views, basic assumptions, and principles inevitably come to the fore.
This also applies to science. For a long time, and still for many people, the ideal was a science without presuppositions, neutral, objective, generally valid. With regard to philosophy, Polanyi has made clear in his masterly Personal Knowledge, towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, that to be neutral as such is not possible and should not be pursued. In short, we should not strive for a so-called objectivity but for truth, and the latter always reveals itself in our personal statements. I myself would say: the more personal a statement – presupposing naturally that we are honest and open – the more clearly in general it expresses the truth. How often is it said that art has nothing to do with Christianity: art is neutral, generally valid, human, and can therefore not be Christian.
However, when we read the catalogues of expositions or listen to the critics, we notice that they always speak about somebody’s point of view, a disposition, attitude, character and vision. Obviously. But, why is that only allowed if it is not Christian? Or is it that anything may be expressed in art as long as it is not religious, because you cannot mix art and religion? We could completely agree with this theory, but then we would also have to say that the idea that an artist may not mix art and religion does not mean that art is neutral and that an artist’s being a Christian can and may not play a role in his or her art.
I believe that a few misconceptions play a role here, and also a few old ideals which are introduced inadvertently. The old ideal of neutrality originated in the time of the Enlightenment, the eighteenth century. Science and also art were common human activities supposed to be free of presuppositions, to be without propaganda and value free. It is obvious that people were not honest here, whatever their intention, and that people were not in the least as free of presuppositions as they claimed to be. No, the real issue was in fact that they wanted to exclude God, the presuppositions of faith or any external authority. This is obvious if one looks at old writings from that time. What they pursued was in reality not without presuppositions and neutral but was simply a humanistic point of view. This was considered to be so obvious that people often did not realize that it was a deliberate position.
For humanists science was very important. They did not want to accept anything unless it could be understood by reason and experienced by the senses. Since that time – progressively so since people did not realize their inherent point of view – less and less attention was given in art history and art theory to the impact that faith and conviction, in short the orientation towards authorities external to a person, could have had in the past (if not in the present) on the work and activities of an artist. I think that we can actually say that in the last one-and-a-half to two centuries an unintentional but definitely factual falsification of history has taken place. If you want to know, for example, what an artist thought or which faith he or she adhered to, it is virtually impossible to find something about it in the records. That Moreelse was a believing Calvinist is mentioned virtually nowhere. Would that have nothing to do with his work? We are told that Calvinism was antagonistic towards art. However, in the history of landscape painting we do find reference to the school of Frankenthal. Yet we are not told, or rather, no attention is given to the fact that Frankenthal was the place where the ruler, who lived in Heidelberg, offered Calvinist refugees shelter. It is almost ironic to realize that exactly this place of refuge became a centre of art. And Rubens was Catholic. Yes, there are things that are difficult to ignore.
And yet in art reviews much too little is found about the sources and the spiritual backgrounds from which these people partly drew their inspiration. In this way the thought can have taken hold that religion has nothing to do with art, perhaps with the exception of the themes that people chose. But that a Tilman Reimenschneider really would have been involved in the altar pieces that he made . . . that it meant something in the life of Dürer, not only on Sunday but also when he was at work, that he was a believing human being, and a Protestant who followed Luther with enthusiasm, is given much too little attention in the discussions of their art.
Thus the myth originated that art stands separate from matters of faith, from the deepest stirrings of our inner convictions. Of course, in our time this is deemed true by those who are humanists. Yet there are many who are not humanists in the old sense of the word. The Marxists argue against the theory that art is neutral. Art from Brecht to Sartre, and many others, is loaded with conviction. Marxism unmasked the ideologies of spiritual leaders and followers. And they are right. Even if we would clearly lay the accents differently.
Art in the museum is in no way neutral. Even if the convictions of the Gothic artist or of the painters from the ‘golden age’ of European art, from Caravaggio to Rubens to Rembrandt to Vermeer to Hogarth, are interesting and captivating, they are history, their works are now old and preserved, and the direct power of their convictions has become a matter of historical understanding; but this cannot be said of contemporary artists.
By the way, I still want to point out that it is not without importance that great artists such as Rembrandt, Raphael, Bach, Schütz, Palestrina, etc. worked from a Christian tradition. In this totally indirect way, witness is given in our secularized world to the meaning of Christian truths and values, even if it were only that in order to understand their art people must take note of biblical history and the theological insights of the golden era of Christianity. How could you study the work of Michelangelo without being confronted in an impressive way with the Last Judgment?
Now, on towards today. In any museum of modern art we are presented with many works that are loaded with revolutionary content. Picasso, Leger, the Surrealists, and many more, were people who worked from a leftist ideology. They were not ashamed of it. You will find this mentioned in the catalogues and art reviews, at least in the better ones, even though it will usually receive little emphasis. But in the history of the leftist movement it is an important factor. The falsification occurs because museums act as if their collections are only about art, art for the sake of art, artistic matters that have nothing to do with faith and attitude to life. But Marxism is also a belief. And an ideology. This art emanated such a strong idea-propagating force exactly because it had been presented to people by the museums, the art critics, the art historians, all intellectuals working from the old ideals of neutrality, as if it were pure art that had nothing to do with faith. For when people are presented with matters as if they are without presuppositions and are never shown the loaded focus on particular values, norms, ideas, even on the revolution itself, then people are not alert, and they swallow what they would otherwise have scrutinized much more critically.
Of course it is true: much of this art has nothing to do with faith, if by the latter we mean an exclusively Christian faith. But as we have already said, there is also a humanistic faith, a Marxist conviction, a nihilistic-mystical world view. And such convictions do express themselves. Therefore C.S. Lewis was right in saying that modern atheism has not sent out evangelists and preachers. We seldom hear preaching in that sense. But from their conviction these people did write books, compose music, paint paintings, and write and perform dramas.
And thus they have convinced many.
We do not in the least want to attack the artists on this point. It was not only their proper right; they could not do otherwise. Because they were human. And had personalities. But we do take exception when the world of art leaves these things unsaid and only allows them to be mentioned implicitly. Because that is dishonest.
And we also agree with C.S. Lewis when he says that Christianity can only get a real chance to be heard again if it acts in the same way. Christian faith, just as radical as Marxism, is not just something for the soul or the hereafter but a conviction – neither left-wing nor right-wing – that influences everything Christians do. Preaching, evangelizing, theologizing is like talking in the air, a gesture without content, unless exactly in the area of art in its broadest sense, just as in science and in politics, Christian work is being done.
I want to emphasize that with ‘Christian art’ we do not mean painting biblical scenes or writing novels about conversion but we mean work from and in a Christian spirit, a mindset such as the one preached in the Sermon on the Mount, a wisdom that starts with the fear of the Lord. Especially because the world of art in its many facets still adheres to the old humanistic neutrality ideal of the Enlightenment, we should not allow ourselves to be blinded and to talk along with them. Christians too cannot do anything else but express their vision, their understanding of reality, in their work.
We are not in the least talking primarily about religious works here. Protestant worship does not ask for art – except for music and poetry for its hymns – neither do the newer movements of Catholicism, or at least not as much any longer. But we are talking here about our humanity that expresses itself in all its diversity, especially where we do not explicitly and consciously give voice to it. That is communication, one of the most miraculous of human gifts.
Published in Dutch in Kunstzinnig 1, 1, 1976 and in English in The Complete Works of Hans Rookmaaker.