Art in the Public Square: A Critical Difference

(As ArtPrize approaches in Grand Rapids, MI for 2013, the recent two articles have helped to remind us of how to view the arts from a biblical perspective.  This article is an assessment of the 2012 conclusion, but also helps to keep our minds attuned to the necessity of thinking well, and thinking Christianly, in regard to the arts.)

For over a month now, the articles in this Worship Arts channel have focused on visual art.  We have considered a number of articles regarding how to view art from a Christian perspective, and whether we could really understand and appreciate art through the grid of the Christian worldview.

The largest art competition in the world is an event called ArtPrize, held annually in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  It was held two weeks ago week, lasted 15 days, and included over 1500 entries.  The unique, long established feature of the ArtPrize gathering is that the viewing public is solicited to vote as to which entries they judge best.

Unfortunately, this approach to evaluating art has brought disdain from voices of the “art world,” who considered it a substandard competition that played to the whims of the uneducated public and produced winners that are considered one-dimensional, even mundane.  However, this year’s ArtPrize event, for the first time in this event’s history, would set alongside the viewing public’s choice the so-called experts’ choice.  What would we discover?  Would there be consensus or a split decision?  Would there be harmony, or a division between the two groups?

Well, the “jury is in” and the winners were crowned but not without a new controversy.  We now know the results and, let me say, to describe the difference between the two evaluations as a “gap” is well understated. Rather, the results were a giant chasm. The public vote for the artist of the winning entry won a $200,000, and the juried vote of their choice won $100,000.  The stark difference of perspectives contrasting the two groups speak to the fundamental question of how each view beauty and how they interpret what art communicates.

Art is Communication

Definitions of art abound, and I suppose they can be nuanced to say whatever one might desire to defend or promote. But, I think most reasonable people would agree that art, at its basic level, is communication.  Art is intended to say something to the viewer.  Art is an expression of an artist in an attempt to communicate to those looking at the art.

In a time long gone, a great artist was known by his or her artwork.  When the art spoke, it spoke powerfully and clearly, communicating the intended message without explanation.  It is to men, like Michelangelo and others, to which this moniker was applied.  We know them to be great artists because they produced great art.  The art itself was the focus.

More recently (in the last 150 years or so), this notion of art has been turned on its head.  Over time, the focus shifted from the art to the artist.  Gradually, rather than knowing an artist was great because his or her art was indeed great, the art world of critics and artists established a system in which artists were named great artists because they were artists in this art world.  In other words, since it was determined that they were “great artists” by the elite, the art they produced was to be considered great art.

This would be fine if their art continued to communicate effectively, however, it became esoteric to the point that it no longer gained the attention of the public, but only the attention of the artistic elite.  It no longer communicated a message that was discernible, unless it was explained first to the viewer.  No longer was the art communicating, but it was solely the expression of the artist whether or not anyone really understood the meaning.

So we have two views, to put it simply:

  • Art speaks, and as a result we understand what the artist is communicating, or
  • The artist speaks in order to explain what the art is not communicating on its own.

At a fundamental level, this is the result of ArtPrize 2012.  The winner of the people’s vote communicated in such a way that her art spoke to the viewers, and they understood.  They understood the technical skills needed, they understood the subject matter, and in many ways, they understood what she was trying to say.

The winner of the juried award, on the other hand, had to explain the art.  It is not clear what the intended meaning was to be, and although an explanation did bring clarity to the meaning, there remains an underlying bewilderment at how this is really “art.”  Obviously, if the display had not been entered in an art competition, most people would generally walk by it and consider it a nice display but nothing more.

This “great divide” in viewing art is a topic that has been discussed widely, and at least in West Michigan right now, more people are aware of the issues.  In a world of creativity that reflects the very creative activity of God, I hope that this discussion will help more people consider the ideas presented in this column over the last six weeks.

Note: I did not include a description of the ArtPrize winners, or their names because my intent was not to critique them specifically.  My intention is to focus on the larger issues of how we view art, and how we know whether it is “good art” or not.  The views I have expressed are not only my own.  The reactions to these art pieces have come from conversations, articles, blog posts and other sources.  I have also included thoughts that have come from past study and consideration of the world of the arts.  I hope that these articles on viewing art can have some impact on the conversation of art from a Christian worldview.

(Original Post on October 17, 2012 at the Worldview Church:


Posted on September 23, 2013, in Arts, theology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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