Contemporary Art: The Christian’s Unlikely Tutor

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And there I was: in the “Citta’ Eterna.” Not to see the glories of ancient Rome or the works of the Renaissance masters. Instead, I was headed to the MaXXI — a famous contemporary art museum.

I lived in Italy for four years, immersed in its culture and masterpieces. I then moved back to the states and began to study contemporary philosophy. My studies sent me back desirous of exploring an Italy I hadn’t experienced before through contemporary art. And everyone pointed me to the MaXXI.

My best Italian friend is an expert in contemporary art criticism and preservation. We met in Rome for the day and she accompanied me through a breathtaking gallery of 21st century art and architecture, explaining background information, particularities, techniques and perspectives. Most of all, she showed me why she loves contemporary art as a Christian. Through our conversation that afternoon, I gained a greater appreciation for contemporary art. More importantly, I discovered that we Christians can learn important lessons from this art.

Sometimes we need to be provoked and offended by ideas that are different from our own.

Stefano Arienti – “Ninfee”

The first piece we saw (view image at Flickr) I immediately recognized as the Ninfee by Monet. Then, I realized it wasn’t. It looked like a printed Monet painting but it had colored putty spackled and smeared all over it. At first it looked exaggerated and gaudy, but then I wondered why the artist, Stefano Arienti, was drawing such attention to the texture of the work.

My friend said she loves this piece because it critiques our culture of mass production. We take famous paintings and mass print them to put in books or hang on walls. Yet anyone who has seen an original painting knows there is something about it that a print does not convey. Looking at a picture of Da Vinci’s Last Supper or Picasso’s Guernica is nothing like the experience you have in front of the original. Why is that? What does the original have that the print doesn’t have?

Philosophers would say the print of the Monet painting is not the “real thing” because it is lacking the materiality of the real thing. There is something about the material that is essential to the thing. A painting is not simply an image; it is also the canvas, the paint, the brush strokes, the imperfections. In our digital age, we have no idea what is real and what is not. Pixels on a screen make up a virtual reality that we can no longer distinguish from actual reality. Images make us think we are seeing the real thing when, in reality, we are not.

By audaciously applying the material back to the print of the Ninfee, Stefano Arienti reminds us that the virtual is not the real. He confronts our idea that the material can be shed for convenience or profit.

Mario Merz – “Triplo Igloo”

In the middle of one gallery is a massive structure that looked like three igloos, one inside the other (view image at Wikimedia). At first glance, I was not necessarily impressed and considered looking for something more interesting. But as I looked at it, I noticed it seemed to be composed of contradictions and contrasting ideas: the circular shape made by overlapping flat sheets of glass, the primordial igloo constructed by industrial materials, symbols of both man and nature, the covering of the domes yet the exposing of the glass, the stability of the structure yet the fragility. The longer I looked at it, the more I saw.

Then, my friend told me that this particular artist is known for using his structures of igloos to express the idea and experience of “home.” This experience of home is not the warm, fuzzy smell of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies and smiling faces. Rather, Merz wants to express the precarious nature of human life: the need for a place to dwell and be protected alongside the need for the outside world. The need to be hidden and the need to be seen.

We walked around the structure. I continued to see more than what met my eye at first glance, and we discussed how we see our own life experiences in it. And then I realized that Werz had not just created an aesthetically interesting piece that gave a certain experience and even conveyed a specific message; he had opened up a dialogue. I was not a passive observer of the artist’s direct message to me through the medium of his or her art. Instead, I was in conversation with the artist. The work was not something I simply looked at or learned; it was an ongoing experience.

I probably saw meaning and significance the artist never saw himself or intended to convey. And the next time I see the work, I will likely see it differently and notice things I didn’t notice before. At the same time, parts of the piece still didn’t make sense to me. I never made sense out of the neon lights of Fibonacci numbers inside of the igloo. I couldn’t milk any sort of significance from the little stones placed around the outsides.

This can be frustrating. After all, we like to have everything figured out. We like to know the meaning of things and be able to file them in our systems of categories. We don’t like to have a subjective “excess” of meaning. We certainly don’t like walking away without fitting together every piece of the puzzle.

Admitting our limitations is good for us.

Lessons for Christians

That day I learned three things about how I should interact with Contemporary Art as a Christian.

1. Allow yourself to have a reaction, even if it is offensive.

Contemporary art can be provocative and offensive. And sometimes we need to be provoked and offended by ideas that are different from our own.

Sometimes those offensive ideas may reveal beliefs and motives of our hearts that are not in line with Scripture. Sometimes they help us better understand what others are wrestling with and experiencing. Sometimes they even awaken us from our slumber and love of comfort, reminding us of our calling to implore to the world on Christ’s behalf to be reconciled to Him.

2. Allow yourself to dialogue.

We often like to look at art with the same attitude we have when we go see a movie. We expect it walk past it, get the message it is giving, and move on.

But contemporary artists are not interested in transmitting a closed message. Rather, they are interested in opening up a dialogue. They expect you to bring your own experience and perspective to the table and dialogue with the piece. They aren’t necessarily strong-arming us into making metaphysical statements like “there is no absolute truth.” They are simply asking us to talk.

3. Allow yourself to walk away even though you don’t understand.

As I walked away from the MaXXI without fully “getting” everything I saw, I was reminded that I am a created being who, unlike my Creator, does not have a “God’s eye view” of things or comprehensive understanding. Thinking otherwise is delusional at best and the height of pride at worst.

As a fallen creature, nothing enrages me more than my own limitations, and I work ceaselessly to overcome them. Yet the truth is, there will be meaning that will always escape me. I will not be able to fit all meaning into my categories or identify its significance. And that is where creaturely trust comes into play. Contemporary art can remind us of this truth by putting us in the position of having to walk away. Admitting our limitations is good for us.

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Amber Bowen

Amber Bowen holds a PhD in Philosophy (University of Aberdeen) and is Assistant Professor of Philosophy & Core Studies at Redeemer University.

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