Dr. Steve Halla “Nature and Value of Abstract Art”

This post was submitted by Southern Seminary student Rich Clark who writes at Christ and Pop Culture. This is just a summary, he has posted his complete live blog of this event as When We Just Don’t “Get it”

On Friday, March 28 Dr. Halla gave a lecture in which he shared his own reflections about the Nature and Value of Abstract Art. He did clarify up front that these were simply reflections based on recent experiences and studies concerning the issue that have made him consider abstract art as something that should be beneficial for the Christian. He acknowledges that many Christians have issues with abstract art (especially Protestants) and examines the various reasons for this. He also defines exactly what abstract art is, and makes a case for the possible use of abstract art in our personal prayer life.

Dr. Halla’s lecture does an excellent job of confronting some of the biases toward abstract art as well as acknowledging some of the perceived weaknesses. Ultimately, it causes us to come to terms with abstract art in a serious, thoughtful manner rather than writing it off simply as something a 4-year old could do. You can read a more in depth live-blog and some additional thoughts over at Christ and Pop Culture.

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4 Responses to Dr. Steve Halla “Nature and Value of Abstract Art”

  1. Eileen says:

    I don’t worry about getting it. I think about whether the Lord gets it. In other words, it seems that the starting point for the discussion should be whether or not art or anything else we do brings glory to our Creator. Since He is the first and ultimate Artist, perhaps we should take our cues from what He thinks is beautiful, and it seems that we can best determine that by observing what He has created.

    The main problem I have with abstract art is that it is either the self-expression of the artist or the subjective response of the observer, or both. Is there anything in abstract art that points to the Creator? If not, how could it bring Him glory? This deification of self-expression and subjectivity of judgment seems to be endemic in our culture, so should the church be promoting it?

    For His Tabernacle, God commissioned skilled artisans. Further, he enabled their skill with the Holy Spirit so that their craftsmanship would be of highest order. Was there any abstract art in the Tabernacle?

    In creation, we can observe many things which appear abstract in form–the stripes on a zebra, a sunset in a tropical sky, images from the Hubble telescope, or some really strange sea creatures. Yet, in the context in which the Creator has put them, they are not abstract, and they and representations of them bring Him glory.

    I think that the same criteria would apply to other aesthetic disciplines, such as music, as well, where worldly wisdom would laud atonal compositions as good music. Is this the kind of music that pleases God or brings glory to Him?

    We, as believers, are His true image-bearers, and it is only because we bear His image that we can both appreciate and create beauty. So it seems to me that our creative activities of whatever sort, as well as everything else that we do, ought to point back to Him and His creativity in creation rather than to the self-expression of whatever is inside an artist or any response that it creates inside of the observer.

    Does this mean that art should be like a photograph? I don’t think so, but it should reasonably represent something which is real and which has its origin in the Creator.

  2. I appreciate Eileen’s comment.

    Also: Dr. Halla r0x0r. He was saved at a Stryper concert (“To Hell with the Devil!”)

    Andrew Lindsey’s last blog post..Justification is By Faith Alone: An Outline of the Apostle Paul’s Argument in Galatians 3:1-14

  3. Rich Clark says:

    Eileen: Did God not create us with minds and emotions? You act as if abstract art necessarily deifies those things, but I think the Christian can end up simply being spurred on to think and emote in a god-glorifying way. We see a basic example of this at the end of the lecture.

    We’re used to pitting man against God, and I admit that more often than not that’s the case, but the last thing we need is some sort of knee-jerk reaction that declares that art must bypass man and point straight to God. The truth is, the artist and the viewer are both made in the image of God.

    You say your main problem is that abstract art is “either the self-expression of the artist or the subjective response of the observer, or both.” But where does that self-expression flow from? A creative spirit that is instilled in us by God and is in and of itself a good thing. It’s nothing to write off. We could say the same thing about the viewer’s subjective response. Subjective is not necessarily a bad word, even in this “post-modern” age.

    Rich Clark’s last blog post..Has Bill O’Reilly Overstayed His Welcome?

  4. Eileen says:

    Rich, thanks for live-blogging this for everyone. I’m not quite sure how folks who live-blog manage to do it–it must be a generational thing. I tried to find the lecture on the SBTS website, but I could not, and I would really like to hear the entire lecture because I think that Dr. Haller has raised an important question for the church and seminarians to consider. I am not concerned so much with the way non-believers think about art.

    My intent was not to offer a knee-jerk response, although my three grown children will attest that I have a superbly conditioned knee-jerk. Rather, I was trying to offer reflections from a different perspective on the question and to frame it differently so that the discussion might be hopefully more fruitful than the ones which accompanied the “worship war” (remembering nostalgically way back when Stryper was so controversial!)

    Disclaimer: Unlike Dr. Haller, I have no training in philosophy, history, or art, so I accept his analysis as presented. I know just enough about music to show how truly ignorant I am. I’m your basic pew-dweller like those to whom the graduates of SBTS will be ministering in the future.

    My concern, however inarticulately stated, was that there appeared to be no discussion in the post and possibly in the lecture about the idea that God might have a point of view regarding this. In fact, He may not, and art may be only a matter of taste or preference. In other words, the value of art may truly be purely subjective and exist only in the mind/emotions of the artist or observer.

    But perhaps God does have a preference, and it seems to me that His church should at least consider whether His revelation–general and special–can inform our opinions. Even pagans recognize certain elements of beauty such as proportion, balance, etc., and most people are drawn to representational art. I infer from this that God has embedded His concept of beauty in His creation. As I stated above, He uses abstract forms in creation, but do we therefore have the license to do that with no reference to how He has used those forms?

    Masters such as DaVinci and Michaelanagelo were avid students of creation, which is evident in their work. I would perhaps respectfully differ with the lecture that representational art only or even primarily engages the intellect. How else shall we explain the lasting effect that these masters of art and their work have on us but to say that their art engages our emotions at a deep level. Most people can remember the time they first saw “David” or the “Pieta.” Is that true about works of abstract art?

    I referenced the Tabernacle to point out that God has demonstrated a clear preference for craftsmanship, which Dr. Haller raised as one of the historical objections Protestants have to abstract art. In my untutored opinion, much if not most abstract art lacks craftsmanship, so I must ask if it is pleasing to our Lord.

    I would also disagree with the Protestant authorities cited who seemingly believed that the sole or primary function of art is didactic, although this view may be an historical artifact of the time when literacy rates were low. I think that art and music can certainly enhance our worship and that art and music can be pleasing to ourselves and to our Lord. Again, however, the point is not what I perceive to be worshipful or helpful in worship, but what God receives as worshipful.

    Certainly, the creativity of any artist comes from God, and it is a very good thing. But that is precisely the point. It is a derivative creativity which does not arise de novo from the creature, but it is imparted from the Creator. Because of that, it should return glory to the One from Whom it came.

    The question is, how shall we discern what brings God glory? I’m suggesting again that our starting point should be objective and rooted in what God has revealed rather than subjective and rooted in the emotional response we may or may not have to art, whether it is representational or abstract. While the creativity is surely a good gift, as are all the gifts of God. However, the uses we make of those gifts are not always good. Should we not, as a matter of the proper stewardship of all of God’s gifts, strive to do first what pleases Him the most rather than what pleases us?

    I do believe that self-expression, self-actualization, and self-everything has been deified in our culture. But I think that we are called to be counter-cultural. Post-modernism is nothing new, as Solomon would surely remind us. And, recall that infamous first century post-modernist, Pontius Pilate, who asked, “What is truth?” when Incarnate Truth was standing before him.

    Just my windy two cents.

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