The Church in Modern Art

people-looking-at-paintingsAlmost everything that secular society has created in the last 100 years – art, literature, music, etc – is distasteful to me. Film is one exception. Still, I like messages in art. Literary, visual, musical, and theatrical works should speak to society. The messages don’t have to be beautiful or good; I prefer negative ones. This is one reason I hate the decadence movement, i.e. “art for art’s sake.” Everything has a message; nothing is meaningless. Messages are easy to find in film, music, literature, and theatre but not in visual art, especially contemporary pieces. Seeing puzzled people in front of a work of modern art has become proverbial. Yet not even some pre-modern artists I admire fill their works with messages. What have da Vinci, Degas, and Rembrandt told me lately? Not much.

I recently visited an American art museum. The pre-modern galleries are my favorites, so I was shocked to find a contemporary painting sum up what I had been feeling for years about the Western church today. This work is so simple that even a child can understand it. Behold Untitled (Watchdog) (1987), by Robert Longo (1953-).

robert longo art

Millions of Americans are inspired by movies, music, television, [and] the media; and so is artist Robert Longo. Longo shows his disapproval of American society and its class distinctions in very inventive ways. A larger-than-life German shepherd is juxtaposed with a formal “high society” ball. Between the dancers are printing plates with images from the news. The figures continue their dance around the world events, paying no attention to the disturbing news clippings. The disconcerting scenes hover in the background in bite-size form.

It’s clear from this painting who the “watchdog” is: Robert Longo. He has accurately portrayed Western society today, especially the entertainment world. War, disease, famine, crime, and economic depression fill the headlines, yet many Americans care only about the latest theatrical film, celebrity scandal, or episode of America’s Got Talent and Dancing with the Stars. These television programs didn’t exist in 1987. If they had, Longo might have vomited.

john biggers art

Like Longo’s painting, Shotgun, Third Ward #1 (1966) by African-American artist John Biggers (1924-2001) is ironic. A church burns in a poor, black section of a Southern town. According to museum curators, this painting

is an image of strength and resilience in the face of loss. Children play in a water-soaked street, oblivious to the tragedy of the burned-out church behind them. Adults look away, avoiding one another’s eyes and the spectacle of the still-smoldering structure. … Biggers affirmed the sustaining values of faith, heritage, and community through symbolism: the wheel in the air at the upper-right edge summons the biblical story of Ezekiel, while the grey-haired woman in red is an emblem of constancy and wisdom.

My interpretation is just the opposite. First, red is not a symbol of “constancy and wisdom.” It signifies immorality (sex) or death (blood). Second, whether one looks away from horror or dances around it, the result is the same. Avoiding reality is not heroism but moral cowardice and insanity. Finally, Ezekiel’s “wheel in the middle of a wheel” signifies Jesus Christ, not abstract faith (1:16).[1] Jesus gives peace in the midst of the storm, but he never looks away.

churchBoth paintings accurately portray many American churches today. They love to shut their eyes and play, anything to avoid the horror surrounding them. One church I used to attend invited a famous Christian comedian to its stage on Friday. The parking lot was full, but I refused to go. All I felt was revulsion. How can anyone laugh when sinners are entering hell, unborn babies are murdered, governments codify atheistic intolerance by outlawing the Bible and prayer, education and the media corrupt our youth, and the homeless wander the streets? Do lukewarm American churches care? No, not while they’re playing. They need a watchdog, someone to warn them of danger. Through this blog, I am one such watchdog – a watchman on the wall (Isaiah 62:6).

The Family Research Council has a “Watchmen on the Wall” program for pastors. They may “watch out for [our] souls” (Hebrews 13:17), but true watchmen aren’t pastors. They’re prophets – men and women who warn God’s people of coming judgment and tell them to repent. This is what Daniel, Elijah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and others did. Ezekiel was a priest in Jerusalem, but he didn’t become a watchman over Israel until God spoke to him in Babylon. Ezekiel’s gender and priestly status weren’t prerequisites, just his holiness. God’s mouthpieces don’t have to be male pastors. They can be female teachers, government workers, doctors, writers, and parents. God can speak to anyone, anywhere, at any time if they’re holy.

More Christians should visit art museums. Then maybe they’d stop closing their eyes to reality. A hurting world needs spirit-filled believers who will first acknowledge the horror and then bring Jesus Christ to each situation and person. This is the only path to lasting change. Longo and Biggers’ paintings tell me that the Western church still much has to do.

[1] New King James Version (NKJV), unless otherwise noted

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