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The Only Problem in Art



I've always been enamored by abstract art. For as long as I can remember, the modernist painter's way of interpreting the world has been a constant fascination for me. From the time I learned about Juan Miro as a 5 or 6-year old in primary school, I've been drawn to the fanciful simplicity and stark minimalism of the abstract. This fascination with, or, you could say, affinity for, the abstract aesthetic, doesn't just dictate my appreciation of fine art. Being deeply philosophical, abstract art influences my approach to and colours my perceptions of life. Yet there has been one 'plasticist' in particular, who is far more significant to me than any other, one whose art and philosophy have had a genuine influence on my life. Piet Mondrian is someone whose often nameless 'compositions' held me so utterly captivated that it was no surprise to discover the ideas behind them to be equally enthralling.


As I've said many times in the blog previously, aesthetics flow from correlating moral dimensions. The way the aesthetic looks, tells you something about the nature of the moral. The Bible tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God. That means we are able to gaze at the beauty of the natural world and learn something about who God is - namely that he is glorious. God is a fine artist of the highest degree. His attention to detail is so magnificent and the scope of his beauty is deep and complex. Minimal or abstract are not the first words that come to mind when thinking about the 'art' God has produced. This is precisely why I find Mondrian so captivating. Surely the best way to imitate the declaration of God's glory made by the heavens is to paint them and to mimic their beauty? Yet Mondrian paints lines. He paints rectangles. He limits himself to only three colours. He limits himself to only horizontal and vertical. Surely these limitations would inhibit beauty and therefore the paintings' ability to declare the glory of God? But no! With Mondrian, especially when you understand what he's seeking to achieve, (and, oddly enough, more so with a Christian perspective), beauty abounds in colossal measure. And I'm utterly fascinated by this because it almost seems like it shouldn't be. Why, when God created the glittering stars, when he created the oceans that glisten, when he created valleys and hills that roll, clouds that float in the sky, forests filled with a million shades of green; why, when God creates all that, do I still find Mondrian beautiful? Why is 'Lozenge Composition with Two Lines: 1931' still so beautiful? (look that one up). He doesn't even name them. Such utilitarian titles surely point to a lack of beauty? But no!


Now, please don't get me wrong here. I don't believe that objectively a Mondrian painting is more beautiful than the Milky Way. But what a Mondrian composition does is to prove a point I'm always very keen to make myself, that is, that no matter how hard you try, you cannot escape the glory of God. And that is a very powerful statement to be making (even if I have 'Christianised' that interpretation). Mondrian's reductionist aesthetic, although lacking any acknowledgment of a personal God, nevertheless seeks to articulate the reality of a relationship between a moral and an aesthetic. The moral ultimately being something divine and eternal. He wants to help us (and help is a kind term to use here, Mondrian cared not so much for the individual. As Francis Scheafer notes in the 'The God Who is There' people simply cluttered the purpose of his compositions), the viewers of his works, to look beyond the world in front of them into something more pure and substantial. By taking away all the 'decorative' elements of artistic value within the natural world worthy of representation, leaving only the most basic necessities of form, he begs us to consider what these aesthetic components ultimately point us toward. By stripping away everything but that which is intrinsically necessary for the most elementary of constructions, he points us toward those higher principles which the aesthetic realm relates to and indeed proceeds from.


You'll notice that Mondrian's work is never framed. Not by himself, nor by the curators who hang his pieces on walls. This is because Mondrian recognises that this world; the natural order we exist in, is not all there is to reality. The beauty of nature is beautiful only in relation to the moral principles to which it relates and proceeds from. By minimising the aesthetic, to its simplest of forms, unbound by frames or other introspective, self-centered constraints, Mondrian attempts to show us how the aesthetic realm is, in one sense subordinate, to the moral realm, yet at the same time, intrinsically linked to it. There can be no separation.


As you can see, I've been consciously and subconsciously influenced by the painter to a rather large degree. And so, I thought I'd begin a series of posts examining the Mondrian philosophy. There is nothing much that I can think of that speaks directly into Christianity or even theology, really. Mondrian does, however, have much to say about the created order. He interacts well with general revelation and his observations made about God's other book (nature) are more than worthy of our attention.


Let's start with a little quote from a short article he wrote entitled 'Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art'.

"The only problem in art is to achieve a balance between the subjective and the objective. But it is of the utmost importance that this problem should be solved, in the realm of plastic art – technically, as it were – and not in the realm of thought. The work of art must be ‘produced’, ‘constructed’. One must create as objective as possible a representation of forms and relations. Such work can never be empty because the opposition of its constructive elements and its execution arouse emotion".


Now, there are two fascinating ideas to engage with here. The first idea is brought before us by the first sentence. The second idea comes to us throughout the rest of the paragraph. I'll deal with the first idea now and focus on the second in another post.


Did you even think art was solving a problem? Even if you could consider a problem to be solved through art, would you have conceived of it being such an abstract problem as the reconciliation of subjective and objective? What problem could that even be? Well, it would be prudent to understand what Mondrian means by subjective and objective. This alone has its value to us, since Mondrian does not for one second or in any sense whatsoever mean subjective to be what we might call 'taste'. Certainly not at the conceptual level. His own body of work serves as the prime example of what he means by subjective. The fact that his paintings are so similar yet all a little different shows us what he means by subjective. The basic elements of construction are 'subject' to change. They are the same in the sense of containing the same basic elements of construction. Yet they are different in the particular layout of each individual composition. This tells us something of what the objective is; the elementary principles of natural law. His abstract paintings are there to demonstrate abstract fundamentals, the values which are woven into the fabric of reality. The things that govern our existence and form the constraints necessary for life to function and, as he says at the end of the quoted paragraph, emotion to be aroused. Metaphysical entities are what Mondrian is pointing towards in his compositions. As Mondrian's compositions change subjectively in their specific form whilst remaining committed to the basic elements required for their construction, the whole body of work serves to reinforce the value of the higher principles they express.


So the subjective is essentially what I have described as aesthetic beauty throughout the articles featured on this blog. The objective is essentially what I have been describing as moral beauty. The moral is the objective component behind the subjective aesthetic.


What Mondrian wants us to understand, here, is that there is a constitutional relationship between the objective and the subjective. The objective and the subjective should be 'balanced', that is, proportionate and equitable. One is the outward expression of the other. The aesthetic expression must not outweigh the quality of the moral, nor the moral fail to produce a proportionate aesthetic manifestation. There must be balance between the two. To ground this in reality, for a moment, I would use the illustration of the human body. When we treat our bodies well, feed them, nourish them, care for them, use them as they should be used, low and behold, they look beautiful. When our moral desire to care for ourselves is fulfilled, it is demonstrated visually with a pleasing aesthetic. And vice verse. If we neglect the moral duty of care to our bodies, it shows. Simply a poor diet is enough to affect the quality of our skin, the brightness of our eyes, the luxuriousness of our hair, etc. The aesthetic is an expression of a moral, always. Mondrian wants us to understand that subjective must be viewed in much the same way, that it is the expression of something objective. He would not approve of the imbalance, for instance, of covering up the bodily effects of neglecting our heath with makeup or hair dye or dressing a certain way. And I think society would do well to understand subjectivity in this way. Because when we understand something subjective to be an expression of something objective, we root it in something outside of ourselves, actually understanding subjective to mean the various expressions of something objective. Subjectivity is not 'taste'. Subjective is not whether you or I like the look, feel, taste of it. The subjective is one legitimate way amongst many, to express an objective reality. A well-cared-for body can look well-cared-for at a tall height, a short height, relatively thin, relatively curvey, soft, toned or well-defined, in various shades of skin tone etc, etc. The subjective expression of objectively good health in the human body can look many different ways. Yet there will be enough similarities to determine that good health and to determine ill health when those qualities are lacking. Why this is important, is because it takes the power of assessing beauty away from the observer. Beauty is intrinsic to the created order and who is anyone to judge otherwise? We do not judge beauty, we discern beauty. If we fail to recognise beauty or call beautiful that which is not, then beauty ends up judging us! The individual, therefore, ceases to be a judge to confer or not confer depending on preference. Beauty comes from the relationship between the subjective and its moral counterpart. Mondrian completely does away with the ridiculous notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and his work serves to demonstrate that beauty exists whether we appreciate it or not. This is why he says that the only problem in art is to achieve balance between subjective and objective. Mondrian sees a lack of balance in reality, a need for balance in principle, and thus senses a duty, as an artist, to reconcile this disparity and demonstrate to the world that balance can be found, and to reveal it. For Mondrian, the chief work of the artist is not to replicate the decorative elements produced in nature, but to strip bare the subjective aesthetic qualities of nature down to the bare minimum, so as not to distract from the superior objective moral principles that govern nature, instead pointing to them with exaggerated perspecuity. Now, Mondrian's writings and writings about Mondrian are not prolific, and so I feel that I'm venturing, possibly, into the realm of speculation. This is my best estimation of things according to my observations. But I do think that in stripping down the aesthetic in the way he did, Mondrian was seeking to point more strongly to those objective principles. Perhaps as an act of humble subordination. It's not that decoration is bad. It's not that the variety of detail found within the beauty of the created order isn't beautiful in the way that it exists naturally. It's that often the decorative elements can be distracting. Mondrian is simply putting the blinkers on in order to help us see beyond the subjective and find value in the objective which can often be overlooked. This is the balance I believe he is seeking to restore. Not just that the subjective should be proportionately representative of the objective in quality and quantity and form, but that the one should not hold our attention or our esteem disproportionately. If anything, I think that Mondrian is probably, deliberately, overcompensating in his reductionist technique. But he makes the point clearly. And, low and behold, for about a century now, Mondrian's work has been admired and appreciated for its strikingly beautiful aesthetic qualities. Coincidence? I think not. No matter how much of the 'decoration' he strips away, the objective principles which he is subjectively expressing ensure that beauty still is obvious and abundant.


I do wonder if the apostle Paul might have had something of Mondrian's problem in mind when he wrote Romans chapter 1. There, Paul rebukes unbelievers for their ignorance of God, claiming that they are without excuse due to the clarity of the created order in revealing who God is. In vs 22 Paul says "Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things". Here he picks up on the fact that people have ignored the glory of God because the reflected glory found within the created order seems to have been enough for them. Instead of worshipping a personal God, they gave their honour to that which God created. They enjoyed the subjective at the expense of the objective. Mondrian, I do not believe was a God-fearer. He will have known of the Christian God to a certain extent from his upbringing. Though I think that the idea of God was perhaps too personal for Mondrian. Yet, without being able to be as specific as Paul, I believe Paul in Romans 1 and Piet Mondrian were frustrated by the same problem: an imbalance between subjective and objective. Mondrian thought he could reconcile this problem through art. Paul wrote the rest of Romans. Mondrian, I believe, failed to acknowledge God, though he at least did more than most to recognise that the subjective is a sign of their being an objective. To live in a world such as we do now, which is so heavily aesthetics driven, so consumed by the subjective to the point of neglecting the objective, would be absurd to Mondrian. Because he knew there was something more. He didn't have a name for what that something more was, but the apostle Paul did - God. We cannot escape his visibility. If Mondrian is correct about subjective and objective, then we truly are without excuse for not acknowledge God. Although, as Mondrian demonstrates for us, it's not quite that simple. The created order is enough to condemn us for our wilful ignorance, but it does fail to provide us with the clear answer of who that God actually is. For that, we need God's word, the Bible, where we learn about the Lord Jesus - the image of the invisible God. What Mondrian does teach is, is that we must at least look. To concede to satisfaction with only aesthetic pleasure is the greatest tragedy of a sin stained world.

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