Iconographic, Pornographic, and Distortionistic

The October 10 issue of The Banner carried, contrary to the expressed judgment of its Editor, the Reverend J. Vander Ploeg, an article entitled “Christian Art,” written by Dr. Calvin Seerveld, professor of philosophy at Trinity Christian College, and placed as one of a series of articles on “New Frontiers for the Reformed Faith.” One might almost have expected, in the light of some recent past performances, a set of “pro” and “con” articles about this article of Dr. Seerveld, with the Executive Committee of the Board of Publications (who placed the article) taking the “pro” side, and Editor Vander Ploeg taking the “con” side. At the very least, one would have expected that after the Editor’s dissenting note, his “expressed judgment” would also have been “‘expressed” in print; or would that have been contrary, perhaps, to the “expressed judgment” of the Executive Committee of the Board of Publications? At any rate, such stuff as Seerveld would pass off as “Christian art” ought not to go unchallenged. And so The Standard Bearer will break the silence. 

This writer does not claim to be an artist. Neither does he claim to be an expert art critic. Neither would he presume to set forth a “philosophy” of Christian art. Yet he does claim to have some degree of Christian discernment, a discernment which has its objective standard in the Word of God and its subjective principle in the grace of regeneration. And to his Christian discernment Dr. Seerveld’s allegedly Christian art is utterly repulsive. 

I will pass by the fact that in his remarks on “understanding art” Dr. Seerveld fails to give his readers something to understand, that is, a clear statement of what Christian art is. I will pass by the fact that even what he says is left completely without foundation, so that apparently the reader is expected to accept what is written on the writer’s say-so. I will pass by, too, the following statement, which indeed makes one wonder whether Christian art could possibly be produced by a non-Christian artist: “You also do not determine what is Christian art by whether, upon checking, you can determine whether the artist was an orthodox, churchgoing believer who lived an impeccable, moral life. Sometimes a believer’s right hand does not know what his left hand is doing.” 

Instead, I will turn to the three examples of “Christian art” which accompany the article in photograph form and to Seerveld’s comments about them. Evidently it was the photos as well as the article that offended Editor Vander Ploeg. They offended me too; and I would not reproduce them in The Standard Bearer

Concerning the first illustration accompanying his article Dr. Seerveld writes as follows:

Take a look at the sculptured, robed figure hovering, as it were, suspended over everyone below (fig, A). It has a venerable, patriarchal, grand distance to it that commands respect. Yet the arms are stiffly forward—no, better—stretched out in those sleeves, straining to reach, the hands simultaneously blessing and wanting to touch. . . . While the visage is stern, forehead and eyes concentrated in prayer, the ancient beard is alive, like strong flames of fire that are steady but could consume. The round holes of the two sleeves could be trumpets! announcing. . . . And notice the chips missing on the top fold of the robed arms? As if the majestic figure is hurt, nicked, grieved while loving, waiting and wanting to embrace. 

This art product is Ernst Barlach’s attempt to make known the meaning of our Father who is in heaven, God of the Old Testament who showed himself in Jesus Christ.

Now it surpasses what little artistic sense I may have how anyone can derive Seerveld’s description from the figure accompanying it. To me the figure appears similar to some grotesque, misshapen Buddha. In other words, what we have here is a piece of pure subjectivism, not a work of art in which there is harmony of form and essence, designed to express objective reality, truth. And this is one serious objection which I have to all of Seerveld’s illustrations. The alleged beauty of Seerveld’s kind of art is simply in the eye of the beholder or of the artist. There is much of this kind of “art” nowadays, some of it pretending to be Christian, some not making this claim. And the more faithfully this philosophy of art is practiced, of course, the more diverse become the interpretations, highly imaginative, which one might attach to the works of art. Even of this first illustration six different viewers might very well have six totally different interpretations. Frankly, when I behold such “art,” my reaction is such that I am usually left in a quandary as to what the “artist” is trying to express; and my next reaction is that I am always tempted to “spoof” it. 

But what greatly troubles me is that from a material point of view this is an utter perversion of art. 

For it is iconography. 

What is iconography? It is “the art of representation by . . . images.” the term comes from eikon, image, andgraphein, to describe. 

In other words, this first illustration involves the sin of making a graven image; and it invites the viewers (at least, if Seerveld’s description, quoted above, is supposed to be the meaning of this image) to join in this sin against the Second Commandment. 

Did not Dr. Seerveld, before he presumed to call this Christian art, not ponder the fact that true beauty and virtue are inseparable? And did he not ponder the fact that virtue and the keeping of God’s commandments are inseparable? And was he not reminded of the words of the. Heidelberg Catechism: “That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his word?” Or how about the following language of the same Catechism? “God neither can, nor may be represented by any means: but as to creatures, though they may be represented, yet God forbids to make, or have any resemblance of them, either in order to worship them or to serve God by them.” Or this? “. . . we must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have his people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of his word.” Or if the Catechism was far from his thoughts, was he not reminded of the direct Word of God? “Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: Lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female . . . ” Deuteronomy 4:15, 16

Indeed, “To recognize Christian art you must study the product, and test its spirit,” as Seerveld says. You must ask, “What kind of allegiance penetrates its symbolical form?” My answer is—and it is, I believe, an answer based on the Word of God: “Not an allegiance to the one true God of the Scriptures, Who commands us not to make graven images.” This “art” is iconographic; it is not art, but the perversion of art. For beauty is virtue; and virtue is the love of and keeping of God’s commandments. 


The second illustration presented by Dr. Seerveld is as follows:

Now examine the two misshapen figures seated naked on a bench (fig. B). The black shoulder lines slump down. The belly is a tub of fat and sunken flesh; the ugly breasts have been wrestled and mauled. The jaw is set, the thick neck course, ringed ironically with baubles. The blue-brown, sunken colors; reinforce the heavy-hearted lines: these bodies have been bruised! wasted! ruined from any glory. There is a kind of hurt horror and sorrowing compassion in the smeared, stolid, pitiful composition of these two old prostitutes, gross, socially discarded, enslaved. 

This art product is the way Georges Rouault tried expressing the truth that the wages of sin is death and that the wiles of the “strange woman” are an evil full of heart-breaking and heart-broken misery.

Again, this illustration is an example of pure subjectivism. In fact, the painter, Georges Rouault, is described by Encyclopedia Britannica (Vol. 17, pp. 59, 60; 1958 Edition) as belonging to a movement called Fauvism: “Les Fauves, variously called the ‘Wild Beasts’ or the ‘Wild Men,’ were distinguished by a general freedom of color usage and design elements. Actually the entire movement was a form of subjective Impressionism, in which the formal elements of painting appeared to be used quite arbitrarily.” He is noted for “following a mystic line of inner vision.” The illustration, according to Seerveld’s description and interpretation, is an outstanding example of such subjective Impressionism. I know not whether this is Seerveld’s own interpretation or that of the artist. 

But this is not the worst aspect. 

This is pornograph (from porne, harlot, + graphein), meaning obscene or licentious painting. By what right, even in the name of art, does a man put on public display the nakedness of women, be they supposedly prostitutes, when the Lord God Himself gave clothing to cover their nakedness? Any artist or viewer of art who knows himself and his own lecherous, depraved nature will have to admit that stuff such as this is an appeal to the “lust of the flesh,” though it be in a perverted and repulsive manner. And in this age, which in its various art forms is notorious for its pornography and its trampling of the Seventh Commandment (“All uncleanness is accursed of God!”), to me it borders on the sacrilegious to present this as an illustration of “New Frontiers for the Reformed Faith” with an appeal to Scripture. It is a perverted sense of the grace of sanctification which imagines that one can put “call girls” (whether young and voluptuous or old and worn out) on public display, whether in painting or photography, in a Christian manner. If it appears inPlayboy, then we ban it from our homes, and probably go on a holy crusade against pornography. But-if it appears in The Banner in the name of Christian art . . .? 


Dr. Seerveld’s third illustration is also neither art nor Christian. He describes it, in part, as follows: “Do you see the spring-clean, outdoor world of kite-flying boys and girls (fig. C)? There is space on the green and lightness in the sky, and their simple stylized bodies show how fresh and uncomplicated, easy, really, it is to be very young. Those are a child’s hands. And the figures dance in pantomime, as it were, . . .” And again: “There is certainty, simplicity, gentleness, air to breathe and order, suggests the painting, in this world we inhabit. Creation is the playground of God where He lets his kids fly kites together, in happiness, when they stay close to him. Henk Krijger, coming resident artist at the Institute for Christian Art (Chicago Ridge), puts symbolically to canvas here a modern beatitude: Blessed are the children who fly kites, in peace, for they are benefiting from the redeeming mercy of our creator God.” And again, in question form: “Does the sculpture or painting or poem or music or architecture or dance, or whatever kind of art piece it be, witness with laughter and hope to the goodly rich, earthly creation our Lord made for us to be obedient in (as fig. C does)?” 

This last illustration is, in the first place, the most obvious example of purely subjectivistic impressionism. One would almost judge from Seerveld’s description that this would be an interesting picture of children flying kites in the setting of an open meadow. He speaks of green and of lightness in the sky and of simple stylized bodies, etc. But even in the black and white reproduction of this painting one can readily tell that this “art” violates every rule of line and form and perspective. Everything in the picture is distorted, grotesque, out of proportion, without proper perspective. I cannot believe that the God of order and beauty wants even “kite-flying boys and girls” portrayed in this manner. Nor could I get it over my conscience to call this in any sense beautiful. In fact, I am tempted to say that a kite-flying boy or girl could paint a better picture; this work actually impresses one as being the work of someone who either lacked the energy or the artistic ability to produce a well-arranged, well-proportioned, natural picture. 

And as to the purported theme of this painting? 

Well, just what does one say about such things? 

Far-fetched? Yes! I rubbed my eyes in amazement when I read it. Modern beatitude? “Modernistic,” I think, would be a better word. 

But Christian art? Hardly. 

I can almost hear one of my Northwest Iowa friends grumble, “Humbug!”

All this would be ridiculous, were it not extremely serious. 

Serious it is, in the first place, that The Banner can even dream of placing such stuff, and that in the name of “New Frontiers for the Reformed Faith.” By this sort of thing The Banner misleads its many readers, and it does despite to the names “Christian” and “Reformed.” Let no one imagine that I can take delight in this. I cannot! I can only weep over it. But I cannot and will not refrain from exposing it and warning against it. 

Serious it is, in the second place, because if this is a sample of the kind of instruction which emanates from Trinity Christian College—and I fear it is,—then the young people at that college are not receiving proper instruction. And those of our own young people who are attending there should be on their guard, lest they imbibe this corruption. Let them not be eager to accept every new idea at face value just because it has a pseudo-relevant sound and a pseudo-Reformed name. 

And serious it is, in the third place, because it does not speak well for the A.A.C.S. I am reminded, in this connection, that this same Calvin Seerveld is the author of “A Christian Critique of Art,” published by the A.A.C.S. (then the A.R.S.S.) in its “Christian Perspective Series 1963.” If this is a sample of the philosophy of Christian art in their proposed Christian university, then the whole project is not worth the time, energy, and money required to establish such a university.