Art World Enemy No. 1

According to the Washington Post, the art world has a new Enemy No. 1. Is it Jesse Helms, who compared contemporary art to a skunk's spray? No, it's not Jesse Helms. Is it Donald Wildman, who uses boycotts to go after lewd art and pornography? No, not him either. The Washington Post identifies the art world's No. 1 enemy as Morley Safer, reporter for "60 Minutes." Not long ago, Safer offered a blistering critique of contemporary art, titled "Yes, But Is It Art?" He showed the work of Robert Gober, who creates sculptures shaped as urinals. He zoomed in on Robert Ryman, who paints entire canvases plain white. He showed works by Jeff Koons-like two basketballs floating in a fish tank. Safer asked, Is this art? How do we define art in the first place? The ancient philosophers defined art as that which appeals to our aesthetic sense-our sense of beauty. They believed that beauty is an objective standard. In fact, the ancients listed three absolutes by which we judge things: the true, the good, and the beautiful. But today the art world rejects any standards, in any area. The philosophy of existentialism has taken over, teaching that without God there are no absolute standards. Many works of art-like Andy Warhol's famous paintings of soup cans-were intended to debunk the very idea of objective standards for art. But without standards, how do we decide what qualifies as art? If the definition is not objective, then it is subjective-rooted in the artist himself. As Christian art professor Gene Edward Veith explains, today art is defined as anything an artist does. That's why someone can get away with dropping basketballs in a fish tank and calling it art. If you tried that, you'd be laughed out of the gallery. But if Jeff Koons does it, well, he's an artist, isn't he? So it must be art. As the director of the Whitney Museum in New York recently stated, "A work of art is whatever an artist says is a work of art." With this philosophy, no wonder artists have grown arrogant. When Morley Safer ran his "60 Minutes" segment, he was savaged for weeks. Artists who feel they have an unchallenged right to define art take offense when they are challenged. Christian activists are trying to curb the worst excesses of contemporary art by limiting government funding, and that's a good start. But by itself it's a little like trying to stop a pot from boiling over by putting the lid on, while leaving the burner turned up. We also need to turn the burner down by addressing the underlying cause-the rejection of standards that makes it impossible to distinguish art from junk. In the book of Romans, Paul says we can avoid being conformed to this world only by being transformed in our minds-our thinking, our world view. If we want to renew art and culture in America, we have to reach out to artists and challenge their world view. Because the No. 1 enemy of the art world isn't Morley Safer, or even Jesse Helms. The No. 1 enemy of the art world . . . is the art world itself.


Chuck Colson


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