The Bible and Abstract and Representational Art

I am doing a chapter by chapter review of the book, The Gift of Art¸ written by Gene Edward Veith, Jr (1983).

After discussing the misuse of the arts in Chapter 3, Veith turns our attention to the various types of art used in the Bible. As the Bible describes the building and decorating of the tabernacle and later the Temple, we see “specific, positive examples of how various types of art—abstract, representational and symbolic—can function to the glory of the one God and the benefit of his people” (p.43).

Veith asserts, “Much of what Bezalel made can perhaps best be appreciated in terms of abstract art, that is, as pure design” (p44). Veith uses the term ‘abstract art’ to mean that it represents nothing outside of itself. It is the coming together of forms, shapes, colors and lines into designs such as those found in Persian tapestry. He goes on to contend that “much of what is now called abstract art is actually an intellectual statement—studies in randomness, statements of the meaninglessness of life, experiments of ‘minimal’ art, jokes by egotistical artists on their public—although much still shows concern for pure design in the older sense” (p. 44).

Nevertheless, abstract art in the sense of pure design is not totally without meaning. “Abstract art can present ‘abstractions’ – power, order, beauty, glory—without representing a creature in the world, which can sometimes be seen as the whole focus or source of the meaning” (p 46).

Veith goes on to complain that among Christians today there is a tendency to have contempt for abstract art. We tend to associate abstract art with contemporary, modern art which is dominated by non-Christian assumptions. With a little thought and research, however, we discover that non-representational, abstract art was the type of art favored by the ancient Hebrews and specifically set forth in the Bible by God as He described the designs to be used in the tabernacle (p 46).

On the other hand, because of the second commandment against making a ‘graven image,’ “representational art should be the style that makes those who believe the Scriptures the most uneasy” (p. 46). So what of representational art? Should people who desire to love and serve God avoid representational art in their careful effort to avoid making a graven image? Actually, when we read the biblical descriptions of both the temple and the tabernacle we find images of almond blossoms, pomegranates, lions, oxen, palm trees and even supernatural cherubim being prescribed by God to be used in the furnishings and decorations. Clearly, representational art is also acceptable to God (p. 47).

Veith goes on to explain what I personally have experienced and describe to be art as worship. “When God is understood as the primal artist, depictions of his works can be a means of honoring him, of recognizing and imitating those forms that he chose to create. In fact, it is a measure of the human obtuseness, emanating no doubt from the Fall, that we tend to ignore God’s works with all of their intricacy and beauty simply because they are so commonplace. One of the functions of art is precisely to increase our awareness of the beauty and significance of what we normally ignore because it is so familiar to us. By lifting up an everyday object, removing it from its normal context, an artist can point out to us an object’s true nature and value” (p. 48).

The difference between representational art approved by scripture and that forbidden by the Second Commandment is that the art does not receive worship but points beyond itself to the true object of worship. “They do not pretend to “contain” the infinite God, only to praise him and communicate his reality to others. The realm of nature and the realm of heaven itself are fit subjects for representational art” (p. 52).

I particularly appreciate Veith’s insistence that ‘representational art’ does not necessarily mean ‘photographic realism.’ “Francis Shaeffer observes that some of the pomegranates that were to adorn the garments of the priest were to be blue, a color that never occurs in natural pomegranates. One thinks of Chagall and Matisse. Painting an apple blue instead of red, depicting nature in new ways by experimenting with color and form, helps us see the object in a new way, not as inevitable and ordinary but as the creative, even arbitrary, handiwork of God” (p. 52-53).

Next week I will conclude Chapter Four by sharing Veith’s comments about
• the powerful way art can communicate and teach as it is used symbolically, and
• art as an inevitable expression of the culture that surrounds it.

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