Rookmaaker and How to Approach Art

The cultural left succeeds where the cultural right fails. This is because the left cares about culture, whereas the right (tends to) shun it. The conservative inclination in the noble spheres of art and music frequently is one of apathy, at best, or an anabaptist-style retreat, at worst. How then should we approach art?

It is first of all necessary to understand that art is always an expression, even if only in part, of the artist’s worldview. Out of the fullness of the heart does the painter paint, and the poet wax lyrical. The “pipe-puffing pundit of Amsterdam” knew this best, and this point encapsulates his life mission. Hans Rookmaaker challenged the conservative and Christian isolation from the arts during his short career—a challenge that continues to echo its truth today.

Another reason that Christian Conservatives tend to shy away from the arts is, I suspect, the cultural taboo of judging and critiquing art negatively. However, all art communicates a message, and the artist is highly committed to this message. But as Rookmaaker points out, the art critic is ‘also committed,’ and retains ‘the right to reject that message.’[1] Every man has the prerogative to assess and judge art; a prerogative no offended artist may take away. This is because, as Rookmaaker’s biographer puts it, art is a matter of “spiritual combat, not simply a matter of aesthetic niceties or opinions.”[2]

Another reason art and high culture are difficult seems to be that Christian conservatives tend to be bored with it. This is because they come at it from the wrong angle—such is my belief. This article aims to change that.

Looking at art is precisely like having a conversation. Art is conversation. Yet a conversation is deeply different from a lecture, a speech, or a meeting. These all have in common one attribute which a conversation is exempt from: a pre-planned agenda. By contrast, dialogues and conversations are open-ended. And yet, conversations—in spite of the utter lack of planning—produce communication of the greatest pleasure!

Our favorite conversations in life are without exception unexpected and unplanned, in fact, many times our best moments are with people that we only meet once; the bus ride home, or walking along the street. Our talk takes off incredibly well and ends on a high note—ending too soon. We feel like we’re best friends instantly. And yet no one ever set out to have this experience. Nor could we if we tried.

This was precisely the story of Hans Rookmaaker and Francis Schaeffer, in fact.

Upon introduction, Rookmaaker quickly asked Schaeffer if he had time to speak. Schaeffer, with a glance at his watch, replied that he could spare maybe half an hour. However, Hans’s future wife was amazed the following day to hear that Hans never even got around to asking his music questions—the whole reason Rookmaaker wanted to meet Schaeffer to begin with—because they had gotten immediately submerged into extensive discussion regarding modern art and its atheistic foundations. This was so mutually enjoyable that the conversation did not end until 4 AM.[3]

Art is no different. Most of the “conversations” with most of the artists and their art are boring, just like many real-life conversations. But the more dialogue we participate in, the more expanded our chances are to encounter the kind that stick with us indelibly—hopefully so deeply that we feel like the painting was made for us, and us alone.

I can say that only two paintings have ever given me this experience in my own life. One was by a Montague Dawson in Recife, Brazil, the other by an artist whose name I never discovered in England. The Montague Dawson painting was so unique and so fascinating to me that I recognized his style in another painting years later while in London. And though I cannot describe what exactly it was about that painting in Brazil, it represented something about me so well that no other painting could cast a shadow in it’s light—or, that is at least how I felt. This is what we mean when we say that a painting or a song ‘speaks’ to us. It is able to make sense of reality as we understand it.

When art makes sense of the world around us, it appears to ground our very being, tethering our soul to reality. It is one of the most affirming experiences possible.

There is no way to go to an art gallery and guarantee that we will find a ‘friend’ amongst a sea of strangers, but just as dialogue that is at its most enjoyable can never be forced, it is forever an elusively unplanned providential surprise. But this rubs against a common assumption, namely, that every art work must be engaged with. On the contrary, as Rookmaaker shares, “Look at the one that draws you to itself.”[4]

A conversation is a two-way street, but one where neither speaker knows where the street ends. Each participant can suddenly provide input, shifting the direction some; one friend’s idea invokes another’s memory, which in turn inspires a joke from the first friend.

In fact, this philosophy of viewing art can also be applied to friendships, even life lived in toto. Friendships, too, cannot be forced or preplanned. They must be held with an open hand, changing as the vicissitudes of life demand. Again, friendships should be largely predicated on people who draw us to them. In fact, this is how friendship works. But naturally, it does not follow that simply because a man is not friends with everyone that he cannot be friendly with everyone.

This philosophy of art is a relaxing and open one. Probably because it is predicated on a philosophy of life that is open and relaxed. With this philosophy, we can readily begin to appreciate art, a God-given mission.

“Hans began to stir the Calvinist establishment to a fuller appreciation of art,”[5] as Laurel Gasque shares ; a stirring needed today. Rookmaaker understood that “art was as formidable a shaper of culture as the political, economic, and scientific spheres,”[6] which shape our lives every day. The thinking Christian will not only avoid being ignorant of these spheres, but will seek to “take every thought captive” since there is no place “in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”[7]

References & Citations

[1] Laurel Gasque,  Art and the Christian Mind: the Life and Work of H.R. Rookmaaker (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 24.

[2] Gasque, Art and the Christian Mind, 22.

[3] Gasque, Art and the Christian Mind, 73-74.

[4] Hans R. Rookmaaker, Art Needs No Justification (Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing), 18.

[5] Gasque, Art and the Christian Mind, 151.

[6] Gasque, Ibid.

[7] James D. Bratt, ed., “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

For Further Discussion:

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The Reformed Conservative aims to reunite gentlemanly virtues with scholarly conversation. Standing in the great Reformed and conservative heritage of thinkers like Edmund Burke and Abraham Kuyper, we humbly seek to inject civility into an informed conversation, one article at a time, bringing clarity out of chaos.