Hannah Montana, Sufjan Stevens, NYC, and the Abstract Art of God

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It made my heart sing when I got a text from our eighteen-year-old daughter a couple of weeks ago, in which she exclaimed, “Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas record is awesome!”

If you don’t know who Sufjan Stevens is, that probably means you are over thirty-five years old and don’t know a lot of people who are under thirty-five years old. Sufjan is a quirky, very talented Brooklyn musician with a bit of a cult following, especially among Millennials. He has also been, for many years, one of my favorite artists. And my musical taste, if I may say so, is awesome.

I was happy about our daughter’s text because it represented great progress in her musical taste. Not many years ago, she argued fiercely that the music of Hannah Montana was more likely to stand the test of time than the music of U2. I remember her words like it was yesterday: “Dad, you’re crazy if you think that Hannah Montana’s music won’t be listened to for decades. Have you heard The Climb? Have you heard Party in the USA? Seriously, Dad, get a clue!”

Since then, even Miley Cyrus has renounced the music of Hannah Montana. But I digress…

The Sufjan text reminded me that yes, sweetheart, you have come a long way. Hannah Montana is a distant memory in our home, and no longer occupies space on our daughter’s playlist. Instead, her refined and matured musical sensibilities have shifted her attention to the likes of Sufjan, Ben Rector, Johnnyswim, Jillian Edwards, Colony House, and yes, even a few classics from U2. As a father, I couldn’t be more proud. 😉

And yet, I don’t want to be too critical of our daughter’s former, musically sincere, but also sincerely wrong, self. For I, too, have demonstrated my own version of artistic cluelessness in the recent past.

A few years ago when we lived in New York City, a friend and art collector offered to spend a day with me, taking me around to his favorite museums and educating me about the world of creative beauty and genius. We started with more current artists, mainly in the galleries of Chelsea, and then made our way to the Upper East Side where two historic museums, the Guggenheim and the Met, reside.

The amazing thing about the Met is that virtually all of world’s acclaimed artists are represented there. On this particular day, we focused chiefly on the painters. We started with impressionists such as Van Gough and Rembrandt, whose works made a lot of sense to me. But then, my friend capped off the day by taking me into the rooms that housed the greatest works of abstract art.

Specifically, my friend was eager to enlighten me to the works of his two favorites–Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. It was Pollock, in particular, that I could not understand. Pollock’s method was to lay a large canvas flat on the ground, to stand over the canvas, and to drip paint onto the canvas in swirl patterns until the canvas was full. At first blush, the finished product seemed unspectacular, something like the scribble that a toddler would create on a piece of copy paper with a crayon. “I could do this in my sleep,” I thought to myself.

In a moment that, in retrospect, seems as outlandish as comparing Hannah Montana to U2, I asked my friend how much a Jackson Pollock painting would cost. He replied that the latest Pollock painting auctioned for $45 million. Appalled that anyone in their right mind would pay that kind of money for scribble, I exclaimed to my friend, “Are you serious? Even a little child can create a painting like this!”

My friend gave me one of those, “I love you, and you’re an idiot” looks. Then, he explained to me that the beauty of abstract art, and of Jackson Pollock in particular, is in its transcendence and mystery. Its beauty is not obvious to the naked eye, but if you take the time to become intimate with it, its meaning will gradually sneak up on you.

“If you take time with the painting,” my friend said, “if you examine the macro-view from a distance, and then examine the micro-view from up close, if you allow yourself to get intimate with the art, to have a relationship with it, to let it speak to you and receive from it rather than dismissing it or standing in judgment over it, you will find that it is a wondrous outward representation of the inner magnificence of a human soul. Rather than being scribble, this work of art is a manifestation of Jackson Pollock as a tortured soul who also bears the image of God.”

As I took my friend’s advice and got closer to the art, allowing myself to become intimate with it, I began to see the truth in his words. A closer examination revealed several truths about the artist, whose story I have since studied and become fascinated by. Pollock, rather than being the amateur hack that my untrained, ignorant eyes first judged him to be, was a tortured and damaged, yet eternal and magnificent, soul. The apparent chaos of his art, rather than being some sort of sham, was in fact a carefully-constructed autobiographical manifestation of Pollock himself. Furthermore, it is a picture of a broader humanity that has been shattered by sin and sorrow, yet that maintains colors and shadows of the glorious creatures we were meant to be. The painting, in other words, was an impeccable picture of Pascal’s image of the deposed king, whose misery is borne from a Paradise that has been tragically, though not irretrievably, lost.

So then, what relevance do Bono and Sufjan Stevens and Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock have for our lives, and for the times in which we live?

For me at least, these are examples of our inability to discern true greatness, our tendency to replace mystery and transcendence with things that are more comfortable and familiar and controllable to us, and our inherent gravitation toward that which is less lovely and less magnificent. These are examples of how we, with our limited view of things, are like the child CS Lewis wrote about–the child who would rather play in a mud puddle than explore the vast beauty of the ocean–chiefly because the mud is what he knows well, and the ocean, by comparison, seems to him both remote and irrelevant. That is, these are pictures us, and of our inability to recognize the glory of God’s gift to us in the Christ Child.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. (John 1:9-11)

For many of us, the original Christmas story has a similar effect as abstract art does on a person who doesn’t understand art. It appears messy, inglorious, and disposable…and certainly not valuable.

From the outside, the first coming of Jesus was utterly unspectacular and deeply unimpressive. He was the product of an unplanned, teen pregnancy. He was born among farm animals, outdoors. He was from a small, obscure town that didn’t produce people of note…ever. His were refugee parents with zero money, zero connections, and zero reputation.

And yet, the more carefully we examine this historic manger scene, the more intimate we get with it, the more we let this “abstract” set of events speak to us, the more we see ourselves as the uninformed and superficial critics. And, we will begin to see more clearly that God is the master Artist whose “abstract art” not only reveals his own inner character, but has the power to heal the whole world.

To the degree we are able to see the nativity as a refined collector sees abstract art, we will be able to respond not as cynics and critics and armchair consumers, but like Mary did from a place of wonder, when she exclaimed:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…for he who is mighty has done great things for me. (Luke 1:46-49)

It turns out that Bonhoeffer was right when he said that what seems weak and trifling to us, may be great and magnificent to God.

This Christmas, may be bow in worship and wonder and awe before the “fine art” of God in the manger, before a picture that is both abstract and priceless.

Merry Christmas.


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Showing 2 comments
  • Lee Baker
    Reply

    My cousin, Jim McConnel, who was at one time head of the art department at Michigan State University, used to describe what he called “modern art” as a “Conglomeration of Incomprehensibles”. Glad you were able to see what you did, but I think I am stuck with cousin Jim’s description. Merry Christmas, Scott!

  • Cheri Henderson
    Reply

    Having taught Visual Arts for forty years and still resenting the abstract art that was forced on me during my college years, your article resonates with me. To those whose “heart eyes” have not been opened, the things of Jesus and His kingdom must appear as the unappreciated Pollock painting. Thank you for opening my eyes a little more.

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