Francis A. Schaeffer set about in his books to analyze literature, works of art, and theology in order to describe what he called a descent past the ‘line of despair’. One of the most potent ways he accomplishes this is through his analysis of artwork. before we can understand Francis A. Schaeffer’s analysis of visual artwork, it must be understood where he comes from. This is not meant to be an in depth understanding of Schaeffer himself, but an overview of the system to which he defends and which he can make analysis of art, namely presuppositionalism. Before explicating this idea, I must make mention that I am greatly indebted to Dr. Schaeffer and his work. May his writings, and those that follow these ideas, turn back the fog of despair.
THE NECESSARY PRESUPPOSITION: PRESUPPOSITIONS
The basic premise of this work as that everyone operates upon premises, or presuppositions. Everyone operates on a worldview which is made up of several presuppositions. For example, a Christian Theist can presuppose absolute truth based upon God. This leads to producing works (whether artistic, literature, music, et. al.) with absolute forms. Whereas, a non-Theist has no such justification for objective absolutes. Therefore, they may produce works out of utter randomness. Artwork and other works often flow from the artist’s central views on life: Where did we come from? What is our purpose? A Christian believes humans came from God and their purpose is to enjoy God and glorify Him. This causes Christian artists to produce works made purposefully with meaning. On the other hand, Natural Secularists (non-Theists) believe humans are here merely by chance and have no purpose. Therefore they produce works by randomness which only purpose is to prove there is no purpose.
DESCENDING A STAIRCASE
Dr. Francis Schaeffer, in his book The God Who is There, defines what he coins the “line of despair.”(1) This is the line in which when men descend under, they reject absolute truth and accept the presuppositions of the secularist (which, mind you, they should have had all along). This line maps out into a staircase which Schaeffer orders as follows: philosophy, art, music, general culture, theology. Artists show the philosopher’s presuppositions rather candidly in such a fashion that general culture consumes it. Then the philosopher’s presuppositions becomes the world’s presuppositions. No one may consider their premises, nor care, but everyone operates on them. But is the foundation God set about for the Christian sufficient? Or must we add to it from buffet of ideas the world around us offers? Throughout this website, art will be critiqued in order to find the premise whence the artist comes. As will be shown, no one can operate outside their worldview.
Dr. Schaeffer notes particular artists as being the first to descend past the “line of despair”. One in particular he notes is Paul Gaugiun (1846-1903). The artwork in particular is his masterpiece: Where do we come from? What are we doing? Where are we going? Supposedly this idea came from a Catholic catechism emphasizing the basics of worldview. Obviously, within the Christian worldview, believers understand that they come from God, they are here to enjoy and glorify God, and eventually be able to be with Him forever. But these are the questions that Gauguin set about to answer. He was in a search for absolutes, and what did he find? Something, “comparable to the Gospel.”(2)
The work of art did not set about to answer the questions set forth, but in reality the painting asked the questions. In fact he claims there are many mathematical problems with this particular work. He hypothetically supposes someone noticing one arm being too long. He claims it is, but it also is not, “provided… you discard vert-similitude to reach out for mystery.”(3) And so his works did. Ultimately this painting conveys the pain in the artist’s life and reveals his understanding as life as meaningless.
Once more we see art turn a little further to the area of no absolutes, on a worldview based in randomness. When unproportioned arms were once deemed reaching out to mystery, this now becomes all mystery. He did not merely work to challenge absolutes, he is worked to destroy them. Dr. Schaeffer describes him as “the high priest of destruction”.(5) As one notices the title of this work and seeks to find that subject in the painting, he makes himself dirty. As one critic described, ”
He was also apart of the Dada artist group movement. This group devoted themselves to the destruction of art. At one point, Duchamp dubbed a urinal “fountain” and claimed it to be art. The main goal is for the veiwer to be involved in the work of art, and then be destroyed in the process. The main message is everything is mere randomness. The goal’s purpose does not extend to art only, but to all of life.
Jackson Pollock is an artist who would use a random technique, or “action paining.” This was a way to allow the “impersonal” universe to speak for itself. As long as one believes the universe is merely random.(7)
John Cage, a composer also enjoyed this technique. He would flip a coin to figure out what would be played next. He said, “When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings, or about his ideas of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic—here on Sixth Avenue, for instance—I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound […] I don’t need sound to talk to me.”(8)
Further destroying all meaning is the New Criticism of literature which, at best, minimizes authorial intent; and, at worst, completely removes it! In other words, authorial intent is trying to understand what the original author of a work was trying to say. So, the interpreter is searching for what the author was trying to communicate. New Criticism says that information is minor or irrelevant. What matters is what the words mean to the interpreter. So, the interpreter finds meaning in him or herself through the text rather that what the original author was trying to say.
The problem is when we destroy the principle to find meaning in writing by authorial intent, we simultaneously destroy any meaningful author’s intent and principle for writing. Think of the infamous “blah story” by Nigel Tomm. “Let me summarize some facts about world’s longest book/novel – The Blah Story. Nigel Tomm’s abstract novel The Blah Story was begun to publish in the October 2007. In 2007 first 4 volumes were published. In 2008 next 19 volumes were published. For now, 23 volumes of The Blah Story are published, they contain 11,338,105 words; 61,745,771 characters (with spaces); 17,868pages.”
Here’s the description from Amazon: “Overwhelmingly creative, Nigel Tomm demolishes the barrier of words and meaning, giving vitality and expressive strength to the pattern of his most exclusive novel – The Blah Story. It is a new way of conceiving text that frees the imagination, allowing you to personalize each and every word by your own creativity.”(8) Just check out this excerpt:
Upon blah up with the blah, blah perceived that it was in the blah of a blah blah of the blah of the blah, but far blah in blah the blah of these blah. Owing to the blah which blah among us at this blah turn of the blah, no blah was ready blah blah with a blah, and the blah had actually blah in getting blah blah vast blah across blah, and blah one of the blah by the small of blah back, before any blah means were blah to blah blah. In this blah nothing but the blah and blah of blah saved blah from blah. The blah soon recovered blah, and a blah being blah, blah secured the blah before blah the blah. Blah then blah in blah to the blah, blah our blah behind blah. This blah, upon blah, blah to be full blah in blah blah. Blah blah was perfectly blah, and very blah, blah tightly. (9)
IS EVERYTHING MEANINGLESS?
We’ve seen artists/authors from a variety of art forms fight against consistency and meaning. It reminds me of another author from thousands of years ago: Qoheleth. “Vanity of vanities, says the Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
The aim of the book, very succinctly, is to show the emptiness and meaninglessness of life without God as its controlling factor, and, on the other hand, the wisdom of knowing Him early in life so as to live out one’s days with full satisfaction and fulfillment.
We should not cite these artists/authors for being insane, ridiculous, incredulous, far out, or unbelievable. They are viewing the world “under the sun” and for once, honestly as well. Notice the Qoheleth’s view “under the sun” also includes God (cf. 2:24-26). This is not the God of the whole Bible. This “under the sun” God is formed using specific revelation and selfish imagination.
Think of it this way, the typical European Deist of the 18th century used the Bible to form his god. However, this was clearly not the God of the Bible. Yet it was a god enough to supply the meaning necessary to continue on with life and not seek to destroy meaning everywhere.
Modern western man has now, for the most part, done away with this God as well. As Nietzsche famously said, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” There’s no barrier, nor facsimile of a barrier to protect these people from the destruction of all meaning. Either these people “under the sun” with no God or psuedo-god will have to entertain themselves to the grave and ignore Wisdom. Or Wisdom will find them and they will seek to kill her.
That’s exactly what the above artists/authors have sought to do: destroy Wisdom. Why? Because Wisdom says meaning cannot be found in money, working hard, pleasure, food, earthy justice, or politics. Wisdom says true meaning can only be found in the one true God. That is precisely why Proverbs says,
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
Beginning, here, refers both to temporal and priority. So you could say, “the fear of the Lord is the foundation of knowledge.” The fear of the Lord is both what begins wisdom in people and that on which wisdom is built. (10)
1. Schaeffer, Francis A. A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture (The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer. Revised ed. Vol. 1). Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985.
2. Paul Gauguin, The Letters of Paul Gauguin to Georges Daniel de Monfreid (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1922), 95.
3. ibid., 99.
5. Schaeffer, Francis A. A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture (The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer. Revised ed. Vol. 1). Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985.
6. Calvin Tomkins. Duchamp: a Biography. New York : Henry Holt, 1996.:
7. Schaeffer, Francis A. A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture (The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer. Revised ed. Vol. 1). Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985.