State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe by Gene Edward Veith

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Veith Jr., Gene Edward.  State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe. Illinois: Crossway Books, 256 pp. $14.99

What is good art, bad art, and art acceptable to God? For years this question has provided plenty of discussion and lively debate amongst Christians. In State of the Arts, provost and professor of literature emeritus at Patrick Henry College, George Edward Veith Jr., has designed a book to help Christians discern between good and tasteless art while they “rediscover their own artistic heritage” (xvi). Through twelve chapters he examines art, examining why Christians should not dismiss its intrinsic value, but instead, accept it as a gift from God to be used for His glory.

Aimed at both Christians and non-Christians, the introductory chapter of this book provides commentary on the current state of art, whilst mentioning that this book expands on Veith’s previous work The Gift of Art. In part one, “Comprehending the Arts”, Veith addresses the “travesties of the arts” and how modern art, self-indulgent in nature, is created so “the standard of shock replaces the standard of beauty” (21). Although many Christians have taken a stance as iconophiles or iconoclasts, they cannot nor should not ignore the value and beauty that can be found in art. Veith discusses the nature of art noting how form and content relate to both artist and viewer. He details an overview of art history and its aesthetics, both functional and decorative, expounding on how it relates and reflects the surrounding culture, stating that Christians should “cultivate what is aesthetically worthy” as “inappropriateness and ugliness can debase our surroundings and deaden our sensitivities (37). Veith dissects various works of art whilst navigating “the course of Western art in an imaginary walk through a museum”, therein suggesting a different perspective in viewing works of art (54).

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In part two Veith focuses on biblical foundations, addressing the vocation and works of Bezalel versus the idolatry of Aaron. God was very specific in His instructions relating to the artistry of the Tabernacle, only mankind’s best offerings were deemed appropriate to glorify God, because every “artistic ability is God’s gift” (107). An artist must care for the audience to ensure an avoidance of corruption, therefore Christian artists and audiences can “avoid this idolatry by testing the message and effect of art by the Word of God” (143).

Part three, “Christianity and the Arts”, examines the work of Christian artist Georges Rouault, who balanced the elements of “form and freedom” resulting in art that is “richly human because it is richly spiritual” (172). Four other contemporary Christian artists are also examined who excel in the secular art world whilst demonstrating the “sophisticated ways Biblical truth can be expressed artistically” (175). In corporate worship, Veith suggests that “Art should aid the worship of God, not be distracting”, focusing the attention solely on God, whilst exhibiting the “beauty of holiness” (203, 204). Art contains imagery of morality, the Gospel, and sacramentality, and the detailed artistic exposition in Exodus 36-39 reminds Christians that God exults in “the creations and the aesthetic satisfaction of His children” (234).

Veith has succeeded in providing a resource for Christians and non-Christians, with a thorough conversation about how to view art, while defending it biblically. This title would benefit students of art, theology and apologetics, along with those in ministry, however, the layperson might also find Veith’s commentary an interesting read.

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