My wife and I have been travelling in Europe with friends, having stayed in Paris for four days, spent an entire day at the Louvre, followed the trails of Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne in the south of France, and admired the genius of Gaudí, Dalí, Miró, and the early Picasso in Barcelona. The trip began in Paris and is about to end in Paris as I sit and type in a café at Charles-de-Gaulle Airport.
The last time I was in Paris I was not yet sixteen, and yet I was already astounded by the artistic atmosphere. This is the city that bred the likes of Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Berlioz, Debussy, Ravel, and Chanel, and became a second home for Liszt, Chopin, Picasso, and Hemingway. One might wonder what it is about Paris that produced or attracted these great artists from across the fields. In his Oscar-winning original screenplay for the movie Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen brilliantly depicts this city as characterised by an artistic impulse to escape from reality.
Escape from reality—that’s what I want to talk about. As Paris gradually became the art capital of the world in the nineteenth century, the enterprise of artistic endeavours became increasingly centred upon the impulse of escapism. Renoir’s works are most recognisably escapist. When the city lay in ruins as a result of the Franco-Prussian war, he fled artistically from the harsh realities of the time to his impressions of a bourgeois Paris. While the artistic impulse to escape from reality is subtler in other artists of the time, it nevertheless became a hallmark of European arts during the reign of Paris.
The romanticisms of the long nineteenth century were for the most part escapist in one way or another. Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan is a neat example of a Romantic escape from not only the metaphysical (which the Enlightenment critically questioned) but also the psychological realities of moral guilt and fear of judgment. Back in the Classical era of European Art Music, Mozart and Da Ponte would portray the unrepentant Don Giovanni as a villain deservingly swallowed up into hell as a result of supernatural judgment. Liszt distorts the opera and turns the villain into a hero who defies hell and judgment ‘and sacrifices his life in a consistent insistence on living in the moments of his desire’ (in the words—in my view satiric—of Kierkegaard’s aesthetic pseudonym in Either), boldly staying true to himself by refusing to repent and live, since repentance would entail the negation of his very existence. Liszt’s friend Wagner, who twice sought refuge and shelter in Paris during his life, offers a romanticising distortion of Mozart’s opera complementary to that of Liszt in the article “De l’ouverture” in Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris. Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, too, mingles a Gregorian tune of Dies irae (Day of Wrath) with a grotesque Sabbath dance as a parody of the reality of the human fear of death and judgment. The fear is real, but the artist denies it by claiming to have defied it.
Impressionism that ensued later in the long nineteenth century is more obviously escapist. Renoir represented an impressionistic escape from the realities of a harsh life. Impressionists like Monet and Pissaro did not feel that the meaning of art lied in the objective reality that they perceived. For them, what is real is not something objective. The artist and the external world no longer stand in a subject-object relation. What is real is the artist’s subjective impression of the world.
Van Gogh might have been an exception among the Impressionists. He insisted on seeing the creaturely world in light of the ultimate reality of God. Needless to say, he was deeply aware of the sins, evils, and sufferings of the world. However, I have always felt that he lacked the boldness to acknowledge the reality the fallenness of this world—the dark side of humanity found in Gauguin’s works with which Van Gogh was never able to come to terms. In other words, Van Gogh was sufficiently optimistic about God, but insufficiently pessimistic about sinful humanity. In a sense he was very much like Dostoyevsky’s idiot—too good and in my view too naïve for this world. In this sense Van Gogh’s art is also characterised by a kind of escapism: he was unwilling to face the dark reality of this world that Gauguin had seen, even though his sight was so focused on God and God’s good creation.
Woody Allen’s aforementioned screenplay sharply reflects one significant aspect of the artistic escapisms that arose in the nineteenth century—nostalgia of an irretrievable golden age. Romantic theology would often entertain thoughts about a relation of immediacy between God and creatures in the here-and-now that, according to biblical redemptive history, belongs exclusively to paradise long since lost, a kind of immediacy that the Bible reveals to be no longer possible until Kingdom come. This nostalgic impulse in the nineteenth century is perhaps best represented in the artistic development in Gauguin’s life. Paris was too civilised for Gauguin, who thought that art should reflect a past golden age in which men and women lived as noble savages in paradise. Even in the south of France where Van Gogh saw the beauties of God’s creation, Gauguin sought pleasure in prostitution and saw only darkness in the human beings he painted. Thus Gauguin would travel all the way to Tahiti to dwell among the aboriginal people, whom he thought must have been the noblest of all peoples. Needless to say, Tahiti was not the paradise that he had imagined, and there was little nobility in the savage life that he witnessed. In real life Gauguin could find no retreat from human brokenness and evil, and as a result his artistic expressions began to move even further away from realism.
Soutine’s Flayed Ox (1925) after Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef (1655) well encapsulates the spirit of the so-called School of Paris. Whereas Rembrandt’s work depicts the glory of the atonement through an otherwise repugnant carcass, the Russian-born expressionist painter saw no meaning or hope in the twisted reality of this world.
This escape from reality characteristic of the arts in and beyond Paris reached a high point in Picasso’s cubism and Dalí’s surrealism. The question of what is real becomes increasingly poignant not only in the philosophy of the twentieth century, but also in the arts. Whereas Platonic worldviews of old posited an ultimate reality beyond the immediately sensible and immanent, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment brought about what Kant called a “Copernican” shift of reference points: the locus of ultimate reality was brought down from transcendent objectivity to immanent objectivity. In turn, the romanticisms of the long nineteenth century, not only in literature and the arts, but also in theology and philosophy, further shifted the locus of ultimate reality from immanent objectivity to pure subjectivity. Picasso, Dalí, Berg, Schönberg, and other children of the twentieth century were very much heirs of the nineteenth century in this respect—even heirs of strands of Renaissance realism that severed the immanent from the transcendent. The relocation of ultimate reality in modern European worldviews led to a confusion of reality as well as various sorts of human incapability to cope with the immediately visible reality of the human condition. With their attempt to escape from reality, the works of many twentieth-century artists exhibit a characteristic sense of loss of meaning and hope.
These artistic voices are in fact prophetic in some important, albeit negative, sense. In a world declared God-less and demythologised, these voices cry out like Munch’s The Scream, acutely setting forth that poignant question of ultimate reality, recognising that everything else for which art stands hinges upon that question.
Art stands for beauty, but the loss of objectivity brings about the loss of beauty in the arts—attending a Schönberg opera or a visit to the MOMA in New York City would make this point clear; Art stands for hope, but escape from the reality of a fallen and broken world implies the rejection of the hope of redemption: “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
Górecki’s Third Symphony is one of the best examples of an artist’s search for hope in a hopeless world—but at least he was still searching for hope. Even Mahler’s Resurrection and Veni pertain now to a bygone era, and Britten’s War Requiem could only serve as “the end of religious music” (in David Greene’s words). The War Requimen does not comfort; it questions, and it does so in the most excruciating way. Paradoxically, whether or not one confronts the reality of fallenness, the result would always be the loss of hope, unless one also acknowledges the reality of God’s grace. Escape from the ultimate reality of God inevitably leads to the loss of beauty and hope.
Paris as an artistic symbol should never cease to inspire theologians and Christian artists. In all seriousness, Paris as the capital of artistic escapism stands as a sharp and somewhat negative reminder that God, and only God, is ultimately real, and that apart from God we can find no hope or meaning, let alone truth, goodness, and beauty, but only escape to unreality.
If true art is art that is beautiful, and that which not only sympathises with human beings in the condition of brokenness, but also brings hope to this fallen world, then true art must be art that embraces reality. Art should rightly be beautiful, because the beauties of this world are real: in the beginning the God who is ultimately real created the heaven and the earth to be beautiful. Art should speak of the sufferings and evils of this world, because humankind has really fallen from the original creation of the God who is real. Art should boldly proclaim hope, not in spite of, but on top of the sufferings and evils that it portrays: hope is real, because Jesus Christ is the God who is ultimately real, and in Christ and through the Spirit God works providentially in all things real for the good of those who love him, those whom he has called according to an ultimate end in which humankind shall become truly immediate to God and to one another.
When Dame Myra Hess performed her piano transcription of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring in noontime London recitals in the frequent accompaniment of German bombardments, that great German Baroque composer, though dead, spoke by faith the resolute word of comfort and hope to a world suffering under evil. An artist can become such a prophet only by faith—faith as firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards his children in a world marred by sin and suffering. True art should never shun from reality. If art is to carry out the mission of declaring hope to the broken world, it must take seriously the reality of redemptive history, the ongoing history of creation, fall, and redemption. It must face the God who is ultimately real. True art is art coram Deo and, as Bach reminds us, soli Deo gloria.