I do not pretend to be an art connoisseur. In fact, whenever I go to (am dragged to) a museum I always gravitate toward the art that makes sense to me. I like paintings that look like real things. I don’t care for abstraction, I think modern art is utter garbage, and I think Jackson Pollack is the greatest practical joke ever played on human society. Still, there are those who will disagree and look down on me over their monocle and expensive wine saying, “There clearly is some deeper meaning, you Philistine!”
Ok. I actually agree about the deeper meaning. My theological training included substantial reading and conversations about hermeneutics, including reader-response criticism, deconstructionism, structuralism, all the isms. So take it from a guy who can watch a squirrel out his window and somehow work it into a sermon: interpretation of meaning can be found everywhere.
But when it comes to visual art, for me something has to be rooted in reality, or personally I just don’t like it. I turn away from cubism for the same reason I think Joyce’s Ulysses is overhyped drivel: sure, it’s important historically, but I don’t like it and you can’t make me. Be a docent, not a declaimer. If art really is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s no accounting for taste, don’t treat me like I’m stupid if I just don’t like it. Painted art especially imitates life in ways that realistic photographs don’t: it reorganizes otherwise inchoate experiences into a mimetic medium that breeds contemplation (and hopefully meaning). Besides, authorial intent hasn’t been the modus operandi in art and literature for decades, so historical accuracy quite often is not the goal of the artist or author.
Why am I bringing this up? Because there is a trend in the Wokeverse right now that fits this pedantry. Specifically, some enlightened hipster will point to a painting of Jesus and says, “You know, Jesus wasn’t a white guy!”
Couple of things:
First, I honestly have never met someone stupid enough to believe that Jesus is a white guy. He was born in Bethlehem of a mother from Nazareth. But because it was two thousand years ago and there were no cameras or portrait painters, we’re supposed to think that every painting of Jesus is intended to be historically accurate? Ahem … contrary to the entire scene of art snobbery’s deconstructionism for the last fifty years? No one walks into a church, sees a painting of a white Jesus, and says, “Oh, I didn’t know that’s what he looked like!” Seriously, stop pretending those people exist. The Renaissance artists didn’t think like this, either. No one walked into the Sistine Chapel and said, “OMG Michelangelo, you really nailed the accuracy of God the Father … that beard is just like it is IRL!” Art imitates life, and religious art is intended to draw you into a personal contemplation of the divine. It usually isn’t intended to be historically accurate, or we’d have one stock painting for everyone.
Second, such a statement is only spoken in an effort to raise awareness of what you perceive to be the social salience of whiteness. In other words, you want white Christians to recognize that even their religious artwork is infected with a systemic privilege. Don’t try to deny it: Bell, Delgado, Crenshaw, DiAngelo, Kendi, etc. all talk this way, and it is par for the CRT/I course. It’s double-plus-ungood now to express yourself in creative ways, but only if you’re white.
Third, your criticism is self-defeating for art at best, and antithetical to the gospel at worst. It is self-defeating because art imitates life and gives meaning to inchoate experiences. Observe:
Several years ago, I was at a ministerial alliance event at an AME church. The African Methodist Episcopal denomination itself was born out of the despicable practice of segregation and discrimination towards black Americans. Consequently, most of today’s AME Christians are (not surprisingly) black. When I walked in, I did a double take: hanging on the wall was a copy of Hofmann’s famous painting of “Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane,” but the Jesus was clearly of African descent. Did I run at the pastor and tell him that Jesus wasn’t a black guy? No, because I’m not a racist. I just smiled and thought, “Art imitates life.” Jesus came into the flesh of the people of this congregation. Jesus suffered and died for the people of this congregation. Religious artwork draws your heart into a contemplation of divine truths. And since most (maybe all) of them were black, the artwork reflected the color of their skin.
There are four main depictions of Jesus in my church’s sanctuary—two on stained glass, one in wood relief, and one in paint. He looks slightly different in all four, and no one is stupid enough to think that any of them bears a photographic exactness of our Lord. In fact, one of them depicts Jesus with little children, ala Matthew 19 and Mark 10 … with blonde hair. There were zero blonde-haired-blue-eyed German kids in Israel two thousand years ago. But this church was lousy with them in 1905. So they installed historically inaccurate artwork that was nevertheless representative of the community and the theological truths that it depicts. This art is mimetic of the relationship that the congregants had with their Lord “who had to be made like his brothers in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17). As the pastor, I get to stand very close to a cruciform image that has hung in our sanctuary since 1868. Whenever I gaze upon that savior who bled and died for me, the absolute last thing I think is, “Wow, it’s awesome how white he is!”
Now at this point, the skinny-jeaned proletariats who took the clickbait title of this article will say (with other antiracists like Omi, Winant, Bonilla-Silva, and Helsel) that such a normativity shouldn’t apply to whites—that the overlooking of historical inaccuracy is evidence of racism because whites are not conditioned to view their whiteness as part of their identity. That’s called “color-blind racism” or “hegemonic racism.” So following the whole CRT playbook, linking the color of my skin to my identity will lead to the unassailable conclusion that I need to repent of my skin color, and all artwork of white Jesus should be burned because finding my identity in Christ who destroys all social barriers with the unity of his personhood is endemic to my white privilege.
In other words, this wokeism, “You know, Jesus wasn’t white,” in criticism of religious art is at best ignorant of what art is; at worst it is pure racism. And therefore contrary to the gospel.
Who is the racist: the white guy who wants everyone to come to a knowledge of Jesus Christ as Lord? Or the white guy who judges people according to the color of their skin?
I know Jesus isn’t white, you racist. Get a life.