Last year in a Miami art gallery, there was a banana taped to the wall. It sold for $120,000. Yes, you read that right. The piece was called “Comedian,” and the couple who purchased said banana referred to it as “an iconic historical object,” and were, “acutely aware of the blatant absurdity of the fact that ‘Comedian’ is an otherwise inexpensive and perishable piece of produce and a couple [of] inches of duct tape.” How thoughtful of them to clarify.
In traditional humanist thinking, art is creativity whose purpose transcends practicality or function. However, even with this comprehensive definition, it is challenging to qualify a banana taped to a wall, a perishable fruit with little inherent value, as art. This piece of fruit was vaulted onto the imaginary pedestal of extreme worth by only the mere agreement of a few individuals. It was one of the greatest “Emperor has no clothes” moments in recent memory. (There is even a video of artist David Datuna taking the banana off the wall and eating it at a show.) In many ways, this piece represents the state of contemporary art, and the state of the arts represents the state of contemporary culture. So how did we get here?
In 1917, French artist Marcel Duchamp submitted a ready-made sculpture called “Fountain” to the Society of Independent Artists for exhibition in New York City. Society rules mandated that no piece of art would be rejected if the artist had paid the exhibition fee of $6. This is significant because Duchamp’s fountain was quite literally a urinal turned on its side and signed with a fake name, “R. Mutt.” The piece spurned a debate about legitimate art that continues to this day and opened the floodgates (forgive the pun) for countless other artists to push the boundaries of absurdity and experimentation, for better or for worse.
What happens in the world of art is often a foretelling of what will happen in the culture at large, and Duchamp’s fountain was a glaring example of this. The century that followed has been marked by an increasing erosion of traditional values, not only in the arts but in all of Western culture. In a dangerous experiment, we have spent a lifetime systematically deconstructing the values and principles that have underpinned our culture for hundreds of years. Art, religion, gender, sexuality, economics— post-modern deconstruction of has affected all of it. We are now, in 2020, just starting to see the fruit (in this case, a banana on the wall) of what was sown all those years ago. Anxiety and depression are skyrocketing. Pornography is pervasive. Our politics are hopelessly divided. We lack collective purpose, identity and joy. The early results are in: we are losing our minds.
What is the remedy to all this? The remedy is Jesus, clear and simple. The Bible calls him “the Desire of the Nations,” (Haggai 2:7) which means that deep down, everybody wants Jesus, even if they don’t realize it. As previously stated, what happens in the art world is a preview of what is going to percolate into the rest of the culture. Just as the arts were ground zero for deconstruction, what if the arts were also the place where the solution was realized? That is, art infused with the beauty of King Jesus.
The Bible gives us a model for this kind of art. In Exodus 31 and 35, God calls Bezalel and Oholiab for the creation of the tabernacle.
“See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer.” —Exodus 35:30-35
The function of the tabernacle was to host the presence of God in the midst of the people, but God did not want the place of his dwelling to be boring. Far from being merely practical or unremarkable, the tabernacle was an intricately designed, extravagantly crafted piece of communal artwork. What’s noteworthy is that God trusted human artists, imbued with his wisdom, to execute his vision of an earthly dwelling place. The plans and the blueprint were given to Moses as copies of the heavenly realities, but it was the earthly artists who built the tabernacle. This is the paradigm: heaven-sent, presence-centred, spirit-filled, human creativity that is excellent, communal and filled with beauty.
We are given even more insight into this paradigm when we consider the meaning of the names of Bezalel and Oholiab. The name Bezalel means, “In the shadow of the Almighty.” While the name Oholiab means “the Father’s tent.” Both of these names connote intimacy and communion with God, indicating that fellowship with our creator is both the true source and goal of human creativity.
Dostoyevsky was famously quoted as saying that “beauty will save the world,” but the beauty that will save the world is not a banana duct-taped to a wall, or a urinal turned on its side. In 20,000 thousand years, when we are all gazing enamoured at the King of Kings, these things will be remembered as meaningless blimps. The beauty that will save the world is the same beauty that we, through the Spirit of God, can access and manifest in our human creativity even now. Jesus isn’t just beautiful; he is the visible image of the invisible God, which makes him the consummation of beauty, the standard by which all things in heaven and earth are measured. Once people see him for who he is, they will become absolutely fascinated with him, and nothing else will matter.