Why is modern art so bizarre?

Modern art is so bizarre because of a change in the philosophy or world-view among the intellectuals and artists who shaped much of Western culture at the beginning of the twentieth century. In order explain this I need to start further back than the art itself. Bear with me as I explain this. We shall get to the art eventually.

The twentieth century was an age of apostasy from the Christian faith for most of Western society. This apostasy was not just a matter of people not wanting to go to church any more or no longer being willing to obey the moral precepts of the Christian faith. It originated in a radical shift in the way society as a whole understood the origin, nature, meaning and purpose of life. Such changes in world-view usually start among the shapers of culture, for example intellectuals, artists and sientists, and later come to be accepted by society as a whole. This is what happened in the twentieth century in the West, though the origins of this go back before the beginning of the twentieth century.

If there is no God and everything exists as a result of blind evolutionary processes—chance—then nothing has any meaning and we cannot say anything intelligible about anything in the universe. Atheists cannot live consistently in terms of such a philosophy, so they smuggle the world God made back into their world-view dressed up as something else. They presuppose the concepts of order, meaning and rationality but insist that these things come from some aspect of the cosmos itself, not from the creative will of God, who is not part of the cosmos. In other words they make some aspect of the created order, some idea, person or thing, the ultimate principle of explanation for life. This principle of explanation takes the place of God in their system of belief and they attribute to it all that belongs by right to God, i.e. the attributes of God. This is what idolatry is, whether it exists in a highly cultic form as with ancient idolatry, or in a secularised form as with modern intellectual idols such as evolution and socialism.

The non-believer therefore lives intellectually and spiritually on borrowed capital that he puts to bad use. This is the wisdom of the world. It is idolatry and it comes in the end to nothing, as the apostle Paul says (1 Cor. 1:2). Even the good things of this world, including the very ideas of rationality, meaning, order and purpose, are perverted by the non-believer and put to the service of idols. Why? Because in principle, at the very foundation of the non-believer’s world-view, his understanding is corrupted by sin, by the rejection of God’s word as the definitive and authoritative interpretation of reality. In principle there is an absolute dichotomy, an absolute antithesis, between the whole world of faith in Christ and the whole world of non-belief. But men do not think and live in a way that is entirely consistent with their stated principles; yet even those things that they accept as valid and meaningful are put to use in the service of idols. So the evolutionist uses his reason, a God-given ability, to deny God. He uses the concepts of order and purpose to deny that the universe has order or purpose because a universe of order and purpose points to God and by denying that the universe has order and purpose he denies the God who created it. He perverts even the good things that he inconsistently borrows from the world God created to deny that God created it and to deny God’s rights, and he does this because he knows in his heart that to acknowledge the existence of God and his rights as Creator would mean that he stands under condemnation for his sin.

The non-believer wants a world of order, rationality, purpose and meaning, but he does not want the God whose creative will is necessary for the existence of such a world. He uses the good things of God’s Creation to deny that God created it. Cornelius Van Til said that this is like a child who has to sit on his father’s lap in order to slap him in the face [see footnote 1 below for the reference].

However, this principle of non-belief does sometimes work itself out more consistently in art. In the world of art we often see more clearly where atheism leads, the kind of ultimate conclusions that are involved in the denial of God. The denial of God ultimately implies the denial of all meaning. And whereas in their everyday lives men find it difficult to live in terms of this principle, in art sometimes this principle is worked out more consistently, though usually unselfconsciously. If one looks at much of modern art there is bewildering meaninglessness to it. This can be seen in the visual arts where paintings seem to have no logic. One part of the painting might have absolutely no relation to another part; indeed the whole painting might seem utterly meaningless, a conglomeration of colours and shapes that appear to have no purpose. The world represented by such art is radically shattered, broken, disjointed, dysfunctional, meaningless. The various parts of the picture may seem to have no meaningful relationship to each other in the way that items on a rubbish tip have no meaningful relationship to each other. And indeed the casual lay observer may well describe such pictures as rubbish, a description that is often not unreasonable given this lack of meaningful integration in the overall scheme of the work because it is precisely the lack of meaningful relationships between individual things that defines a rubbish tip. It is often said that such art is not meant to be representational and therefore that such criticism is not valid, but I doubt this is a valid argument. Such art is not representational in the sense that we normally use the term “representational” in reference to the visual arts. But in another sense such art is representational, only what it represents is the utter meaninglessness and randomness of a world without God, a world without order, reason, meaning or purpose.

A good example of this is the picture by Marcel Duchamp, The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes, painted in 1912 (the painting can be viewed online here). The picture does not bear any resemblance to the title, or indeed to anything else. It might just as well have been called Still Life with Apples and Bananas, since it would have represented the latter no less adequately than the former. Duchamp was a precursor to and an important influence on the Dada movement in art, which emphasised disintegration and meaninglessness and embraced chaoas, irrationality and absurdity.

The same is true of much modern atonal music. The sounds produced by the musical instruments do not have any meaningful relationship to each other. They represent a random, unordered and meaningless universe, a universe without God, who alone gives order and meaning to the universe by his creative will (you can listeh to some atonal music here).

The serialism of Arnold Schoenberg, although similarly atonal in effect, does not exactly fit this description in terms of theoretical intention. Nevertheless, Schoenberg stated that “Once we are cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty, and once we have recognised that only the necessity to produce compels him to bring forth what will perhaps afterwards be designated as beauty, then we will also understand that comprehensibility and clarity are not the conditions that the artist is obliged to impose on his work, but conditions that the observer wishes to find fulfilled . . . [Order, clarity] are there by chance, not by law, not by necessity; and what we claim to perceive as laws [defining order and clarity] may perhaps only be laws governing our perception, without therefore being the laws a work of art must obey” [see n. 2]. Although he rejected the term atonal as a description of his own serial music [see note 3] Schoenberg abandoned the tonalism of the Western musical tradition and invented a completely new set of rules to govern the composition of a completely new type of music [see note 4]. His intention seems to have been to do away with the musical world that he had inherited and to re-create the musical world in his own image by means of this new music (you can listen to some of Schoenberg’s music here). In his serial music Schoenberg effectively proclaimed himself the God and creator of his own musical world. Serialism is (after Schopenhauer) the new musical world that is Schoenberg’s idea. As with all other forms of idolatry, the result is not merely spiritual corruption, but also cultural ugliness.

Although this adoption of meaninglessness—or, as with Schoenberg, the rejection of order and comprehensibility, which to all intents and purposes amounts to the same thing—as a means of artistic expression may often be, perhaps usually is, unselfconscious, it is nevertheless a significant component of many modern artists’ world-view. But sometimes it is self-conscious and deliberate, and expressed openly as an ideological principle, as is clear from the words of Schoenberg cited above. Likewise, the atonal composer Pierre Boulez stated in a talk in the 1960s that “A composer should never move by step melodically for more than two notes because if you do the ear will connect them and make meaning out of them” [see note 5]. Compare this with Schoenberg’s statement that “To double is to emphasize, and an emphasized tone could be interpreted as a root, or even a tonic; the consequences of such an interpretation must be avoided. Even a slight reminiscence of the former tonal harmony would be disturbing, because it would create false expectations of consequences and continuations” [see note 6]. By contrast Leonard Bernstein addressed this issue more perceptively: “One cannot ‘abstract’ musical tones; on the contrary they have to be given their reality through form: up-and-down, long-and-short, loud-and-soft. And so to the inescapable conclusion. All forms that we have ever known . . . have always been conceived in tonality, that is, in the sense of a tonal magnetic center, with subsidiary tonal relationships. This sense, I believe, is built into the human organism; we cannot hear two isolated tones, even devoid of any context, without immediately imputing a tonal meaning to them. We may differ from one another in the tonal meaning we infer, but we infer it nonetheless. We are stuck with this, and always will be. And the moment a composer tries to ‘abstract’ musical tones by denying them their tonal implications, he has left the world of communication. In fact, it is all but impossible to do (although Heaven knows how hard composers have been trying for fifty years)—as witness the increasingly desperate means being resorted to—chance-music, electronic sounds, noteless ‘instructions,’ the manipulation of noise, whatnot” [see note 7].

But there is something more to this pursuit of atonality than an ideological commitment to meaninglessness as an artistic principle, something of greater significance for our understanding of man’s spiritual condition.

In his television series Leaving Home: Orchestral Music in the Twentieth Century the conductor Simon Rattle spoke about the development of this modern music in the twentieth century. He said that Richard Strauss, one of the most progressive composers of his time when he was young, walked up to and looked over the precipice of this new development in music when he wrote his opera Elektra (1909), an opera that seemed to foreshadow these developments in atonality, but shrank back from the precipice and returned to traditional tonal music in his opera Der Rosenkavalier (1911). “Strauss, in his brilliant, instinctive way,” said Rattle, “had blazed a path for a whole new school of music. Almost without thinking, he’d shown how far music could go if it went away from its home of tonality. Electra must have seemed very radical at the time. And maybe it was obvious to Strauss what a frightening and lonely place this outer space of free tonality was. He was never again to return to it, and it was left to Arnold Schoenberg, the reluctant revolutionary, to go even further, to be even more radical, but also to give some sense of order and foundation to this strange new world” [see note 8]. The book based on the television series makes the same claim: “Strauss was one of the first to make use of bitonality, but he was too committed to Romanticism to make any further contribution to the development of the ideas unfolding during the radical years before the First World War. The next opera he and Hofmannsthal produced, Der Rosenkavalier, turned away from the problems raised in Electra and found refuge again in the past” [see note 9].

But this is to miss the point of Elektra altogether. Strauss’s musical language was always tonal. One of his greatest talents as a composer was his ability to depict the world around him musically. He was able to conjure up a musical impression of just about anything, from a teaspoon to a thunderstorm. What he depicted in Elektra was a woman who is deranged, insane. The atonal music in Elektra, therefore, is the music of insanity [see note 10]. This was entirely consistent with Strauss’s musical genius. What Rattle missed, and it seems to me that this can only be explained by his being steeped in the atheistic world-view of the age, is that the modern music of atonality is the music of insanity, just as the paintings and sculptures of modern art so often exhibit the same spirit of insanity, the insanity of a world where nothing has any meaningful relationship to anything else and everything happens randomly.

This point was understood intuitively by artists and composers of previous generations. Charles Villiers Stanford said that “The palette of a painter is a beautiful study of colour, both simple and complex; but he would not exhibit it as a picture unless he was qualifying for Bedlam” [see note 11]. Later on in the programme Rattle seems to glimpse this vaguely when he says “The logic of complete freedom leads to the madhouse”; but he then argues that Schoenberg’s serialism saved music from this fate. He goes on to describe serialism as a kind of musical democracy of tones. In his book, based on the television series, Michael Hall also seems almost to recognise this point when he describes Elektra as “afflicted with the classic symptoms of hysteria” and goes on to say that Elektra “is undoubtedly Strauss’s most radical and dissonant work, and, as in Schoenberg’s quartet, there are passages that are virtually atonal. The most extreme occur in the scene between Elektra and Clytemnestra, notably when Clytemnestra tells her daughter about the monsters that haunt her dreams. The episode concludes with a tonal cadence . . . but before this the discords are as harsh and the harmony as rootless as the images Clytemnestra conjures up” [see note 12].

This is the godless and insane world of meaninglessness on which the theory of evolution is based. It is no accident that the modern age of godless secularism has been supremely the age of “mental illness” compared with other periods of Western history. Such art and music demonstrate more consistently the principle of the antithesis—the gulf that exists between the godless and meaningless world-view of atheism and the ordered, rational and meaningful world-view of the Christian faith—than do philosophy and science because in these latter disciplines men find it so much more difficult to abandon the concepts of reason, meaning and purpose. Of course it is certainly not the case that all non-believers listen to the music of Pierre Boulez, Harrison Birtwistle et al. while Christians listen to Bach and Strauss. The non-believer finds it virtually impossible to live consistently in terms of his principle of non-belief.

The wisdom of the world is the polar opposite of the wisdom of God. Therefore the two belief systems produce completely different world-views, different cultures, different art, different political philosophies, different educational goals, different social aspirations, different societies, different social orders. We should not let the fact that in the West we are currently living in a period of transition from one culture to another deceive us. In a period of transition it is easy to think that these two world-views are not totally incompatible because the long established practice of the Christian faith leaves an intellectual and cultural legacy that takes time to disappear and the non-believer makes use of the residue of Christian intellectual and cultural capital while it is available. But this capital will not be available indefinitely and the Christian heritage will disappear eventually unless there is a resurgence of Christian faith in society and unless the Church under the influence of such a resurgent faith engages culturally and politically with the nation, i.e. unless there is a commitment to converting the nation to the Christian faith, not merely soul winning, which is sadly what characterised the Church’s understanding of the Great Commission during the second half of the twentieth century. The philosophy of the non-believing world is a never-ending quest for truth because it has denied at the outset the foundation upon which the truth rests (Pr. 1:7; 9:10). The wisdom of this world dooms its practitioners and followers to an endless frustration with false “truth”—i.e. idolatry. In the end the “wisdom” of the world produces death. False gods always fail their devotees.

It is this shift in the philosophy or world-view of society, especially among the shapers of culture, such as intellectuals, scientists and artists, that accounts for the bizarre nature of much modern art. This shift of world-view was really a shift in religious belief, though many would not use the term religion to describe the new world-view. Nevertheless, this is a new belief system that has shaped society’s understanding of life, and society’s understanding of meaning and purpose in life. The point is that the population as a whole does not begin to adopt fully the new world-view until later on. It is usually the intellectuals and artists who are the vanguard and champions of the new world-view at first. It takes time for the society as a whole to catch up with these developments. This is why some people find modern art so difficult to understand. They are still living and thinking in terms of the old world-view to some extent. Not completely, but in the way they think about certain things. So people might accept the divorce culture we have, or the pervasive immorality of our culture, but still find modern art bizarre. This is because they have not thoroughly imbibed the new world-view and are thinking and living in a way that is to some extent inconsistent with the dominant religion.

Answered by Stephen Perks


1. E. R. Geehan, ed., Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), p. 98 (response by Van Til to Herman Dooyeweerd).

2. Arnold Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony (London: Faber and Faber, [1911] 1978, trans. Roy E. Carter), p. 30. The words in square brackets are in the original text. In a lecture delivered at the University of California in Los Angeles in 1941 Schoenberg went on to contradict this assertion from his earlier Theory of Harmony by stating that “artistic value demands comprehensibility, not only for intellectual, but also for emotional satisfaction . . . Composition with twelve tones has no other aim than comprehensibility” (“Composition with Twelve Tones” in Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea [London: Williams and Norgate Ltd, 1951], p. 103). In this we see the inability of men to be consistent with their own principles when those principles depart from the meaning inherent in the divine order of Creation, particularly when it comes to thinking and reasoning, i.e. rational discourse. Schoenberg himself was not able even to maintain artistic consistency with his artistic philosophy since he continued to write tonal music along side his serial works.

3. Theory of Harmony, p. 432.

4. See “Composition with Twelve Tones” in Style and Idea, pp. 102–143.

5. As quoted by Stephen Johnson in Discovering Music on BBC Radio Three, broadcast on 10 June 2007.

6. Style and Idea, p. 108.

7. Leonard Bernstein, The Infinite Variety of Music (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, [1962] 1968), p. 12.

8. Simon Rattle, Leaving Home: Orchestral Music in the Twentieth Century, Vol. 1, “Dancing on a Volcano” (Arthaus Music).

9. Michael Hall, Leaving Home: a conducted tour of twentieth-century music with Simon Rattle (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), p. 39.

10. For the same reason atonal music works well as a sound track in horror movies, in movie scenes depicting characters with psychological derangements and in scenes with an inhuman context or a context that is inhospitable to human beings, e.g. science fiction movies depicting an alien environment.

11. Musical Composition: A Short Treatise for Students (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd and Stainer and Bell Ltd, 1911), p. 110f.

12. Michael Hall, op. cit., p. 38.