Dark Art Dominates. Why Can't Happy Art Win Prizes?

By Lindsay Brown
Contributor to Richmond.com
Published: June 26, 2009


Poe’s “The Raven” is comprised of a self-pitying man’s lamentations for a lady named Lenore. Picasso’s “Guernica” depicts the bombing of Spain by German bombers. In the 2008 Whitney Biennial, British artist Ellen Harvey’s Museum of Failure: Collection of Impossible Subjects & Invisible Self-Portraits (2007) regards the shortcomings of humanity’s intelligence. These works all deal with the self-defeat of mankind against himself, against society, and against God.

Salvador Dali's "Christ of St. John of the Cross"

Enough drudgery already! Where is the painting of a Christian man who has won victory through Christ? Why can’t there be prize-winning artworks depicting a triumphant man, happy and at peace?

Because that would not reflect the truth of mankind’s struggle. Jesus never asked us to deny our humanity. He never said “Follow Me and life will be a piece of cake.”

The universal struggle of human existence, which is the fight against death, is manifested in profound art. If a work of art does not embody that struggle and bring catharsis, it is not art. Rather, it is rubbish that reflects the pacification of our society, the giving up, the complacency, the selling out of our dreams. After all, indifference is a form of death. “Art reconciles man to his destiny, which is death. Not merely death in the physical sense, but that form of death which is indifference, spiritual accidie.(1)

Struggle is what makes us real and alive. “Man is a contradictory being, a mixture of strength and weakness…living in a world which, like himself, is made up of opposites, of antagonistic forces that fight against one another without hope of truce or victory…permanently unable to form a whole.” (2) Great art embodies this universal truth of the human condition. It hits us at our core. Has anyone ever stopped dead in their tracks and gasped at the sight of a warm and fuzzy piece of art? Sentimental “art” makes us yawn, if we even look at it at all.

The true artist has a divine nature about him. He is keenly aware of the antagonism between essence and existence, essence being spirit, and existence, the everyday mundane we find in society. In Christian terms, this antagonism is the separation of man from God. The artist feels this antagonism as anxiety which will only relent when he brings this divine essence into existence, into his artistic form.

“The collective mind is like water that always seeks the lowest level of gravity: the artist struggles out of this morass, to seek a higher level of individual sensibility and perception. The signals he sends back are often unintelligible to the multitude, but then come the philosophers and critics to interpret his message.”(3)

Inspiration is personal to the artist, as each human life is a complex interplay of personal and societal processes of adjustment.(4) Unfortunately, the artist often cannot find a niche in society. It has no need for his art; hence the stigma of the tortured, lonely, and frustrated artist.

Society does not adequately recognize the need for art or art education. Complacency and feeling good are our highest ideals. Industrialization, mass production, population explosion, information technology, and Prozac have deadened our senses. Society has achieved the pacification of the struggle for existence, the very struggle that gives meaning to art.

The poet Baudelaire felt a complete revulsion for daily urban life…for the unseemly and nauseating business of the world. In Baudelaire’s poem “At One O’clock in the Morning,” the speaker “moves all too easily through that world and even participates in it, and his own complicity especially repels him.” The poem ends in a prayer for divine inspiration. “O Lord God, grant me the grace to produce a few good verses…”(5)

So, mankind, as an individual and society, is destined to fall due to a flawed nature, and profound art reflects that. But what about Christian art? Christians have a savior, and through Him they have hope and eternal victory. Doesn’t Christian art deserve awards for depicting this profound truth?

If the artwork depicts the struggle of Christ on our behalf, and is beautifully rendered, then it certainly can be award-winning, profound art, truthful and optimistic. Still, without the struggle, we cannot identity with it.

Salvador Dalí’s “Christ of Saint John of the Cross” portrays Christ’s victorious struggle on the cross. The painting depicts Christ as transcendent and glorious. Dalí explained its inspiration: “In the first place, in 1950, I had a ‘cosmic dream’ in which I saw this image in color and which in my dream represented the ‘nucleus of the atom.’ This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense; I considered it ‘the very unity of the universe,’ the Christ!”(6)

 pg 35 Art and Alienation, Read, 1967, Horizon Press

pg 36 Art and Alienation, Read, 1967, Horizon Press

pg 24 Art and Alienation, Read, 1967, Horizon Press

pg 18 Art and Alienation, Read, 1967, Horizon Press

pg 40 Demon and the Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration, Hirsch, 2002, Harcourt Books


 Lindsay Brown is a freelance photographer and writer.  She earned a BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City and will be earning a Masters in Journalism next year from Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland.

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