Video Series (Part 2): The Christian View of Design
September 23rd, 2009 in Web Design Worldview
by: Matthew Griffin
In part one of the Mirificam Press Video Series, we looked at the definition of design. In this second part we will be considering the the Christian view of design and how it satisfies the inconsistencies we discussed in part one.
C. Change the Worldview
1. Christian Trinity
But maybe our problem isn't so much that the definition of design is beyond our grasp but that our underlying view of the world is out of whack.
In the western Christian culture of the past a different archetypal origin was assumed than the ones popular in modern western culture. In the past during specific times, the Christian Trinity (I-C-1_001_trinity) has been looked to as the model for reality. The Christian Trinity is one God made up of three distinct persons (I-C-1_002_trinity) (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) all equal in power, glory, and might. So at the very foundation of reality, there was a being that contained both unity and diversity. This is revolutionary because it provides an origin that truly accounts for what we experience in reality. Things like the fork (I-C-1_003_fork) we just looked at, where function and beauty meet. Function and beauty are still distinct and yet they are one. And of course mankind is allowed to be exactly what we experience him to be: (I-C-1_004_me) soul and body, faith and reason, right brain and left brain, all working together, distinct and yet one.
2. How this practically affected work and thinking
Now, we see this holistic way of thinking working itself out in a large variety of ways but a few big examples come to mind right off the bat: (I-C-2_001_davinci -- 2 and 3) Leonardo DiVinci in his genius, for example, showed a strikingly fluid transition between what we would call art and what we would call design. (I-C-2_004_dante -- and 5) Dante in his classic Inferno lumps all productive human creative activity under the heading of art even reserving a special place in hell for those who commit violence against art. (I-C-2_006_temple -- and 7-9) Even in the times of the Old Testament of the Bible we find examples of God directing and sanctioning projects that contain both the characteristics of art and design all together in one. For example, in the building of the temple, He gives explicit instructions, not only about the functional construction, but about the decoration right down engraved patterns. Again, we see beauty and function, art and design, residing together.
So for the Christian design is more like an interwoven piece of a larger whole. Design is that area of art which leans toward the satisfaction of unity, while fine art is that area of art which leans toward the satisfaction of diversity. And the third piece of the model is the created object that proceeds from the union of the two. Without any of these three, the creative process is incomplete, unsatisfying, or even absurd. Whether or not we give our assent to this model, this is how we design and every attempt thus far to remove or invalidate one or more of its pieces has failed.
Let's look for a moment at some of the conclusions we can draw from the biblical model of the creative process. These are all quotes from Leland Ryken in his book The Liberated Imagination. (EX_ryken_creation01 1-5)
1. The fact that God made earthly reality and set the human race over it means that the artist's and critic's preoccupation with human experience and culture is God-ordained.
2. Since God made a world that is beautiful as well as functional, we know that the concern of the creative artist and the critic with beauty, form, and artistic delight is legitimate.
3. God's separateness from creation means that culture cannot be equated with God; the artistic endeavor is God-approved but is not something that is inevitably Christian or even religious.
4. The fact that humans are created in God's image provides a sanction for human creativity and a theological explanation of why people create.
5. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo has given Christians a model for regarding artists as capable of creating, through their imagination, works for which there are no existing models that fully account for them...
In other words abstract, or non-representational art, art that isn't a mimicking of something from reality is perfectly legitimate in the biblical model. Some of these conclusion you may have never considered before, so I highly recommend reading the book if you work in a creative field. It's "The Liberated Imagination" by Leland Ryken.
3. Unsatisfactory Origins
Now, before we get any deeper into the purpose of design I'd like to briefly look at two popular theories of origin that are held outside of Christianity and, unfortunately, many times within Christianity, and what effect those theories have had on design and fine art.
First, there's there's the materialistic origin: (I-C-3a_001_space -- and 2-3) Matter, physical law. This is the proposed origin of the modernist, and usually the atheist. It's the embodiment of unity and function. It's law, it's concrete action and reaction. And, not surprisingly, design and art that springs from unity without diversity has ended up looking something like these examples. (I-C-3a_005_modernism a-d) The dogmatic modernist designers and artists were committed to revamping society's environment, scraping away diversity and personality which they saw as a hindrance to progress. Piet Mondrian, a famous 20th century modernist designer once wrote that (I-C-3a_004_mondrian) art would "disappear in proportion as life gains equilibrium". He was referring, of course, to fine art. He was saying that non-functional art (paintings, sculptures, music) was an unnatural result of disunity and it would gradually disappear as evolution corrected the chaos of life. Antonio Sant'Elia made a similar claim in the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture when he said that (I-C-3a_004_mondrian) that "decoration as an element superimposed on architecture is absurd". (I-C-3a_005_modernism e-g) Modernist design leans toward unity because its philosophical origin is grounded in unity. Obviously the modernist approach to design largely failed. When it comes right down to it, we can't live in a world that is only unity. We don't like looking at squares all the time and living in concrete jungles. We need the other piece of the puzzle—the diversity.
Next, there's the more Eastern theory of origins that's become popular. (I-C-3b_001_pantheism a-c) In this theory there is no unifying law or law giver. Everything in reality is the outgrowth of diversity, everything is god. So when we talk about postmodernism, some forms of existentialism, new age, Zen Buddhism: these are all apples on this trees. Here are some examples of the art and design we've seen come from this understanding of origins. Now, a lot of these pieces are reactions against modernism. For quite a while, absurdity was a major theme in the postmodernist design camp because for their worldview to work, they needed to show that any unifying principles were ridiculous. Everything had to be reduced to the relative. So when diversity is the beginning and end of reality, we start to see chaotic and purposefully absurd products. The emphasis moves away from the created object as a conveyer of truth and onto the artist or designer. Excellence in craft is inconsequential and the individual self-expression of the artist becomes the aesthetic measuring rod. This concept of art is what most of us have grown up with and is still the pervasive understanding in most creative fields, so it takes a while to break out of the "art as personal expression" mindset.
There's a parallel in the battle between these two views of origin and the cultural battle of modernism versus postmodernism that we've seen take place in the last 50+ years. Gene Edward Veith made an insightful observation of the two views in his book Postmodern Times. (EX_veith_postmodernism) "Modernism was activist optimistic, and self-confident. Postmodernism is passive, cynical, and insecure."
I just want to make it clear here that I'm not necessarily criticizing the talent of the designers and artists who produced the work we just looked at. My only purpose here is to get you to start thinking about the end creative product as a result of foundational philosophies, instead of just a free-floating, evolving blob that erupts from the designer's subconscious.
Okay, this is a good point to move into the discussion of the purpose of design or art. We've just seen two camps that have had dogmatic approaches to the purpose of design. The modernists said the end of design was function and only function. The postmodernists said it was beauty and self-expression. So what can Christianity teach us about the purpose of what we do? How can we work out a Christian worldview in our vocation?
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