A friend of mine told me about a boyhood experience he had in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. A gas company was building a pipe-line near his home, and to do it they blasted away huge sections of rock. My friend spent hours wandering over the blasted area, looking at the freshly exposed landscape. “I was just a kid, not interested in art, but even I could recognize that it was beautiful. There were colors and patterns I couldn’t believe. It was as though great, brilliant abstract paintings had been hidden underground where only God could see them—until he showed them to me.”

That paralleled an experience of my own in reading The Invisible Made Visible by Ernst von Khuon. It is a large book of photographs—things never seen by the naked eye until some technique of science exposed them. Some were obvious, such as the back side of the moon. Others were more esoteric: the back of the human eye, or penicillin mold magnified 10,000 times, or a candle seen through a spectroscope.

I had difficulty knowing how to appreciate them. Obviously the photographs were more than information that a scientist would study as a commuter studies a train schedule. They were simply too beautiful for that. Eventually I found a way of looking at them that set me at ease and helped me see them clearly: I began to look at them as abstract paintings. And the more I looked, the more amazed I became.

For these weren’t ordinary abstracts. They were paintings that would, I’m sure, draw a crowd in any gallery. They weren’t of any one style or school, either. There were harsh, ragged cubes that looked as though they’d been sawed off the outer edge of the universe. There were fine, spidery webs of color, bright as a kaleidoscope and delicate as a fern. There were shiny, weaving flames of orange and brown. There were slight, white scribblings on a black background, so scattered and small you couldn’t help feeling the immensity and coldness of space. These “paintings” seemed to contain as much variety as could be found in any museum of modern art. The only common note: All these abstracts were startlingly good. I’m no art critic, but the impression was so overwhelming I’d be extraordinarily surprised to hear anyone contradict it. I wanted to ask, “Who are the artists?”

As with most people from a conservative Christian home, I was raised with a limited appreciation of art, particularly abstract art. My earliest encounter with abstract painting consisted of hearty laughter at a painting the newspaper had printed along with a story on how much money someone had paid for it. “Why, it looks like something a kindergartner did,” some adult said. As I grew older, my ideas changed, first to an appreciation of abstract art because I thought cultured people liked it, and then, as a gradual result of hours staring at paintings I didn’t understand and had to struggle hard to like, to a genuine appreciation.

Article continues below

I kept a slight antipathy—or edginess—toward abstract art that I never had for the Impressionists, for example. I’m not sure why, though I can think of a number of possible reasons.

I may not have entirely laid my background to rest; it may yet be hovering in some dark corner of my brain. But I prefer to think of another, more interesting, possibility. It has to do with a lack of categories. Some impulse in men makes them want to give things names and a frame of reference. That’s why people who really love wildflowers memorize all those names—even the phylums and classes. The names don’t make the colors any brighter or the blossoms more profuse. But if you know what a daisy looks like, everything daisy-ish is measured against that.

There is something pleasing in assigning everything to its proper place. If daisies started turning up in just any color, with just any shape, and just any number of petals, I’m not sure the riot of variety would be quite as pleasant as it sounds, at least to real flower lovers. All their books would have to be thrown away; their appreciation of flowers would be like that of a child who only notices flowers when he sees one he thinks is pretty.

Abstract art tends to confound us in the same way. There is no physical object to compare the painting to, and so no standards. Perhaps judging good art comes down to personal taste, but I can assure you that if I painted your portrait your personal taste wouldn’t enter the question: It would be bad, because it would not look like you.

No such precise standard exists for abstract art. At one time there were schools and periods to refer to, but now they change every week. A pair of pantyhose is as likely to be considered a sculpture as a bronze figure.

I’m not sure whether our need for categories is a fault or a virtue, but in this case I’m inclined to think it’s a fault. Categories can be something we cling to because we aren’t able to enjoy something on its own. Names are fine—God, after all, told Adam to name the animals. But the best names convey character. There are times when categories or names reveal nothing.

Article continues below

Abstract art began, and much of it seems to continue, in a spirit of rebellion against the forms of the past. I don’t mean to cast rebellion in a negative light: These artists weren’t necessarily spoiled brats having a tantrum. They were men and women convinced that what they had to express was inexpressible in painting or sculpture as they knew it. These artists weren’t about to copy something. Their art was an attempt to capture something not seen or imagined before; they were making the invisible visible, perhaps taking a picture of their own souls, or capturing the “true” structure of the earth. In that sense they were understood as rebelling against God, for what God had created was not enough (to their minds) to express their own vision of life. Great art stretches visible reality: Michelangelo’s men are more like supermen. The Impressionists played with light. Renoir made a woman’s skin more than flesh.

The Invisible Made Visible proves that there was beauty and truth beyond what the naked eye could see. God had made more beauty than we imagined, and had hidden it in places we couldn’t penetrate: under the earth, beneath the eye, in microscopic vistas. Artists had known that instinctively: They had been unsatisfied with what they saw only with the eye.

But now the argument must turn the other way. If the actual world has proven the artists right, what have the artists proven about the world? We are all familiar with the argument for the existence of God based on the idea that the order of the universe indicates a designer—the argument from design. A stronger argument might be called the argument from art.

Abstract artists left the visible, created world. Their art seemed very original—an expression of their sometimes eccentric personalities, a vision only they could see. Now, through a discovery of science, we learn that they were not so original as thought; work similar to theirs is scattered everywhere, and has been since creation. How can we best explain these works? It is simplest to conclude that they were produced by a personality as original and artistic as the artists’.

At this point someone might object. His argument might run this way: “If, looking at the structure of an atom, I found a portrait of the Mona Lisa, I would have to admit that the Creator was a person. But abstract art is another matter. As a matter of fact, much abstract art celebrates the haphazard, the accidental. For some of the most famous paintings, the artist literally threw paint at the canvas to make chance patterns. The similarity you see between the created universe and the creation of abstract art is simply due to man adopting a bit of the machine-like haphazardness of nature. By doing so, the painters get close to the haphazard nature of reality.

Article continues below

“As for the beauty in The Invisible Made Visible, it is similar to the famous monkeys typing out Shakespeare—if they type long enough, they might create something we call beautiful, but to get that you have to discard a very great deal that is not beautiful. What you saw in The Invisible Made Visible was an artist’s choice of which of the haphazard scribblings of nature were beautiful. That they were beautiful proves nothing about their nature; it proves only that human beings are capable of finding beauty in anything.”

I can almost follow this argument. The evidence does seem to show that humans are capable of finding beauty in almost anything—though I would emphasize the “almost,” since it seems unlikely that the output of a computer, or a factory assembly line, will soon be acclaimed as art, any more than it seems likely that McDonald’s, however admirable their ingenious and efficient packaging, will be seen as centers of haute cuisine.

But it does seem that, wherever we look, whether at nature or at man’s additions to nature—a highway’s curves as it climbs a mountain, for instance—we can see art. It is as though art is inescapable. The engineer who designed the wings of an airplane or the curve of a highway had no aesthetic criteria in mind, yet we find beauty in his work.

The explanation is not difficult. Nothing is really haphazard or accidental; everything is at least governed by physical laws. Even the painter who threw paint at his paintings can’t escape this: the way the paint dribbles down the canvas is ruled by gravity, and by the qualities in the canvas and the paint, which are not arbitrary at all. And of course, the artist was looking for a particular effect, which is not arbitrary either. Even the sun shining on his canvas is far from arbitrary, and without that sun we could not see his work at all.

So the artist who made the microscopic vistas of The Invisible Made Visible is inescapably a partner in what appears to be arbitrary. If he is an artist with personality, as I have argued, then it is not surprising that art that attempts to be totally arbitrary still remains in some way beautiful. Whether with the intent of the artist or not, a work of art says, “Look how interesting even a glob of paint can be, or even a pair of pantyhose.” It expands our way of seeing. Rather than lowering art to the commonplace, it lifts the commonplace to art—which is surely what God intended. It is selective, of course, but only selective in order to bring the audience—and the artist—further along to appreciating the beauty of all created things.

Article continues below

That is not to suggest that we have to admire anything foisted on us as art, or acclaim the message behind each and every work. Artists can be and often are wrong about the nature of man and his condition. But though art has its intellectual component, a painting is more than a visual statement. It appeals primarily to our feelings and our imagination. As a statement it may be quite wrong or inadequate, and ought to be judged so. But as an appeal to our visual imagination, it can still provoke us to see better.

But I must concede one point. You can believe that there is no personality behind the created work, and that the beauty we see is only an imposition of our imaginations. (It is worth noting that even something we think of as unmistakably beautiful—the Alps—were thought of as harsh and ugly until the nineteenth century.) But then you will have to explain how it comes that we see beauty everywhere. What quality is it in man that sees beauty in a haphazard arrangement of things? Where did that quality of seeing beauty come from? For we are, according to an atheist’s argument, of the same stuff that the mountains and the bacteria are made of; the same randomness inspired our creation. What accident could have made us see what is not really there? It seems easier, and more consistent, to believe in a God who created the beautiful world and the people who can perceive it as beautiful. Such a God would have another similarity to the expressive personality of the abstract artist, who from his imagination creates strangely beautiful things and then teaches his audiences to see them as beautiful. God made, with his words, a strangely beautiful world; then he made creatures who were capable of seeing it as he did.

Article continues below

If that is right the Creator is artist, a great one, for his work is incredibly varied. His art has at times the warmth of Chagall, at times the chill of Giacommetti. It is all schools. We could say, to turn it around, that all schools are from his School; that all artists come from this Artist; that we are all truly made in his image, in all our variety of feeling and expression. If God’s art is mirrored in both Picasso and Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Mondrian, cave man and Andy Warhol, then what a great Creator he must be. He must be a God literally beyond all imagination, for all the imagination of centuries of artists has not been able to outdo him in splendor or variety.

What does this say, then, about the place of man’s art? Should we give it up, as a futile attempt to do what God has already done? No. That would make us give up everything, for he has done everything that is of much consequence. We should instead, in our art and our lives, mirror his creation. Then all that we do will be praise, for that is the meaning of praise: We shine back at him what he has shown us. The realistic painter and the abstract painter can share this task, to illuminate the beauty of what God has made.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.