Thursday, December 02, 2010

What do Einstein, a toilet, and the Smithsonian all have in common?

Guest Post By Rev. David Rathel

Recently, a controversy has begun over some of the pieces on display at the Smithsonian Institute's National Portrait Gallery. While Smithsonian curators have removed the most discussed piece, a video of Christ on the cross being attacked by ants, other controversial pieces do remain on display. Visitors to the Smithsonian can expect such ‘artistic displays’ as an image of Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, naked brothers kissing, and men locked in chains.  (See here)

Many rightly took offense to such a strange and offensive portrayal of Christ’s crucifixion. However, I believe there is a deeper problem with the Smithsonian’s exhibit that we should be concerned about: the loss of any notion of beauty.

Living In a World of Relativity

Around the beginning of the twentieth century, Americans became enamored with Einstein's general theory of relativity.  Einstein rejected the older Newtonian concepts of fixed time and space and instead argued that both time and space were relative. Einstein’s brilliant mathematical calculations coupled with the experiments conducted during the 1919 solar eclipse helped to demonstrate the truthfulness of his new theory. His proposal received widespread acceptance and it captured the imagination of the public at large.

Unfortunately, many thinkers during Einstein’s day could not differentiate between relativity theory and relativism. Einstein’s relativity theory only argues that we should not view things such as time and space as absolute constants; full relativism argues against the existence of absolute constants in toto. Though Einstein was the creator of relativity theory, he emphatically denied being a “philosophical relativist” (after all, there was still an absolute in Einstein’s theory- the speed of light).

Nearly a century after the 1919 eclipse that catapulted Einstein’s theory onto the front pages of America’s newspapers, relativism has perhaps become the West’s most dominant philosophical construct. Many Americans deny the existence of absolutes in the areas of ethics and theology. Bookstores sell many works by popular post-modern authors who argue passionately for the truth that there is no such thing as truth (the irony). While this turn toward relativism is lamentable, it is especially regrettable in the area of the arts.

Absolute Beauty and Duchamp’s Toilet

Today’s relativistic Americans are shocked when they discover that men and women of old believed that beauty was something that was objective, not relative. In other words, the classical world would have argued strongly against the notion that beauty is completely “in the eye of the beholder.” Classical thinkers attempted to offer several definitions of beauty, the most famous perhaps being Aquinas’s formulation that something beautiful must possess wholeness, balance, and radiance. 

With the advent of relativism however, this notion of absolute beauty was tossed aside. Without any objective standard by which to judge an artistic work, the art world started to take a dramatic turn. Perhaps Duchamp’s “Fountain” is a perfect example of this trend. On exhibition around the same time as the emergence of Einstein’s relativity theory, Duchamp’s ‘art’ was simply a working toilet placed in a museum with little modification on the part of the ‘artist’ other than the signing of a name. 

Duchamp’s ‘ready made art’ (art in which no work is done on the part of the artist) is no different in kind from the type of shock art that we see on display today in the Smithsonian.  Both teach us clearly the two profound ways in which relativism has influenced the art world. First, without any objective concept of beauty to work from, many of today’s artists simply attempt to shock and offend their audience (a crucifix covered in urine, gratuitous nudity, homoerotic images, a toilet on display, etc.). Second, the denial of objective beauty leads to a denial of the intrinsic value of the artistic enterprise as a whole. Instead of seeking to portray beauty for beauty’s sake, many artists today only employ art in the instrumental sense. That is, they see the artistic enterprise only as a tool that they can use to propagate their political/religious beliefs to the masses. Within this line of thought, the artistic quest for beauty is ignored because of the artist’s desire to “make a statement” (Apparently this is why pictures of ants can appear on a crucifix at the Smithsonian- because according to the artist this image has something to do with the suffering of aids patients. The question of whether or not this image is beautiful, however, is left unasked).


Einstein’s theory of relativity is amazing, and the developments that came after Einstein in quantum physics are truly mind-boggling. However, in no way should we as a society have made the jump from relativity theory to full blown relativism. Perhaps I am too old fashioned, but I prefer to live in a world in which people understand Bach, not the garbled, unintelligible sounds of Revolution # 9 by Beatles, to be art. A world in which Michelangelo’s David, not a crucifix turned upside down and placed into the artist’s own urine, is considered to be a significant achievement. 

David Rathel is the pastor of Fork Baptist Church in Scottsburg, VA.