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Fall 1987 · Vol. 16 No. 2 · pp. 11–15 

A Theology of the Avant Garde

Larry Warkentin

The avant garde has a questionable reputation in many circles. Undoubtedly these questions are raised by the new, eccentric, experimental and sometimes outrageous expressions that are an essential part of the cutting edge, the “front line,” of art. The classical critic finds the avant garde to be undisciplined, fragmented, and self-conscious. The man-on-the-street may find the whole idea of “fine art” to be somewhat questionable, and so naturally he would find the avant garde to be lacking in sincerity, in intelligibility, and in value.

. . . the canopy of God’s creative word encompasses . . . chance

In Christian circles all of the above questions are raised plus one more. Is the avant garde an acceptable arena for Christian contemplation? Can faith and commitment, which imply an attitude of conservation and stability, also embrace the radical experiments and intuitive fantasies of the avant-garde?

This article is an exploration of these questions with the goal of assuring Christians that not only is the avant garde a legitimate topic for study, it may, in fact, be a meaningfully rich source of spiritual insight.

The biblical account of creation {12} which has served for at least 6000 years to explain some of the fundamental characteristics of humanity, may also serve to illuminate questions about art. God, the ultimate organizer, observed something that was disorganized, “without form and void.” With an infinitely powerful word this chaos was moved into meaningful patterns. Stars moved in galactic orbits, rivers flowed down to the sea, plants and animals multiplied, and at last, man and woman were created with their intricate physical systems and creative urges patterned after God.

God placed man and woman into a garden of amazing beauty and balance. In the cool of the evening God himself, the great organizer, communicated with his creation. The man and woman enjoyed the beauty of this harmony. They moved in a perfect dance with the Creator, and all creation moved with them.

But, as we all know, cacophony broke into this harmonious ballet. The dancer lost a beat. No more could the man and woman be in direct communication with the Great Organizer. They had gained the knowledge of aesthetic judgement, “the knowledge of good and evil,” and though they had retained much of their God-likeness, they could no longer discuss plans and blueprints directly with the Creator. And for that reason their dreams and projects could never achieve “ultimate order.”

Nevertheless, as their offspring spread across the world, the urge to create went with them. It was as if the imprint of that early contact with a perfectly ordered system and the Ultimate Orderer was always present, driving them to create cities, governments, palaces, paintings, literature and music.

This is the creative urge that haunts every human being. When we decorate our home, or select our wardrobe, or organize our workshop, we are responding to the creative urge. When we submit to traffic laws or play a baseball game we demonstrate our sensitivity to creative order.

The artist is driven by this urge to create “gardens of Eden,” in which all the elements of the artistic expression work together in harmony. When every word or idea in a novel interacts with the whole work and with each part of it in a truly integrated and interdependent way, the novel is said to be well written. Beethoven’s genius is demonstrated in the sense of inevitability with which each note leads to the next. And in painting the quality of a work is determined by its total consistency. {13} We ask, “What kind of ‘garden’ did the artist set out to create?” and then “How effectively and efficiently was the goal achieved?”

Order, it would seem, is the motivating force behind artistic expressions. Stravinsky writes in his Poetics of Music that

tonal elements become music only by virtue of their being organized . . . (24).

Let us understand each other in regard to this word “fantasy.” We are not using the word in the sense in which it is connected with a definite musical form, but in the acceptation which presupposes an abandonment of one’s self to the caprices of imagination. And this presupposes that the composer’s will is voluntarily paralyzed. For imagination is not only the mother of caprice, but the servant and handmaiden of the creative will as well.

The creator’s function is to sift the elements he receives from her, for human activity must impose limits upon itself. The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free (66).

This view was, for many years, my standard answer to the question of aesthetics. But somehow it falls short when applied to expressions of the avant garde. How, for example, can the dialectic of order be applied to the chance works of John Cage? In his book Silence he writes that

the deduction might be made that there is a tendency in my composition means away from ideas of order towards no ideas of order. And though when examined the history would probably not read as a straight line, recent works, beginning with the “Music of Changes,” support the accuracy of this deduction.

For, in the “Music of Changes,” the note-to-note procedure, the method, is the function of chance operations . . . It was not possible to know the total time-length of the piece until the final chance operation, the last toss of coins affecting the rate of tempo, had been made. Being indeterminate, though still present, it became apparent that structure was not necessary, even though it had certain uses (20,21).

If a composition is of indeterminate length how can it be called ordered? Or, how can one find order in Cage’s “Variation” {14} which utilizes a microphone out on the sidewalk with passing sounds broadcast inside a concert hall?

Francis Schaeffer would seem to be correct when he describes such art in these words: “As man strives to express his freedom in his autonomous fashion, much, though not all, of his art becomes meaningless and ugly. In contrast, much industrial design is becoming more orderly, with real beauty” (58,59). But does such an evaluation look at the entire situation?

Thus far we have looked for our prototype in the creation story and while it has been helpful in exploring the creative, organizing urge, it is not the entire story. True, we do learn much about God through the order of the observable world. But there is another way to discover God, and consequently to learn more about the God-likeness within ourselves.

Let us consider miracles. A person is terminally ill. Doctors admit defeat. There is no scientific, medical hope. And yet, a person of great faith prays and the sick person is healed. The logical pattern of nature has been interrupted. God has intervened. We have experienced God, not in order, but in the disruption of what we understood to be order.

For those cynics who cannot accept the argument of miracles, let us look at an example from jurisprudence. A car drives down a country road. Clouds congeal into a thunderstorm. Just as the car approaches a large tree lightning strikes. A branch falls. The car is demolished and the driver is killed. The family of the driver decides to sue the farmer on whose land the tree grew. The court’s decision is “not guilty.” The accident was “an act of God.” It was a chance happening which cannot be blamed on the farmer. Thus, we have experienced God through a “chance” occurrence.

Imagine a clock (see figure) with humanity at six o’clock and God at twelve o’clock.

{15} When we search for God through the order of creation we move back toward one o’clock. This is the priestly side of the clock: the side of order, of tradition, of time elapsed. The more coherent and ordered an expression, the closer to the “ultimate orderer” it comes. But no order of human experience can reach beyond one o’clock. The creation can never equal the creator. There is always the necessity for a “leap of faith.”

But what of the other side of the clock? This is the side given to the prophet, that unpredictable gadfly of kings and generals, that strangely intuitive messenger who acts out strange visions and who speaks in oracular collage. This is the side of time not yet elapsed, the side of the avant garde, the side of chance compositions and experimental literature.

Chance, too, moves us toward twelve o’clock but stops at eleven. Even a random order of numbers must repeat itself in infinity. And then must come the leap of faith.

The canopy of God’s creative word encompasses not only the patterns we designate as order but also those obscure patterns which we call chance. Both are one, and that one points all to God.

“But, are there not charlatans in the avant-garde?” you ask. Certainly. And I would add, they may be found in the art academy, in the classroom, and in the pulpit. The combination of integrity and sincerity with skill and imagination is not always present in art or artist. That is why we are called on to employ our costly inheritance, the “knowledge of good and evil.”

The good is that which points us to the ultimate good, to God. A good art work, a good musical composition, a good literary expression is one which helps us discover God and the God-likeness in ourselves. And this discovery may come through the poignancy of order and discipline or through the jolting force of the avant garde.


  • Cage, John. Silence. Middletown, CN: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.
  • Schaeffer, Francis A. Escape from Reason. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1968.
  • Stravinsky, Igor. Poetics of Music. New York: Vintage Books, 1947.
Larry Warkentin is a composer and is professor of Music at Fresno Pacific College, Fresno, California.

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