MODERN ART AND THE DEATH OF A CULTURE by H. R. Rookmaaker

Recommended by Laurel Gasque, author of Art and the Christian Mind: The Life and Work of H. R. Rookmaaker, a partner in ArtWay, and Sessional Lecturer in Theology and the Arts at Regent College, Vancouver, BC, Canada

H. R. (Hans) Rookmaaker (1922-1977) was a force to be reckoned with. This gruff and abrupt little Dutchman with a twinkle in his eye and a great sense of humor could fascinate and infuriate. Rookmaaker combined a powerful intellect with a missional heart. He unfailingly engaged his listeners and readers in refreshing ways that accorded with their sense of their times.

In 1970 he published Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, an immediate bestseller. Malcolm Muggeridge, the renowned British journalist, said he stopped dead in his tracks in London when he saw that a Bloomsbury bookshop window was entirely filled with this book. He read it immediately and found it a “breath of fresh air.” Not only did Rookmaaker contribute to Muggeridge’s journey of faith, with this stroke he virtually single-handedly invented what some have come to call “crossover books”—books that communicate compellingly from the perspective of faith to a wide audience, not just to a sectarian subculture. At least one publisher (Lion Books) came about because of it.

By the time Hans Rookmaaker burst upon the North American scene in the 1970s, he was an accomplished scholar and a seasoned critic of modern art. He was also one of the world’s leading authorities on the history of jazz, blues, and spirituals. Photo by Rudi Beima.

Ironically, in the 1990s and into the 21st century this book has frequently been adopted by the conservatives in America’s “culture wars” and scorned by many progressive Christians who think they know better. Rookmaaker would have been dismayed, if not appalled, by both types of responses. Modern Art and the Death of a Culture deserves a fresh and unprejudiced reading. This book should not be underrated as a result of its later reception.

Modern Art and the Death of a Culture presents an illuminating perspective on the cultural and social dynamics that drove the upheaval of the radical ‘60s, as well as the historical forces and philosophical ideas that shaped contemporary life in the West then and now. Provocatively and compassionately, with compression of style, Rookmaaker used his expertly honed skills as an art critic and art historian to analyze modern art in order to understand the despair and disbelief characteristic of our times. As he laid bare the anguish of modern culture, he also disclosed the hope we have in Christ and the role Christian artists can play in the renewal of our culture and our world.

Although critical of modern art, Rookmaaker was no despiser of it. He decried Christians who dismissed and ignored it. He valued the achievement of many modern artists in showing vividly the total impoverishment of Enlightenment rationalistic thinking. He also appreciated how modern art had broken down the dogma of “realism” in much 19th-century art that distorted reality as much as some 20th-century art.

Rookmaaker loved the art and design of all ages, particularly his own age. He loved artists and was a rare kind of art historian who inspired so much original art himself. He urged people to consider how art is linked not only to thought on the highest levels, but also to our corporate and personal actions in the world.

Modern Art and the Death of a Culture is a great introduction to his thought. But this book is just the tip of the iceberg of his collective writings, which run to six hefty volumes. Try it! You might like it. It certainly will provoke your thinking.

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