The Art of the Modern-day Romans
Stanford University just unveiled a new statue on its campus titled Hello, by acclaimed artist Xu Zhen. The bronze and stainless steel sculpture is a Greek column with a Corinthian cap, coiled like a snake. “The work fuses the classical Greek column shape and the snake’s aggressive biological attitude to stimulate viewers’ perception and experience of classic civilization,” explains Stanford’s official website. “The moment the viewer’s eyes come across the Corinthian capital also represents a confrontation with the depth of history and culture. With the increasingly frequent blending and impacts among global civilizations, the work constitutes both a reality and a metaphor for encountering civilizations of different times and space.”
The Hello sculpture perfectly encapsulates the state of modern art: It is sensationalistic and unnatural. These sort of statues and pieces of artwork are all over America, Britain and the Western world. They fill art museums and are featured in outdoor spaces. Some examples include Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North in the United Kingdom, Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog, with some famous canvases including Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans and Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm. This artwork is worth millions of dollars and is embraced and indulged in by the elite of society. It is easy to dismiss these monstrosities as trivial, something foolish or something only for the pompous elite. But art is a reflection of our civilization.
Historian Edward Gibbon listed art as a key indicator of the health of a nation’s civilization and culture. According to the Daily Herald, Gibbon believed “art becoming freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original” was a sign of decaying culture. It was a visit to the ruins of the city of Rome that inspired Gibbon to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and spend 20 years learning profound lessons of history. Those same ruins inspired Xu Zhen to fashion the Hello sculpture, and they now proclaim a warning to you. The history of art is a harbinger of the future of our civilization.
Why Is Art So Important?
Not only is art a personal, creative work of the artist, it is also a clear expression of the national culture. The art of a nation declares the morality, ideals, dreams, imaginations, talents, lifestyles, hobbies and motivations of its citizens. Therefore, art is a visual barometer of cultural health.
When art is creative and original, it displays a nation that is visionary, outward-looking, inventive and thriving. Conversely, when art becomes freakish and sensationalistic, it displays that a nation is stagnant, self-important, inward-looking, immoral and lawless. A shift in art mirrors the shift from a nation thriving to a nation collapsing. The Bible indicates that a healthy national culture is a blessing from God. Our How God Values Music booklet states: “It is a biblical principle, in fact, that the people associated with God—His mind, way of thinking, His laws, His culture—tend to be more advanced culturally, and they positively impact those around them.” God puts important emphasis on the value and quality of national culture.
“There is a cause for every effect,” wrote Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry in “The Modern Romans.” “The great historian Edward Gibbon wrote about the fall of the Roman Empire, the greatest of all the world-ruling empires. If you study Gibbon’s work, it’s obvious that America and Britain are headed in the same direction!” There are many profound parallels between art in ancient Rome and modern America. Just as art was an indicator of cultural decline in ancient Rome, so it is for the American superpower.
Beauty and the Beast
The Roman Republic and Empire lasted approximately 900 years, four times longer than America has been a nation. Just like the empire, the art of Rome changed constantly. The republic died in 31 b.c., when Augustus became emperor. The Roman Empire changed the approach to art, as Dr. Jessica Ambler writes: “Roman art was now put to the service of aggrandizing the ruler and his family.” Generally the art of Rome became associated with the ruling dynasty.
“Imperial art often harkened back to the Classical art of the past … used in reference to Roman art refers broadly to the influences of Greek art from the Classical and Hellenistic periods (480–431 b.c.),” wrote Dr. Ambler. “Classicizing elements include the smooth lines, elegant drapery, idealized nude bodies, highly naturalistic forms and balanced proportions that the Greeks had perfected over centuries of practice.”
In the third century a.d. there was a notable change in Roman art. During the Severan dynasty there was a notable decline in the financial and administrative state of the empire. This era of art, Late Antiquity, moves away from precise forms of human figures and appears much like socialist realism. Historian Ernest Kitzinger described it as “stubby proportions, angular movements, an ordering of parts through symmetry and repetition and a rendering of features and drapery folds through incisions rather than modeling,” adding: “The hallmark of the style wherever it appears consists of an emphatic hardness, heaviness and angularity—in short, an almost complete rejection of the classical tradition.” Many historians regard the Late Antiquity period as the time of the downfall of Mediterranean civilization, soon to be replaced by Christianity.
The hallmark of Late Antiquity art is the Arch of Constantine. “Whatever conclusion we may ultimately draw, it is impossible to study the history of art after c. 300 without coming to terms with Bernard Bereson’s phrase ‘the decline of form,’” James Trilling wrote. Other examples of this era are the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs, the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Colossus of Constantine.
There is some debate whether it was a decline in skill or a change in the message of art, but this shift in art moving away from natural forms and being more sensational in scale and style mirrored the age when Rome was sliding toward destruction. “There is, as Adam Smith said, a deal of ruin in a nation: and this truth applies as much to a nation’s culture as to its economy,” wrote Theodore Dalrymple at City Journal. “The work of cultural destruction, while often swifter, easier and more self-conscious than that of construction, is not the work of a moment. Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day.” A similar shift has occurred in American art and society.
The Modern-day Romans
The late Herbert W. Armstrong proved in The United States and Britain in Prophecy that America is a descendant from the biblical tribe of Mannasseh. The U.S. has been given incredible blessings of national prosperity and power due to the patriarch Abraham’s obedience. All of America’s wealth, military might, geography and natural resources are God-given blessings. The early art of the republic sought to encapsulate the spirit of the Founding Fathers and these incredible blessings.
“As the United States’ territory grew through the 19th century due to the annexation of land, both painting and photography propelled Manifest Destiny’s ideas of American exceptionalism and romantic notions of national identity,” wrote the Art Story website. “Large landscape paintings depicting the American West captured the sublimity of the natural landscape, and photography in particular was instrumental in some cases in the creation of national parks.” This art, intentionally or unintentionally, put a focus on the fulfillment of Bible prophecy.
However, as the culture changed, so did the art. In his book The Missing Dimension in Sex, Mr. Armstrong explained that America became gripped by the new morality after World War i and ii. He wrote that World War i “brought tremendous changes in thinking, in behavior patterns, in social customs and in the double standard. … World War ii shot morals into the gutter. And now they have plunged all the way into the cesspool.” This revolution in American culture sparked a revolution in art. The new morality gave birth to abstract expressionism, which according to Tate website is “the term applied to new forms of abstract art developed by American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning in the 1940s and 1950s. It is often characterized by gestural brush-strokes or mark-making, and the impression of spontaneity.”
Abstract expressionism became an international movement. Instead of being grounded in reality, abstract art is freakish and sensationalistic. The more American society moved away from biblical morality, the Constitution and traditional family, the more twisted and strange the art became.
One example encapsulates where modern art is today. In 2019 at Miami’s Art Basel, the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan unveiled an artwork called The Comedian. It was a banana duct-taped to the wall. It sold for $120,000 and the buyer later ate the banana before it expired. Emmanuel Perrotin, the founder of the gallery, said: “Whether affixed to the wall of an art fair booth or displayed on the cover of the New York Post, his work forces us to question how value is placed on material good. … The spectacle is as much a part of the work as the banana.” Cattelan is famous for his 18-karat gold toilet called “America” that sold for $6 million and was temporarily stolen from Blenheim Palace. This is pure sensationalism and vanity. You can look at some other examples here.
Gibbon observed that art is a good barometer for the state of a nation’s culture. The barometer reading of American culture today aligns with what the Bible said would happen to America in these last days. Mr. Flurry writes in The Last Hour:
Our culture is destroying us and other nations morally and spiritually. We prate about how good we are and sing “God Bless America”—but God is cursing America, Britain and the Jews in the Middle East. He will continue to do so until we see our black sins and repent. …
In the beginning of America’s history, its goal was to establish God’s rule on Earth. Would you like to compare that goal with what we have become today?
Correction is coming because of our sins against God, who gave us such stupendous national blessings. The ruins of Rome and the lessons of history by Gibbon are a solemn warning. Our freakish and sensationalistic art is a warning sign that our culture is on the verge of collapse. But God will replace this world’s corrupt culture with His culture that uplifts and inspires.