Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Just the art, please

Maybe it is only an over-reaction to a presumably redundant discussion on a subject in which many artists are not at all interested, but upon reading a post on a blog that has some very interesting things to say about art and creativity, I found myself formulating some responses to several points.

The blog started: “Good Christian art is not an oxymoron, although anecdotal evidence and a survey of the statistics might make it seem that way. The fact is that there are good Christian artists making good art, but they are the exception rather than the rule, and the leaders in the fields of art seem to be non-Christians. Why? There is no single explanation, but rather many forces that have contributed to the present situation.”

What follows are some thoughts on the explanations listed in the blog.

If we start with the possibility of christian as an adjective applied to art, it is difficult to imagine being able to converse with the arts community. It may be more helpful to acknowledge that much of what is created as art is actually bad in a qualitative sense. It is not only Christians who make bad art. The discussion might be better framed in response to the question of why there are so few Christians who excel as innovators and leaders in the world of art, media and entertainment.

The church has cultivated a culture that largely does not value art as a part of who we are, and thus the subject of redemption. Not in the sense that we need to “redeem Hollywood” (read: get rid of all those people) or “restore the arts” (read: make it all nice and insist that it have a clear message with familiar symbols and images), but in the sense that redeemed humanity is one that is dancing and singing and writing and painting and making films…. An unleashing of creativity coming from those being transformed by God in Christ.

In addition to a continuing renewal of the arts in the life of the church, the need for an articulate Christian voice in secondary art education is critical. It is also important both that theological education include courses in the arts and that arts education include interaction with Biblical studies and theology.

As the founder of an arts group in Paris, my experience and reflection lead me to believe that it is always to the “masters” that students should go to learn and develop their craft. Our goal is to spiritually nurture those emerging creatives who will become the masters of tomorrow. To disciple those artists, to give Biblical and intellectual training so that they will have sure foundations is a great task with potential as endless as the pool of creative visions.

Perhaps there are those who think that being a Christian diminishes a person’s creativity, but in this discussion the more important falsehood is the idea that the Christian taps into a creative source that allows them to bypass the hard work, discipline, vulnerability, failure, commitment and patience that are necessarily a part of the artistic process. Our relationship with God, and our maturity in Christ, should impact our generosity and ability to share mercy, to recognize the grace of God at work in the lives of people around us, including those artists who do not recognize that grace or name the Name.

Inspiration can suffer under the executing hand of the artist. It is the human dilemma.

That a person who is listening to the wind of the spirit of God would be inspired is no surprise. But they still have to put the paint on the canvas or write the choreography.

Art that is motivated by some idea of “what the people need to see” or hear is more propaganda than art, and no less than “commercial art” (we all want to make a living) is often identifiable by its lack of dimension and depth. The greatest works seem to instead have been motivated by something deeply inside the artist, something that had to be painted or written or built. These are the voices that we long to hear.

The voice of the Old Testament prophet was directed towards the people who imagined themselves, and in fact were, the people of God. To use the image of the artist as prophet without welcoming the hard “truths” into our faith communities is to misinterpret the role of the prophet and the artist, as if they were commissioned to confront the world as evangelists.

Perhaps the artist has been gifted in order to “glorify God and enjoy Him”, and help us, too, enjoy God and all that He has made, and have greater compassion by allowing us to “see” what they see, sometimes with dancing, sometimes with mourning, in the world as it is, and what they imagine about how things could be.

And that could be great art.

The illusion wanes, and in time we return
to our noisy cities where the blue
appears only in fragments
high up among the towering shapes.
Then rain leaching the earth.
Tedious, winter burdens the roofs,
and light is a miser, the soul bitter.
Yet, one day through an open gate,
among the green luxuriance of a yard,
the yellow lemons fire
and the heart melts,
and golden songs pour
into the breast
from the raised cornets of the sun.

from "The Lemon Trees"
by Eugenio Montale
(Translated by Lee Gerlach)