Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A Theology of Art

by CWK 

I. What is Art?

Art is: the passion to communicate (out of your guts and to another: God, Man, beloved, yourself?[1], etc) a form (expression; visual, lyrical, or musical beauty) which is an incarnation of a content (ideas, truth, reality) with brilliance (intellectually stimulating, emotive, memorable, and striking) and skill. The purpose of art is to ‘instruct (in goodness) and/or delight (Sydney: In Defense of Poesie).’

Simply put art is: “the passion to communicate a form which is an incarnation of a content with brilliance and skill for the purpose of instructing and/or delighting.”

Note: art usually IS for the public and especially for the common person; see C.S. Lewis’ Introduction to Paradise Lost.

II. Basic Theological Foundations

1) Lordship of Jesus over everything in heaven and on earth (all things were created through him, for him, and by him all things hold together: Col. 1:15ff).
2) There is NO secular (secular= a thing bearing no relation to religious truth) (1 Cor. 10:31: everything is to be done for the glory of God; 1 Pt. 2:19, 21: even slaves are to live in the sight of God, mindful of God in all they do; 1 Cor. 15:12ff.: the BODY will be resurrected- i.e. the physical is not evil as Plato taught). All of life can be the subject of art; and christian art should be about all of life since there is no secular.
3) God is the creator (Gen. 1:1); humans by nature are made in HIS image (Gen. 1:26-26) and so naturally (out of their nature) desire to create: note, this is why we see non-Christians making beautiful works of art; they also are made in God’s image
4) There is such a thing as unchanging truth (ie. truth that is not conditioned by time, culture or perspective), and it is personal (John 14:6)
5) Beauty is valuable because God created a beautiful and glorious world (Ps. 18) and enjoys beauty employed in HIS temple (2 Chr. 3:6, 4:5; see also 1 Kings 7:29).

III. What Are the Criteria for GOOD ART?

"...the first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is-- what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used (C.S. Lewis: Preface to Paradise Lost)"

1. Technical Excellence.
Technical excellence is demonstrated by skill and diligence (much modern art has thrown this out the window; illus. broken glass on floor at St. Louis art museum: anybody could do it); even the most immoral person can have outstanding technical excellence; frequently technical excellence is a gift from God at birth (cf. Mozart and his more ‘moral’ rival Salieri).

Pushkin’s portrayal of Salieri has been echoed by many a Christian who envied some unbeliever’s talent and felt God unjust:

“Where is the justice, when the holy gift,
Immortal genius, comes not as reward
For any burning love or self-denial,
Labor, diligence or prayer, but lights
It radiance instead in heads of folly
And frivolity? Oh, Mozart, Mozart!” 
 
However, we must say that talent is a gift of God, and like all his gifts he gives them to the righteous and unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).

2. Integrity.
This is the relationship between what the artist believes and what the artist does; the Psalmist doesn’t fake it, and neither does Job. The Christian artist can err in two ways: 1) A Christian doing/painting/singing something immoral/wrong/against conscience, 2) A Christian pretending like reality is much simpler than they know and feel it to be.

I've always done what I've done musically with a sense of obedience, and a sense of being led. I've really counted on that to help me through the decision making process to test the water. If my heart goes "Yeah, this is ok," then I'd do it. Sometimes I think like it's going to be ok, then as I start to do it, I feel an unrest inside that says "No, this is not right." I don't want to violate that, ever. That's part of my decision making process, to start feeling my way through it. (Tom Conlon: Musician and Christian).”


3. Harmony.
That is, form matches or displays content (illustration: The Wasteland, Eliot); a sad lyric ought to have a sad accompaniment, etc.

"Every poem can be considered in two ways — as what the poet has to say, and as a thing which he makes. From the one point of view it is an expression of opinions and emotions; from the other, it is an organization of words which exists to produce a particular kind of patterned experience in the readers (C.S. Lewis, Preface to Paradise Lost)."

NOTE: Form always communicates a content! The question is whether it harmonizes with the explicit/implicit content.

4. Truthfulness.
 Does the work of art conform with real reality: the way the world really is? Does it tell the truth about the universe, God, and Man.

IV. Christian Art?

This usually means poor theology[2] (see basic theological foundations above) working itself out through sloppy technical expression (I am a Christian; it doesn’t matter if I just copy the big name bands, or paint poorly). Bad Christian music frequently does not talk about real issues (Contrast this with the Psalms: How many popular Christian songs have you heard about despair? see Psalm 88, 42, 43; Job; Lamentations). Thus, an unbiblical view of the Christian life is passed on to the observer: salvation is viewed as only involving the ‘soul’ and ‘Jesus,’ and the words used to describe this salvation are worn out clich├ęs. This is NOT Christian art!  The true Christian artist is: one who seeks to work with technical excellence (doing even the small thing to the glory of God) while portraying/displaying all of reality with integrity (thus Christian art should and can be about any topic) with a harmony that demonstrates the true truth

Truth is often un ‘pop’ ular, but this shouldn’t divert us:

“What you have to realize is that what you're perceiving is a very calculated marketplace, a very particular kind of machinery that you're interfacing with whenever you think about the music industry and the artists you hear on the radio or see on MTV or VH1. That is a very particular kind of thing, and it's only natural to try and relate what you do to that. I try to fight that because the effect of that on art is that it forces artists to prepackage themselves for consumption. There's an idea of the market driving this industry, which is (to say) the demand of the people drives what is produced. In the music business, there's part of it where the industry drives the market. As an artist, whenever I think about the industry, I try to be very careful, because I know that if I'm not careful, as artists, we try to prepackage ourselves to become more sellable and more palatable to those who are the gatekeepers in the industry--the record labels, the distribution to the radio, television. So, I'd want to still do what I do in a way that's very accessible in a way so people can relate to it, but I want to be careful that I don't allow the industry to drive me. (Tom Conlon).”

A Student of Christian Art Historian Hans Rookmaaker once said:

"I now recognize the wisdom in Rookmaaker's approach. In a situation where he felt Christians had not engaged in the arts it was clear we were some way behind and that it would take time, if not generations, to catch up. Solution: get as many Christians engaged as possible. Out of that, by God's grace, something worth while might emerge (Peter Smith)."




[1] "Music is just expression of self; we just explain it, then we get our checks in the mail," a famous rapper once said. This idea is from the romantic school of thought, where art becomes simply the expression of emotion, and where self-expression is the highest goal. This should not be our goal, because as Jerram Barrs once put it, “I don’t think that highly of myself.” We must have loftier goal. So, this is not what I mean by communicating to ‘yourself.’ However, art can be communication with self in a healthy way in that it clarifies and illuminates our hearts deepest longings and griefs; it ‘gets a weight off our chest,’ and helps us understand ourselves and our thoughts. In fact, understanding is often not totally achieved until we transfer something into art.
[2] Poor theology is untrue to God and the world, and thus destructive for the heart, mind, and soul of the undiscerning listener/viewer/reader. 

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