The Christian and His Art: The Necessity of Art
Art is storytelling, and the act of storytelling is essential to life. Every painting, every poem, every napkin-note of teenage-love passed under the schoolroom table is a story. They are all meant to transport their audience to another time or place, to another way of thinking or looking at the world. The painting takes the observer to the still, calming plain nestled amongst the mighty mountain peaks that is the former home of the artist; the poem transports its reader to the darkness that exists within the mind of its author; the napkin-note invites its recipient to imagine a world in which “disco never died, and we can dance all night, dance all night, dance, dance dance.” Each of those examples is a portion of someone’s life that has been poured out onto a page, a canvas, or a lightly-used taupe scrap of paper so that another may come and partake in its sweetness, its sadness, and its unmet desires. They are not just stories, they are stories borne out of the lives of those who tell them.
When we engage art, we engage the lives of others just as surely as if we sat down with them across a Formica table-top to have a conversation over a shared appetizer and separate entrées. To stare into that painting of a pastoral scene is to stare into the life of the person who spent their childhood there. To experience Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, is to experience his soul, for he is in that poem as much as is the titular Nevermore and the unnamed, mourning narrator. If you were the school janitor who happened to come across the crumpled remnants of that hastily-scrawled note of infatuation you would be holding in your hands part of a young man’s romantic aspirations and, therefore, a piece of his self-worth.
So not only do we engage a person when we engage art, but we engage them in a very personal and intimate way. A work of art is rarely unemotional and few are the artists whose passions are detached from their products. Art is not something mindlessly assembled piece-meal on a conveyor belt, it is the extension of a living soul. It is born in the meeting between strong emotion and deep commitment. It is their child. When moments of great wonder or deep introspection are coupled with creative expression, the result is something more than decoration or recreation. It is the soul of a person is stasis form.
Art is as close to a living thing as a non-living thing can possibly be.
That leads me to two conclusions in regards to Christians and art. One, we ought to be courteous and respectful in our interactions with art, just as we would be with the people who produce it. Art is not a human, but it is often the vulnerable extension of one and so ought to treated with close to the same level of consideration, if not equal levels. This means finding a deeper and more meaningful basis of relating (or not relating) to art than on the basis of “objectionable content.” If we can’t engage with the ideas and expressions contained within the art itself and can only categorize it based on its level of age-appropriateness then we risk missing an opportunity to interact with the person whose life is represented there. We miss a chance to validate them, to listen to them, to create meaningful and impactful relationships with them. Also, we miss a chance to learn from them and their experiences. Our relationships with other people are fantastic opportunities for personal growth and development and this reality extends to our interactions with their art. If a person goes to the trouble of crafting and birthing a work of art and we have an opportunity to interact with them through that art, it is our imperative as representatives of Jesus Christ to represent Him well and rightly.
Second, we need to recognize the necessity of art to life. It is necessary both for the life of the artist and for the life of the society in which the artist lives. For the artist, the emotional release accomplished by the act of creating art can be quite vital to their well-being. In Orthodoxy, G.K Chesterton notes that no one ever goes mad from writing poetry since the act itself is an act of wonder, an act of acknowledging that the world is marvelous, and horrible, and altogether too much for man to absorb. To create art is to defy the desire to internalize personal experiences and instead it opens up the artist’s heart to the world and the world to their heart.
But, not only does at look backwards at what has transpired and thereby provide a window into the times and places and lives we would not otherwise experience, but it also looks forwards into what might or might not be. When asked the question, “why art?” world-renowned artist Makoto Fujimura connected the question with the one asked by artists and writers down through the ages of “why live?” “Perhaps that’s why we need the arts,” Fujimura writes, “by continuing to create and imagine a better world, we live.”
As Christians we have been appointed by God Himself as the messengers of life! How can we not embrace art as a means by which we convey this timeless message? Art is necessary to life and we have life! Art is the most powerful means by which the past can be preserved and appreciated and Christ is the one that fulfills the promises of the past and redeems its failures. Art imagines and envisions the future with vivid colors and bold strokes and gives the unknown and unseen shape and form. The future is Christ’s and Christ is the future!
In short, all that art is and does and wishes to be is completely and totally relevant to the message and purpose of Christianity. More than that, art and Christianity are, quite literally, made for each other. The two ought to be nearly inseparable instead of nearly incompatible. The church ought to embrace and encourage the cultivation of the arts within her ranks.
Art is powerful. It moves the soul, touches the heart, and speaks to the mind. It preserves the past, captures the present, and imagines the future. Similar to the way the Holy Spirit is described as conveying our unspeakable groans to the Father, art conveys them to our friends and neighbors and vice versa. Art is wonder, and grief, and everything in between.
We create art because we are made in the image of a Creator God who desires that we reflect that aspect of His nature. If we as Christians intend to take seriously our call to be the children of God in this world, to serve Him rightly, and represent Him honorably, the ability to interact with and appreciation the gift of art is not an option.
It is a mandate.