Does art matter?
Why does art - any kind of art - matter to Christians? And what is art anyway?
One of my highlights this week was attending the opening of a small but very worthwhile art exhibition. The Christian Creative Network, Wolverhampton is holding its first exhibition in the Asylum Gallery, Clifton St. closing on 2 April - see https://www.facebook.com/CCNUK/. A number of Wolverhampton-based artists, working in various media, have been meeting for a while to encourage and inspire one another. Now they are showing some of their work.
They come from different churches including some from All Nations. Abi on our leadership team paints, mainly striking and lifelike images of animals. Navi, a key member of staff, is a creative designer and has produced many prints with a powerful message. And Monique works with both textiles and paint to share beautiful images and evoke feelings. Others are exhibiting finely detailed black and white drawings, or textile compositions, or sculptures made of everyday objects, or prints or oil paintings. At the opening we were also treated to two other spoken word art forms: one told some engaging stories and another read several poems that were thought provoking but had the audience smiling or laughing too.
So what is art? We could say it is using any visual medium or words or music to communicate something in a way that the audience regards as beautiful or in a way that stirs emotions as well as (or in place of) stimulating the mind. Art sometimes bypasses the mind altogether. You do not need to understand the mathematics of musical harmonies and rhythms to “understand,” or feel the emotion behind, a piece of music. That means it can be powerful in a positive or a dangerous way.
Perhaps that is why some Christians are suspicious of art. The tendency among many contemporary artists, particularly playwrights and film-makers, performance artists and fanatics, is to be disturbing and provoke extreme emotions for the sake of it. They might explain the point is that the world is pointless or that extreme things happen so they want to portray them. Maybe in portraying them dramatically they can help people understand - at least on an emotional level - and process the traumas. Maybe. But to Christians the world does have a point: it was made by a Creator to express beauty and order even though it is spoiled by sin bringing ugliness and confusion. So we are cautious of “art” that provokes powerful but negative emotions. In by-passing the mind there is a danger of the spiritual aspects of a person being damaged rather than liberated.
But what a shame to be afraid of art, of being creative, when there are so many positive things that art can do. Some of the art works in the small but stimulating Christian Creative Network exhibition have a message that can be read (literally in three items) or that can be explained by the artist in the notes or in conversation. But many do not need to have a “message” to be able to stimulate helpful feelings, reflections and prayer.
In fact, we should not be looking for “Christian art,” just art. Good art. Well executed pieces of work that stimulate, some by portraying the beauty of creation, some by noticing beauty in unexpected places or ways, some by portraying the pain and brokenness of a fallen world, many by prompting prayer.
We can pray using words inspired by the Spirit in the moment or words inspired by the Spirit in careful and detailed preparation (often centuries ago). So why can we not use a painting to express our longings to God just as much as words, especially if it too was inspired by the Spirit in careful and detailed preparation by the artist? After all, for at least 1500 of the last 2000 years, most art works were in fact produced to express an aspect of the Christian message.
In a future post we will reflect a little on the theology of creative arts.