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If art has a function, it is much broader and richer than the church imagines

At our last Birmingham Sputnik hub gathering, we had the pleasure of a visit from Ally Gordon. Ally is a highly respected contemporary artist and the co-founder of Morphe Arts and after an invigorating afternoon, I instantly wanted to share his wisdom to a wider group than those who could fit into the Wilsons’ living room! This article seemed like a good place to start- originally posted on the Evangelical Alliance website a few years back, and reproduced (and very slightly abridged) with permission…

The story of art is rich with those who have glorified God through excellent art from the painterly genius of Rembrandt and Cranach the Elder to the musical magnificence of Mendelssohn and Bach. There is no shortage of believers who wrestled with the significance of what they made before the glory of their Creator yet today there are few Christians of evangelical faith on the national arts platform. One can’t help but ask why?

James Elkins, professor of art history at the Chicago Institute of Art writes, “contemporary art is as far from organised religion as Western art has ever been and that might be its most singular achievement.” Why do so few Christians enter the arts today? Why don’t artists like coming to church? Perhaps we are still experiencing a cultural hangover from the Enlightenment or still working out our reformed theology of images. As people of God’s Word we might feel a bit sheepish when it comes to pictures. We value clarity, especially in preaching, but art is anything but clear, often mysterious and at times a bit emotive.

The Dutch art historian and jazz critic, Hans Rookmaaker, suggested two possibilities in Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (pub. IVP 1946), “The artist who is a Christian struggles with great tensions. An artist is expected to work from his own convictions but these may be seen by his atheist contemporaries as ultra-conservative if not totally passé. On top of this he often lacks the support of his own community, his church and family.”

Rookmaaker wrote over half a century ago but his words are still prophetic to our times. Since artists often find themselves on the cutting edge of philosophical and critical thought, those who confess faith in Christ swim dangerously against the tides of prevailing worldviews in mainstream society, perhaps most severely against the thinking of militant atheists such as Dawkins and Jonathan Miller whose influence is felt as sharply (if indirectly) in the arts as it is in the sciences. At the same time, many artists feel unsupported or unappreciated by their church family. Art is sometimes considered to be an unnecessary decadence or indulgence. One art student told me her pastor asked how she would feel if Jesus came back to find her painting pictures of daisies – what, after all, is the value in a painting of flowers when there are millions yet to hear about the gospel? In my experience, such extreme discouragement for young Christian artists is rare these days but there is still a great need for encouragement.

God’s Word is rich in its instruction and example to those who make art. In the broadest sense of ‘art’, the bible is a magnificent artistry in its own right, bringing together creative writing from a plethora of writers, each bringing their own style yet representing generations of culture and historical insight. The bible is unique art in being rendered by human hands yet divinely inspired (breathed-out) by God’s Spirit (2 Tim 3:16). Consider the great art in the erotic poetry of Song of Songs, the captivating stories told by the prophets and Christ himself or the apocalyptic imagery of John’s Revelation: images of catastrophe to rival any Hollywood epic. Think of the deep poetic despair and joyful elevation expressed by the Psalms and lyrics that inspired Bono of U2 to describe David as “the greatest blues writer of all time”.

In the bible, creativity is the first thing God chooses to record about his character, “In the beginning God created” (Gen 1:1). God’s creation was “good’ and “very good”. From the beginning God is interested in the aesthetic dimensions of living, declaring that the trees are not only “good for food” but first, “pleasing to the eye”(Gen2:9). As those made in God’s image the act of good creativity is merely a very human experience and the artist should not feel a need to justify his art by scribbling bible verses in the bottom right hand corner of her painting or crow-barring a gospel message into his script. Biblical artists such as Bezalel and the Psalmist David were recognised by God for their artistic excellence and Bezalel being chosen by God for his “skill, craft and knowledge” (Ex 31:3) in design.

The Christian is free to make art in whichever discipline, medium or genre he chooses and there really is no such thing as “Christian art” just as there is no such thing as ‘Christian medicine’, ‘Christian food’ or ‘Christian plumbing’ for “the earth is the Lords and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1) The diversity of subject matter available to the Christian is as rainbow rich as the creation itself. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “everything God created is good and nothing is to be rejected” (2 Tim 4:4). There may not be “Christian art” but there are Christian approaches to making art. A good starting point is the question, “how does art function in the Kingdom of God?”

The apostle Paul writes, “In whatever you do work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord and not for men” (Col 3:23). We graft hard for the glory of God in whatever arena of the arts he leads us to. As with every act of service to Christ, making art requires prayer, study and the renewing of our minds through the power of God’s Spirit and his word.

When we ask how art functions in the Kingdom of God we are assuming art has a function (and beyond making walls look pretty, although there is much benefit simply in this). Art can open a window for the viewer to see the world in a way they have yet to experience. The artist can show us something of God’s creation or the fallen nature of the world. Artists can build bridges with those who don’t know Christ by exploring ideas and themes that are common to our daily experiences and the gospel.

Contemporary American artist, Betty Spackman writes, “we make art to remind us of the invisible and to heal our forgetfulness”. Art serves as visual signposts towards what lies beyond peripheral vision or to the realm of ideas and concepts. A painting is more than a collage of pigment and chemicals on canvas but also a window to reveal how the artist sees the world. As such, art is a good vehicle for exploring the Christian worldview. In a similar way, art is well suited to help us document and remember the past, art can help us grieve or lament and it may trigger the memory of important events, people or conversations.

Artists can tell stories through their art. All stories fit into the greatest story of the gospel and some artworks will explore grand and profound themes such as the existential questions, “why are we here?” and “what is the purpose of life?” Others will explore more modest ideas such as “look at that fading flower”.

For pastors wondering how to encourage artists in your church perhaps a good starting point would be to ask them seriously about their work. Ask them how their art functions in the kingdom of God?” Ask them what ideas inform their art and who inspires them. Avoid questions like, “do you do landscapes or portraits”, “what are you trying to say” or “tell me what its about”. An artist takes much time deliberating on the aesthetics of their work to help you engage with their work sometimes in a non-verbal way. Quite often the greatest Christian encouragement for an artist is when other believers appreciate their work enough to buy it. This may be the single most helpful act of support you can offer.

If you are a Christian and an artist may I point you towards the writing of Dr. Francis Schaffer and Dutch art historian Hans Rookmaaker. Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture was a breath of fresh air to me as an art student and I still return to Schaffer’s “Art and the Bible” when I need a little spiritual encouragement. More recently writers such as Calvin Seerveld, Steve Turner, Betty Spackman, Hilary Brand and Adrienne Chaplin have also written well on the subject (most their books published by IVP or Piquant).

You can also check out what Morphe are up to here or more specifically, Ally’s book- Beyond Air Guitar. To understand that this guy doesn’t just talk the talk though, check out Ally’s own work. 

Finally, these two posts were originally posted on the Evangelical Alliance website (here). Thanks for the permission to reproduce.

5 thoughts on “If art has a function, it is much broader and richer than the church imagines

  1. […] art’ may be simplistic, there are Christian approaches to making art. At the end of our last post, Ally Gordon, contemporary artist and co-founder of Morphe Arts, suggested that a good starting […]

  2. […] In our three Brum Sputnik Hub meetings so far, we’ve been blown away first by fine artist Ally Gordon, then by graphic designer Luke Tonge and last time by the tag team of Chris Donald and Stewart […]

  3. […] our third Sputnik Brum Hub, we had a quandary. How exactly do you follow Ally Gordon and Luke Tonge? Not only are these guys two of the most talented, articulate Christian artists […]

  4. […] Our favourite Scottish hyperrealist painter Ally Gordon puts it like this: […]

  5. […] our third Sputnik Brum Hub, we had a quandary. How exactly do you follow Ally Gordon and Luke […]

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