What is Art, Anyway? (Video from Art & Christianity Class Week 1)

February 17th, 2015

The past few weeks I have been teaching a Sunday School class at Donelson Church of Christ about Art & Christianity. We talk about what art and Christianity have to do with each other, if anything at all. (Spoiler: I think they overlap a great deal, and Christians have much to learn from the arts, and artists have a lot to teach Christians.)

So here is a rough video from the first week from a few weeks back. The audio quality is poor since I don’t have a lapel or lavalier mic, which is something I hope to remedy sometime soon. (It’s not in my budget at the moment.) Also I’m shooting on an iPad and not a professional camera, and you can tell.

But I think the message gets across. I’ll be posting additional weeks as I can get these edited and cleaned up. I hope to get the slides actually integrated with the video but I haven’t had the time to get that done.

Here’s the video. If you can’t see it because you’re reading this in an email, click here.

Here are the slides but they may not make a lot of sense without watching the video:

You can also check out this related blog post: What Is Art, Anyway?

Let me know what you think!

What is Art, Anyway?

January 6th, 2015

When we don’t know what something’s purpose is, it confuses and frustrates us. Or, if it isn’t obvious what something is, it gets passed off as art.

Sometimes.

Let’s look at Stonehenge. What is it?

A monument? A meeting hall? A pagan sun worship temple? Art? All of the above? None of these? What is it for?

You can ask a lot of the same questions even about something that is obviously art: you want to know why it is there.

Every piece of art has a purpose.

We can deduce the evolving purpose of art by looking at the many roles artists have played over the centuries.

Remember, what we call “art” hasn’t always been called art.

It used to be called “craft.” A long time ago, there was no separation between the two.

Now art and craft are so divorced that there is in the art world a deliberate lack of skill. The less classically skillful a piece of art is, the more technically (and likely morally) crude a work is, the more praise it gets.

(At the same time, we are seeing a resurgence in “artisinal” everything. Artisinal light bulbs, anyone?)

The Renaissance ushered in a new wealthy elite. Along with it came a brand new patronage system where art became a status symbol and the artists became rock stars. Their art was beautiful, and it might be about Biblical themes, but beauty was the hero, not God.

Sure, beautiful art is made to elevate people’s feelings, to move them to an awed, inspired, uplifted state.

There is nothing wrong with that. Beauty is good. Ugliness serves a purpose, too.

By the end of the 19th century the “moving upward” purpose of art was discarded in favor of simply moving people.

Art might make you happy, sad, angry, confused. If it moved you at all, it had done its job.

The Greeks understood this.

Ancient Greek dramatic theatre consists of comedies or tragedies. In comedies, the boy gets the girl, with some laughs along the way. In tragedies, everyone dies, often heroically, and it is very sad. In either case, the audience is moved to laugh or cry.

Our movies today aren’t much different.

The point of art is to move people.

The stories we tell and listen to still move us.

Let’s take it further: the goal of art is to change people. To transform them.

Does that sound familiar?

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.– Romans 12:2

I take this command to heart. I want my to art be a transforming agent in the world.I believe in this so much that in a few weeks I will be teaching a Sunday School class called Christianity and the Arts. We will discuss how art relates to the Bible and how Christians can and should relate to the art world.

If you’d like to be there, join me on Sunday, January 18 at Donelson Church of Christ right after the worship service. It’ll be fun!

What do Christians need to know about the visual arts?

August 5th, 2014

On Facebook, I posed this question: “What do Christians need to know about the visual arts?” I discovered that I wasn’t asking the right question. It’s not so much a matter of what Christians need to know about the visual arts. The better question to ask is, “What does anyone need to know about the visual arts?”

As it turns out Christians and non-Christians alike are fairly ignorant about the arts overall.

There are some important things to understand, regardless of your beliefs:

  • Art is a language and a kind of philosophical expression. You have to have a vocabulary to talk about it if you are going to get anywhere. This is the foundation of art appreciation. There is a whole branch of philosophy that deals with this called Aesthetics. As with any branch of philosophy, a definition of terms is a must. At it’s core aesthetics deals with the question of what is beautiful, but that changed with Modernism.
  • Since the early 1900s, the process behind art is more important than the artifact itself. If there is a compelling theory behind the work, that makes the work worthwhile. “Art for Art’s sake” is an antiquated notion from before 1900.
  • This is why art so much 20th century art can be considered ugly. Art is often far more than what a thing looks like or its perceived beauty. The art is an artifact or a result of a particular process or theory.
With that out of the way, I have a better question to ask:

What role do the arts play in the Church?

Now I think we are getting somewhere. I think the most crucial issue here for me is the matter of art and worship.

But before we get into that, I want to take a minute to explain that I come from an evangelical background. Church of Christ, to be specific.

If you had to put any sort of aesthetic label on the worship style of the ostensibly non-denominational, autonomous C-of-C way of thinking, it would be Spartan or minimal. It’s pretty stripped down. A-capella music — all vocal, no instruments, no choir, no organ — in minimally furnished auditoriums.

I can say a lot more about the churches of Christ, but that’s something of a tangent from what I’m getting at. All I want to say is I grew up in an environment that was not very expressive when it came to worship, although a-capella singing can be as spectacular as this video of what appears to be seniors on a retreat at a camp or something, singing “O Lord Our Lord“:

(Can’t see the video? Click here to watch it on YouTube.)

So that’s where I come from. Maybe you came from a more expressive religious background, or no religious background at all and you’re new to this Christianity thing.

Either way, I think art can be very important in the church, and it should be.

I’ve always seen art as both a lifestyle and a means of worship. Honestly, there’s not a lot of difference between art and faith. They are both ways of looking at the world. The end result, the artifact, is different, but there is a significant and overwhelming overlap between the two.

Art should facilitate worship and build people up

I think a lot of us creative types really grok an art form quickly and get really into it, either the making of it or observing it. It can become an expression of worship that other people might not understand. So in that sense it is a lot like speaking in tongues. Paul cautions in 1 Corinthians 14:27-28 that if someone is speaking in tongues in worship, there should always be an interpreter, otherwise they should keep it silent. With that being the case it is always recommended that the artist or someone else be available to translate, if you will, what he/she has just done, unless it is an art form that is more commonly understood.

I imagine congregational singing to be pretty universally understood. On the other hand, someone doing a painting during the Lord’s Supper might weird some people out. Other people would get it instantly and be moved by something that makes Communion more real and less abstract. But for those who don’t understand, it might help if it is narrated or closed with some devotional thoughts summing it up. At the same time, I think something like this could do a lot to enhance worship by giving it another dimension.

In other words, until it is understood without explanation, respectful education is in order.

Art and Faith as Lifestyle

Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:31 encourages us to make our faith a lifestyle, a way of thinking, looking, seeing, being. Art is much the same. Someone who is an artist tends to see the world differently. Not just in noticing colors or textures, but in intuitively grasping a certain poignancy about every day things. Art is a way of seeing. Seeing more than just what is there. It’s kind of a romantic notion, sure. But there is so much more to life than what is just there. And if faith is hope in the unseen, then what is art? That’s where I see a huge overlap between art and faith.

What’s better than to show people by any means how much richer this life is than when taken at face value?

I think that is the role of art, in the church or elsewhere.

Pin this post:

Photo Credits: Header image (Gothic iconography): lisabelle3 via Compfight cc Gothic detail of writing hands: vidalia_11 via Compfight cc Peeling paint: jenny downing via Compfight cc

Review: The God Who is There

July 1st, 2014

This review of Francis A. Shaeffer’s seminal book The God Who is There will show it to be largely relevant today even though it was published some 45 years ago.

Years ago I remember seeing it on one of my dad’s bookshelves. He’s a preacher, and he has had this book since college. It was evidently a big deal when he was a student in the early 1970s at David Lipscomb College. I think it is still pretty relevant today. (Aside: the old cover from 1968 is pretty rad. Too bad it doesn’t look like this anymore. It is probably too “artsy” for most evangelical audiences — ha!)

Crisis of the Modern Man

In a nutshell, the first half establishes the crises facing the Modern Man, and the second half is about how Christians should talk to said Modern Man, meeting him where he is with compassion.

I see far too many Christians alienating people and talking down to them simply because they themselves don’t know enough about the other person or even what Christianity is really about.

That compassion is a fundamental part of what Jesus was all about. Many Christians forget this.

Progression of the Line of Despair

An important premise of the first half is this: certain ways of thinking have moved through society in this way: starting with philosophy (university professors of philosophy and literature), to the visual arts, to music, to the general culture, and finally to theologians.

That’s the order in which ideas spread. I found a really great graphic that explains this in the article from Susan E. Isaacs, Miley Cyrus And The Line Of Despair:

Take a good look at the above diagram. Once upon a time we celebrated Aristotle and the Venus de Milo. Now we worship John Waters and Lady Gaga. Tell me we are not living Below the Line of Despair. Of course, I didn’t need Schaeffer to tell me this stuff; I knew it the moment twerking was added to the OED.

The graphic is kind of tongue-in-cheek and exaggerated, but you see where certain ideas start in the universities and work their way into popular culture and then theologians.

Theologians are always the last to catch on.

It’s not that churches should be early adopters of new ideas, but there is a definite tendency among the religious to ignore what is going on in the culture at large, sticking their fingers in their ears and saying “la la la la la” at whatever is different from what they know and believe.

This is why the evangelical church in America shrunk so much in the middle part of the 20th century: they missed 50 years of art and culture, unable to understand the widespread nihilism present in the Modern Man.

Had evangelicals paid better attention when the 1913 Armory Show came to America, they would have been better prepared and equipped to face the existentialism that was prevalent in society by the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

Now we have hipsterism, which in my opinion is the newest iteration of postmodern despair, with a sort of cheerful nihilism.

People Aren’t Wearing Enough Hats

Related: this scene from Monty Python’s 1983 film “The Meaning of Life”:

(Can’t see the video? Click here instead.)

If there is no God…

The problem with modern thought is that it very quickly arrives at the conclusion that if there is no God, then moralism is moot.

If there is no God, it doesn’t matter what you do. Kindness and cruelty are equal and ultimately zero. Therefore, anything you do is zero, and if anything you do is zero, you are zero, too. You can see where this is going. It’s pretty hopeless.

The Call

Shaeffer calls Christians to understand this despair and compassionately expose it for what it is when ministering to people. Don’t shock and convulse people and then leave them hanging.

Show them love; show them what Christ is really about. God is knowable — a who: he is personal, and he is in fact there.

The Art

Of course what got me about this book in the first place was the attention given to the fine arts: how the work of the Modern masters has embodied the ideas present in 20th century thinking.

Refer again to the visual above and you’ll see how what happened in the arts a few years back is what is happening in mass culture now. And what’s happening in the arts now will spread to everything else in a few years.

Saving Leonardo

Yes, the book is almost half a century old. People call Schaeffer prophetic, but I see he was just follwing the line of Modernism into Postmodernism, which really started to take root in the 80s and 90s and now has entered the popular culture as hipsterism.

You already know what’s next: the churches are ready to adopt similar lines of thought.

Cue a Jon Acuff tweet about preachers in unnecessary scarves talking about metanarratives:Metanarrative is a huge part of postmodernism. Rather, postmodernism is skeptical of metanarratives.)

But if you want an updated version that doesn’t require a glossary and has a nifty appendix called “Morality at the Movies,” check out Nancy Pearcy’s Saving Leonardo. Pearcy was a student of Shaeffer’s, and she picks up where Shaeffer left off, making it more visual and relevant for today. I reviewed Saving Leonardo last year.

Things I have to ask myself

Reading this makes me ask myself what can I do as an artist to influence the world around me.

Better yet, how can I answer the world around me in such a way that gives hope in spite of the despair that’s all around?

How can I use the gifts I have to reverse that trend, not just mirror it?

Pin this post:

Video: Blaine Hogan’s Act of Confession

April 22nd, 2014

Last year, I came across Blaine Hogan‘s video from the Willow Creek Global Summit where he led the group in a time of confession.

Confession from The Tungsten Collective on Vimeo.

It’s a very powerful, poignant, and visceral way to demonstrate Christ’s redemption and God’s forgiveness. It visualizes and puts into motion Psalm 51:7:

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

Pin this post:

The future of art is God

October 8th, 2013

I’m a child of the 80s and 90s. As a kid I watched Voltron and Thundercats. As a teenager I wore Doc Martens and flannel.

So of course when I heard about the CNN interview with Billy Corgan, former frontman for Smashing Pumpkins, I had to watch since he said that God is the future of rock-n-roll:

(If the video doesn’t show up, try this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnVltQgF-i0)

Lots of people had lots to say about it, from Carlos Whittaker’s emphatic agreement that Christian musicians should “stop copying U2” to Matt K. Lewis encouraging Christians to “make beautiful things”.

So what does all this mean for the visual arts, and Christians who are visual artists?

I think that the world wants (needs!) hope, no matter where it comes from. Music, painting, film, news media, wherever.

Christians who do art are called to make the world a better place. And a great way to do that is by sharing redemption for a dying world.

(And don’t copy Thomas Kinkade. He already did that, and that trick got really old. But you already knew that.)

Photo Credits: Doc Martens: Divine in the Daily via Compfight cc Tunnel: Éole via Compfight cc

Book Review: Saving Leonardo

September 3rd, 2013

The cover got me. It’s got the Mona Lisa and Pulp Fiction. Plus some Kandinsky-looking abstract and a Lichtenstein pop-art comic-book painting. And this is a Christian book? This has to be cool, right? I have to admit that’s what first got my attention. Things I’m really into: fine art and movie-junkie movies. And it’s about saving Leonardo. What’s wrong with Leo? He was a talented guy. So I picked this up and decided to give it a read.

Now, it took me the better part of a year to read Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning. The first part is a bit slow, but certain parts really stood out for me and got my attention. Like most good books, once I hit a certain point, I couldn’t put it down. Nancy Pearcy did a good job with this.

It’s 336 pages, so it’s not a quick read. But it’s aimed at the “student of culture” and Pearcy’s goal is is to expose “secularism’s destructive and dehumanizing forces.” What this means is that what you see and hear in the arts and the media is not necessarily innocent (the buzzword to use is “value free”) but deliberately set against Judeo/Christian thought.

The Fact-Value Split

It starts off with a look at the fact-value split in today’s society and how that has affected many Christians. This refers to the idea that facts are essentially empirical data, but values are personal opinions and thus inferior to facts. This leads to the whole mentality that says “you can have your opinion, I’ll have mine, but that doesn’t make either one true”:
“Values are not considered matters of truth but only personal perspectives and preferences.”
The problem is that many Christians slide into this same line of thinking: “If someone wants to do something immoral, that’s their prerogative. In fact, I’ll even support them because it’s bigoted to do otherwise.”

This is where secular thought becomes destructive, because it slowly unravels one’s conviction in the Christian faith, which is based on certain absolutes.

The Threat of Global Secularism

The first section, The Threat of Global Secularism, is about the need for tools for detecting the underlying philosophies present in culture today, in movies, the arts, media, schools, even Saturday morning cartoons. Pearcy goes to great lengths to caution against the “fortress mentality” that is so prevalent in Christianity, which ends up isolating us from the world instead of helping us become familiar with the very world we are trying to bring to Christ.

Two Paths to Secularism

The second section, Two Paths to Secularism explores the root of the fact-value split and the two main ways our society has taken to arrive where we are today. So how did we get here?

This split occurred when The Enlightenment, or Analytic Tradition, began. Enlightenment is based in fact, scientific method, and above all, reason. The other route is the Romantic path, or Continental Tradition. It is rooted in story, myth, and imagination. Eventually, either stream becomes reductionistic and destructive.

The final two chapters are the most practical. The most entertaining is Chapter 9, Morality at the Movies. It reveals the agendas behind some popular films. Many are most definitely not “value free,” no matter how much they pretend to be.

The epilogue gives a great example of how art can reach the world for Christ by demonstrating the effects of Bach’s music on Japanese fans today, and how his music, more than 200 years after his death, can lead people to Christ.

What I think

It’s a bit academic, but it isn’t dry. It does require some foundation in art history. It might help to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance first, which is all about the Classic-Romantic split (Pirsig’s term for the same split).

There were times reading Saving Leonardo where I felt it would have been a good textbook for the “Christian in the Visual Arts” class I took my senior year at Harding University, but the tone is engaging and well-informed. Reading it, I felt like I was having coffee with a smart professor who is truly interested in helping me understand the way our culture operates.

It’s very sympathetic to the arts and artists. Pearcy herself is a trained violinist coming from a family of musicians, and she studied under Francis Shaeffer, so she has a firm grasp of the art world and today’s socio-political landscape.

The fact that it is filled with full-color images of artworks relevant to the topic at hand keeps visual types engaged.

It’s a must-read for anyone wanting to make a difference in the world with their art, because understanding the culture your art “lives” in is important to keeping it relevant.

Do Art and Christianity Mix?

August 27th, 2013

Like many people, I’ve run in several different circles at the same time for about as long as I can remember. I imagine this is true for most people.

There’s always been some amount of overlap between the various circles, but I’ve never felt like I belonged to any one group completely. This is not necessarily bad, but it has resulted in some sense of alienation. As a result I’ve always felt like an outsider. As a kid it was crushingly lonely at times, but I learned to deal with it. I suppose everyone faces this at one time or another.

Now, as an adult, that feeling is most acute when I try to talk about art around some people in my “church” circle. I get the smile and nod treatment. So few people seem to really “get” art anyway, so why should I expect Christians to have spent much time thinking about it either?

Honestly I haven’t really tried it the other way: talking to “art” people about Christianity. (Maybe I should.) I can’t say I’ve met any artists in the past ten years who were overtly antagonistic toward religion, much less Christianity, but I imagine a similar “smile and nod” response would be the most polite response I’d get. (I suspect their main eef would be with hypocritical attitudes among some Christians.) Most artists I know are far more open-minded than a lot of the Christians I know.

The Root of Conflict

But I think for me the biggest conflict may be the fact that Modern art is largely atheistic. Christianity is clearly monotheistic. I think that affects a lot of the dialogue (or lack thereof) between the two worlds. (And when some art is overtly Christian, it’s just bad.)

That said, I think there’s a lot of room for reconciliation between the two. Not all art is atheistic, and not all Christians are antagonistic to art.

Yet I think there is a fair bit ignorance on both sides regarding the other. Many Christians are simply ignorant of contemporary culture, failing to make any sort of assessment of it. Thus they have no idea what to do with art or how to look at art.

And contemporary (especially Modern art) tends toward so much ugliness that there is such a lack of a sense of hope or redemption that it alienates anyone who lives with that sort of hope.

Reconciliation

So how to reconcile the two? I think it is the job of the Christian artist to bring hope and redemption back to art after a century of despair.

I’m not talking about a naive feel-good sense of sugar-coated “hope” in the vein of Thomas Kinkade, but acknowledging that yes, sometimes life does suck, but there is a healthy way out.

Paul, in2 Corinthians 4:8-11 (HCSB), may provide some encouragement:

We are pressured in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed. We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who live are always given over to death because of Jesus, so that Jesus’ life may also be revealed in our mortal flesh.
This passage stands to be a good reminder for Christian artists of all stripes: the world is what it is, but it is our job to share redemption with a dying and corrupt world. It’s been that way since sin entered it, but since we have Jesus in us, we have life, and we are called to share it with the world.

And you?

If you’re a Christian artist, how have you reconciled your faith and your art?

Photo Credit: bims0bims via Compfight cc