‘Art. Hmm. Why are you bothering with that, when you could be evangelising, helping the poor, running a bible study? Or if you must do art, make sure it’s going to bring people to Jesus.’
In the 1990s I went to a lot of Bible Weeks. They were fun (at points), hard work (camping) and on occasion deeply frustrating. Back then I was working at my writing and becoming more certain this was something I should be doing. Yet, instead of that being a wonderful moment of realisation I more often found myself thinking ‘what’s the point of Huw?’, because the main message from the platform was that I should aspire to eldership (well, I was (am) male), and I didn’t want to. Also every book in the Bible Week bookshop was written by a church leader or, occasionally, a church leader’s wife.
Those of us who felt a calling to creative practices found ourselves on the back foot because having such a calling was either not recognised (‘actor’ does not appear in the Romans 12 list of gifts), or was not as valuable as other callings.
There was a lingering attitude that art (or at least, art that is not explicitly evangelistic) wasn’t something Christians should be fussed about. This suspicion of art (which didn’t occur in every church) was an outflow of reformed puritanism (they broke an awful lot of stained glass windows) and nineteenth century evangelicalism.
My rough diagnosis is that visual art is suspect partly because of the Old Testament prohibition of ‘graven images’ (Exodus 20:4), partly because of the Roman Catholic use of images, and partly from fear of the power of visual art to provoke sensual, non-verbal reactions in the viewer. (In passing we can note that of other art forms writing is the least suspect – perhaps because of its link with logos, the word – and theatre is the most suspect because it is all about ‘pretending’.)
People either gave up their art or disengaged from the church. Those who stuck with their artistic practice and the church needed a defence, a justification for their strange obsession. One of the commonest justifications to emerge was a four-step proof based on the character of God:
1. God is creative.
2. God made humanity in his image.
3. Humanity is therefore creative.
4. Making art is thus a manifestation of our innate, God-given creativity.
Tada! It’s a beautifully simple proof, based on the character of God, and who is going to argue with that?
But let’s think about human creativity in a little more detail. One of the first things we see is that it is exhibited across an incredibly wide range of fields. Yes, there is art, but there is also furniture making, the construction of buildings, gardening, civil engineering, science, maths, medicine, the design and construction of computers and their software (even a spreadsheet is a wonder). And even I have to admit that sports and crosswords are manifestations of creativity.
That is quite a list, quite a lot of manifestations of creativity. It doesn’t look as if art has a unique claim here, it stands as one among many. That being the case, we can’t use creativity as a stand-alone justification for art. Are we ready to deny creativity to the engineer so artists can hug it close to themselves? If we aren’t careful we will be back with the Romantic view of the artist as a genius.
Also, that list is a very partial one: I left out things like chemical weapons, instruments of torture, exploitative financial systems. Although it may be unpleasant to think of them, they are still manifestations of human creativity. Humanity is fallen and so is our creativity.
Finally, we have to wonder why we can select God’s creativity as being the one of his properties which we rely on. What about his omnipresence? Why don’t we go with that? Despite being made in God’s image, we are still creatures with an immense gulf between ourselves and the creator. Art as a manifestation of our image-bearing doesn’t seem a very strong argument.
There doesn’t isn’t a specific command in the Bible to make art, nor to design and build suspension bridges or smart phones. So where could we look to find a justification or reason for art? One place we could begin is Genesis 1:28 and the human call to stewardship.
Stewardship takes imagination, an ability to see the way things are and to envision the way they could be. It also takes an ability to express that vision, to describe things as they could could be – and not as they currently are. That expression might be verbal, might be visual, might be musical, might be a dance. It might be positive – glowing and shining – or it might be grim, dark and uncomfortable, because that is how the person perceives the situation.
For Adam, the envisioning might have been a simple sketch scraped into the earth which indicted where vegetables would go and where the fruit trees would be planted. For us, living in a world of incomprehensible connections, the expression of envisioning is very different.
Here, perhaps, we have the start of a solid justification for art. One that does not require art to be something that happens in a rarefied spiritual atmosphere: instead, expecting art to have an impact on the lives of the artists and of the audiences. We can have art that doesn’t just show us image after image of lovely things, but art that grabs us by the sleeve and insists on telling its story or putting its complaint.
Mercifully (for me and the church), I was never appointed an elder. And things have improved: in the churches that were present at those Bible Weeks there are now more people who ‘get’ art and there is a recognition in the churches that art is worth doing. That doesn’t mean all the thinking is done: I think there is plenty to do, but we are in a better place to do it.
(Acknowledgements: the critique of the art as manifestation of humanity’s image-bearing was one presented by Adrienne Chaplin at a Holy Biscuit away-day in September 2018.)