Even non-Christian artists admit that they are trying to “say something” with their art. Often viewers may have a hard time knowing what’s being “said” without an owner’s manual. Other times it’s pretty obvious what’s being said and we may be attracted or repelled by the message. But if we make any kind of visual art, we are anticipating someone else could and should see it and derive some sort of statement from it.
Why are men compelled to do this? In Genesis, God gave not only a command but the authority and creativity to Adam to name all the animals. In a very real sense, Adam was the first human artist. He was imitating his Creator by naming elements of the Creation. What Adam named each animal is still what defines that creature and its nature down to our time. Horses were not called lizards by men of William Wallace’s day, nor are turtles called elephants in China. Adam’s naming has lasted through generations and across cultures. And, even in spite of the Fall, men are still compelled to name, and thereby express dominion over, Creation. The most pagan, God-hating artist still responds to and seeks to say something about Creation. What he says may be a lie or “said” poorly, but he can’t avoid his Adamic nature and urge to express some kind of authority. Great artists have always, knowingly or not, made creative expressions about the Creation (this includes depictions of man’s creations - cities, technology, etc.).
Christian artists should, in their poor attempt to imitate their Creator, seek to say something true, good, and beautiful about Creation. This does not mean every painting should seek to be photo-realistic. A camera, especially in the hands of a skilled photographer, produces a certain statement about what it pictures. A painter says and uses quite different means and purposes. For instance, I love to use watercolor paints. In my painting, I am trying, by manipulating the paint’s particular characteristics, to emphasize certain colors, lighting, or textures in the subject. I am hoping to help the viewer see and, yes, even feel, what I saw and felt from the subject. I am trying to “say”, “Do you see the way our Creator made even the ruddy color and texture of rust on a sunlit metal roof proclaim His glory?”
A word about originality: Artists can get a little foamy at the mouth if their work is compared (as in, ‘it’s not original’) to another artist’s work. Saying something “no one else has said” is pretty much a sacrament in the art world. In my opinion, these folks generally need to breathe deeply through a paper bag and get over themselves. True, a copy of someone else’s work usually falls flat and is best done for learning purposes. But this “uniqueness” anxiety is sort of like the population boom myth: contrary to popular opinion, there is still plenty of Creation to go around! Everything that can be said has hardly been said - much remains to be proclaimed about and to the glory of God.
What Makes Great Art Great?
I readily admit I may be going out on the skinny branches here, but if you are game, so am I. Having viewed a fair number of historical and contemporary art pieces, as well as seeking to do something worthwhile myself, I have tried to figure out what is so appealing about “timeless” art? And why, by contrast, do motel “art” prints often trigger the gag reflex?
The Preacher said that God put eternity in our hearts. All of our hearts, Christian or not. St. Paul said that all Creation groans, awaiting the redemption of the sons of men. David the Psalmist said that even the heavens declare the glory of God and their (the skies and stars) voice is heard universally. Stay with me here. A day is coming when ALL of Creation will be redeemed and resurrected to become a “new heavens and a new earth.” Like men, all Creation has an eternal destiny.
Let’s go a bit further: If all of Creation will be resurrected to a glorious state and even pagans have a sense of the eternal, could it be that, somehow, we ALL recognize the eternal nature of Nature? What if great artists (Christian or not) were able to paint an image, albeit flawed (so maybe just a glimpse), of a resurrected Creation? Whatwould an eternal mountain range look like? Or a sun-dappled eternal tree? Could there be something of the eternal captured by Vermeer in the way he caught endless light coming through a window and falling on a ageless young girl pouring never-spoiling milk?
As Christians, wouldn’t and shouldn’t we be attracted to even poor glimpses of what might make up the new heavens and the new earth? Imagine a prisoner kept from the sun for years, what would his reaction be to a shaft of sunlight suddenly coming through a crack in the dungeon wall? Wouldn’t he leap to somehow capture it, feel it? Wouldn’t he cherish it for as long as it lasted?
So, what if great art, that is art that crosses eras and cultures, was a teasing bit of the eternal? I think that might not only explain the timelessness of such art, but why we are drawn to it and seek to emulate it somehow. It also might explain why motel or any other poorly done, cheesy, or ugly “art” repels us (or should). Back to the prisoner for a moment - what if, after seeing the shaft of real sunlight, some lunkhead guard offered him a 60-watt bulb lamp instead? Right. You get the idea.
In seeking to love and pass on the love of great art to our children, I hope we don’t ever settle for less than what speaks of truth, goodness, and beauty, and maybe, just maybe, gives us a little glimpse of the glorious resurrection awaiting all Creation.