Art, etc.

Hendrick Avercamp, Marc Chagall, Emily Dickinson, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Bob Dylan, Francis of Assisi, Wassily Kandinsky, Phil Keaggy, Kierkegaard, T. S. Eliot, Leonardo da Vinci, C.S. Lewis, Dave Matthews, George McDonald, Herman Melville, Michelangelo, Milton, Monet, Ezra Pound, Solomon Raj, Rodin, Salman Rushdie, Evgeniy Shibanov, John Steinbeck, Leo Tolstoy, U2, Jason Upton, Van Gogh, Walt Whitman, Wilco, Neil Young, Warren Zevon

These are a few of my favorite artists. They have nothing more in common other than in my opinion they are very good at their art. Art. That’s what I’m thinking about on my thinking day. What is art? Some define art as one of the humanities. And what are the humanities? The humanities might be understood as branches of learning and expression that investigate and reflect human concerns. Humans are interested in art; animals are not.

Since art is part of what makes us uniquely human, art is connected with God, because you cannot define what it means to be human apart from God. I’ll show you what I mean. Look up the Merriam-Webster definition of human and you get this:

human: a bipedal primate mammal

Well. Somehow I think we find this a rather dissatisfying definition. And it does no good to extend the definition to a bipedal primate mammal with a big brain and an iPod. No, you cannot talk about what it means to be human without drawing God into the equation. Humans are dust and spirit beings capable of self-awareness and God-awareness. It’s the God-connection that makes us human. But enough of that.

What I’m really thinking about is what makes good art? Besides the obvious ability to recognize a kind of beauty and the prerequisite talent to create something in that direction, art is good when it is authentic. Art is good when it comes from deep within. When it is a human attempt to be not only truly human, but individually human. Art cannot be mass produced. It has to capture a specific moment. Art has to be courageous. Cowardly efforts to please the crowd may be technically good, but they will be artistically deficient. Mimicry can never be art. It may be a faithful replication, but it is an unfaithful expression. This is why American Idol has so much that is American and so little that is artistic. In general it’s a plastic replication of the art of someone else.

I want something original and authentic.

I’ve read several books on Francis of Assisi this year. I think of his life as a dramatic example of performance art. His whole life was a kind of poetic “illustrated sermon” protesting the avarice, greed and empty religiosity that characterized 13th century Italy. What Francis was doing was original, authentic, daring, inspired, and I would say, artistic and beautiful. But when masses attempt to mimic St. Francis it is usually not so beautiful.

A real enemy of good art is self-consciousness; especially the kind of self-consciousness that constantly whispers, “what will people think?” Pleasing the crowd is always an accident of art, never the intent. This is why moralistic, legalistic cultures are virtually incapable of producing good art. They are afraid to color outside the lines. And the lines are there to make sure you don’t improvise — stick to the script! It’s also why state sponsored art in totalitarian regimes is never any good. It may be good propaganda, but it won’t be good art. In totalitarian environments art is usually subversive and a dangerous vocation.

Learn this: The self-conscious attempt to please the powers that be will quench the artistic spirit.

This is related to why attempts to produce “Christian art” generally fail. They may be Christian enough, but artistically they tend to be lacking. Christian works far better as a noun than an adjective. I’m all for Christ informed art, and if Christ dominates your life it will influence your art; but trying to intentionally, self-consciously turn art into sermons is usually a mistake. And this comes from one who is a vocational sermon-maker. And yes, I believe good sermons can be artistic. But I’ll save that for a class on homiletics.

To be an artist, insist on being original, true to yourself. Try to be more oblivious of the crowd. Your art (and life!) will be the better for it. It takes a kind of faith to do this (even as mimicry is a kind of faithlessness).

Here’s something Soren Kierkegaard said along these lines:

“A sparrow, a fly, a poisonous insect is an object of God’s concern. It is not a wasted or lost life. But masses of mimickers, a crowd of copycats are wasted lives. God has been merciful to us, demonstrating His grace to the point of being willing to involve Himself with every person. If we prefer to be like all the others, this amounts to high treason against God. We who simply go along are guilty, and our punishment is to be ignored by God. What faith it takes to believe that one’s life is noticed by God and that this is enough!” -Soren Kierkegaard

Brilliant! It’s quotes like this that make Kierkegaard easily my favorite philosopher. By the way, I consider Kierkegaard an artist and not a scientist; he was one of the first philosophers to recognize that philosophy properly belongs among the humanities and not the sciences.

Another thought. Life itself is a kind of art when lived authentically. You may never put brush to canvass, compose a poem or chisel out a sculpture, but if you can learn to be yourself and live as your unique self, your life will have an artistic quality about it and you will be a true artist. You will be an artist and a work of art. And that reminds me of a song.

by The Guggenheim Grotto

When we’re young we set our hearts upon some beautiful idea
Maybe something from a holy book or French philosophia
Upon the thoughts of better men than us we swear by and decree a
Perfect way to end the war of ways the only way to be a…
Work of art, oh to be a work of art

But in time a thought comes tugging on the sleeve edge of our minds
Perhaps no perfect way exists at all, just many different kinds
Oh but if it’s just a thing of taste then everything unwinds
For without an absolute how can the absolute define a…
Work of art, oh to be a work of art

Do you understand that you are to be a work of art? You are to be a one-off masterpiece of God. And this is what Jesus intends to save…you. The real you. The one-of-a-kind-you. Jesus is not a salvation factory — he does not mass produce Christians. Jesus saves people one at a time and each in a unique way. The personal experience of salvation is the salvation of your soul, the real you, that deep-you that is inimitable. To lose your soul to mimicry and conformity is a true tragedy, not only for you, but for God and the rest of us. Don’t sell yourself. Don’t sell your soul. Be a person of faith. Dare to become yourself in Christ.

“What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” -Jesus (Mark 8:37, The Message)

Cultivate your soul. Cultivate an appreciation for art.

Be more human. Contribute to Christ informed humanities.

Discover the real you. Have faith to be that person.

Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

Be an artist.

Be a work of art.



While writing this blog I received an email from Derek Vreeland with this quote from Eugene Peterson’s new book, Tell It Slant.

“What the biblical revelation tells us, a revelation that is summed up and completed in Jesus, is that we can’t become more like Jesus (more pleasing or acceptable to God) by becoming less, human, less physical, less emotional, less involved with our families, less associated with socially or morally undesirable people. We don’t become more spiritual by becoming less human…[And] we lose touch with our humanity when we deprive God of his humanity.”

The painting is Fish by Marc Chagall. I regard it as good art.

Philosophia by The Guggenheim Grotto