I recently had the opportunity to go to New York, so I tried my best to be artsy and civilized. Naturally, this desire led me to the Guggenheim. Now, I’ll admit: I went for the building, not the exhibits – and because my friend, Bub (not Bob) wanted to go. I actually connect with architecture as an art form, perhaps more than any other form of art next to music. Like almost every work of Frank Lloyd Wright, it is a work of beauty. Yet within the existentially pleasing palace that is the Guggenheim, it was a quote plastered on the wall of the Vasily Kandinsky exhibit that impacted me more than the architecture or the exhibits. Kandinsky was clearly a wordsmith as much as an artist. The quote read:
“A true work of art speaks immediately to the spectator. The spectator should immediately respond to the work of art.”
Not only are the sentences deliciously structured, but the thought is riveting. True art speaks. Not eventually, but immediately. It speaks to evoke a response. There is an exchange, an interaction, a dance. Art isn’t meant to be static, but dynamic. What is significant, however, in Kandinsky’s train of thought is the distinction of “true art.” True art speaks and evokes a response.
Of course the range of responses that art can evoke are numerous. I would argue that true art is like creation. It subtly yet powerfully draws us to the Creator. It can reflect the beauty and holiness of God. Yet like creation, art can also draw us to reflect upon our own circumstances, our mortality and falleness.
Have you heard of the artists Bezalel and Oholiab? Maybe not. Their work is famous, but their names? Not so much.
Bezalel and Oholiab are mentioned briefly in Exodus 31. Yet their roles are of great significance. God says, “I have filled [them] with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs.” This is the second appearance of The Spirit of God in the Bible. First, the Spirit is hovering over the chaos of creation bringing about order. Second? The Spirit is filling two men with artistic gifts. God seems to be saying something profound about art. It’s at the heart of creation.
Creation is a work of art, and art made within creation can draw us into relationship with the Creator. Bezalel and Oholiab were filled with the Spirit of God to devise artistic designs for tabernacle — the place of worship for ancient Israel. Their designs were meant to aid people in the worship of God. The place of worship for Israel wasn’t ugly, but beautiful. It wasn’t mediocre, but excellent. Rather than distract, good artistry aided their worship.
Art is meant to tell the truth in a way in which it can be heard.
Art evokes a response. The art created by Bezalel and Oholiab was designed to evoke the response of worship. But what does this mean for the relationship between art and the Church? I don’t think it means that we start plastering Jesus fish on everything we make, and replacing every t with a cross. I don’t think it means that every piece of art needs to be explicitly “Christian.” After all, objects can’t be Christian. Only people can be. Artists throughout the centuries have made explicitly Christian themed art that draws people in to consider biblical truths. But other artists have also employed subtler means, but with the intent of evoking a response all the same.
As a church, I want us to recognize that every single art form can be used to communicate the beauty of God. It can be used explicitly or subtly. And sometimes, art is just beautiful for the sake of beauty. After all, creation didn’t have to be beautiful. It’s a benefit to God’s wonderful creation. Again, this says something about the sort of creating God is passionate about.
Yet Art isn’t always beautiful and comforting. Art is meant to tell the truth in a way in which it can be heard. The prophets understood this dimension of art. Naked for three years, broken clay, belts tied around wrists. These artistic displays were designed to draw people into the truth about their circumstances. And sometimes the truth is that the world is a fallen place and the places in which we look for beauty turn out to be rotting façades. This is why we also have an entire book in the Bible called Lamentations and why roughly a third of the Psalms are lament psalms. (most notably Psalm 88). As a friend of mine said to me, “Sometimes, I think art has to rip our pretty wall paper off to show us the cracks.”
As Christians, however, when we create I do believe true art will draw people into beauty and all that is fair and good — but simultaneously, it won’t be afraid to expose the cracks. Makoto Fujimura is described by art critics as the “one of the best painters alive.” He is a brilliant artist, who also happens to be a Christian. Makoto says,
“The best of the arts also point to or even redefine, the World to come, causing us to rise up, like Lazarus, from the dark tomb of cynicism and despair.”
Let’s create that sort of art. I love that Fujimura is calling us to create for the sake of New Creation rather than old creation. But this recognizes that we exist in an middle space between the two. The old is decaying, the new is coming. To see the new we might, first, need to be shocked by the reality of the old. Simultaneously, to appreciate the new we might need to celebrate the beauty that shines through the cracks of the old. Whether your tool is the pen or the brush, the mouse or your hands — whatever it may be — let’s “point to or even redefine, the World to come.” That sounds like true art to me. We need more of that. Let’s create in such a way that people emerge from “the dark tomb of cynicism and despair.”
I dream of our Church taking up this mantle in explicit and subtle ways. I dream of our Church creating our little hearts out for the sake of making the world that is to come more palpable. A place more like what God ultimately intends. But this also means that we’re not afraid to use art to show the truth about the world as it currently is. True art then is prophetic beauty. At times, challenging us to look at the grave. At times, pointing us to look beyond it.
editor: shannon daly