Ah, the Beauty{6} of Art


Caravaggio - NarcissusThis is the next installment in the Beauty series (for the complete series, click here).  This is based on the manuscript I wrote for a message I gave at Epiphany Fellowship in Philadelphia (links to both the manuscript and the audio are at the bottom).  We’ve gone through a lot so far, including a discussion of why we long for Beauty, a definition of Beauty, and how science and nature are beautiful.  This series has received great feedback from people (and it’s only about half done!).  So feel free to jump in and comment and keep the discussion going.  Today’s post is on the beauty of Art.

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Humanity’s creations are beautiful.This is where we get to talk about art.

For some reason (I have no idea why) this was actually the very last section I worked on.Whether that means it’s a lot better or a lot worse, I don’t know.Anyway, art is a really tough thing to talk about.Its a huge topic that everyone has an opinion on, and as time has gone on, the conventions of art and what it is have broken down and definitions have broadened almost to the point of not really being definitions at all.Not only this, but you also seem to have people forgetting some very important things that we all must be reminded of.

First off, we are too quick to call God the “Supreme Artist”.That’s taking a description of humans and describing God with it.We’re right in starting with him in trying to understand art, but seeing Him as the “Supreme Artist” generally makes us picture in our minds the type of artistry we like best, and then begin thinking that God values that kind the most.This ends up being a bottom-up kind of description of art rather than top-down.Before God is Artist, He is a Creator, so we must start thinking of art creative-ly.This means that the way God is an artist is by making things that are not him and weren’t around before.So when I refer to God as Artist, that’s what I have in mind.

Secondly, we must keep in mind that God Himself was the first abstract artist.I kept reading all these books and articles written by Christians about art and so many of them seemed to not have room in their “theologies of art” for the abstract.The opposite of “abstract” art is “representational” art – art that “re-presents” something we know exists.When God did His artistry, it was all abstract.There was nothing to “re-present”So that being the case, I can’t think that God isn’t glorified in even the most abstract of art.There may even be an argument that abstract art is closer to the heart of God than representational.I’m not making that argument, but someone could.

Thirdly, as most Christians recognize, we create things because God does.In the first passage in the Bible that talks about people being made in the “Image of God” in Genesis 1:27, the logical question that follows is: what exactly does that mean?Now, theologians and philosophers have argued about this for thousands of years, and I’m not going to try and finish that fight right now, but I will say that it’s interesting that at this particular time in Scripture that this verse shows up, there’s only one thing we know about this God that humans are apparently in the “image of”: that He has the desire and ability to make things.I imagine that’s where we get our desire and ability.As G.K. Chesterton points out in his book “The Everlasting Man”, whatever role evolution may have played in the development of this world, it can’t by itself explain art.You don’t see monkeys in caves making bad art and humans now making good art.There’s something about art that reflects what makes us unique among all created things.

So when we do create and we do make, what does this have to do with beauty?Everything.I really do believe that art, like science, is a necessary endeavor in furthering God’s plan in History.God’s creation merely points to God’s Beauty.It doesn’t make beauty itself.Humans, on the other hand, actually make beauty and play an integral part in God “making all things beautiful in their time“.Let’s go back to our definition of “Beauty”:Complexity expressed simply - many complex strands woven into a sensually perceived simple tapestry.  The more complexity of “strands” that are represented in a piece of art, the more beautiful it is.And remember- different people, due to many factors, will find and feel different “strands” running through different pieces of art, leading to different personal aesthetic standards for each of us.

So imagine every strand in the universe is there before an artist preparing to do a piece.You have suffering over here, hope here, joy here, God, evil, life, humanity, death, birth, redemption, pain – all there before the artist.In art, the artist grabs as many of those strands as they can and crams and weaves them into the piece.And the more there are, the more beautiful it is.That’s why many people don’t like Postmodern art.There’s no complexity.It’s too simple and says nothing.There are not enough strands in it to strike the heart of a person so they can actually call it beautiful.A complexity of ideas makes art beautiful.In the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes out his thoughts on Beauty and art.He writes: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.”Though I disagree with Wilde on some of what he’s saying, nevertheless he is noticing that different strands in any piece should resonate with different people.Some people will be offended.Others will praise it.It’s just the way beautiful things are. After all, it’s how God and the Gospel are.

I’ll end this oh-too-brief section on art with a few comments on the distinction between “Christian” art and “secular” art.As Phil Ryken, just down the street at Tenth Pres writes in his book Art for God’s Sake: Bad Christian art “ultimately dishonors God because it is not in keeping with the truth and beauty of His character.It also undermines the church’s gospel message of salvation in Christ.”How? Well, the kind of modern art that most Christians scoff at is art that is completely void of goodness, light, and truth.But Christian art tends to do the same thing by being void of other very real things in this world: depravity, pain, and sin.When our art shies away from these things, in effect, we’re avoiding showing the world what they need salvation from.Jesus didn’t come to save some cute coffee mug or bumper sticker kind of world.He came and suffered, bled, and died an ugly death that we celebrate as the most beautiful event in all of history.We must make room in our art to explore the darkness and pain of this world so we can show them that Christ can and does engage and enter into brokenness to see it redeemed.

To conclude, recall what I said a couple of posts ago on the structure and nature of history and time?  History is not the story of the present hurtling through time towards some future endpoint we call “heaven”.  Rather, it is the beauty of that future world invading the present, even as we sit and read this.  If “Beauty” is the end goal for which God is making all things in their time (Ecclesiastes 3:11), then whatever floods the world with Beauty is actually furthering this process of redemption.  Artists, both saved and secular, are actually missionaries of sorts, as they help reweave the fabric of the universe with the beauty of their creations.

Are you all starting to see why we need artists?Good artists doing good and beautiful work; and not trite, kitschy, cute things that keep us away from the real world out of fear that we might “catch it” or something?A creation always reveals something about its creator.If you are a Christian reading this right now, may I urge you to show the world through your creations that you have been saved by a Gospel that makes you care about excellence engaging darkness, beauty engaging filth, order engaging chaos, and redemption conquering sin?Let our art, our creations, speak of a beautiful work that a beautiful God has done in us, whether or not it is an explicitly “religious” piece.

Art is beautiful, and necessary for the redemption of this world.

Resources for this series: