What makes “Christian Art” Christian? Is there some value or quality that baptizes a work of art making it Christian?
There is, but it may not be what you think.
It isn’t about the subject matter, the genre, the style, the materials or the process. It isn’t even about the theme or the intent, it is about the artist.
“Christian Art” is the art produced by artists who are Christian.
A Christian, who is an artist, who is well grounded in their faith, who has formed their conscience in the teachings of the Church, will produce Christian art. It doesn’t matter if it is a portrait, a landscape, a superhero movie, or pop song, that artist will produce work that is consistent with teachings and values of their faith.
A “Christian Artist” is always Christian first, and then an artist, because the gift of artistic talent is the gift that has been given them to preach to the world. That does not mean that the work has to be heavy-handed in its message. It is often better if it is not. Author Flannery O’Connor once wrote that she felt she had to “sneak up on people” with her faith. If an artist is well formed in the Christian faith than the Christian message will permeate their work, regardless of the medium or subject matter.
Can a Christian artist produce work that is not Christian? Of course they can. We are always free to accept or reject God. An artist who rejects the teachings of the Church (although we can argue if they can still be called Christian) will create work that reflects that view. That is why it is so important to learn the faith well. A faith that is uninformed, misguided, or ignorant of its tenets will produce work that distorts the Truth.
Art is always religious in nature. All of life is inherently religious. People may or may not acknowledge their religious nature, just as they may or may not acknowledge their Creator. And the art they produce may or may not be consistent with their religious beliefs. Nevertheless all art is religious. Whether we are considering a play, a painting, or a composition, all art reflects a certain worldview, which is to say a certain religion.
My advice to a Christian who has artistic gifts and wishes to express them, would be to open yourself completely to the teachings of Christ. Accept the teaching authority of the Church which is guided by the Holy Spirit. Do this, and however you are inspired to express your gifts, it will be an expression pleasing to God and the saints.