What makes Christian Art, Christian?

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.

Pagan Themes and the Christian Artist

Should a Christian artist paint themes from pagan mythology, other religions, or even fantasy motifs?

Many artists who are deeply grounded in their Christian faith, especially those just starting out in their career, have questions about what is and is not appropriate subject matter. In a previous post I addressed nudity and the Christian artist, today I would like to address subjects that don’t seem to have anything to do with Christianity at all.

The story of our salvation is really the only story, and we retell it in endless variations. Even the ancient pre-Christian mythologies echo the story of Christ and His salvific role.

Think of it this way. Imagine time as a slow moving river. All of human history takes place within this river, from the first humans upstream to the present day somewhere further downstream. Each of us live out our lives in a current of this river, overlapping with others.

As humans our perception of time is linear. We look back upstream and see a sequence of events that have led us to where we are now. But God stands outside the river. God stands on the riverbank observing the passage of the stream. To God, all of our history is happening now, at different points along the river.

The birth of Christ was a singular event. God inserting Himself into human history is an event of such magnitude it effects the entire stream of history. If you throw a rock into a slow moving river it will cause ripples in the water, in all directions, both upstream and downstream. The birth of Christ is like a stone thrown into the river of human history, it sends ripples in all directions.

So even pre-Christian religions had a sense of the coming of Christ, a dim understanding of the great story of our salvation. And they explained it through their mythologies as best they could, looking forward to events that had not yet occurred in human history.

Skeptics claim that the Christian story is based on these ancient pre-Christian tales. But the difference is that none of those stories can be placed in our history. They all supposedly happened sometime in the mythic past. But Christ entered into our history at a very specific point, we write our history according to what happened before and what happened after His birth. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis recognized the Christian story as the true source of all the world’s mythologies. Tolkien referred to the Christian story as “the myth that really happened.” They echoed the thoughts of G.K. Chesterton who put it this way:

“If the Christian God really made the human race, would not the human race tend to rumors and perversions of the Christian God? If the center of our life is a certain fact, would not people far from the center have a muddled version of that fact?… When learned skeptics come to me and say, ‘Are you aware that the Kaffirs have a story of Incarnation?’ I should reply: ‘Speaking as an unlearned person, I don’t know. But speaking as a Christian, I should be very much astonished if they hadn’t.”

"Prometheus Bound" by Rubens

“Prometheus Bound” by Rubens

Take the story of Prometheus for example. Prometheus, a Titan (a Godlike being), creates the human race out of the dust of the earth, breathes life in to him, and gives him fire (the light of Truth). For his efforts he is chained to a rock (crucified) and suffers a terrible wound in his side. From the Christian point of view this is the story of Christ, veiled by time and told by those who lived before the Incarnation, grasping after the Truth as best as they were able to perceive it.

Even our fantasy stories are influenced by what is truly “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, is a prime example. And his work has influenced fantasy artists and writers for generations.

So for the artist that is drawn to pre-Christian myths, inspired by ancient stories of Gods and demons, monsters and heroes, I would only advise that you look for the transcendent Truth in those stories and work to convey that Truth in your paintings, stories, poetry, songs, and theatrical productions, whether you are depicting Christ bound to His cross or Prometheus bound to his rock.

When Is An Artist Like A Prophet?

When is an artist like a prophet? When he reminds people of their relationship with God.

We tend to think of a prophet as someone who predicts the future, but that is not at all the ancient understanding of the word. The word “prophet” comes from the Greek word “prophetes” meaning spokesman or “to speak before.” A prophet therefore is one who speaks for God, God’s spokesman.

The role of the prophet in the ancient world was a person who would speak on God’s behalf, reminding people of their relationship with God, A prophet not only urged people to obey the laws of God but was quick to admonish them when they did not.

This is very much a role that an artist may take on. An artist acts as a prophet when his or her work reminds people to walk in the ways of Truth, points out an injustice that needs to be corrected, or chastises for behavior that offends against God and humanity.

Through their work artists may simply remind people of the presence of God in their lives and urge them to behave in a matter fitting for children of God.

This is not to say that it is an easy path.

In the ancient world prophets were often insulted, denigrated, dismissed, exiled, and sometimes executed for their efforts. It seems that even thousands of years ago people didn’t like having their sins and transgressions pointed out to them any more than we do now. The role of prophet is not popular but it is absolutely necessary. Telling people things they do not want to hear is how the world gets changed.

FredSpearEnlistThis the work of an artist named Fred Spear. In 1915 a German U-boat sunk the passenger liner Lusitania off the coast of England. Over a thousand civilians were killed including 128 Americans. The event sent shockwaves through American and British society, much like the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in 2001.

In response to the loss of innocent lives Spear created this poster which was used to encourage men to enlist in the armed forces.

This has been called one of the most powerful posters ever produced and is credited with spurring American entry into World War I.

Prophets are not always popular but they are always needed. The artist/prophet acts as our conscience, reminding us of the way things should be and urging us to take action to correct wrongs and pursue justice.

Through works of beauty, the artist reminds us that we are a sacred people, set apart by God, called to serve our brothers and sisters in His name.

 

Why Does Christian Art Have Such A Bad Rep?

Why is the term Christian Art shunned even by Christian artists? I see this frequently, usually among well established artists who don’t want to be labeled by a specific genre. Fair enough, but I think there is more to it than that.

The term Christian Art is avoided even by Christian artists because they don’t want to be associated with art that is… well… just plain bad. By bad I mean amateurish, poorly conceived, poorly executed, preachy, and not beautiful. There is a lot of it out there.

From paintings to music to films the thinking seems to be that the message is so important that the shoddiness of the delivery will be excused. Yeah, not so much. While God may bless the artist for their efforts and the angels sing their praises, if the art is not of a quality that people want to see or hear, then the artist has not done his or her job of spreading the Gospel message.

We are all given gifts by God, creativity is among those gifts. Those blessed with an abundance of creativity, and find a vocation in beauty, frequently employ those gifts through painting, writing, acting, singing, and so on. But the gift is just the beginning. An artist who takes seriously the mission to spread the Gospel must do so in a way that makes people receptive to the message.

This takes effort. This takes work. Artists must take the gifts they have been given and develop them. Learn your craft, develop your skills, take classes, get a mentor or a teacher, make your work as beautiful as you are possibly capable of, then push yourself to make it better.

Think of it this way. Suppose you had a particular gift for color and design and you expressed those gifts by weaving textiles. One day someone presents you with a gift of a box containing hundreds of balls of yarn of every color imaginable. Would you proudly show off the yarn to everyone and leave it at that? “Look at all the beautiful yarn!”

Knowing what you could do with the yarn the giver of the gift would probably be disappointed if that’s all you did. Or, would you take the yarn, employ all your skill and experience, and weave it into a beautiful tapestry that not only pleased the giver of the gift but also drew people to gaze on the beauty of the world through the art you created?

This is not about pleasing people rather than pleasing God. This is about showing your appreciation for the gifts you have been given by using them to draw others to God through your art. You do this by using your gifts to create beauty, epiphanies (revelations) of the divine. This is not to say that every work of art must be a masterpiece that transcends taste and fashion, but it must be competent enough that people do not turn away from it, it must be captivating enough for people to perceive the Truth behind the art.

We probably should refrain from using the term “Christian Art” because it doesn’t really mean anything and has such a negative perception in the public arena. Any artist who is serious about both his Christian faith and his vocation as an artist, will produce Christian art, whether it is a portrait, a landscape, an icon, or a song that climbs the popular music charts.

It has been said that your talent is God’s gift to you, what you do with it is your gift to God. Make your gift as beautiful as possible.

Is Nudity Appropriate in Christian Art?

293px-Michelangelo-ChristNudity has long been a staple of fine art, but many people feel it is inappropriate for an artist who is also a faithful Christian to portray nudity in their work.

Is it? The answer, as is so often the case in matters of faith and morals, is – it depends.

To modern sensibilities art is decoration. Usually, we are not called upon to look past the surface of what is presented. And so we focus on the external, that which we can see.

But creation consists of what we can see and what we cannot see, the visible and the invisible. It is the role of the artist to create work that draws us past the surface, what we can see, to contemplate the transcendent truth that is presented to us, that which we cannot see.

The image here is of “Christ the Redeemer,” by Michelangelo. It is currently in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. When Michelangelo created this work he did so with the understanding that it would be placed in a niche in a wall. This would not only bathe the piece in perpetual shadow but also limit the point of view from which it was seen. In its original context a viewer would have seen Christ emerging from the shadows, his hands gesturing towards the cross and His index finger pointing Heavenward. He also holds in His hands the instruments of His Passion, the rope, the sponge, and the reed, symbols of His suffering here on earth. The statue was originally entirely, and appropriately, nude. The nudity in this case was intended to cause the viewer to reflect upon the fact that Christ’s human sexuality was uncorrupted by lust and completely under His control. The statue as a whole invites us to meditate on the Lord who conquers sin and death.

All of this would have been completely understood by the artist’s contemporaries. But times and tastes and understanding change and within a hundred years of its completion the statue was adorned with a bronze strip of cloth, presumably so as to prevent the nudity from becoming a source of distraction to the faithful gathered to pray. Whether this says more about the artist, the art, or the viewer I will leave for the reader to decide.

“Distraction” is really the key to the question of appropriateness. Does nudity detract from the intent of the work? If a work of art is intended for a liturgical environment, a church, chapel, cathedral, etc., then it is important that the work not distract from the liturgy. For centuries artists have used various methods  to achieve this. And what may not have caused a distraction in one century may be a source of distraction in the next.

There is a dynamic between the artist and his patron. A commissioned piece must balance several things. Who will see the work, where will it be placed, what is the intent or the Truth that is conveyed to the viewer?

Then there is work that an artist does from pure inspiration, guided only by how well he is grounded in his faith. An artist who is also a Christian, who understands and is formed by his faith, will produce faithful Christian work; whether or not the work contains nudity is (or should be) a minor point.

To the artist struggling with this issue my advice would be to study the faith, conform your conscience to the teachings of the Church and be thoroughly comfortable with the Christian worldview. If you do this then your conscience will guide you in what is appropriate. And, by the way, what you feel is inappropriate for you, may be entirely acceptable and correct for another. We are all guided by our properly formed conscience.

That is not to say that the nude figure will not provoke controversy. Even in Michelangelo’s day there were people who objected to the nudity in his work. There is a wonderful line in the movie “The Agony and the Ecstasy” given by Michelangelo to his detractors.

“I will paint man as God made him, in the glory of his nakedness.”

It is a reminder that we only felt shame in nakedness after we fell from grace.

I give the final word to Our Lord.

“Nothing that finds its way into a man from outside can make him unclean; what makes a man unclean is what comes out of a man. Listen, you who have ears to hear with.” Mark 7:15-16

New Art Print – The First Day

The Firdt Day

The latest print available in the Printshop.

On what day did God create the angels? Augustine of Hippo suggested it was the first day. God created the angels at the same moment He created light. Augustine went further to suggest that separating the light from the darkness was the moment the rebellious angels separated from the faithful angels.

Upon their creation, the angels had to choose. Do they obey God or do they follow their own wants and desires? According to tradition, a third of the angels rejected God. This was the same choice given to our first parents. Do they trust in God to guide them, or do they reject God and find their own way?

Angels have perfect understanding. Their choice to rebel against God or to trust in Him completely, was final and irrevocable. We however have imperfect understanding. We continually struggle with both the light and the darkness within us. Every day we are called to choose.

Purchase prints of the is work HERE.

The Artistic Temperament

One of my art teachers, back in the day, once pointed out what a presumptuous thing it was for visual artists, painters specifically, to refer to themselves at artists. Singers, writers, poets, actors, dancers, etc. all refer to themselves as singers, writers, poets, actors, and dancers. But only painters take the more preposterous title “artist.” It is a reminder that men and women of every vocation, whatever their gifts, exercise them best when tempered with humility.

I wonder now if that teacher of mine was a student of Chesterton:

“Art is a right and human thing, like walking or saying one’s prayers; but the moment it begins to be talked about very solemnly, a man may be fairly certain that the thing has come into a congestion and a kind of difficulty.

The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs. It is a disease which arises from men not having sufficient power of expression to utter and get rid of the element of art in their being. It is healthful to every sane man to utter the art within him; it is essential to every sane man to get rid of the art within him at all costs. Artists of a large and wholesome vitality get rid of their art easily, as they breathe easily, or perspire easily. But in artists of less force, the thing becomes a pressure, and produces a definite pain, which is called the artistic temperament. Thus, very great artists are able to be ordinary men—men like Shakespeare or Browning. There are many real tragedies of the artistic temperament, tragedies of vanity or violence or fear. But the great tragedy of the artistic temperament is that it cannot produce any art.”

“There can be no stronger manifestation of the man who is a really great artist than the fact that he can dismiss the subject of art; that he can, upon due occasion, wish art at the bottom of the sea.”

“It need hardly be said that this is the real explanation of the thing which has puzzled so many dilettante critics, the problem of the extreme ordinariness of the behaviour of so many great geniuses in history. Their behaviour was so ordinary that it was not recorded; hence it was so ordinary that it seemed mysterious. Hence people say that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. The modern artistic temperament cannot understand how a man who could write such lyrics as Shakespeare wrote, could be as keen as Shakespeare was on business transactions in a little town in Warwickshire. The explanation is simple enough; it is that Shakespeare had a real lyrical impulse, wrote a real lyric, and so got rid of the impulse and went about his business. Being an artist did not prevent him from being an ordinary man, any more than being a sleeper at night or being a diner at dinner prevented him from being an ordinary man.”

“To very great minds the things on which men agree are so immeasurably more important than the things on which they differ, that the latter, for all practical purposes, disappear. They have too much in them of an ancient laughter even to endure to discuss the difference between the hats of two men who were both born of a woman, or between the subtly varied cultures of two men who have both to die. The first-rate great man is equal with other men, like Shakespeare. The second-rate great man is on his knees to other men, like Whitman. The third-rate great man is superior to other men, like Whistler.”

-G.K. Chesterton, HERETICS

Art for Art’s Sake?

The idea of art for art’s sake, that art should serve no other purpose outside of its own existence is a relatively new idea in terms of human history. The idea begins to crop up in various writings starting in the 1850s. This is also about the time that the idea of the tortured artist, sacrificing all for his art, living a poor existence in a drafty garret (that’s the attic, kids) all for the sake of being true to his artistic vision, begins to take hold of the public imagination.

Poppycock.

For the majority of human existence, thousands of years before the “modern age,” art served a purpose, it served a community.

American society tends to celebrate the individual, to prize the pioneering spirit. But as Christians we are asked to see things differently than the rest of the world. There are no individuals there is only the one undivided Body. Those qualities that separate us, our different-ness, is not for us as individuals, but is intended for the good of the entire Body.

All of our gifts, talents, and abilities are not given to us for our own use. They are pieces of a whole, and all are necessary for the Body to function properly.

Chesterton put it this way: “The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world. In this long vigil he often has to vary his methods of stimulation; but in this long vigil he is also himself striving against a continual tendency to sleep.”

We must constantly be on guard against falling into the sleep of self-indulgence. If we use our gifts selfishly, if we seek to use our art only to please ourselves, society as a whole is diminished.

As we live in the ever present “today” of Christ, we live for Him, and for each other. Each of us has been given a specific task, a task that is necessary and irreplaceable for the well-being of the entire community. When we accept this task, when the foot stops trying to be an eye and sees the value in being a foot, then we truly begin to live outside of ourselves, in love for all and for the One.

 

Using Your Gifts: Lindsey Stirling

So you’ve taken stock of your gifts, talents, and interests, and made a list. You like to play the violin (electric), you like to dance, you like to make and dress up in costumes, you like to write music, and you think it might be fun to make videos. What do you with such an eclectic list of gifts and talents?

If you’re Lindsey Stirling you put them together and forge a singular career. If you haven’t heard of her then you’re missing out. In 2010 Lindsey was a finalist on America’s Got Talent. For her quarter final performance, she stepped up her attempts at dancing while playing the violin. Admittedly she left room for improvement, but the judges were less than encouraging.

“You’re not untalented, but you’re not good enough to get away with flying through the air and trying to play the violin at the same time.”

“You need to be in a group. … What you’re doing is not enough to fill a theater in Vegas.”

“The world does not want an electric violinist.”

She was understandably devastated. But through determination and some lucky breaks she pushed through that period, honed her skills, developed her talents and gifts, and by 2013 she had produced a studio album that sold more than 158,000 copies in the U.S. alone. When it was announced she would embark on a world tour, some of the performances sold out the first day pre-sales were offered.

She is not only amazingly talented but she is a terrific example of using her gifts to bring happiness and joy into the world. Oh, and along the way she found out she was anorexic so she had that battle to fight as well.

Lindsey has just released a book about these experiences, “The Only Pirate at the Party.” The story of how she arrived at the title is by itself worth the price of the book.

She continues to release videos on her Youtube channel LindseyStomp, here is her “Christmas Card” to her fans.

But this is one of my favorites:

Lindsey is an inspiration. All of us have a unique set of gifts and talents that no else has. What are you doing with yours?

Many Gifts, One Spirit

Have you ever wondered what God is trying to tell you? Have you ever felt frustrated because you don’t believe God is speaking to you at all? It may be that you just don’t recognize His voice.

God speaks to us through the gifts He has given us. Each one of us is given a unique set of gifts, and there are no small gifts. “To each individual some manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” These gifts are not given to us to hoard and use for our own pleasure, they are given to us to help one another, to benefit the common good. As these are God-given gifts they are by definition supernatural gifts. Even if they seem common or mundane, we can trust in their ability to work supernatural wonders.

We cannot give our lives meaning, purpose and  joy by our own efforts, just as the servants at the Wedding at Cana could not provide 25 gallons of wine on their own. But we must still do all we can with what we have been given and let God take over from there. The servants filled the jars with water, and God took the water and turned it into wine. We must develop our gifts through training and education and practice and allow God to work miracles with what we bring to Him.

Our talents are God’s gifts to us, what we do with them is our gift to God.

If you feel that God is not speaking to you perhaps you are simply not listening. What are the gifts you have been given and how can you use them for the benefit of others? God speaks to us through the gifts He has given us, it is for us to listen, and do as He tells us.