Thursday, April 22, 2010

On the Value of Creativity - Part One

“What is art, and what are the criteria for determining good art from bad art?”

Well, those are the fundamental questions of the art world, aren’t they? They’re even questions I’ve recently raised here on my blog. Only, Makoto Fujimura wouldn’t take the bait.

Fujimura had been invited by my church, Park Cities Presbyterian, to speak on contemporary evangelical perspectives in the art world as part of our church’s 2010 arts festival. For the past three years, Park Cities Presbyterian has hosted the event as a combination outreach/show for the arts community in Dallas’ trendy Uptown/Oak Lawn/Turtle Creek neighborhoods, where our church is located. People of faith are invited to enter artwork based on a specific theme, prizes are awarded by nationally-recognized Christian art critics, and our church and surrounding community can view and purchase the artwork ranging from photographs to paintings, sculpture, and more.

The question had been asked by a member of the audience, but her intentions in asking it seemed obscure: was she simply an arts amateur with a naïve question? Or, was she trying to hook Fujimura into an unwinnable debate over Christians and culture?

Fujimura smiled politely, with the air of somebody who’s been asked these questions a million times. He explained that his explanation for why he couldn’t answer would take two hours, and since our evening was rapidly drawing to a close, perhaps a better solution might be found by perusing the variety of content on his website.

The audience chuckled softly and gave an appreciative round of applause.

Why Do Christians Generally Dismiss Art?

Indeed, whether the question had actually been voiced or not, it has been one of the elephants in the room since practicality, social conservatism, and pop culture have drained most evangelicals of our historical vibrant interest in the fine arts.

Many evangelicals pride themselves on being boors when it comes to the arts, but whose loss is that?

The very fact that a Bible-believing church sponsors an arts festival in 2010 probably elicits more confusion than enthusiasm from fellow believers. “Why waste your time and energy on stuff like that?” I can hear them asking.

Perhaps the main reason why art receives short shrift by many evangelicals involves the fact that its very definition has proven to be so elusive. North Americans in general, and evangelicals in particular, need things cut and dried, in black and white. Sure, we can get a dictionary definition, but how many of us suspect that there’s far more to art than a rote definition, and we get intimidated by things that seem complex?

Many of us interpret the heady sophistication with which prestigious arts schools prop up their programs as proof that either they’re hiding something significant from us pedestrian arts patrons, or that their dismissive sneers over the more conventional art forms to which many of us more easily relate really means the principles with which they value art are, in reality, as hollow as their modernist works appear. The oblique angles, random squiggles, rude colors, and dissonant sounds are really one big farce, and they know it. Only they’ve built an empire of nuanced relativism to pretend existentialism is beautiful.

Then too, how many evangelicals have ever been encouraged to explore their creative sides? We learn truth from the Psalms but rarely wallow in their poetry and imagery. We bicker over Revelation, but seldom bask in its pageantry and majesty. We marvel at ancient cathedrals, music, and paintings, but scoff at the notion that we need any of those today to express our faith. Besides, it would cost too much!

But at what point to we imperil our ability to appreciate even a fraction of the divinity of our Creator by dismissing the less practical aesthetics of expression? We’ve all heard that art helps us express the creativity that God has implanted in our selves, but how seriously do we apply that truth to how we view Him, His Gospel, and His creation?

Have church budgets become all-consuming? Has being able to acknowledge great art from the past become sufficient reason to ignore artists of today? Has God stopped gifting His children with crafts He once specified for adorning His house? Do we lavish our own dwellings with expensive furnishings at the expense of our churches, which we decorate with plain drywall and fake flowers?

Does the popular notion of deviant artists with their sexual explicitness, screaming noises, and nihilistic themes automatically prejudice us against the possibility that God-honoring art can still be created? During his lecture at Park Cities Presbyterian, Fujimura sadly commented that the mere mention of the word “creativity” can imperil graduate art students at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities. What more proof do we need to hear in evangelical circles that the banner for one of God’s most omnipotent characteristics – His creativity – needs to be carried by somebody in our culture?

Um, that would be us, right?

Nobody denies that controversial art exists, and that the reason it’s controversial usually lies in its penchant for shocking its audience, denying truth, trivializing the sacred, and promoting the profane. Not all modern art has succumbed to the perversity that many evangelicals can easily identify in the publicized works and shows that some contemporary artists have used to make names for themselves. But unfortunately, unless one goes out and looks for it, modern art of intrinsically beneficial quality probably won’t reveal itself effortlessly.

Reclaiming Fine Art Isn't Tricky

So if evangelicals were interested in recapturing the pleasure and perspective of creativity in art, what should we be looking for?

Obviously, Fujimora and others of his expertise would probably be amused at my attempt to clarify the topic, but should it really be as difficult as some people make it? After all, the peasants who worshipped in them didn’t need to be an engineering genius to appreciate the great cathedrals. Common folk were among the first to laud some of the greatest painters our world has ever known. Regardless of the generation, great art has always possessed intrinsic qualities that bespeak the vitality, truth, and pleasures of our Creator.

Art created to inspire glory to God can generally be recognized by the following traits:
  • They make you think. They focus your attention on a limited range of ideas, concepts, or doctrines that engage your mind with truth.
  • Every element has a purpose. Whether a great building or a great painting, everything incorporated into the whole has a reason for being there.
  • Regardless of your education or life experience, you can somehow relate to them.
  • Even if they mimic popular culture, they don’t celebrate it. Holiness, or the quality of being set apart, doesn’t necessarily start outside of transitory ideas. Direct copies of popular culture, though, without any discernment as to their legitimacy at ascribing glory to God, probably don’t qualify.
  • If the piece is not entirely about an attribute of God, in which at least one of His characteristics can be identified, then generally, at least one of the fruits of the spirit can be identified in some aspect (love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, self-control)
  • God receives uncompromised glory through its theme, the media used in its creation, and the way it is created.

How Much Does It Cost?

One of God’s attributes which Fujimura made a point of explaining deals with His extravagance. His extravagance in grace, yes, but also His extravagance in His love for His people.

Now, obviously, extravagance is a subjective term. What some cultures would consider extravagant others would consider paltry, and much of it depends on a people’s affluence, opportunities, worldview, and access to other resources. Extravagance can also wax and wane based on economic cycles, levels of education, and even a basic commitment to the concept.

To the extent that we can afford it, to what degree should we be extravagant in our relationship with God? Remember the woman with the jar of exclusive perfume? Remember the different ways Mary and Martha spent their time with Christ? We’ve already considered the exacting and opulent design, construction, and furnishings for the Temple.

Extravagance involves some level of sacrifice, right? Not that we can repay God for his sacrifice and gifts to us, but we can demonstrate His prominence in our lives. Through the time, treasures, and talents He gives us, we not only tithe to Him but give Him offerings, and they’re not just offerings of hard currency.

When people find out that the majestic pipe organ at Park Cities Presbyterian cost over two million dollars, most of them fall into the same trap Judas did when Christ’s feet were washed with the expensive perfume. And I have to remind them that Christ ordered His disciples to worship Him first and foremost before being concerned about the poor and needy around us. He also chided Judas for his pretentious righteousness, knowing that he was stealing from God. If you tithe an amount pleasing to the Lord, then maybe you have a right to your opinions on how God’s money is spent. But if you don’t even tithe, then you’ve no place at all in the conversation of extravagance.

I’m not saying that we should all rush over to Fujimura’s gallery in Manhattan and run up the value of his artwork by buying out his collection. I’m not saying that if your church can’t afford a pipe organ that you’re dishonoring God. I’m not saying that all contemporary Christian musicians are writing music that glorifies God, either.

Just as we are discerning in the types of art we accept as valuable, we need to be discerning with it's actual processes and results, and measure them against the deity of Christ.

After all, what is purposed for God's glory is also for our benefit. Fine art shouldn't be something that gets stuffed down your throat - unless it's a splendid, gourmet meal, or your mother's specialty of the house (and if those are one in the same, give me your address so I can join you for dinner sometime!).

Part Two (coming next week): Examples of how art compliments faith

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