During my time at art school, I took part in many group critiques of student artwork. Twenty or so of us would tack our best efforts on the wall, and then everyone would take turns criticizing them. At one such critique, a classmate presented her project, which she had titled Smile Awhile. The image was a random grouping of several large yellow smiley faces inside a rectangle. That was it. While stroking our chins and thoughtfully furrowing our brows, we probed for the deeper meaning. After a bit of incoherent stammering, she finally explained, “I just like smiley faces.” I remember thinking two things. First, “This is why parents cringe when their children say, ‘I want to go to art school.'” Second, “Who cares what you like?”
As Christians, we see so many things in the art world that repel us that we’re left wondering if perhaps the problem is inherent in the emotional and subjective nature of art itself. Some may even ask: Should we care about artists and their work at all?
The answer is yes—we should care. Just because we have been in some shoddy buildings does not mean we forsake architecture. Just because we have read some books with which we disagree does not mean we should quit reading. In the same way, when we encounter poorly executed art, or art that has a message with which we disagree, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
THE PURPOSE OF ART
What, then, is the use of art? What purposes does it serve? There are many, of course, but one that often goes overlooked in Christian circles is truth-telling. For example, in the Scriptures we find art used frequently in the form of poetry. Poetry is the creative use of language that attempts to express a reality or truth about the world and the way things are. It employs pictures, metaphors, and symbols. Consider Psalm 11:1–3:
In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to my soul, “Flee like a bird to your mountain, for behold, the wicked bend the bow; they have fitted their arrow to the string to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart; if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
We need communication that employs propositions and arguments while relying on reason and logic, such as we find in the epistles of the Apostle Paul. But the realities about God and His truth are so grand, majestic, and transcendent that we also need communication that relies on metaphors, images, and symbols. In other words, we need art.
Artists are trying to communicate truths about reality as they see it. They are saying, “This is true, or this is beautiful, or this is good.” The great conversation of human history is a debate over the definition of these terms. Some Christians today disagree with people who are trying to answer these questions with art, but instead of joining the discussion, they decide to throw art itself out the window, or they define art so narrowly as to truncate its value. But if we limit our minds, hearts, and voices to propositional argumentation only, we risk creating a deafening silence where there ought to be loud praise to God.
ARTIST AS SUB-CREATOR
J. R. R. Tolkien referred to artists as “sub-creators” who bring new worlds to life, worlds quite unlike our own. He created a fantasy world called Middle-earth. But he did not create new truth. Neither did he create new wisdom or beauty. He used art to display truth through a “strange and arresting lens.” There is no magical ring of power forged by a dark lord in our world, but there is such a thing as the compulsive desire of our hearts for wicked things. There was no crowning of King Aragorn in our history, but there is an unquenchable longing for a true king at the center of every human heart. Tolkien’s art is masterful because it transports his readers to a platform from which they can see eternal truths in new ways.
What about artists who are not believers? If we engage, we will see them groping with questions and proclaiming ideas about reality through their art. Sometimes we will not like what they are saying or how they are saying it. But can we learn from people who do not know God and, though they may get pieces of truth right, are getting ultimate reality wrong? Can we learn from them in the same way we learn from Ben Franklin, Immanuel Kant, or Mark Twain? We do not have to hang their art in our living rooms, but can we appreciate it?
A wise man once said that if you want to understand philosophers and the bizarre things they say sometimes, you need to understand the questions they are trying to answer. In the same way, we may encounter art that prompts us to ask, “What was the artist thinking?” That is exactly the right question to ask if we are to thoughtfully interact with our culture as it gropes in the dark for answers.