Andrew Wyeth, one of America’s most renowned realist painters of the twentieth century, had an uncanny ability to capture the solemn nature of the rural American life with painstakingly controlled brushstrokes and a muted color palette. One of Wyeth’s most intriguing and iconic paintings is titled Christina’s World (1948). The central focus of the work is a brunette female lying in a field with her left hand struggling toward her far-off farmhouse. The figure in the painting is modeled after Wyeth’s neighbor, Anna Olson. Olson suffered from a degenerative muscular disorder that limited her to crawling around her house and family land.
There is nothing loud or wildly fantastic about the subject matter of Christina’s World. The power of the painting is held in what might be called the familiar whisper of beauty, a sense of the deep struggle in longing for home. It is a whisper that we cannot ignore. Like Christina’s World, beautiful art is never viewed with indifference. As philosopher Roger Scruton has noted, “Beauty demands to be noticed; it speaks directly to us like the voice of an intimate friend.” There is a sense in which all good art gives a certain voice to beauty. As C.S. Lewis reminds us in The Weight of Glory, beauty and art point beyond themselves. Beauty comes through as “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
R.C. Sproul’s apt observation of the place of art in the life of a Christian still rings true today: “In the Christian community,” he argued, “there seems to be a negative attitude toward art.” Many believers think that art is unworthy of a Christian, as if art were something worldly, an illegitimate enterprise for Christians to engage in and reflect upon. Yet, as Hans Rookmaker rightly pointed out, art’s justification is found in the way God made the world. To put it plainly, art is its own justification. Why else would it be that humanity alone has been endowed with the ability to appreciate art and experience beauty? Why has God made it so that art like Christina’s World provokes a deep longing that is found in all of us? No living creatures other than human beings would be deeply moved by standing before Wyeth’s painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. These reflective questions call for a distinctly Christian answer. What is the deep soul stirring that beautiful art brings to the surface of our conscience?
As Christians, we understand that the beginning of art is found in the act of creation in the Genesis account. In creation, God uniquely fashioned human beings in His image as aesthetic creatures possessed with a distinct capacity to experience and appreciate beauty and the ability to cultivate and create beautiful things. The artistic instinct is a universal human phenomenon. Art is embedded in our image-bearing nature. However, the Christian understands that art does not originate from man apart from God. Beauty in art is, therefore, a gift of common grace from God that has been made accessible and comprehensible to all people.
For the Christian in particular, art can be experienced as an analogical signpost bearing witness to the Author of all that is beautiful. As human beings, we care about beauty and the arts because our Creator God is beautiful and is the source of all beauty (Pss. 27:4, 50:2). Moreover, in creation, God intentionally fashioned our world as an artist—a divine artist who benevolently chose to endow our earthly experience with beauty (see Rom. 1:20). As an act of self-disclosure, creation itself declares the beauty of God (Ps. 19:1). In the creation of art, the artist mimics the creative work of God in disclosing a particular viewpoint of the world to be apprehended by the viewer. The interaction between the artist and the audience is that of mutual consent. There is something to be communicated, and art is the vehicle of communication.