Art and Imagination

November 29th, 2010

This an essay that a good (anonymous) friend of mine wrote a while back.  It seems to tie some of the things that we’ve been discussing together and I’m exited about showing this to all of you.  Don’t forget to click the “like” button on the bottom!

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Art is a set of actions, rather than an object. When I see a painting, I see the actions someone has done with a set of given materials. Artistry is an act of creation. Thus, giving someone a cold glass of water in Christ’s name is a work of art. Witnessing and giving a sermon is a work of art. We believe that the Holy Spirit inspires us and brings new life, which in turn changes the way we act. In this way, spiritual fruit, the act, becomes art: we engage in the act of creation, imitating God in the beginning.

When we see the natural world, we see the creation of the Master Artist, even though both the natural realm and our perceptual faculties are filthy with sin. As disciples, one of the ways we grow is by fellowshipping (communicating) with other Spirit-indwelt believers.  This communication may take many forms, but it may be boiled down to action. A sermon, for example, is an action: it is art. The preacher engages in an action that involves communicating truth to the congregation.

Art, then, is a witness and a discipler, because it is a set of actions that communicates truth from a Spirit-indwelt believer to the world. This holds true for music, literature, paintings, sculpture, architecture, etc. All of these forms may be as didactic as any Western sermon (though most CCM today is not. As Grudem notes in his Systematic Theology, “[W]hen I began to select hymns that correspond to the great doctrines of the Christian faith, I realized that the great hymns of the church throughout history have a doctrinal richness and breadth that is still unequaled”). Art in this sense, can also do the work of systematic theology texts (and for many, it is more memorable.)

All of this hinges on the act of communicating, which invokes the concept of the metaphor. Because our feeble brains are not capable of comprehending God fully, we understand his characteristics are like unto other things, but always better (here the imagination is at work). So when David declares that “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress,” we obviously don’t believe that the Lord is actually a rock or a fortress, but our imagination allows us to make the jump from that metaphor to an understanding of the Lord really is like: stable and unmoved, like a fortress, only better. This is how the imagination is tied to worship. The imagination allows us to make attempts at seeing what cannot be seen from what we can see.

Art is a way of explaining these things because it welds the natural realm to transcendence. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth forth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.” The ultimate tapestry reveals truth in a way that is not actual speech, but it is of course communication. Human art, then, is a way of imitating God and conveying his truth.

Art, then, can be a sermon. It can be a teacher, a discipler. Art is one of the best ways to awaken our minds to the worldly areas of our minds, since much art from the past was created by the greatest Christian thinkers of all time. When Dante came to Purgatory, the place of cleansing and preparation for Paradise, he noticed many souls staring at carvings in the stone walls. The carvings were works of art, many of them portraying Biblical scenes, and the point seems to be that art can be used by God as a purifier, a conveyor of truth and beauty. Dante, Dostoevsky, Caravaggio, and Bach are no less brilliant teachers in my mind than Grudem.

Beyond the teaching aspect, art can also be legitimately pleasurable. On this Calvin writes, “Has the Lord clothed the flowers with the great beauty that greets our eyes, the sweetness of the smell that is wafted upon our nostrils, and yet it will be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our sense of smell by the sweetness of that odor…Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us apart from their necessary use?” So apart from the necessaries, there is something about beauty that is good for us. One must ask, “Why, then, did God give us flowers? or pleasure at all?” I submit that we not only learn more about the beauty and the joy of the Lord, but it is an aesthetic experience that is wholly separate from knowledge and wisdom, and equally desirable.

One final point involves the skill necessary to complete certain pieces of art. When building the tabernacle, the Israelites selected only the finest craftsmen to complete the Lord’s house. This suggests that only the best will do for God, as in the first fruits. This is deeply connected with how David speaks of worshiping God in the “beauty of holiness.” To be holy is to be separate. There are many works of art that the layperson will never be able to imitate; these beautiful artworks (sets of actions) are beautiful because they are distinct and set apart. This suggests that true beauty is separate and transcendent, and that all beauty that we can ever see in art is merely a signifier, a pointer to true beauty: God.


Aesthetic Education; See the Art in and Around You

October 13th, 2010

We’ve previously defined aesthetic as the cumulative effect of every component within a specific framework.  Art produces aesthetic, but not just art produced by humans.  God is an artist too, and it is a sin to be indifferent to his creative work, the pinnacle of which is mankind. If only we realized the wonderful artistry found in each one of us we would not be as likely to sin by showing indifference let alone contempt towards each other and the world.  How do we recognize this Godly beauty in creation?  How do we develop it within ourselves?  How do we bring it out in each other?

Every person you’ve ever met has an aesthetic, and I’m sure you are well aware of this whether you’ve thought about it or not.  I’m referring to the cumulative effect of a person’s existence upon your senses.  Analyzing a person’s aesthetic is a completely rational way of evaluating another’s impression on your own mind.  Some components of a person are obvious:  physical appearance, personality, body language, accent, interests, intelligence, etc.  These are the things that determine whether or not a person is attractive, fun, annoying, or simply “nice”.  But there is something about a human being’s aesthetic that is unique; it’s that ability to behave in the way the person chooses.  It’s the ability to go against what is natural to human behavior or to not.  These choices are what weigh most heavily on a person’s aesthetic.

This trait of the ability to choose is what animates us and gives value to our lives.  It’s also what gives us the ability to develop virtue and vices.  It creates harmony because it makes chaos possible.  It is the center of our existence and causes within us a spectrum of possibility ranging from beauty to depravity.  It is this one thing that saturates our being and causes all of our other components to be seen by others in a way that will either please or irritate them depending upon the condition of their own aesthetic.

The evil, twisted, or unnatural aesthetic mutilates the beauty of natural human tendency.  It kills, covets, hates, gossips, and corrupts all that is good, having an inherent effect on the person and destroys them.  The aesthetic that chooses what is good goes along with unnatural human tendency and produces love, joy, peace, etc.  It is choice that creates beauty, but because of our desires that are contradictory to the way God designed us to be we all degrade our natural beauty to an extent no matter how good our choices are.  This causes our personal aesthetics to clash and grind against one another so that the whole of creation is degraded by our conduct.

So then, there is inherent aesthetic contrast between a good man and an evil one.  Obviously we’re all evil to an extent and fall somewhere on the spectrum of beauty and depravity.  But it’s important to identify extremes, decide where we fall, and how to progress on the path towards harmony.  But after we’ve done that, we quickly realize that we are not capable of reaching perfect beauty.  We strain ourselves and punish our flesh in a attempt to achieve a character produced by a righteous life.  Then many good-willed people justify their imperfections with the sorts of things the despised use to make themselves feel better; the main justification being the inappropriately ascribed subjectivity of beauty.

We are all created by the work of God, but we are still in progress: designed to make a choice as to whether or not we are going to allow God to animate us, or let our standard-less selves to animate us.  Whether we are to become beautiful works of art by the greatest artist in the universe who spilled His blood over us to complete us and perfect our beauty for the Artist’s glory, or to remain imperfect by rejecting completion.

We creatures are not left without a clue planted within ourselves.  It’s a taste of the perfect beauty we’re made to long for.  It’s the aesthetic of God longing to shine through our distinctive individuality.  This distinctive aesthetic is beyond words, music, or any other form of expression.  It can only be truly observed in the people you do life with.  And even then only in the people who have let themselves be the jars of clay God calls us to be; cracked and broken vessels overflowing with the Spirit of God.  But even with non-believers, glimpses of it can be seen longing to break forth but are suppressed by their desire to create a cheap imitation of themselves, thinking that they are fighting a tendency to be something ordinary.

We, along with the whole of creation, are simply components of one massive work of art.  Human art is a means of trying to assemble reality and make sense of its intricacies.  It is the physical form of asking questions, leaving finding answers to the perceiver.  It points us to the created world in such a way as to seek truth; God’s truth.  Since we ourselves, the physical world, and the spiritual world are all works of art, seeking the deepest truths of life through human art is perfectly logical.

Art does not teach us to know, but to seek to know.  To dwell on mystery.  To ponder various ways in which reality can be assembled and look at truth from a different angle; an intellectual exercise that brings life to your spirit (Roman 12:2, Phillipians 4:8).  Listen, look, read. Attend to various aesthetic objects so that your perception of reality can be sharpened.  Every angle available from which your are able to observe truth should be utilized.  Therefore, Aesthetic Education in the Church is not only necessary, but it is essential.

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