Thursday, March 03, 2005

A Theology of Art

I’ve been trying to understand what it means to be an artist of faith for some time, and God has led me on quite a journey in this regard. For the last five years I’ve been involved with a group of artists of faith that meet weekly in New York City, and observing and sharing their journey has helped me greatly in my own. This summer I gathered a set group of twelve people to meet every five days (I didn’t want to wait a whole week between meetings and lose momentum) for 11 sessions to dialog, pray, think and try to understand what it means to be an artist of faith, how to experience God’s presence both in the creative process and in the difficult process of carving out a career in the NYC art world, and to basically ask, what is art? (I’m not sure if this is a theology or a philosophy)

It was a wonderful time, and at the end I distilled all I had learned into a three point theology of art (sorry not a story). Here it goes:

1. Art is a glimpse of the ineffable beauty of God

2. Art is a glimpse of the true soul of humanity

3. The artist is a servant motivated by love for his audience, who through a difficult process of training and apprenticeship acquires the heart and skill to be able to produce either singular works of power or works of craft or multiple replicatable designs in order to give his audience number 1 and/or 2 above, and this is good.

Some explanations: the word ineffable means “that which can not be expressed in words”, so that art has a special place using various mediums to express deep things where words may fail, (I didn’t know the meaning of that word until this summer).

The three classical areas of truth, beauty and goodness are represented in the three points to be somewhat poetic, while making a point, although I think all three can be seen in each point.

“Singular works of power” means individual, original works of art, like a painting or a piece of music – generally the fine arts. The idea is that one of the things that separates art from craft is that art has a power to affect the individual in a way that craft does not. Craft however has its place in that although it doesn’t have singular power to affect, it does generally imbue the atmosphere with joy, and I include it. The lines are hard to draw, but there is also the area of design which requires similar skill and talent and is generally for works that are to be produced in, “multiple replica”.

One of my main goals is to understand why all art is suffering in our day. I believe that “secular” artists are being debilitated by false views of art just as much as Christians are debilitated by false views of art. The difference is that there are simply far more secular artists in the population, and so there is a greater chance that they will produce more quality works in general – just like bigger high schools can field better teams because they have more kids to choose from than small schools. To a certain degree, it doesn’t matter how screwed up you are, if you have incredible talent you will produce good art whether Christian or not. On the other hand, just beyond the prodigies – maybe five percent of artists, lie the other ninety five percent of artists who take longer and struggle towards reaching a certain level of excellence, and amongst this group the various debilitations are more significant, and they and their audience would benefit from a renewal.

The main benefit of this understanding of art is that it helps us to understand where we went wrong. Christians have lost touch with their humanity. They have sought to live a life where they try to walk in the spirit, while increasingly shedding their flesh, and have confused their flesh with their humanity, so that they increasingly move away from their humanity. The biblical understanding of flesh and spirit is that we are to be so filled with the presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit, that we are enabled to know him more fully, so that just as Jesus never did anything but what he saw the Father doing, we are to walk in the Spirit, to constantly be in touch with the Spirit. The opposite of this is being separated from God and being so full of yourself that you can’t see God, and often others. To be filled with the Spirit leads one to become a more complete human – just as Jesus the human is fully filled with the Spirit. Humans were made to filled with God, and they become the most human when they are the most filled with God.

When applied to certain observations of life, this helps me explain a number of things.

Why does “Christian art” always seem worse than “secular art”? – because Christians have lost touch with number 2 – they fail to show the true soul of man, often because they are so busy trying to show number 1, or because they confuse shedding their flesh with shedding their humanity. Often when they do attempt to speak of human things, their work is seen as less honest. Maybe this is because they feel they must represent something in line with an agenda to promote God, and so they aren’t willing to really look at what it means to be human. I feel the underlying solution to this is that Christians need to embrace their humanity. Jesus is human. Being human is good.

Why do Christians often dislike difficult art? – This is the kind of art that usually deals with the true soul of humanity in all its struggles and ugliness. This is usually related to more of the truth side of art rather than the beauty side. Because Christians misunderstand that decreasing your flesh and increasing your spirit does not mean abandoning your humanity, but rather means filling your humanity with Christ, they feel uncomfortable with honest depictions of human ugliness. But when honest depictions of the human soul lead to reflection and change this is good.

Where has secular art gone wrong? Interestingly, I don’t think they have lost sight of the glimpse of God, as Christians have lost sight of the glimpse of humanity. All artists are created in God’s image, and they cannot help themselves but express much of the beauty around them or in their hearts. The main place they have gone wrong is in point 3, they have lost a sense of what their motivation should be. Many artists create for the things they can get out of it, rather than as a servant giving a gift to an audience. Given the nature of art, that it was created by God for his purposes, when anyone fails to engage art in the way God designed, they are destined to suffer a diminishing.

Much of the problem with art is that artists must work so hard to get any notice, and therefore make a living, they often resort to a diminished form of art – pandering to the audience that wants decoration more than art, or using shock and flamboyance to get attention, which is essentially manipulating the audience rather than serving.

How does this help artists? – This view of art can be tremendously encouraging if you are an artist of faith, because it gives you a clear motivation and trajectory in order to endure the many difficult years of development required. If you are a servant motivated by love, then you have tremendous resources of God’s gifts and power to endure.

How does this help the audience? – Developing your own clear understanding of what you like, what is good to you is easier when you are able to see that you are being manipulated for the artists gain (and the profiteering industry that surrounds the artist). Learning to not follow the crowd but to be able to pick out the unnoticed gems is extremely satisfying and helpful to those around you without such clarity.

I believe that as artists we need to undertake the journey with a greater sense of God’s presence in our artistic process. That just as we trust him for our daily bread, and to have the grace to forgive others, we must learn to trust him to do better work and to open doors for us in our careers. How often do artists get together to pray for one another’s work, as we get together to pray for various ministry works, or our personal problems?

When an actor faces the difficult decision of playing a role with “squirm factor” – swearing, nudity, violence, sex – they can use these ideas to help. Does the complete work show the soul of humanity in a way that is true and thus benefits the audience? Or have writers, directors and producers decided to gratuitously add something to manipulate their audience for profit?

There was a recent play that had excellent reviews and was considered “good” in that it really helped the audience to understand something of our societal journey out of racism and towards egalitarianism. It also had two scenes with full frontal male nudity. All the reviewers agreed that it was not at all gratuitous, but really helped the story to be told in its fullness because the social group of men involved went on a journey together that required the portrayal of their intimacy in order to reveal the revelations they had of each other (no gay sex implied, just men in tight living quarters). An actor of faith who is a friend of mine took the role, and I applauded him.

8 comments:

Laryn said...

Looking forward to reading this post...I found it somewhere along the way and now I've bookmarked it for a future date. (Give me a break, it's Friday!)

Blessings,
Laryn

discussion said...

Hey I came back! I decided to also run this by some friends of mine... we'll see if the discussion goes anywhere (see link above).

L.

Anonymous said...

your post reminded of the book "THE CREATIVE CALL" by Janice Elsheimer... really good stuff....

man i am eating up your blog. I guess i've been hungry.

pablo

poster art said...

Hi there Jeff Kursonis, I was just traveling through looking for some interesting stuff on abstract art and I came upon your Blog. I haven’t seen what I was after regarding A Theology of Art, but I’m going to carry on searching for more information on abstract art related stuff. By the way your Blogs great.

abstract art said...

Hi there Jeff Kursonis, I was just traveling through looking for some interesting stuff on and I came upon your Blog. I haven’t seen what I was after regarding A Theology of Art, but I’m going to carry on searching for more information on related stuff. By the way your Blogs great.

artisan said...

Hi there Jeff Kursonis, I was just traveling through looking for some interesting stuff on and I came upon your Blog. I haven’t seen what I was after regarding A Theology of Art, but I’m going to carry on searching for more information on related stuff. By the way your Blogs great.

inspirational art said...

Well hello there Jeff Kursonis, I was just searching for some ideas on art and craft when I happened on to your Blog. Although A Theology of Art isn’t quite what I was looking for, it was for more information on art and craft. You’ve still got a great Blog here. You are most welcomed to visit my site at art and craft

poster art said...

Hi there Jeff Kursonis, I was just traveling through looking for some interesting stuff on and I came upon your Blog. I haven’t seen what I was after regarding A Theology of Art, but I’m going to carry on searching for more information on related stuff. By the way your Blogs great. You are most welcomed to visit my site at