Christians, it is often said, are not interested in the arts. The same can be said of most ordinary Americans, who want to leave that sort of thing to the elite culture, to the upper-class patrons of the galleries and museums. But even those who profess no interest in the arts watch TV, go to the movies, listen to music, go shopping, and live in a cultural environment saturated with design and aesthetics.
Artists are the makers of culture. They express their worldviews in ways that shape the worldviews of others. Because they specialize in making their expressions appealing, their visions and values are uniquely persuasive to others. Their works are artifacts that embody the ideas, the emotions, and the philosophies of their time.
In our postmodern times, aesthetics has, in many circles, taken the place of knowledge and morality. Questions of truth are resolved according to what people "like." Moral issues are considered simply a matter of personal "taste." These are aesthetic categories, which people now use to determine the most important dimensions of their lives.
Aesthetics drives contemporary popular culture. Entertainment has become the ultimate value, not only in Hollywood but in education and even religion. People define themselves according to the music they listen to and the aesthetically packaged products they buy.
But while aesthetics are very powerful today in influencing the way people think and-what has become almost the same thing-what they buy, creating objects that are beautiful and meaningful in themselves seems out of place. The arts, in fact, are in a state of crisis, as the rejection of absolutes undermines their own nature and value.
There was a time when the arts supported culture, bringing values and meaning to bear on everyday life, and, while this can still be found, the arts today often are instead subversive of cultural values-and, ultimately, subversive of themselves.
Art has increasingly become either so esoteric as to be irrelevant, or so commercial as to be reduced to a consumer commodity. Both extremes devalue art, making it lose its potential to exalt and edify and enrich. When beauty is cut off from the true and the good, to the point of trying to take their place, beauty itself suffers, and truth and goodness are diminished.
Christians used to be the leaders in aesthetic pursuits, and the Bible gives a foundation for the arts that affirms their value, while preventing them from distortion. Putting the culture back together must involve reclaiming and restoring the arts.
Something for nothing
The Turner Prize, given in England each year, is one of the world's most prestigious awards for the very best in contemporary art. One year, the winning work of art consisted of the dead bodies of mutilated animals pickled in formaldehyde. Another year, the winner was the artist's unmade bed.
In 2001, the best contemporary work of art was deemed to be an empty room. Viewers of the work by Martin Creed titled "Lights Going On and Off" went into a gallery and there was nothing there. The lights would occasionally go on and off. That was the work of art.
Presumably an art consisting of nothing would be the low point of contemporary art, either its end or a turning point to something more. The most recent candidates for the Turner Prize were a step up from nothing. In 2002 the winner was an artist whose works included lead castings of the items on a Kentucky Fried Chicken menu.
Those on the short list for the 2003 prize, which comes with $36,000 cash, included Anya Gallaccio, who makes works of art out of rotten fruit. Another was Willie Doherty, who showed a video of someone running without being able to get anywhere. Another finalist was the work of brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose works included "Sex," which was a sculpture of dead bodies being eaten by maggots, and "Death," a bronze of blow-up sex dolls engaged in a sex act.
The winner of the 2003 Turner Prize was Grayson Perry, who makes traditional-looking pottery pieces on which are illustrated what he calls inversions of a happy childhood-whimsical cartoons showing child abuse and dead babies. Mr. Perry is also a transvestite with a wife and daughter who exhibits his dresses.
The Turner Prize shows that we have come a long way from Giotto, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh. The issue is not just a move away from realistic, mimetic art. There is even a decline away from the highly formalistic aesthetic standards of the abstract art of the early 20th century.
The main reason for the change in art was a shift in worldview. The slide away from the Christian faith and biblical assumptions about life meant a draining of meaning and beauty from the world. Those who believe that there is no objective meaning in life and that there are no objective values can hardly be expected to create works that have objective meaning and objective value.
And as other ideologies have rushed into the cultural vacuum left by Christianity, those ideologies are expressed in the arts. For example, many of today's artists of the high culture have given up on the concept of "beauty," which, according to the current ideologies, is either an imposition of oppressive power or an arbitrary personal construction. Instead, they are concentrating on "transgressive" art, work purposefully designed to shock and outrage.
Some postmodern artists have embraced the pop culture, with its mass production, its purposeful shallowness, and its money-grubbing. With the loss of beauty, coarser pleasures, such as pornography and sensationalism, take its place. Others embrace the hope of radical politics, whether that of feminism or gay rights or environmentalism, turning their art into in-your-face propaganda.
We live in an age that claims "there are no absolutes." The classic absolutes, according to the old thinkers, are truth, goodness, and beauty. For people today, truth is relative; goodness is relative; and beauty is relative. They are all connected, and they have all been dragging each other down. The lack of belief fuels moral relativism, and beauty is distorted to serve what is false and what is bad.
In contrast to secular nihilists, Christians have a basis for art, beauty, and aesthetics, one which has inspired the arts for centuries. They also have a rich heritage of artistic expression, extending back from the modernist Rouault, a devout believer known for his brightly colored expressionistic religious works, through the innovative Van Gogh and Turner, through the Dutch Masters, and every major movement in the Reformation, Renaissance, and Middle Ages, on back through the Byzantines and the tiles on the catacombs.
But today's Christians often remain impoverished when it comes to the arts, buying into the same hedonism, commercialism, and subjectivism of their nonbelieving neighbors.
Christians are in a position, though, to recover the arts. This is important because the arts are valuable in themselves, as gifts of God, and because the arts are a powerful means of shaping the culture and influencing the human heart. At a time when current ideologies are undermining what is most valuable in the arts, the Bible can restore them.
What would Bezalel do?
The Bible has much to say about the arts. A good part of the Old Testament is taken up with God's detailed commands for human beings to make things, specifically, the designs for the Tabernacle, the Temple, and their furnishings and decorations.
The most direct and explicit biblical passage about the arts has to do with the calling and the equipping of Bezalel, the artist in charge of making the Tabernacle:
Then Moses said to the people of Israel, "See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and He has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft.
"And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver-by any sort of workman or skilled designer.
"Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whom the Lord has put skill and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded." And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the Lord had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work (Exodus 35:30-36:2).
This is the first text of Scripture that directly teaches the doctrine of vocation: Bezalel has been "called by name." Bezalel, also the first to be described as having been filled with the Holy Spirit, is given a task by God, who has called him not into some prophetic office, but to work with his hands, to serve God and his neighbors by being an artist.
Those to whom God has given a calling, He also equips, by giving people distinct talents, interests, and abilities. Thus, God has given Bezalel specific gifts to enable him to do the work that God requires to make and to adorn the Tabernacle. These are the same gifts necessary for the making of every kind of art and are fundamental to every artist's vocation. "Skill" must refer to the artist's innate talent, described here as a gift of God. "Intelligence" underscores that a true artist not only works with his hands but with his mind, in contrast to current views that consider artistic inspiration to be nonrational or even anti-rational. "Knowledge" as a gift for the arts means that artists must know things, from the properties of their materials to the ideas that their art can convey. "Craftsmanship" refers to the artist's technique, the difference between a work of any kind being poorly executed or well-made.
These gifts with which God "filled" Bezalel are so comprehensive that they can almost be used as criteria for evaluating any work of art, which may exemplify or fall short in some measure when it comes to skill, intelligence, knowledge, or craftsmanship.
That these gifts are not limited to Bezalel only but describe more generally the abilities associated with the vocation of the artist is indicated in the same passage. They are also given to Oholiab, and both artists are given the further gift-actually, in a significant term for education, the inspiration-to teach. The implication is that others will find their own callings and their own gifts through the process of education. The passage explicitly says that the calling extended not only to Bezalel and Oholiab but to "every craftsman in whose mind the Lord had put skill." Not only did the Lord's gifting extend to them all, but those who were called knew it by their own inclinations: "everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work."
The art of the Tabernacle and later the Temple entailed "every skilled craft," featuring textiles, castings, woodwork, sculpture. Some of the work was representational, with depictions of plants and animals; some was symbolic, as with the Ark of the Covenant. But the main purpose of the lavish and elaborate adornment of the place where God would meet His people seems to have been purely aesthetic. The garments of the priests were to be made "for glory and for beauty" (Exodus 28:2). The splendor of it all would glorify God and would offer a glimpse of the glory of the courts of heaven. As such, beauty is an end in itself.
But as Bezalel was receiving his commission on Mount Sinai, down below another artist was at work, using art not for glory and beauty but to construct a false god. Aaron's golden calf exemplifies the Bible's major theme of the misuse of art in idolatry.
The essence of idolatry is explained in Romans 1:25: "They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator." To worship an idol is to have as one's religion, to use postmodernist jargon, a "construction," whether of stone or of ideas, a humanly devised faith rather than the objectively true God who reveals Himself in His Word.
Idolatry is associated with paganism, of course, and also with greed (Colossians 3:5). Today, it has been observed that, for many people, art has taken the place of religion. Contemporary aestheticism looks to art as the source of meaning and values and transcendence, rather than to their own Creator.
The Ten Commandments contain an explicit prohibition against worshipping works of art: "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God" (Exodus 20:4-5).
What is forbidden here is idolatry. The prohibition against making "any likeness of anything" does not rule out every kind of representational art, since God's commands for the Tabernacle and the Temple include the depictions of pomegranates, palm trees, lions, and even cherubim. Still, the prohibition of "likenesses" has been taken very literally by the ancient Hebrews, by Muslims, and by many Christians. Even its most extreme application, however, does not forbid art; rather, it channels art in a particular direction, toward pure aesthetics.
For the Greeks and other ancient pagans, art was seen as "mimetic," an imitation of the external world. Art without likenesses, though, could instead be "creative."
The kind of art favored by the ancient Hebrews-as we see in their pottery and artifacts-could be described as abstract. Intersecting lines, geometric forms, swirling colors, and interlocking shapes depicted no "likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth." It was nonrepresentational, a rendition of pure form.
Art that is nonrepresentational includes also music-universally praised in the Scriptures-and what would later develop as fiction and fantasy.
What was problematic was art that pretended to be true when it was not, art that presented itself as a sacred object, conveying a meaning that brought people away from the true God into a domesticated, pleasurable, man-made kind of spirituality that was a counterfeit for the real thing. The artfulness of art, though-the product of skill, intelligence, knowledge, and craftsmanship that was for glory and beauty-was not problematic at all.
Nor was the problem in a particular work of art. One of the objets d'art cited in the Bible is the brazen serpent, an artifact made to communicate God's judgment against sin and to prophesy the cross of Jesus Christ (Numbers 21:4-9; John 12:31-32). When the children of Israel plagued by poisonous snakes looked to the brass snake lifted up by Moses, they were healed, a type of the Atonement, when Christ would be "lifted up," bearing in His body the sins of the world. Later, this great evangelistic work of art would be turned into an idol, its gospel-bearing meaning effaced by those who would superstitiously turn it into a cult object, and it would be destroyed in the reforms of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:1-4). The point is, the danger comes not from the art but how it is used.
But looking at art for its form and its beauty, rather than as a cult object, was made possible by the Bible. The early Christians rejected the religious content of Greek mythology and its mimetic artistic tradition, and what was left was aesthetics. According to historian Werner Jaeger, "It was the Christians who finally taught men to appraise poetry by a purely aesthetic standard-a standard which enabled them to reject most of the moral and religious teaching of the classical poets as false and ungodly, while accepting the formal elements in their work as instructive and aesthetically delightful."
The biblical heritage of the arts is, perhaps ironically, not one of preaching or moralizing, as is often thought both by the critics of Christianity and by many Christian artists. Although art can indeed preach and moralize-as with the brazen serpent-it does not have to and can become problematic when it does. Art, above all, is to be artful.
Far from mandating that all art must be religious art, the Bible tends to be suspicious of religious art. Art that is "secular" is almost safer. The Tabernacle and the Temple were adorned not with images of deities but with depictions of nature-pomegranates, palm trees, lions-not as beings to be worshipped as in the pagan temples, but as beings that have been created.
The Bible liberates art. It no longer has to be narrowly "religious," though it would be more accurate to say that ostensibly secular subject matter-portraits of individuals and families, natural landscapes, nonrepresentational abstractions-is actually religious after all, in that it all testifies to its Creator and Lord.
The conceptual framework for a biblical view of the arts and aesthetics is the doctrine of creation. God created the universe ex nihilo. He did not imitate preexisting ideal forms, as in the classical tradition, nor did He rearrange existing matter, as in the pagan creation myths. Rather, He created everything that exists. God, therefore, is the ultimate artist. The universe is God's work of art.
Not only the physical creation but its underlying laws and properties-including the aesthetic dimension of life and the human ability to perceive it-are the work of the Creator.
Human beings were created in His image, which means, among other things, that we too are creative. Adam was given dominion over what God had made, which includes the obligation to work in and with the created order. He was given the capacity to "name" what God has created (Genesis 2:19). Although the Fall ruined and corrupted human nature, traces of this creative stewardship remain. We make our living, according to the old theologians, by the interaction of "art" and "nature," applying the human "art" of farming to the natural order and thereby growing our bread. Every creative human activity, from shoemaking to medicine, is an "art" by which human beings make their living and serve one another in vocation.
Human beings can therefore be "subcreators," to use Tolkien's term. Our little creations are nothing next to God's, both in magnitude and in depending on what He has already made, but they testify to God's design and to the powers He has bestowed.
This biblical way of looking at art gives back what Scripture seems to have excluded: representational art. If the creation is God's art, painting what God has created becomes a way of honoring Him.
This is the way the Reformation, with its new biblicism, influenced the arts. Reacting against the practice in medieval Catholicism of using art to represent or even to embody spiritual beings, something that smacked of idolatry, the Reformers channeled art into another direction.
Luther insisted that art could indeed point to Christ and to the historical truths of the Bible, inspiring major artists such as Dürer and Cranach and having the Bible he translated illustrated with woodcuts. Calvin was more iconoclastic, but in a way that, ironically, would inspire the arts. "I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images permissible," he wrote, since irrational fear of art is as superstitious as irrational adoration. "But because sculpture and painting are gifts of God, I seek a pure and legitimate use of each." Teaching directly that art is a "gift of God," he then laid down a principle that would shape Protestant art for centuries: "Therefore it remains that only those things are to be sculpted or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing."
Instead of painting idealized representations of angels, saints, and God Himself, artists would focus on the visible realm: historical events, scenes from daily life, and natural landscapes.
Leo Jud, an even more radical iconoclast than Calvin, said that artists should not presume to paint images of God made by human hands. Rather, they should paint the images of God made by God Himself: that is, human beings. Thus began the tradition of portraiture that would culminate in Rembrandt, in whose art one can discern traces of the image of God in a human face.
The realism of the Dutch Reformed artists-in their portraits, landscapes, and still lifes-grew out of their particular biblical view of the arts and of God's creation.
In America, the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards explored how nature was God's creation and thus, in some measure, God's self-expression. Earthly beauty, he showed, derives from the "beauty of holiness" (Psalm 29:2) and from the character of God Himself.
The 19th-century English critic John Ruskin, building on the notion that God is the source of every beauty and that "every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights" (James 1:17), developed a comprehensive biblical aesthetic that would prove enormously influential both for artists and for their audiences.
"It is necessary to the existence of an idea of beauty," he wrote, "that the sensual pleasure which may be its basis, should be accompanied first with joy, then with love of the object, then with the perception of kindness in a superior Intelligence, finally with thankfulness and veneration towards that Intelligence itself." The very perception of beauty entails love, thanksgiving, and praise.
Furthermore, Ruskin argues that God is the source of every pleasure, so that what gives us pleasure, apart from the distortions of sin, testifies to the nature of God. For example, one powerful aesthetic experience comes from evocations of the infinite, as in the sublimity of mountains, the ocean, or other awe-inspiring landscapes of seemingly never-ending space. Though such scenes can be terrifying, making us feel small and insignificant, they are nevertheless aesthetically pleasing, because they evoke in us a sense of the infinite, which testifies to the infinity of God.
Likewise, an aesthetically satisfying work of art displays at the same time both unity and complexity. The Triune God too is both unified and complex, an absolute union of three distinct Persons. Some art is unified but simplistic; other art is complicated but chaotic. In the best work, the complexities form a perfect unity without sacrificing the individuality of their parts. This is aesthetically pleasing because it reflects the attributes of God.
Ruskin does something similar with other aesthetic qualities: repose (a type of the permanence of God); symmetry (a type of God's justice); the purity of light (a type of God's energy); liberty and self-restraint (a type of God's Law); craftsmanship, technical skill, attention to detail (a type of God's artistry).
Although Ruskin has been accused of turning art into a religion, it is more correct to say that, in his original intention at least, he was exploring the aesthetic implications of a biblical worldview. This was certainly how he was taken by Christian artists such as the American landscape artists who constituted the Hudson River School, the first distinctly American artistic movement, known for their awe-inspiring landscapes which, in their minds, testified to the glory of God.
One concept that the whole range of theologians from Thomas Aquinas, the medieval scholastic, to Jonathan Edwards, the American Puritan, agreed on is that beauty is connected to love. When we see a beautiful object-a tree, a waterfall, a painting, even a person-what we feel is a pang of love for that object. Aesthetic experience is a type of love.
For example, watching or reading a tragedy creates, as Aristotle said, a catharsis of pity, that is, of compassion, a species of love. Love goes deeper than the surface, so that we can love those with, as we say, "inner beauty." The more we know someone the more we can love that person, as is true also for our aesthetic response to nature or art. We can love things that, superficially, are homely (a pet bulldog, a run-down cottage, a caricature).
Love can be misdirected, just as beauty can lead us astray, but in its nature, love is profoundly moral. We are to love God, which must include His works. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Aesthetic experience can make us more sensitive to our neighbors, giving us compassion for the human condition and empathy for those other than ourselves, as well as greater appreciation for the universe that God has made.
According to the classic thinkers, love is what ties the absolutes together, the common bond in the good, the true, and the beautiful. Beauty and truth and morality are to serve each other, and the person who loves in a genuine way has them all.
A Way out, and in
The problem with so much of today's contemporary art, such as the Turner Prize winners, is that it is so empty, so nihilistic, that it fails as art. "Beauty" does not have to mean "pretty," and shocking or self-consuming artifacts have a rich tradition in Christian art, as is evident in Dante's Inferno and Grunewald's Crucifixion. But today's art of mutilation, pornography, and minimalism is depthless and one-dimensional. It has unity but no complexity. It lacks infinity. It displays little skill, intelligence, knowledge, and craftsmanship. Above all, it lacks love.
As a way out of today's aesthetic dead ends, many artists are rediscovering classic forms and styles. Others are highly contemporary, while managing to convey beauty and truth. Christians have the opportunity to take up what God has given them once again, to use the arts to remake the culture along God-pleasing lines. Many Christians are, in fact, finding callings in the arts, and they need the support of their fellow believers.
Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is an example of a work of art that conveys the faith in a nonsentimental, even shocking way, in a film that is a masterpiece of cinematic art. It is controversial and provocative, and it is having an impact on the culture.
God is still distributing the gifts of Bezalel, and He is still calling people in whose mind He has put skill, whose hearts stirred them up to come to do the work.