Cover Story


"STEALING BEAUTY" Continued...

Issue: "What is art?," March 20, 2004

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.


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