Christians & Serious Art

by R. Wesley Hurd


It should not surprise us that people make and enjoy art of all kinds. After all, our Creator built artful souls and sensibilities into the creatures He made in His image, and, therefore, understanding and liking art in some form is normal for us all. For most people, however, art is limited to decorating their homes and gardens, enjoying music or a good read, or occasionally taking in a serious movie. These common human experiences do not typically lead us to consider ourselves dedicated patrons of the arts; rather, we see our experience and enjoyment of this art as a normal opportunity for personal enrichment or entertainment.

Another kind of involvement in the arts, however, takes us into the world of serious art—art made to portray or explore our biggest ideas, concerns, questions, and visions. Although cultivating a beautiful rose garden can be an amazing work of art for me, my family, and my neighborhood, that artful expression differs from making a painting, a film, a play script, or a piece of music that explores dimensions of human identity and meaning.

Serious art (“fine” or “high” art) is created for the purpose of putting profound ideas, thoughts, and feelings into intelligent and striking forms. It is created to make philosophical statements about the meaning and condition of being human. Even though works of serious art may be playful, comedic, or satirical—that is, creatively produced to explore big questions in humorous or even slapstick ways—yet the creator’s motivation remains serious; he or she uses the peculiar power of art to say something vital and important to others. Serious art, then, is message laden.

Challenges for artists

Serious art is about ideas, but it is equally about the quality and integrity of its making. Fine art is finely crafted. Artists who wish to make fine art cannot avoid committing themselves to developing and maturing their craft, which requires years of difficult, focused, and sacrificial effort.

Serious art forms do not appear from nowhere. Each art form or medium has developed within a historical context, which involves a “conversation” among artists within each field. Theater, visual arts, literature, poetry, music, dance, and even modern filmmaking, have histories, traditions, genres, and diverse stylistic approaches with which a serious artmaker must become familiar and attempt to master. Fine artists—just like engineers, scientists, physicians, or other specialists—must commit themselves to learning their profession, to pursuing an education that helps them understand the history of their art form, that lets them practice their craft and technique, and that gives them opportunities for invaluable critique from peers and the more mature artists with whom they study.

Along with committing themselves to education and training in craft, artists who pursue making serious art must also commit themselves to setting aside commercial success as the primary goal of their artmaking. All artists want their work to be experienced by others. Art is made to be seen, heard, or somehow experienced by an audience. But art whose purpose is to delve into the existential meanings of man cannot be created when the maker’s primary motivation centers on selling the work. Fine artists, of course, desire to make a living from their work, but they understand the often intangible, constricting influence the commercial market can have on the nature of their art. Artists, students, and patrons of serious art accept this reality.

Making good art is extremely difficult. The aim of making serious art demands the artmaker’s highest effort of thought, creativity, and craft, and because this is true, many of the artist’s individual works fail to achieve the lofty standards of fine art. The full force of this fact often hits the artist only after years of education and training. Thus, taking on the vocation of artmaker, especially given its financial risks, can be an overwhelmingly intimidating venture.

In addition, though popular arts—rock and pop music and cinema, especially—thrive with wide, often knowledgeable and appreciative audiences, other art forms—poetry, classical music, jazz (the non-smooth variety), and many contemporary visual art forms—enjoy no such widespread popularity. No fame and fortune awaits the overwhelming majority of those pursuing careers in fine art. The artist inevitably agonizes over the question, “Why bother?”

Challenges for Christian artists

For those who understand and believe the biblical gospel, the pursuit of making serious art involves an additional set of difficulties. They face all the above challenges, along with some unique to Christian artists. And although there are no easy answers to these challenges, every believing artist committed to involvement in serious art must deal with them.

Defining faith. Many Christians struggle today with the basic question, “What is Christian faith?” Christians in the arts are no different. Christian artists own a special form of this struggle because they desire their art to reflect, at some level and in ways only art can, a vision of life and being human that is grounded in their faith. They must, therefore, know their faith and how it addresses the big issues of life; their faith in Christ should provide a distinct perspective on the human condition. Unfortunately, given the state of Christianity today, there is great confusion and debate over how to define Christian. Some “Christianities” tell us that God has promised us spiritual perfection in this life. Some tell us that Christian faith is about abundant material blessings, that it is positive thinking, or that it differs very little from Buddhist “consciousness.” At the heart of this confusion lies the question of authority. Who or what sources shall act as our final authority in deciding what is authentic Christian faith?

Understanding calling. Many Christians understand and accept the notion of being gifted and called to a vocation through which they may work for God’s purposes in this world and thus serve His Kingdom. They believe God can call someone to serve Him in business, medicine, counseling, or any number of other vocations. Artists, however, struggle with the notion of calling for several reasons. First, the church has very seldom, if ever, encouraged believers to callings in the arts, except those few arts—music, for example—employed in worship and fellowship. Second, identifying art with worldliness, many Christians think the art world is not safe for believers, who should not, therefore, be encouraged to enter it. Third, making a living while pursuing art is very difficult, if not impossible. For all these reasons, committing oneself to an art vocation doesn’t seem to make “sanctified sense.” How, then, can we know that God is leading someone toward a life in the arts? This important question is not easily answered for many young Christian artists.

Enduring misunderstanding. I dare not guess how many young artists have faced this intimidating question from well-meaning fellow Christians: “Why don’t you get a real job?” While this question may arise out of sincere concern for the financial future and well being of the artist, it often betrays a deeper belief that working in art is a waste of good time. Art is impractical, a peripheral activity for eccentric, “not-normal” individuals who simply don’t fit into the main, commonsense stream of life. Many Christians, including those in recognized Christian vocations, struggle to understand how artists can dedicate themselves so energetically to something that doesn’t guarantee an income, that seems so esoteric and non-applicable to “normal” Christian work and life, and that requires involvement in a secular, often hostile art world so clearly dominated by non-Christian beliefs and values.

Confronting truth. The Christian artist faces a final challenge—ultimately the most important. Will the Christian artist, like any other believer, submit his life, and therefore his artmaking, to the vital, deeply personal issues confronting him in his relationship to God? Will he commit himself to making art that flows out of his struggle to make his faith in Christ the controlling vision of his life? Believers in every arena of human work and life—from business, science, and education to marriage, homemaking, and child-rearing—are continually confronted with God’s call to embrace the gospel of Christ rather than a self-driven and worldly vision of life. In a world that constantly intimidates and seduces them to unbelief, all true believers—no matter what their gifts, vocations, opportunities, and callings—struggle mightily to believe and to continue to believe. From the biggest decisions to the smallest choices, God calls us to have spiritual character, which will inevitably confront every arena of thought and work in which we are immersed. In this respect, the Christian artist’s calling, while it differs greatly from his secular counterpart, differs not at all from his fellow believer’s. The Christian artist must confront what truly motivates him and therefore drives his art into existence and form. He must confront his spiritual condition: is his heart open to the truth God brings, and does his artmaking reflect this?

In conclusion

Humans inevitably engage in two kinds of work: the work they do for utilitarian purposes and the work they do to determine who they are and what they mean. When our utilitarian work has secured the necessities of life—sustenance, shelter, and safety—we turn to leisurely activities and “liberal” arts. The leisure of liberal arts is not merely for relaxation or entertainment, though that kind of leisure is valid. Ultimately, the most important of man’s leisurely activities involves time given to exploring the meaning of his existence—his deepest identity and purpose. These activities are meaningful or practical not in a utilitarian way, but because they embody the human quest for an enduring definition of life in the cosmos.

Man’s quest to understand what is real and valuable can occur in many ways—from the inquiry of scientific method to philosophical and theological reflection (not just the academic kind). As scientists and theologians record their thought processes and conclusions, so do artists communicate their explorations and discoveries. Serious artists do not so much aim at presenting copies of the world they explore. Rather, they attempt to make known—in speech, sound, movement, color, and physical materials—essential and deeply felt conclusions as they appear to them. Serious art articulates the deepest precincts of the human soul and how it perceives the world.

Art is not apologetics. Art is not evangelism. Art is not preaching the Scriptures. Writer and scholar George Steiner argues, however, that it is within art forms—visual, textual, auditory—that imago dei (image of God) attempts to articulate in lucid intensity and special language its encounter with fallen creation and the mysteries of existence. In this, serious art “distinguishes itself from the trivial and the opportunistic” (Real Presences, p.139).

The created “inner wiring” of some among us in the body of Christ calls them to make serious art. Why, then, would we not desire them to make it? Serious art made by serious Christians makes a valid and important contribution to the church’s presence in this yet unredeemed world.

Copyright June 2003 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

R. Wesley Hurd