for the Christian Artist
by Geoff Hall
how does it feel
how does it feel
to be on your own
with no direction at all
a complete unknown
with no direction at all
The manifestos of 20th century art movements have consistently pronounced some form of anti statement, such as anti-bourgeois from the Dadaists or the anti-imitation and anti-nude statements of the Futurists. This is a manifesto with a difference, it is a call that involves very definite pro's. It is not an invitation to form a narrow school of art, but to initiate an opening process that gives the Christian artist a sense of identity and community in an age of identity crisis and individual apotheosis.
In the Old Testament the notion of salvation was linked to space, indeed one of the pictures given in the Psalms refers to salvation or deliverance as setting the righteous in a large place. (Psalm 18v19;31v8 and 118v5) In Hosea 4v6 it is used in a pastoral sense to denote the freedom to feed on the pasture as opposed to being joined or bound to idols. So then we are called to live in the space of salvation or yeshuah. In his book 'The Soul of Politics' [Fount 1994] Jim Wallis asks us to live 'as if' we have the space to redeem society and culture. He asserts that living in the hope of something, living 'as if', creates the space to bring it about. It is an act of faith, we are saying to God, "Look, I know there is very little sense of community in the arts, but I'm going to live 'as if' there is." Or, "I know there is no Christian movement in the arts but I, we, are going to live 'as if' there is." The arts will be redeemed in this space, but we are called to move into the space God gives, and that we can create, as we live a faith-full Christian life.
Deconstruction has taken its toll on society and culture. It is easier to be 'anti' something and deconstruct, but where does reconstruction start, what is its Archimedean point, where do we 'stand to move the earth'? The individual is isolated, in fear of someone's grand design. In adopting the individual-ism an identity crisis has developed; look at Légèr's 'Woman in Blue', where is this thing called identity? Is it not ironic that in the advocation of the autonomous-self the self has lost its identity? 'Individuals' may wish to govern themselves, but if the 'I' is the only reference point then it is disrelated and disintegrative, the identity-less being has cultivated what Peter Berger has called the 'homeless mind'. We should not then be surprised at the nature of the crisis in the arts, art is reliant on a socio-cultural values-based structure. When that is eroded, art confronts a dilemma. The crisis of modernism is not that it has failed to do what it set out to do, it is that in debunking everything we as Christians hold dear it has nothing of lasting substance with which to replace those values. Hence the vacuity of post-modernism.
If the crisis of the 'individual' is the loss of identity, then the artist will not only be a party to this, but what is produced will be symptomatic of it. The fin de siécle and turn-of-the-century art produced by Ensor and Munch reveals the misdirection of society and culture: 'The Scream', the angst of the age, the psychological condition; and Ensor's 'Skeletons Warming Themselves' provides an insight into cultural decay, the demise of structuralism, the consequence of following a modernist ideology. Lebensangst and Weltangst, led Munch to Raumangst; the fear or dread of space. Space is not just something that a representational artist utilises, it is a metaphor for reality, that is, the relational dynamic integral to our existence. As Christians, we are not subject to the angst, we do not have to live in the abstract because of the fear of interaction with this world, or of life itself; we integrate, we make the abstract tangible, we revel in the love of a Creator who enables us to be creative.
If it is for freedom that Christ has set us free (Galatians 5 v1) then why am I writing a manifesto?
I was reading a lecture paper by Jeremy Begbie entitled 'Postmodernism and the Arts - A Christian Perspective'. From the outset Begbie states that he has not come to offer an 'artistic blueprint to usher in the Kingdom'. I would not be so bold as to say this 'manifesto' is written to usher in the Kingdom, but to help Christian artists understand and live the kingdom as it is revealed thus far. But, we should not be frightened of attempting to fight our way out of this postmodern state. It is not a formula, I will not be giving a step-by-step way to achieve fulfillment as a musician, painter, sculptor or writer.
The Church is not very well equipped to deal with cultural reconstruction. It has for too long hidden in its many pulpits, preached an anti-world dualistic gospel and sent out numerous foreign missionaries. The Great Commission is viewed in a narrow geographical sense rather than a social and cultural calling to take the good news into the world. To be a little more specific, the commission in the four times it is mentioned, (Matthew, Mark, Luke and Acts) there are different contexts of the word 'world'. In Matthew and Luke the Greek word is ethne and is translated as nations. In Mark it is kosmos, that is world, arrangement or order upon the earth. Finally, in the book of Acts it is ges or ge which is the geographical earth. To use it only in one context and solely to send out missionaries to 'geographically strategic' continents is to limit the call to mission. When was the last time your church sent out a painter, poet, musician or philosopher to vanquish darkness? This manifesto is an attempt in some small way to redress the balance.
Freedom has been given, but there is the expectation of fulfilling the design of a righteous life: generosity, sacrifice, obedience, compassion, worship. We are meant to 'seek first the kingdom and His justice' (Matt. 6 v33), but much of our thinking and writing, painting, sculpting and musical composition has been contaminated by western pagan thought. This is a hindrance to freedom; as Paul wrote to the Corinthians (2nd letter, ch10 v5) we are to 'bring every thought into subjection', to obedience in Christ. Obedience is therefore freedom - the very antithesis of 'modern' freedom or autonomy - and it should effect our creative production.
I have already mentioned the identity-crisis in the western world. David Lyon points to the root of the crisis in his book 'Postmodernity' [Open University Press, 1994 - see ch5 'The Shape(lessness) of Things to Come]. He suggests that in a world where it is viewed that there is only the superficial, there is nothing under the surface, no perspective. What you see is what you get: as people see identity as another consumable, they buy into whichever appeals the most. Identity is reduced to a particular style of clothes, design of house, decor and car, a specific career, a style of art - identity is reduced to the realm of the commodity. But the Christian ought to refuse submission to the gods of the west. Identity is not superficial, it is who we are and not what we do or have. It is that which moves us into a direction toward justice, generosity and true radical action and art production if we pursue the image of the creator. It is not a commodity! Consumerism will not set us free, it will only make us more reliant on the transient.
Our first steps of freedom will begin when we reject the idols of the West; the autonomous-self, the consumerist ethic, the religious mysticism, capitalism, Marxism and nihilism, the idols of our time. When we decline commitment to them and embrace the relational-self, the stewardship ethic, the integrated life, jubilee and true community, fullness - in short the radical Christian devotion, then we will be free. As free people we will create the space that God has created and redeem the seemingly irredeemable. (Ephesians 2 v10 - "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.")
Identifying Christian Arts
So what is Christian art, what are we free to produce? Let me state the negative first and work away from it. Christian art is not something you produce just because you are a Christian! Christian art, in whatever form, is Christian when every thought is brought into subjection, when we refuse the gods of modernism and postmodernism and leave our gifts at the altar. Our education in our particular discipline in the arts has not been a neutral process, there is always an adherence to a presuppositional position. The mal du siécle is angst, the fear or dread of something. We have already noted that with art it is personified in Raumangst, the fear of space. With Giacometti's sculpture fear has emaciated the human form, designed by nihilism the form is eaten away, we are but tightened flesh on bone, there is nothing left to glory in - just look at the difference between Michelangelo's 'David' and Giacometti's human forms. Even music has been moved by angst, from the fear of being and stability, by the Wagnerian theory of the music of eternal movement; becoming, flux, and its final end le néant (the void or Nihilism). The heroism as depicted in Ibsen's Peer Gynt is the epitome of this relentless movement. The necessity of adventure and the denial of those who would give Peer Gynt stability (Ingrid and Solveig), so that the romantic search for self-realisation continues even though what is of value is destroyed, and a state of flux is promoted in the face of doom and eventual personal dissipation.
We need simply to look at the life of Paul Gauguin to see a painterly example of this, and the aesthetic of his art is not so far removed from this tradition as it may seem. The fluid forms apparent in his art signify this movement. The colour inversion indicates the direction as inward, self-apotheosis and the creation of one's own universe is elevated above all. His 'Reverie' paintings reveal the self-realised person's ability to escape to the higher realms of the Symbolist's universe. The course you take, and the allegiances you make will define your art. Whether it is music, painting or writing drama it will be affected. Your allegiance to Christ can be compromised, discipleship is not undertaken in neutral, we do not disengage our brains to walk on the narrowest way. We engage fully with the world, not to be enslaved by it, but to set it free! We take risks, as did David, Josiah, Nehemiah, Elijah and Paul, and not forgetting Jesus of course.
Risky Living is a life of faith centered in community, it is not a Bohemian pursuit. The risk is not in seeing how far on a tangent you can go, our sense of being radical is distorted if we can only follow the paths of deconstruction and negativity. Our aim should be to clear the ground for a rebuilding of culture and society, and the only hope for this is to be found in the good news of the kingdom. If we break down the idols that pollute our hearts and society then we will truly know the power of the good news.
So what then is this thing called Christian art? I have alluded to a few cultural producers; Giacometti, Wagner, Ibsen and Gauguin. In each can be seen a distortion of the creational order due to the misdirection of their allegiances. That does not mean that their art-form does not work, is not in some way pleasing to the eye, ear or intellect. The truth of our world is not that sin is ineffective and righteousness fruitful, we know only too well in this century the horrors of war and mass genocide. To be effective you do not have to be righteous. However if we want to make a difference, a big difference, then we cannot cling onto old gods and forms that have distorted reality and marginalised the Christian presence. This is not an easy option, we cannot add water, even holy water, to our art-form and watch it develop into an acceptable form. We will have to grapple with our chosen discipline, and a Christian art should reflect our ability to integrate all aspects of life into it. This is not a call to produce altarpieces for an altar-call, devotional poetry, angelic sculpture, hymns or evangelical films. A painter needs to wrestle with the nude!! For too long we have viewed the body as sinful and devilish, as if the new testament equated our physical frame as the root of sin; original sin. BUT, what went wrong in Eden was not that Adam and Eve had sex, but that they both disobeyed the command of God and rejected God's knowledge for the self-produced variety.
They would know the difference between good and evil, and this was not a carnal knowledge but a 'wisdom' founded on their own experience. The serpent was right, if they ate from a forbidden source they would know the consequence, the difference it would make to their relationship with the Creator of all good things. It stands for a rejection of God as the Origin of knowledge and transfers it to humanity. The root cause was not some secret and devilish sexual deviance but Idolatry. Therefore, with this in mind we ought to look at the nude as an exploration of Eden, a move back to the origin, and a renunciation of sexual exploitation, patriarchy, eroticism and the like, such as displayed in the Orientalist art of the 19th century, or in Gauguin's 'Loss of Virginity' (1891) in which the woman is displayed as a sacrifice to the expression of lust; in this case the artist's! (Gauguin had bullied the model into having sex with him).
We can also grapple with landscape, which was first produced apart from its narrative justification (for example themes such as 'Saint Jerome in the Wilderness') by the fruit of freedom borne in the Reformed Netherlands of the 17th century. We have forgotten how to paint the nuances of nature, to celebrate our relationality and stewardship of God's provision, this good earth.
Looking at the example of Gauguin, Wagner, Ibsen and Giacometti how would we pursue an integrative aesthetic for the different arts? How would we translate, redeem if you like, the forms used in art, music, drama and sculpture?
The current western mode of painting was inherited from the Symbolist movement, epitomised by the likes of Gauguin. There are many links with art and music, poetry, literature & theatre within this movement. The programme initiated by the Symbolist's was underpinned by a metaphysical philosophy centered upon the Ideal of Beauty. To reach this thing called Beauty one had to come from within, this is to be seen as an objectification of the self. So, we are now entering the realm of the self-defined universe, it is not reality that is depicted but the 'reality' within. Meaning is personalised and the dialogue is that of a 'private conversation'. (see H G Gadamer's essays on 'The Relevance of the Beautiful' - Cambridge University Press, 1989)
Gauguin's landscapes of Breton and Tahiti are internal images, they are not meant to be a portrayal of reality. In philosophy-speak this is called the 'objectification of the subjective', and it denies the dialogical and relational character of the cultural form, in fact of knowledge and being.
"It is not good for man to be alone...", (Genesis 2 v18) and so the LORD created Eve, God is a God of intimacy and not of isolation; a God of fellowship not self-involvement. They were not placed in a horticultural vacuum, but had to live amongst the animals, cultivate the plants and have an intimate relationship with each other. The lovers were not sent as observers of an evolutionary programme - their surname was not Darwin - watching a horse develop into a giraffe because of the scarcity of low-lying vegetation. A giraffe was a giraffe, and a horse a horse, each to its own kind. Everything was prepared before humanity arrived; cultivation was the next step, not evolution, enter the cultivators. Intimacy was not simply a euphemism for sex, but involved a sharing of themselves that I can only imagine. It was not that sort of 'there is only you in the whole world' relationship, for in the 'cool of the evening' the LORD would take a walk in Eden to also be involved in the intimacy. We often imagine Eden as the perfect idyll with self-nurturing, self-pruning plant-life with the perfect couple looking on. However Adam, as he was named by God, and Eve as she was named by Adam, were allowed to explore the latent possibilities planted there by the Creator. Bearing this in mind, we are also in the same position and have a calling to cultivate and bring everything into 'subjection' - or 'rule over all the earth'. (Gen. ch1 v26) This was anything but a self-defined universe, our happy couple were not the originators of this but only the developers. In the cultural realm as artists, poets, writers et al that is our calling, and man and woman found out it is best pursued in an obedient relationship to the Creator and Originator of all things, Yahweh.
So, with this as our motivation what would our art look like, Gauguinesque fluid forms or integrative, dialogical 'conversations'? Gauguin's quest meant the rejection of society and the search for Eden on earth, hence his move to Tahiti. As a painter your calling is not to explore an Utopia, but to establish the kingdom in the arts, the two are not equatable. Well, how can this be achieved? That is the subject of our next chapter.
Out of the Crisis
The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that the Christian's first duty was not to change the world but to change the world in themselves. Bonhoeffer always had the knack of saying profound things very simply. Yes, the postmodern crisis is too big for Geoff Hall to sort out. Yet the very thing that adds to the crisis is our duplicity. We talk of our obedience to Yahweh, but how many of us find the notion of sacrifice a little too radical /intimidating/ simplistic? We can recite Matthew 6v33 but how many of us think that it means to leave our job and do full-time Christian service? We can convince our friends that our theology is on solid ground, but how many of us are looking forward to the day when God nukes the world, or think that creation is demonic, that the only commission is to be found in the gospels, that England is a Christian nation, and Thatcherism an expression of the kingdom of God? Each speaks of our need to have a radical expression for our faith, and that these are the means to proving the correctness of our beliefs. Unfortunately, I have heard them flow from the mouth of Christians, and even our solutions to the crisis have become secularised or mysticised. Secularised in that we espouse a revolutionary anti-this or anti-that ideology, or mysticised by embracing an 'art as other', anti-materialist, anti-representationalist ideal; assuming a 'spiritual' connection that is tenuous to say the least. Revolution is not redemption, and Mysticism is not relational, they are misdirections of action and thought which only alienate us from redirective, redemptive cultivation and stewardship. I have covered a few misdirections in the arts. We should not be 'painting' the void, the nihilistic spirit of the age, but we should 'paint' from a perspective of the critique of nihilism and the aesthetic of reconstruction.
We secularise our faith because of our long sojourn with dualism. We have adopted an other-worldliness theology that has scant regard for the call to social and cultural formation as found in Genesis ch1:28 or 2:15. It is argued that we cannot sanction the theology of formation because it was purely meant for Adam and Eve, or that it was exclusively for the state of innocence. Yet when it comes to the blessings of prosperity (see Deuteronomy 28), no dispensationalist labels are gummed to the passage. We don't say, 'Ah yes, but this was meant for the people of Israel under the Old Covenant'. Nor do you hear a refutation of the 'Great Commission', as we have called it, on the grounds that evangelism was only for the Twelve to carry out and when they died then evangelism was to stop.
We have, in general, adopted a secularised view of formation because the Church's activity and authority in these areas has been radically undermined and diminished. Christians are, strangely enough, still being gifted in these areas but ecclesia's ability to utilise them is rendered impotent. Many feel isolated because of their gifts and seek some utility elsewhere. A curious inversion of this is to be found in the employment of those culturally gifted in the production of flyers and posters for evangelical meetings. The questionable talents are then christianised by a church whose social and cultural light has been hidden under a bushel, and is culpable of producing the socio-cultural atrophy and personal dissipation it so readily condemns from its pulpits. If it is dark outside it is because someone has turned of the light! It is interesting to know that when Christ calls himself the 'Light of the World' the Greek word for world is kosmos, the arrangement, beauty and order on the earth; there was no hint of ethne or ges, nation or earth. - As for the present arrangement the Church would rather swim in the swimming-pool than swim in the sea.
BUT where does this leave the Christian whose talents are to be found in the Arts? Is there only to be satisfaction when their church embraces their gifts, a restricting of the aesthetic realm to evangelical propaganda? We have secularised because we cannot live in a vacuum; espousing capitalism and socialism as the socio-cultural dynamic behind our faith.
Do we want to be culturally literate artists, musicians, sculptors and writers? Then we need to meet with each other, together understanding the cultural situation and producing relevant critiques and also reconstructing the aesthetic realm.
The task is obviously a large one, but the time has come to live 'as if'.
The Big Picture, Pentecost 1999, Volume One, Issue 2, p.18
Write to author Geoff Hall at email@example.com
If you enjoyed reading the above, also read
CHRISTIANS AND THE ARTS IN SOUTH AFRICA – A Manifesto