Thursday, February 13, 2014

Painting, Art-for-art's-sake, and God

I recently took on the always-enjoyable chore of cleaning and re-organizing my studio.  Well, okay so it isn't always a fun task dealing with all the dusty musty parts, but it's worth it to have a cleaner space to work.  And I managed to re-arrange a few things, which has opened up the space a bit more.  Here's what it looks like now:

It's amazing how productivity increases with an organized workspace.  I was ready to get to work, and so I revisited my Holy Land trip and painted the Church of St. Peter's Primacy, which is a humble little church in Galilee built of stone.  The moment you walk inside, there is only a small sanctuary with a large stone at the altar with the words "Mensa Christi" displayed on it.  This is traditionally thought to be the table at which Jesus reinstates Peter after a large miraculous catch, and says to Peter, "Feed my sheep" (John 21).  The angle of the church I've painted is the back side of the building.  As you face the church at this angle, if you were to turn around, you would be facing the church's backyard - The Sea of Galilee.

Church of the Primacy of St. Peter
oil on canvas
11x14 inches
This is the first painting in about 3 years that I've done that is inspired from my Holy Land trip.  I recently went through all my pictures and spent an entire day reminiscing about every detail of the trip.  I'm glad I was wise enough to take about 1500 pictures and write every single detail down that I could in my journal, from the meals that I ate to the names of our tour guides.  This is one of those experiences that, if you are ever blessed to have, should be documented as if you were recording an experience with God Himself.  Because in many ways, that's exactly what this trip was.

I read an article this week that was published in an old journal called The Art World in May, 1917.  The article was an editorial titled "Art for Art's Sake: Its Fallacy and Viciousness."  It's a wonderful bit of writing that pulls no punches on its critique of the philosophy of "art for art's sake," which basically says that art exists for no greater purpose outside of itself.  It's a very nihilistic attitude that art should not be created for any moral or didactic purpose.  I never really understood the concept even when I had heard about it in my college art history classes.  I couldn't grasp the whole philosophical thing about it.  But this article pretty much sums it up, saying: 
"The mere beauty of form in a work of art, as in a woman, is a poison.  If a woman has only beauty and no moral character or lofty purpose, she is nothing more than a parasite.  The same is true of a work of art, no matter how beautiful it is; unless it is at least also as beautiful in spirit, chaste and clean in character, it is only an aesthetic poison."
That was clear enough.  We all know what the author is talking about when he (I assume this is a "he" writing) mentions a woman who is only beautiful on the surface, but is void of any inner beauty.  Many Hollywood-types come to mind for me.  The idea of art for art's sake is to say that art needs only to exist, and does not or should not strive to be something that is of "moral character."  This is where the attitude that "anything can be art" comes from.  And it got me to thinking about faith, and Jesus' parable of the two sons (Matthew 21: 28-32).  I think it's a hardened heart that can look at something meaningless and call it art, just like it is a hardened heart that can give a meaningless "Yes" to God and refuse to actually do His will.  The hardened heart looks at a painting and sees only bound pigment on a stretched piece of fabric, and says, "This is art."  It doesn't matter what image is depicted or how the heart of the artist is revealed through the image.  The paint is paint and the surface is surface. 

Does the Bible or our faith have the same meaning for us?  Is the Bible a collection of mere ancient words written by ancient people?  Or has God revealed His heart to us through these words?  Perhaps the Bible would be treated more reverently, especially by those of us who are men and women of faith, if we read the Scripture and were moved by it as though it was a moving work of art that stirs the depths of our soul when we look at it, and we couldn't help but stand in awe of it.  As an artist, I strive to record truth with my paintbrush as best as I can.  I think the writers of our Scriptures did the same in recording God's truth.  Faith for faith's sake says yes to God, but doesn't do His will.  It says that anything can be faith no matter how contrary it is to the basic principles and fundamentals of Scripture.  It comforts us with lies while condemning truth.  Do not let your faith exist for its own sake, but for God's sake and truth's sake. 

If you're curious about the article I mentioned, here is a link to it: