Something Worth Saying: Excellence and the Arts

Pieta-GMR_6315As artists of faith, what are we trying to say?  If we are to be artists—wielding our paint brushes and pens and conductor’s batons—how does our faith in Christ affect and inform our art?  What makes an artistic expression like dance or drama uniquely Christian?

I’ve come to the conclusion that, in order to truly create art that is true to the story of God, we must aspire to create profoundly excellent art.  Unfortunately, even in the beginning of the twenty first century, we still seem to settle.  We tend to choose spirituality over excellence, instead of seeing the two as deeply imbedded in one another.  Christian artists still oblige themselves simple paintings of doves and crosses, Christian songwriters still write literal and somewhat simplistic song lyrics, and Christian scriptwriters still deliver simplistic, didactic plot lines.  Deep into the twenty first century, we are still guilty of the sin of religious kitsch.  But in our culture, medium is message, and the message we deliver when we do not aspire to excellence is something less than we intend.

Excellence, as defined by Nancy Beach, is doing the best you can with what you have. Excellence is a biblical principle, a “first fruits” issue as well as a “parable of the talents” issue, a quality birthed in thousands of hours of practicing, studying, training, rehearsing, preparing.  Excellence is a life-long endeavor that comes from the deliberate development of our craft—on the ballet barre, in the practice studio, in a thousand sketch books and a hundred thousand written words.  Excellence comes not just from our passion, but also from our sweat.  Excellence is hard work.  But when art is marked by excellence, people notice.

How important is excellence?  Maybe we can best answer this by posing the opposite view.  What is it that we communicate when excellence is not a part of our artistry?

When we create art that is uninspired and marked by mediocrity, then our art fails as metaphor. The tenor of our art (i.e., the technique and medium by which we attempt the art) cheapens the vehicle (i.e., the content of our art).  [Note: This inference alludes to Michael Polanyi, and if you want to read more of this discussion, bang it here.]  And as a result, our art can imply that our Creator is also mediocre and uninspiring.  And we become easily dismissible, losing our place at the table of serious artistic expression.

When we produce art that is derivative to that of the world (e.g., the Christian music industry developing artists in the same specific styles as popular secular artists), we imply that our faith is derivative as well.  Rather than a faith that is spiritual and transcendent, alive and other-than, our faith appears a faded image of the real, a second-rate and easily ignorable subculture.

If our art reflects a worldview that is out-of-touch to our surrounding culture, then we imply that our beliefs are also out-of-touch with reality.  Our art becomes quaint and innocuous, and our faith becomes irrelevant.  We live in the complexity of worldviews, and the Christian worldview can and must stand in response to them with substantiality and Truth.  We lose our place at the table when we appear irrelevant to our culture.

If our art offers simplistic solutions or it tends toward excessive sentimentality, then we appear naïve at best and insincere at worst.  For honesty in our art demands that we are honest in representing the brutal realities of life.  Certainly the Bible stories did not shy away from war, violence, pride, homosexuality, and adultery.  If we aren’t true to these realities in our artistic expressions, we appear superficial, prudish, and unsubstantial.

If our art propagandizes or browbeats, then we only appear to propagate the Christian stereotype.  Like the wild-eyed street corner evangelist yelling into his bullhorn, we become merely an annoying voice in the crowd. Our art will appear self-serving and agenda-driven, our faith will appear dogmatic, and our motives appear insincere and close-minded.

These are the dangers associated with believing that art must serve the Gospel, instead of seeing art as an expression of the Gospel.  These are the dangers we face when we do not endeavor towards excellence.  But, seen another way, these are the challenges—and opportunities—that face the artist of faith.

I realize that this might all sound good, but lacks specificity.  So let me try to go one layer deeper and share one aspect of excellence.

At the heart of excellence is a profound respect for the nature of our art forms.  And this has implications.  When we create a character in a novel or a play, we need to understand that the character is not a human being.  That character is a metaphor for human nature.  And as such, he or she must be complex, enigmatic, conflicted, and ultimately ruined and in need of redemption.  When we create a landscape in a painting or in a computer graphic, we need to understand that the landscape is not truly a part of our world, but is a metaphor for creation.  And as such, it must reflect both beauty, for that is the shadow of God’s glory, and imperfection, for that is the curse from which we must be rescued.  When we write a song, we need to understand that the lyrics are not an exposition of the Bible, but more so, a form of poetry.  And as such, we must be skillful in simile, metaphor, alliteration, and other forms of speech.  In this way, we don’t just tell people about the love of God, but we also reflect God in the beauty of the prose.

We are artists.  And because of that, much of our art comes from our brokenness, our unformedness, our struggles, our soul-tortures.  Think about Jimi Hendrix or Vincent Van Gogh or Jack Kerouac or Amy Winehouse—it is in our brokenness that our driving need to express often comes. We as artists have a tendency to feel more deeply, and I believe that this also means that our wounds can be also be felt more deeply. We make it our business to be in touch with the pathos and soul stirrings of our world. And we make it our business to share these feelings through the expressions of the arts.  And in a lot of ways, people are attracted to this artistic brokenness, because it is so universally relatable.  (This is why many people are attracted to country music, by the way.)

But here is where we differ from the humanist worldview.  The humanist worldview is only a two act play: Creation and Fall.  The story of God is in three acts, and ends with the grace-filled redemptive movement of God upon the universe, drawing all things back to His glory, from now to all eternity.  Truly, this is the prodigal story of us, and it is the most beautiful of all stories to tell.

Are we convinced that this?  Is this what we really believe?  Is this what inspires us?  Then the story of God must ultimately shine from our work, and we must be diligent and committed to pursue excellence, originality, and honesty as we express it.

[Photo above: It is said that the poet T. S. Eliot, on a visit to Rome, was so taken by the truth presented by Michelangelo’s Pieta that he fell to his knees, and converted to Anglicanism soon after.]

3 thoughts on “Something Worth Saying: Excellence and the Arts

  1. Manuel, we (you) could spend months on this topic alone. Christians are afraid of excellence for various reasons: One is ignorance; they simply do not know what it is. Two, and the most common in my opinion, is the fear of criticism. Christians confuse artistic criticism with having “a critical spirit.” Thirdly, they see financial success as a sign of excellence. But I would disagree with one point you make. The problem is not that they choose “spirituality” over excellence but that they choose “religion” or “morality” over excellence. True Christian spirituality is birthed from the Holy Spirit and is excellent in nature.

    1. John, you raise some good points and I tend to agree with the reasons you delineate. Regarding the use of “spirituality” versus “religion,” I understand where you’re coming from and it is more true than not, but I guess I choose not to be cynical over people’s motives. I do respect your opinions in this matter, and yes, we could spend months discussing this!

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