Wednesday, November 14, 2007

From a Christian Perspective, When Is Art Good?

I am presently reading Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue by William A. Dyrness. Dyrness is a PCUSA minister and a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. In this book, Dyrness describes the history of Christian aesthetics and attempts to lay out a theological perspective on the arts.

This is an interesting passage:

But if art is nothing special, it can be a part of something that is. What is special is God's revelation of himself and the call of creation to praise him in response...The call of God goes equally to everyone to respond to this revelation of God: To reflect and embody his purposes with all of his or her life and activity. These purposes of God are comprehensive. They include the whole of life -- how we dress, eat, work, play, and yes, the works of art whose purposes cannot be reduced to any of these activities. All of these can be taken up into the truly exciting program of God that Scripture calls God's reign.

How does art relate to this program of God? Human art, when it is good, manages some echo of this reality -- either to praise or to curse. This does not mean that art cannot be mostly for fun -- a quick sketch or shriek of delight in life itself. Even this delights the Creator. Nor does it mean that all art has to aspire to some deep spiritual purpose. But art that is worthy goes with the grain of a God-inspired and Spirit-upheld order, or it stands against this order, or more usually, it stands in some ambiguous relationship to it. Ultimately, the created order holds us accountable, and we either see through it to the loving hand of the Creator, or we make it something of an idol -- something that refers only to itself.

The final point is the most comprehensive and perhaps the most controversial. In some mysterious sense, all art aspires to be worship. This is not to say that every artist wants to use his or her art to witness to something larger than this or that temporary and finite form. Art that is serious always hungers to be a part of something larger; it wants to be a kind of summing up exercise that brings the pieces together and that reflects and comments on the ultimacy of order or disorder -- even to celebrate (or perhaps curse) this larger reality. And the world, for its part, is made in such a way that one day every particle of it will contribute its share to the praise of the eternal Triune God. One way or another every artist anticipates that day.

This is an intriguing train of thought. Art does indeed inspire reverence and sanctity. I remember when I saw my first Bouguereau. I was 24 and not yet a Christian, but when I turned a corner at the Birmingham Museum of Art and was suddenly met with L'Aurore, the whole universe seemed to pause in a sacred moment. So is this painting a small part of the created order that will one day be restored from its Fallenness? The fact that L'Aurore literally depicts a false god (the Greek goddess of the morning sun) would require that it is Fallen...and yet beautiful in a way that spurs spiritual longings.



Mark Winter said...


No wonder you stopped dead in your tracks when you first saw L'Aurore. I just googled the painting and that gal is buck nekkid!

John said...
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John said...

My sentiments were pure, and the painting is anything but purient.

There is nothing like your first Bouguereau.

My second was Pieta. And I was still not a Christian at the time, but I was haunted by the Virgin Mary's agonized expression.

Mark Winter said...


On a more serious note, when you first saw L'Aurore, you experienced sehnsucht, the longing that C.S. Lewis described in Surprised by Joy. When he was a child, his brother showed him a toy garden that suddenly filled Lewis with transcendent longings. Later he would write in a letter that this emotion was joy (not pleasure or amusement). Joy, for Lewis, was a divine emotion that reminded us of Eden and filled us with longing for our purer states. "Our best havings are wantings."

John said...

Yes, I was thinking about what C.S. Lewis said about 'good dreams' of the divine, and how good art pulls us back to Eden.