Christians tend to be suspicious of the arts. It hasn’t always been that way, but the Protestant tradition in particular has always had an awkward relationship to artistic expression (as opposed to propositional statements). Some key figures in the Reformation responded to the idolatry they saw in the artistry of the Catholic Church. They weren’t rejecting art as art, just art at that particular moment as an expression of idolatry. Even so, art has remained suspect. We distrust it because it is not propositional.
But art matters. And I’m going to do a series of posts to convince you.
In this post, I want to make a simple point: art is unavoidable. It is all around us. You may not like art, but it is an inescapable part of your life. I’m not necessarily talking about fine art: pretty much everything around you has been designed by someone. For example, take the computer you’re using to read this post. Someone decided on the shape and colors of the physical construction. Someone else designed the menus and interface. They may not have thought of themselves primarily as artists, but they were making artistic decisions as they created your computer. Or consider the clothes you’re wearing. The designer made artistic decisions in cutting and stitching the fabric, and you made an artistic decision in choosing which shirt to wear with which pants and which shoes. The same types of decisions went into every other man-made object around you.
All I’m trying to say here is that we can’t escape aesthetics. Here’s how Makoto Fujimura puts it:
“I encourage people not to segment art into an ‘extra’ sphere of life or to see art as mere decorations. Why? Because art is everywhere and has already taken root in our lives. Therefore, the question is not so much ‘why art?’ but ‘which art?’ In other words, our worlds are filled with art that we have already chosen for our walls, our iPods, and our bookshelves. We become patrons of the arts by going to see movies, plays and concerts or by watching television. We are presented with a choice, and this choice is a responsibility of cultural stewardship.” (Refractions, 111)
Or listen to Leland Ryken:
“People were created by God as aesthetic creatures possessed of a capacity for beauty, craving the expression of their experiences and insights…Everyone in our culture indulges his or her artistic sense, even if it consists simply of painting the walls of a room or listening to popular music or singing hymns. The question is not whether we need the arts but rather what the quality of our artistic experiences will be.” (The Liberated Imagination, 60)
You can’t escape art, so why not give it some thought? Beauty is an intentional part of the world God created, so why would we be suspicious of it? It’s true that art has been used to convey some distorted and evil realities, but does that mean that we should only trust propositions? Have not propositions been put to use for distorted and evil purposes as well?
If this is God’s world, and if He is indeed King over every aspect of our existence, then we should take every aspect of life seriously. That includes art. And as I’ll argue in future posts, art has incredible value—partially because it can be useful, and partially because it can be useless.