‘Could you tell me the name of this country?’
‘Don’t you know?’ said the man. ‘It is Niggle’s
Country. It is Niggle’s Picture, or most of it; a
little of it is now Parish’s Garden.’
‘Niggle’s Picture!’ said Parish in astonishment.
‘Did you think of all this, Niggle? I never knew
you were so clever. Why didn’t you tell me?’
J.R.R Tolkein, Tree and Leaf
It is not unusual to come across thoughtful and at times profound reflections on life’s big questions in the art review columns of our newspapers and magazines. I was stung recently by the following caustic generalisations by Christopher Allen, art critic for the Weekend Australian (October 27-28, 2012) reflecting upon contrasting notions of human dignity in Homeric literature and Christianity while reviewing ‘The Four Horsemen:
Apocalypse, Death and Disaster’ exhibition at the NGV:
Christianity depreciated the value of our earthly life, emphasising instead the eternity of bliss awaiting the meek, in compensation for humiliation and suffering endured in this world, and a parallel eternity of dreadful torments for the wicked…The imperative of nobility was eclipsed by a calculus of sin.
My dismay was not in the unfashionability of judgement and the hope of resurrection life, but in the phrase ‘depreciated the value of our earthly life’. Ouch! We may want to dismiss this as another cheap shot, but it may be symptomatic of a deeper malaise among Australian evangelical Christians. The watching world sees little in our lifestyle or cultural engagement that speaks of Jesus’ resurrection life breaking into the now. Visual art (drawing, painting, sculpture, video and installation art) forms an important marketplace for ideas. It is part of contemporary society’s Areopagus. Art, for many, can help us understand ‘the value of our earthly life’ and make some sense of it all. Evangelical Christians are notably absent at this Areopagus. Why?
In part, this is due to the sacred-secular divide; we have retained something of the false dichotomy between the ‘things of God’ and the ‘things of this world’.This leads quickly to a utilitarian view of using our talents and abilities: art is only useful as a handservant to ‘ministry’, evangelism or teaching. To quote Franky Schaeffer (Addicted to Mediocrity):
Everything anyone did had to measure up somehow in utilitarian terms in the church. It had to be useful to the onward march of the church. It had to help in its efforts, in its programs, its church growth emphasis…How strange for the church of Christ that claims to know the Truth (the Creator himself)…to forget and abandon creativity, a God-given gift, and more, to see it, when it is practised at all, merely as a utilitarian means to an end, part of the professional Christian machinery.
Art is regarded by many as a diversion, an indulgence. It is too worldly to be regarded as a ‘ministry’. It is more a leisure activity, a hobby, a distraction from purposeful, ‘useful’ work. For others, art (indeed any contribution to the culture of our times) is ultimately pointless if we hold a nihilistic view that creation is to be obliterated without trace at the end of history. Why bother?
Many are alienated or disenchanted with contemporary art. Modern art for some is ‘beyond the pale’; it is decadent, anarchic, amoral, and the product of a lost post-Christian culture. Their safe harbour is the art of beauty and order of past golden ages – the Renaissance, or maybe Impressionism. They hanker for uplifting art, which pre-dated contemporary art’s unsettling discord that seeks to challenge the status quo.
Few Christian communities encourage their youth to take on art as a vocation in the sense of a valuable workplace in God’s sight. Hence Christopher Allen’s comments on our disengagement. Hence also the marked paucity of Christians publically or critically counted among significant artists of our times.
This reticence of many Christians to seriously participate and engage in art runs counter to the Bible’s view of personhood and the scope of the new creation. Creativity has value firstly because it is part of the expression of God’s glory writ large in the cosmos and in the coming renewal of all creation. Secondly, we are made in the image of our Creator God. Creativity is intrinsic to our personhood. It is hardwired into our nature.
Visual literacy is arguably as important as the ability to read and write. Art is a precious God-given part of being human, it is part of our image-bearing. With it we apprehend, we ‘see’; we make sense of our world; we call out in joy or in anguish from the depths of our being.
Art matters to God; art should matter to his people who are called (both individually and communally) to be salt and light.
Jeremiah’s call to the exiles in Babylon (Jer 29:7) was to ‘Seek the peace (shalom) and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile’. Shalom encompasses health, wholeness, prosperity, growth in all dimensions (including the creative). We therefore should be asking what types of growth within the Christian community can prosper the places in which we live? How, through art, can we bring to the table truth, beauty, and order (‘whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable’)?
Rev. Michael Paget (St Barnabas, Broadway in Sydney) applies a profound ‘wellbeing’ (bene esse) framework to describe the arts: ‘The use of aesthetics (light, colour, shape, sound etc) to promote our humanity’.
Art for the Christian is perhaps best understood in its context as work. The value of work, including art, lies in both giving glory to God and in the opportunity it gives us to engage in God’s vindicated creation. All work, done for the glory of God, is glorious (1 Corinthians 10:31). Commenting on Calvin’s view of work, Alistair McGrath observes:
To do anything for God, and to do it well, was the fundamental hallmark of authentic Christian faith… Work glorifies God, it serves the common good, and it is something through which human activity can express itself. (Calvin and the Christian Calling: First Things)
Moreover, God has invited us to be co-workers with him in the lasting nature of his future re-creation work. Far from depreciating the value of earthly life as Christopher Allen bemoaned, we joyfully paint and draw in eager expectation of ‘the transformation of the present universe so that it will fulfil the purpose for which God created it’ (FF Bruce, Romans).
‘The resurrection of Christ, upon which Christian ethics is founded, vindicates the created order in this double sense: it redeems it and transforms it’ (Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection & Moral Order).
Art here and now matters, because even one’s modest contributions to the story of art and humankind’s cultural labours can be both relevant today and form building materials in God’s hands when he makes all things new. This deeply radical point is reinforced by Miroslav Volf:
The results of the cumulative work of human beings have intrinsic value and gain ultimate significance, for they are related to the eschatological new creation, not only indirectly through the faith and service they enable or sanctification they further, but also directly: the noble products of human ingenuity, ‘whatever is beautiful, true and good in human cultures’, will be cleansed from impurity, perfected, and transfigured to become a part of God’s new creation.’ (Volf, Work in the Spirit).
‘Art needs no justification… Art has a meaning as art because God thought it good to give art and beauty to humanity’ (H.R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture)
The Old and New Testaments are charged with affirmation of creative expression, from God’s equipping of Bezalel and Oholiab for tabernacle art (Exodus 35 & 36) to the high poetry of the Psalter, Wisdom books and prophets, and the electrifying parables of Jesus. Indeed, in Ephesians 2:10 the community of Christ is called God’s poiema (masterpiece, work of art) , created to do good works.
In art and creativity, we make visible to others the beauty and meaning God has first pictured, or introduced, into our imaginations.We are each, in the image of our Creator, created to create, to call others back to beauty and holiness and to the truth about God’s nature’ (Luci Shaw, Breath for the Bones).
To preach the gospel, and to say that in Christ there is life, without being able to show something of the reality of that life, is to speak in a vacuum. It soon begins to sound false. (HR Rookmaaker, Art Needs No Justification)
My concern here is to encourage more Christians to participate in contemporary art. Admittedly, contemporary art as a phenomenon has done its cause no favours by its considerable hubris, elitism and obfuscation. If we consider the role of art more broadly, a helpful overview is that given by Robert Hughes:
The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning. It’s not something that committees can do. It’s not a task achieved by groups or by movements. It’s done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world. (Hughes, The Shock of the New)
Contemporary art is no more and no less than the ‘story’ of art being worked afresh within the milieu of our times, be it in urban Melbourne, Sydney, Berlin, Shanghai, or within rural and remote communities.
Contemporary art is not some kind of unified movement or monolithic phenomenon; it is more often chameleon-like in nature, and thrives on diversity and paradox. Like the Athenians at the Areopagus (who ‘spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas’, Acts 17:21), contemporary artists and their acolytes are prone to the constant seduction of ‘the new’ and the subversive. The enfant terrible is always given the fatted calf of publicity and glowing reviews. Can we then take seriously the project of art as practised today? Should we then engage in that artistic marketplace of ideas, that new Areopagus? The answer is a resounding yes.
At its best, ‘contemporary art comprises works made by individuals who are intellectually engaged with, and committed to their own time’ (Joseph Kosuth, Guide to Contemporary Art). Thus it has always been for the past masters, from Michelangelo to Matisse, who were authentically connected to their own times. ‘Art, then, may be a means, indeed one of the only means, that will catch the attention of this generation’ (William Dyrness, Visual Faith).
What are the concerns of contemporary visual artists in 2013? At one level, everything (the human condition and the cosmos)! More specifically, some artists home in on themes such as the fragility of nature, beauty and harmony, social alienation, sexual stereotyping, the journey from child to adult, immigration, human trafficking, and so on.
As we listen carefully to the conversation that is contemporary Australian art, we are compelled to take a seat to listen, listen, work and love. The conversation is multi-layered, but in a way always comes back to how we understand our humanity.
Euan Macleod, for example, has explored aspects of his inner world within the genre of figure-in-landscape works. The works confront a complex childhood relationship of Macleod with his father, and in the process, speak of Everyman, as Macleod’s personal mythology becomes a public one.
Garry Shead, another lyrical figurative artist, has employed literary motifs (such as D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo) to explore our national identity, values and contradictions with great poignancy.
Charlie Sheard, arguably Australia’s finest current abstract painter, anchors his practice in a metaphysical understanding of the work of art and the way it comes about.
Following the lead Kandinsky provides in his seminal essay ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’, my understanding as a practising artist is as follows: by developing a language of purely abstract forms, the painter develops a kind of antidote to the extreme materialism of our moment. As materialists, we do not seek out the work of art, our need is for the product…
We are unable to be present to the beauty (or otherwise) of things in the world, since we have no feeling for ‘the thingness of things’; only feelings and ideas about what things mean. To dwell in culture such as this, the nature of our own being is more than just hidden, it is entirely unknown to us’ (Sheard, from the Phoenix exhibition catalogue, 2011).
The abiding passion for video artist Joan Ross is colonisation – as in both Australian European settlement and the nature of contemporary society at odds with our natural environment.
What happens when the mentality behind colonisation escapes from the bookshelf, spills out everywhere and gets dragged into the streets and into ‘nature’? Again. Where we can’t really see it anymore. (Lisa Armitage, writing of Ross’s 2010 exhibition Enter at Your Own Risk)
The art of Queensland artist William Robinson has always been a personal exploration of his connection to his surroundings and the natural world. His multiperspective depictions of sumptuous tropical landscapes reveal his connection to the landscape and his place within. His Christian faith which underpins the work of a long career has often drawn comment from usually hardbitten art critics.
The animating principle of his work in its ever changing fashion is its expression of faith. Robinson’s landscape is unquestionably a God-revealed world; what is in question is the relation of man to that universe…
He is that most deeply unfashionable thing: he is a religious artist. This is not to say that his art can be reduced to an expression of faith alone, but to ignore the faith underpinning the work is to miss its animating principle…The artist’s ambition, immodestly, is to trace God’s exuberant creativity; his subject is nothing less than the sheer genius of creation itself. (Hannah Fink, Artlink)
My own journey into the Areopagus of contemporary art has been a recent one. In 2010 I left a career of 32 years in architecture to undertake a Master of Art at COFA (College of Fine Arts) at UNSW. While I had enjoyed a fulfilling career in architecture, I had a niggling feeling that I was underutilising a talent that God had given me for the purpose of honouring Him. In the past, I regarded art as little more than a pastime for the occasional weekend and holiday. Encouraged by my wife and by the Bible’s high view of the arts and human creativity (brought into sharp focus through the L’Abri movement and poets such as Hopkins), I decided at last follow the call to ‘cast your bread upon the waters’ (Ecclesiastes 11:1).
Taking this risky road met with some bemusement and dismay by fellow Christians, who regarded the world of contemporary art as a distraction from ‘real’ ministry. C’est la vie. COFA has turned out to be a real blessing, affording me the opportunity to sharpen technical skills in art making, and to develop a conceptual framework for what to say and how to say it.
I quickly came to see that, among the hype and the novelty-obsession of much modern art, there are many wonderful artists (known or unknown) who have embarked upon a difficult and lonely road to make sense of the world, their identity, and the stubborn ambiguities and contradictions of life. I have been taken well and truly outside my middle-class comfort zone by COFA teachers such as Joan Ross and Charlie Sheard. To my great delight, I have also had the privilege of learning much from the work and insights of fellow-students.
One friend has been painting portraits (from Amnesty International photos) of people who have ‘disappeared’ due to civil violence in south Asia. Another is coming to grips with sexual abuse suffered when she was a child, by depicting poignant memories of times seen in retrospect to be at once both innocent and menacing. Another focuses on train commuters, portraying their seeming quiet resignation to aloneness and wide berths of personal space. And yet another paints seagulls, for the sheer joy that they bring.
What a joy it is to paint beside such peers in contemporary art, to listen to their stories and to try to see the world through their eyes. And to work hard, striving for excellence and eloquence as we each seek to find a voice.
We paint best when we work from our passions, our obsessions: that which prepossesses us.
My own passion is the nature of personhood; what it means to at once bear the dignity and nobility of image-bearers, but to live within a world marred by our brokenness. The road I currently walk is the lyrical figurative tradition. The challenge is always to paint with integrity and contemporary relevance; to be a person of hope. That sense of hope will often mean gravitating toward beauty, order and delight in the otherness of things (Hopkins’ ‘inscape’). But the expression of hope must not be Polyanna-like, or formulaic, or sidestep things broken. To be an artist that is truly engaged with our times is to acknowledge life’s messiness, contradictions and ambiguities. We need to take seriously the times that we are given to live in, and to take seriously God’s great project of restoring wholeness/shalom through Christ. But at the same time we do well to not take ourselves too seriously as artists. Just listen, work, love.
My longing is to express hope via new ideas that are painted with freshness, skill and relevance to our times. I am inspired by Auden’s poem, ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, which wonderfully captures the intersection of the momentous with the commonplace.
Contemporary art, for all its contradictions and selfaggrandisement, is an exciting marketplace of ideas for many who are trying to make sense of life. God is calling his modern-day Bezalels (men and women) to arise, go up to the Areopagus, and to engage in his name.
I am indebted to Rev. Michael Paget at St Barnabas, Broadway in Sydney, for his most helpful insights into the links between art, work, and the renewed creation.
IAN McGILVRAY is a Sydney-based painter currently studying a Master of Art course at the College of Fine Arts (COFA) at UNSW. Ian and his wife Jill are members of the St Matthew’s Anglican church family at West Pennant Hills, and have two daughters.