This Christmas I had the opportunity to go to New Orleans with my family for a vacation, and we had a splendid time. As we wandered the streets of the French Quarter, we saw a lot of beautiful things. We saw street musicians and magicians, old buildings, and hat stores. We saw looms & cats, gypsies, pirates, dancers… It was truly enchanting. Every once in a while we would encounter an art gallery. There were many good ones, full of quintessentially New Orleans pieces of art. We saw some fabulous photographs of New Orleans in the rain. We saw Venetian masks. We saw oil paintings of steamboats on the Mississippi.
But there were some art galleries that were not beautiful. They made me nervous to enter art galleries, for fear of seeing things I simply ought not to see.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:6).
The content of the art of which I speak was typically sexual in nature, with an added touch of darkness. It was lewd, violent, bestial, pornographic even. I felt flung into a “den of iniquity” when I was in some of those galleries!
But… It’s art! Shouldn’t I be able to appreciate the artist’s self-expression? Shouldn’t I duly recognize the skill of their execution? Can’t I admire their consistency, or their unique style? Shouldn’t an artist such as myself be able to support and commend the “real-ness” of a fellow artist?
Most of the offensive paintings I saw contained nudes, but nude art is not the problem. There are beautiful nude paintings, tasteful and inspiring. Many of the paintings were sexually themed, but sex is not the problem. God created sex; it isn’t evil in itself. All the offensive art was, well, art, but art is not the problem. Art is a means by which people can express anything! Good things, bad things, beautiful things, ugly things!
As I walked through a gallery I pondered this question. What is wrong about the art world? What makes artists paint bad art? Artists put their all into their art. If the goodness of art came from the effort an artist exerted, all this gross art would be good art. Each painting would have taken hours to paint, and years to learn to paint.
“Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost.”
Karen Blixen, “Babette’s Feast & Other Anecdotes of Destiny”
There must be a standard to which an artist is held, and the standard of artists today is too low. What is an artist’s standard? Himself. That is the problem. The predominantly held standard of artists is “to thine own self be true.” Is an artist’s art ugly? At least it is his own style of ugly. Is it full of degrading content? At least it is coming from her heart. Is the artist’s art chaotic and confusing? Truth is relative, and the artist is being true to that truth.
The fact is, your “self” is not worth expressing, unless you add a crucial ingredient: faith in God.
“For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23)
An artist cannot escape self-expression. There is no way an artist can be completely objective; we are all subjective viewers. We all have our own personalities, our own values and loves, our own perspectives, our own selves. Each self is different. Many of the selves I saw expressed in those art galleries were dark selves. The pieces of art I saw were windows into the “selves” of the artists that created them.
Tempered Self Expression:
I think that truly great art happens when the artist – in his art – reaches for something higher than himself. Artists always express themselves, but a great artist uses his “self” merely as a lens through which a greater [insert thing here] can be communicated. Many of the great artists of the past had a high regard for nature, for beauty, or for God. I will NOT say that the only art that is beautiful is the art that Christians do. No! Any artist, in reaching for something his own “height” or lower is creating only-ok art, no matter how spiritual he is. Let the artist always be seeking for bettering himself and his art. As in, let him not settle for only himself. Let him reach beyond “self” and strain for what is beyond him. Let him seek more skill! Let him chase more beauty, more succinctness of his message, more truth! Let him yearn for more joy, more clear communication, more, more, higher, better! Even further, more faith behind his art! More worship to the Most High! More service! More of Christ, less of me! Let our art be an outpouring of our love for God – more love! Let our “material” for our art come straight from the highest heavens.
Illuminate truth with your art. Express honor with your art. Seek justice in your content. Strive for pure consistency in your message. Work hard to increase your skill of execution. Do not create what will cause shame, but rather create art that can be shown to all people with a clear conscience. Pursue excellence; don’t give up! May the praise of God be behind every piece of art you make.
Ultimately what I’m saying is: express yourself! But only if your “self” is wrapped in a greater Self – Jesus. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:3-4) Your “self” will not be worth expressing unless it is utterly taken over by Jesus, my beautiful inspiration and friend. Seek him, and the praise that will pour from your lips will be the sweetest song, the prettiest painting, the tenderest poem, the finest sculpture, the best self-expression you could ever imagine.