Art is creative material use of the imagination. That is, it is the extension into material reality of human thought in the form of music, sculpture, design, drawing/painting and so forth. It takes abstract ideas of beauty and form and materializes them for others to view, hear, enjoy, critique, absorb and consider. Art comes from the imagination, which is the God-given capacity to visualize something before it takes material shape or form. Only two beings in the universe make art: God (his art is called creation) and His primary artistic expression—humans. (Yes, humans are works of art, God’s art). No other creatures (including angels as far as we can tell) make art. Art among humans is an amazing evidence for God’s existence. It is a pointer to a sort of creativity that is inexplicable apart from the existence of a creative God.
Critiquing art is crucial to its usefulness because good art not only conveys beauty, but also incites meaningful thought, which in turn almost always creates some controversy. That is not so say that “controversial art” is always good, but that good art makes people think about important things; and people often disagree about the most important things.
Art conveys and/or challenges worldviews, too. Like fiction writing, art of all kinds has a subtext, a meaning intended or assumed by the artist. This is true even of art that conveys a sense of random meaninglessness, lacking classic beauty or symmetry. Abstract art is a statement of worldview, often of despair. But that itself is a philosophical (existentialist or nihilist) worldview. On the other end of the spectrum, who can take in Thomas Kinkaid’s work without sensing the deep peace, tranquility and intuitive creational beauty that seem to be the subtext of his work? We know now that Kinkaid’s personal life was not as tranquil as his paintings, yet the yearning for warmth and meaning remains, does it not? His pieces are not usually overtly Christian in the classic sacred genre (though he does put a lot of churches in his scenes), yet they convey a warmth that strikes an intuitive chord, a chord that sounds like the universe should make sense, should be safe. That intuition is crucial to the Christian worldview because that is God’s final plan for the redeemed universe. Art critics slam Kinkaid for his sentimental feel, but people want to know something good is happening somewhere, even if not in their own life at the moment.
This worldview aspect of art is why Christian art should not be limited to classic, explicit portrayals of Christian themes such as pictures of Jesus, the disciples and so on. These are fine in their own way, but Christians should also be producing art that, while not explicitly “sacred” in its overt structure, is nevertheless prompting thought that might do one of two things: 1) subvert the reigning worldview (be it spiritistic or naturalistic); 2) advance a biblical worldview, one that shows deeper meaning, touching material reality with a transcendent reality, conveying love, compassion, forgiveness, grace and so on. Art that makes people question naturalism or think about creation or beauty from a theistic worldview may not look Christian (read “churchy”) on the surface, but it communicates at an intuitive level, tilling the emotional soil and creating an environment where gospel reality might penetrate.
For example, I read not long ago (but I can’t remember where) that there is a powerful purveyor of the Christian worldview (note: not always the gospel itself, but the worldview that assumes the truth of the gospel) in American culture not found in church or Christian publications. It is Country Music. That’s right, Country Music. There are a lot of Christians in that industry, yes, but whether the artist is a Christian or not, the basic underlying worldview in almost all Country music, the assumed priority and meaning structure, the shape of the morality (or immorality), the understanding of good and bad, virtue and vice, is grounded in a Christian worldview. Country music artists do not write existentialist, nihilist, spiritist, or postmodern lyrics. Blues writers may; Jazz writers may; and Head Bangers, Alternatives and Rock and Roll artists often do—but not Country singers. Even when the music is sad, corny, funny, angry, or immoral, the basic ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and vice that underlie the lyrics are all informed by the existence of a real God, the biblical God. Furthermore, the vice/virtue tensions in the music always reflect biblical ethics, even when the singer is siding with the vice in question (alcoholism and philandering are favorites).
So art communicates at the intuitive level. In a world desperate for better intuitions than those on offer from naturalism (we’re grown up germs, accidental blips on the vast, dark, lifeless screen of the universe), any art that prompts hope will be welcome. Christians who do art for the purpose of revealing God’s thoughts about his universe, and specifically his own work of art—humanity—have their work cut out for them. And we need more of them. Tim Keller highlights the need for musicians:
“The Church needs artists because without art we cannot reach the world. The simple fact is that the imagination ‘gets you,’ even when your reason is completely against the idea of God. “Imagination communicates,” as Arthur Danto says, “indefinable but inescapable truth.” Those who read a book or listen to music expose themselves to that inescapable truth. There is a sort of schizophrenia that occurs if you are listening to Bach and you hear the glory of God and yet your mind says there is no God and there is no meaning. You are committed to believing nothing means anything and yet the music comes in and takes you over with your imagination. When you listen to great music, you can’t believe life is meaningless. Your heart knows what your mind is denying. We need Christian artists because we are never going to reach the world without great Christian art to go with great Christian talk.”
What Keller points out about music is true of all art forms. Good art presupposes (unconsciously?) a Christian worldview, that is a worldview in which beauty, virtue, love, and relationship have ultimate value. Danto’s insight about “indefinable but inescapable truth” is on point. Christian artists can help people define the inescapable truth of God’s presence by focusing the imagination and the intuition of their audiences on something other than the Self. This subverts the nihilism of our pluralistic culture, while presenting to the heart the only alternative that offers real hope—the Lord, the Ultimate Artist.