As an artist who is a Christian, I have neither the desire nor ability to separate my art and my faith, despite the potential for negative responses from within the art community if I, in their estimation, venture too far into overt Christian messages or symbolism or from within the Christian community if I, in their estimation, venture too far into the secular. I cannot speak to the plight of previous generations’ artists, but the artists of old seemed to not have an easy path to tread either. There were some exceptions who created religious works and are now accepted as exceptional artists, but there are also those who were less than “sacred” in their creations who are equally regarded among the greatest artists of history, even by those within religious communities.
What is sacred? What is secular? (As a quick aside, if you’re not up on all your buzzwords, “sacred” is a word often used to describe religious elements, implements, and traditions and “secular” is used to describe what does not seem to fall within the realm of religion.) This is a theme which arose during one of my weeks of lecture while I was enrolled in one of Youth With a Mission’s Discipleship Training Schools in Herrnhut, Germany a number of years ago. There were some valuable insights to be had from the lectures, but that setting was not the first nor most recent forum for examining the balance of faith and art.
The church, the corporate church, that is, should not be so dismissive of the secular and the art community should not be so dismissive of the sacred. What I propose is the idea that the art be true for the artist.
One of the best-stated points that arose during the lectures is that if God is concerned with the entirety of our being, then all things matter to God. God can be found in the secular and the sacred; it is not an exclusive relationship. Just as Solomon penned an entire volume, which, incidentally, happens to be included in the canonized scriptures, addressing his love for a woman, to love God is to also love all that was created. Solomon’s appreciation was not limited to the internal, but addressed the external in great detail, yet it has become, somehow, sacrilegious for us in this modern era to do so.
Love, sex, personalities, mental illnesses, physical illnesses, our passions, our desires, what we eat, what we drink, what we wear, the plights of the downtrodden, our systems of government, our systems of belief, gender inequalities, racial inequalities, pieces of music, pieces of literature, photographs, paintings, sketches … These all matter to God, because they matter to us, because they are a part of our life this side of eternity. God may not put the stamp of approval on everything we choose to do with our free will, but the entirety of our being, the entirety of our lives matter to God.
As an artist, it is essential to create from a place of passion; if you are not invested in the creation of your work, if it does not require a piece of yourself being a part of the finished piece, it doesn’t count. Perhaps that is more an opinion and less of a concrete fact, but it seems to ring true with the work I make as well as my interactions with other artists. If the artist has trepidation about selling the work, that’s a pretty good sign they’ve put themselves into it. It is, in a way, like selling your offspring. It is work that, no matter how long it actually took to create, is born of a lifetime of influences, of study, of practice. Artists share themselves with the world in this way because they feel compelled to. To deny an artist the ability, and even encouragement, to express what they have in them clawing to get out is to deny the artist.
That’s where things seem to get a bit dicey.
Morality comes into play, from the perspective of a Christian support system, and the idea of selling out or not making “real art” comes into play from the perspective of the secular art community. In either case, the artist may be justified in creating the work, but to be vulgar simply because that is the current trend is just as much selling out, etc. as depicting crosses, sheep, and rolling green hills. The truth is that life, even the life of a Christian is not all crosses, sheep, and rolling green hills. And, the life of even the non-religious person may be influenced by certain aspects of a religion, not just Christianity. Or, like me, a Christian may be affected by other religions. I am affected by the cross, but I am also affected by the Muslim call to prayer, by the meditative practices in Eastern religions, by the strict observance of certain practices within Judaism, etc. Likewise, even some of my atheist or agnostic friends can appreciate and identify with the compassionate message of Christ, the non-violence preached by Christ or Gandhi, the meditative and introspective practices of Buddhists, the spirituality and connectedness with the earth of the Native Americans, or a host of other aspects of world religions.
My family, which is comprised of conservative evangelical Christians, does not see positive value in some of my projects, specifically the nude photographs. Were they to read my journals … If you don’t hear from me for a while, make sure I’ve not been swept off to some re-programming facility (mostly kidding). But, I also have friends who are dismissive of any work I may create which has to do with my commitment to my Christian spirituality. The best I can do is to be true to the passions, the works that are in me to create. Chaim Potok, in his novel My Name Is Asher Lev, communicated something to the effect that if others will suffer because of the art you create, the absolution comes in creating great art. It may not be the answer everyone wants to hear, but sometimes the art that is created and shared with the world that so decidedly cuts you off from your family, your friends, your community is exactly the right art to make.
Having said that, though, I want to reiterate the idea that we should not create with the purpose of alienation. Alienation, abandonment or rejection, verbal abuse, etc. have sometimes been a by-product of my work, or work that I have commissioned in the form of piercings and tattoos, but I neither created nor commissioned with the purpose of rejection. I have created and commissioned because I felt very strongly that they were crucial to my evolution as an individual and evolution as an artist or because I felt it was something that I needed to explore or communicate.
So, to wrap this post up: If you are an artist, be encouraged. You are most decidedly not alone, whether you are religious or not, in experiencing rejection or abuse. If you are someone in a position to support and encourage an artist, please do so. You never know when we might portray you as a villain if you don’t, such as Van Gogh’s intentionally painting church windows to communicate darkness while the rest of the town was brightly lit under the night sky.