Developing A Theology of Art
I’m currently working on a potential project for this fall that involves putting together an art exhibit. My mind works in mysterious ways. Where some people think about the practicality, and purpose of this project, my mind instantly shoots towards the theology of it. More specifically, a theology of art.
In order to develop a theology of art, the overarching Biblical narrative must be considered. It is not enough to find isolated Biblical texts that take about art and about how believers used art. A theology of art has to consider how art fits into the great narrative of God’s story. Does it fit? What place does art have in the Kingdom of God? The Gospel is a gospel of proclamation and not painting, so how does art fit into it?
There are four overarching themes within the Biblical narrative – creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Everything in Bible follows one or more of these themes and to a certain extent, everything in this world follows these four meta-themes. Art is not excluded from these four themes.
A lot of art has been defined as self-expression, which it is to certain extent, but that self-expression fall into a greater narrative. For example, there was a performing art piece that made its way on Youtube of a girl opening a can of spaghettios, cutting a hole in the crotch of her pants and stuff the spaghettios into that hole.. The rest of the performance was a little to graphic to describe. Is that art? Of course it is. But what kind of art? What is it ultimately expressing? Like much of the art that is created today, the meta-theme behind the works is the waywardness of man, or the fall.
Most of the contemporary art world has given expression and language to the waywardness of man. A lot of contemporary art is guided by the principle of self-expression but “self” is fallen, lost, on a journey, wandering, etc. This kind of art gives language to the “Fallen” theme. However, there are pieces of art that are beautiful, that do inspire, and that gives language to a theme other than fallenness. I am not talking about art that slaps a Jesus label on it or art that is a picture of the cross (although that can be beautiful). I’m not even taking about art that is done by Christians. I’m talking about works of art, done through common grace to reflect something about one of the other three meta-themes.
One of my favorite artists right now is BANKSY. As far as I’m aware of, he’s not a follower of Christ. But some of his work is amazingly brilliant. Although most of his work is consider illegal, the work itself reflects something about beauty. For example:
He took what appears to be an airconditioning unit and created a work of art. Normally this airconditioning unit would just sit outside. Now, there is some different, beautiful about it. This piece follows the theme of redemption. BANKSY incorporated a random airconditioning unit that most people would not even notice, and he created a work of an art.
It is easy in a fallen world for artists to give language/expression to the waywardness of man. But it is essential for artists to give language to the return of man. A theology of art, is looking at art from through the lens of these four Biblical meta-narratives.
Art that follows or gives expression to the Creation theme, is art that gives language to that inner longing for the way things once were and ought to be. It is art that points home or to a paradise that has been lost. It follows a utopian theme of the garden. In some ways, art that expresses the idea of original beauty follows this Creation theme.
Art that follows or gives expression to the Fallen theme, is art that exposes, expresses, gives language to the waywardness of humanity. It exposes the depravity of humanity as it attempt to hide itself under the theme of creation. It can be shocking, but it can also be subtly destructive. It is a wandering away from the Creation theme.
Art that follows or gives expression to the Redemption theme, is art that see the fallenness and depravity that exists but creates beauty from it. It is the language of the underdog. Art that follows this theme is art that takes the common and makes it beautiful. It takes the fallen theme in its uglies form and creates beauty from ashes.
Finally, art that expresses this Restoration theme, is art that points forward and gives hope. Within the Biblical narrative, although humanity looks back to the garden for the ideal, it ultimately is promised a new city to look forward to. The Biblical narrative is not a return to the garden, but a looking forward to some even greater. Art that follows this theme expresses the hope of what can be. It points to the glory to come. It gives language to something that transcends the past and present.
Artist tend to sit on the fringe. Within the church they seem to never really find a place. When churches find artists they tend to use artists. It is important for the church to understand that artists do not exist for the church, but that the church exists for the artist. What I mean by that is that the church exists to give language (the four meta-themes) to artist. Ultimately, it is the artists who develop and change culture. When an artist can see how their gifts and talents fit in the greater Meta-narrative and not just in the churches story, their work will impact that Kingdom. The church desperately needs to develop a theology of art inorder to give language to art world.