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"Peace & Safety" – art by Karyne Wee/Kogata Yatsura

Why is anyone in their right mind dancing, painting or writing a tone poem? Considering the times, why should we be making art or even concerned with it at all?

Everyone involved in the world of the arts has asked this question at some time, perhaps when they first chose their career or encountered difficulties. Art just “isn’t practical” they are warned, and in the minds of many, it’s neither important nor necessary.

Occasionally comments like these come to me:

  • “Modern art is a waste”
  • “It’s vulgar “
  • “Most of it is anti-Christian”
  • “Contemporary art is obscure and difficult to understand”

And lastly and more to the point of this thread: “Art doesn’t accomplish anything or have any real value.”

Thankfully few people are so aesthetically crippled, but there are enough of them for me to bring this up. And the world is not looking brighter and better by the moment. We may face catastrophe, war, internal strife and tragedy – it’s in the Book anyway.

What then?

Should art be the last passenger on the lifeboats as we sail toward post-cataclysmic isles – or wait for the return of Christ?

There are at least two views on this: Let’s call one the “Pragmatic Western Scientist” (or Industrialist) and the other the “Contemplative, Sensitive Aesthete.” I don’t claim to know exactly what God would say of all this, but I gathered a few clues through the Bible.

Pragmatism is a foundational American attitude. It’s “can do” rather than “I’ll think about it” – a wonderful quality that blesses humanity through the best use of time and resources. We can thank pragmatists for everything from environmentalism to bullet trains and venetian blinds.

But another side of pragmatism is a tendency to believe only the touchable and tangible and deal only with the urgent. Catastrophes and disasters are with us always, so it’s always urgent. Art, poetry and philosophy don’t register a blip on the radar in a 100-percent pragmatic worldview. Because of this, pure practicality fuels the imagination of many Americans, and some of them are in the church.

Art can’t be justified purely by utility, but for the highly pragmatic here are a few thoughts: Roughly 4.4 percent of the U.S. workforce makes a living in the arts. According to a 2008 piece in the New York Times, there are twice as many artists as there are members of the U.S. Army. That’s quite a bit, even in the church. This mass of artists, buyers and marketers create billions for the economy – very practical.

Remember that modern pragmatism began with the French Revolution, where secularism was Regent and logic Dauphin. Art and religion ended bowed beneath demands of efficiency and expediency. Since then the church has spent much of the last 200 years trying to prove its worth in their enemy’s terms and by their values: Logic. Cash. Practicality.

Another great loss to the church was the write-off of most art and artists as “secular.” It may not be spelled out in the bylaws or doctrine, but we feel it. A thought: WWJTOTFR? “What would Jesus think of the French Revolution?” Probably not much, so why are we still so influenced by their secular dynamics and demands?

While American Christians recite the Apostle’s Creed or Lord’s Prayer, many believe in Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs at heart: Safety and physical needs first, while we repeatedly crawl toward the top. There in the heights of time left after work and all other necessities, lays not only art but the church (according to Maslow who calls this “self-actualization”).

Obviously, true practical believers won’t consider art worth considering in time of affliction and trouble. Before discounting the arts, if you’re so inclined, ask yourself this: Do we impute importance by votes or values by popular opinion? Christians, of all people, believe in eternal verities assigned by God.

Yet apparently there is still quite a debate over God’s opinion of artists and their place in the church.

Scoffers forget that some of these artists believe in the Maker of Heaven and Earth. They relate everything they do, think and say to that God, and He is the mainmast for their work. Since God made so many distinctive artists, is it possible that he just miscalculated badly? The church is not finding much for them to do, and the nation only a little better.

But if Psalm 139 is true for engineers and radio announcers, it’s just as true for artists. God is no respecter of the resume. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book,” David sang, and he was quite a poet and musician.

"Keiskamma Geurnica - altarpiece" by Carol Hofmeyr and artists, photo © Keiskamma Trust

Aesthetically motivated people have a different definition of “important” and perhaps even “necessary” than those in the world of the highly pragmatic. Artists make art or sing or choreograph because it is an inherent trait and sometimes a drive. They do it for money – or not.

Denying them the chance to create leaves an emotional vacuum and unhappiness. It feels a little like Jeremiah’s pain when he doesn’t speak God’s prophecies: “There is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones and I am weary of holding it in.”

Every serious artist has a personal purpose, a force that drives them to continue their work in spite of personal and external upheavals. That deep identity or belief doesn’t change because of terrorism or inflation or even rejection. Upheavals and crises may create even more urgency for an artist to continue.

Art didn’t take a sabbatical for the World Wars but inspired many works of art, particularly novels, poetry and films. Some such as Picasso’s “Guernica” changed minds about combatants. Much earlier, Goya painted bleak and empathetic paintings of war in an entirely negative way, perhaps for the first time.

So how should the gospel and all the truth of the Bible take form on this earth through the various senses God gave us? Isn’t that work as important as anything else? Only if we are willing to banish what we see (visual arts), hear (music and poetry) and touch (sculpture /dance) can we also dismiss the arts in this spiritual journey.

Something that happened in South Sudan more than 15 years ago stays with me, a remarkable vision, although I only read about it: A bishop stood on a grassy bluff encouraging young people in the Nuba area, 20 years into a terrible genocide; a time of famine and enslavement with death and fear on every side; guns and shouting in the distance and each one of his audience had been injured or bereaved in some terrible way, perhaps many. Now the priest unpredictably encouraged them to watch their purity – to guard themselves, body, soul and spirit for the mate God may give them.

My reaction was shameful I think now, but I’ll attribute it to the innate pragmatism of an American: “Why is he wasting their time with this when half of these kids have been raped or may die in the next few months?”

I thought of the impracticality, that they were hungry, injured or orphaned.

But the beauty of his gesture struck me, the incongruity with the physical horror of the place they couldn’t leave. What did his words say to those youth about hope, transcendence, courage and especially their faith?

Art can be like that bishop, rising out of and beyond place and time – not at all practical but very, very real.

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