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Art with a Capital A

We need to reclaim our artistic heritage. Up until the Reformation, Christians were the primary patrons of the arts, says a Hollywood screenwriter.

Beginning with my early love of intricate popsicle stick creations and through to my affinity for laser-imprinted Van Gogh mugs, I've developed a limited and pitiable taste in art. I know, I know—I should know better. After all, I attended Trinity Western University's (TWU'S) "Art 181: Fundamentals of Design" course like everyone else. But sometime since then I forgot why I should care about art.

Erica Grimm-Vance
Erica Grimm-Vance, TWU Art Professor and renowned artist, instructs a student on the techniques of drawing.

It's a safe bet I'm not an anomaly. Few of us set out to arrive at this point, but many of us have settled for something just short of apathy.

If pressed, most of us slackers will acknowledge that art makes us uncomfortable. A gut check reveals two types of uneasiness; we feel art flies over our heads or turns us off with its more eccentric content. Like a fear of snakes or mullets, our inadequacy around art has deep cultural roots that causes us to act in strange ways.

I point to my last business trip as an illustration. I had left myself one evening in Ottawa to see all of the major sites, including the National Gallery of Canada.

With my pace set, I arrived at the gallery and made quick work of its impressive collection. I quickly backed out of room after room, striking contemplative poses and avoiding eye contact with the staid art students. I breezed through European Art in around six minutes. The Canadian and Aboriginal exhibitions in approximately ten minutes. My favourite, Modern and Contemporary Art, clocked in at just over 15 minutes.

As spectacular as some of the pieces were, I was positive I would never "get" them. "What business do you have in a high-minded place like this?" I dejectedly asked myself as I made a beeline toward the gift shop and its less accusatory Jackson Pollock postcards.

Perhaps the meaning of the serious artworks would have sunk in had I given them more time, but it's more likely that I had tuned out before I opened the gallery door.

When I asked Maggie Milne, TWU's resident art historian, about these symptoms, she suggested that I could be ailing from some Enlightenment side effects. Prior to the Age of Reason, art wasn't a loaded word and didn't give us such a complex. Artists who sculpted a bust or brushed a scene stood on roughly the same ground as those who wrought an iron gate or wove a tapestry. And then, says Maggie, something changed.

"Toward the end of the fifteenth century you begin to see the increasing self-consciousness of various artists in the cultivation of an artistic persona or reputation and with respect to the status of their practice—the contention that certain 'liberal arts' should be seen as an intellectual pursuit above the status of craft."

Artists went on to become geniuses and heroes while craftspeople kept their everyman status. In kind, art acquired an ego and gained a capital letter to become Art.

Since then we've been dealing with an unspoken tradition in which those with supposed class and superior education are deemed worthy to indulge in 'high art' like symphonic music or complex oil painting while the rest of us are fed the leftovers.

Fortunately for us, this distinction is a farce. Although every artistic medium has a style that may or may not suit every taste, art is inclusive and there's little cause to feel inferior around one form or the other.

When we remove the mystique that drapes art, we'll find that it's more familiar than we once thought. We have much more experience with it than we give ourselves credit for. Every time we discuss a movie or CD, we're communing through art.

However, we sometimes seem nervous around even common art outlets like film and music. They've become secret habits we'd rather not discuss in the company of believers. For all the strides the Church has made, many of us are still skittish about art that isn't overtly Christian. This discomfort is, again, solidly constructed on our past.

"We need to reclaim our artistic heritage. Up until the Reformation, Christians were the primary patrons of the arts," says Craig Detweiler, a Hollywood screenwriter and co-author of A Matrix of Meanings. "We disengaged from it and became iconoclasts or icon smashers instead of icon creators and then we got mad at people who didn't create what we wanted in our absence."

Our detachment from art is often tied to the graphic themes that stream through it. There is, of course, some validity to this. There are some things in our R-rated world that should make us all queasy.

"The first thing we should do is react. But we shouldn't disengage altogether. To do that would be to deny that these things exist in the world," says Linda Schwartz, TWU's dean of professional studies and performing arts. "Just as we recoil from the horror of watching what goes on in the Middle East on our televisions, we recoil from things that jar our senses and don't conform to our understanding of what is right and good.

The Heiress
TWU drama students perform TWU's latest drama production, "The Heiress."

The next thing we need to do is ask ourselves why do we respond in horror or recoil or respond within to things we find disturbing. It's through these questions that we come to understand who we are and what has shaped us. An informed Christian has to move on to that next question: What, if anything, is redemptive? To quote the Apostle Paul, 'What is lovely or pure?'"

With this approach in mind, complete withdrawal from art seems foolish. Whether we like it or not, creativity is culture's currency of meaning. We ignore it and the opportunities to connect at our own risk.

"There's a large conversation going on in pop culture and we haven't been invited and haven't tried to join it," says Detweiler. "People may be upset that the Church's role is reduced, but we have to play catch-up in a conversation that we didn't know was going on."

After spinning art on a pedestal, it seems unsophisticated to unravel it as a conversation, but it turns out to be that simple. Imaginative people are always expressing worthwhile questions in their medium of choice.

"My wife and I have been especially pleased with our work (songs, drawings, books, stories) when it emerges naturally from conversations and controversies concerning our little group of friends, neighbours and churchgoers nearby," says David Dark, author of Everyday Apocalypse: The sacred revealed in Radiohead, the Simpsons and other pop icons.

" … Art is people talking."

"We're beginning to suspect that art that isn't borne of some sort of conversation is usually an advertisement for someone's fevered ego. And of course, the conversation can be with people long dead, living in the present or theoretically in a beleaguered future. Art is people talking."

As with any great discussion, excellent art speaks with a sincerity and conviction that depict an ultimate reality. Like the prophetic, art provokes us with both blunt and subtle messages of truth that demand our consideration.

If we need anymore incentive, the art world is begging us to respond. There's evidence of this in the resurgence of interest in Jesus, Christianity and all things spiritual. Last year, a story on the cover of London's Sunday Times Culture magazine exclaimed, "Twenty years ago no artist was interested in Jesus. Now His image is everywhere."

Granted, some of these direct appeals are what have Christians running. Questions arose when British artist Mark Wallinger placed a sculpture of Jesus bound and wearing a loincloth in London's Trafalgar Square. It was clearly Wallinger's comment on how Christ is portrayed in the everyday life, but was he denigrating or honouring Christ by placing this smallish sculpture in a vast marketplace?

Unsettling or not, Wallinger's sculpture and others like it are cues to re-engage. They are making the necessary connections between sacred and secular. Art brings us back to where we began. Dorothy Sayers, a southern Gothic novelist, professed that, "The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and ability to make things." We find ourselves here because of a creator so it's no shock that humanity finds common ground in creativity.

"If the root of 'inspiration' is 'spirit,' Christians should care about art even more than secular society does. We have a responsibility to nurture each other's creativity to its fullest expression," says Loranne Brown, an acclaimed novelist and TWU communications professor.

"The lingua franca of our time is the language of the image."

We're surrounded by opportunities to usher artists past prejudices and into places of influence. No matter which artist, author or teacher I speak with, they all agree that we need to properly equip artists who are Christians so they can contribute to the greater conversation.

"The lingua franca of our time is the language of the image. So then, just like missionaries both of the past and also present must learn the particular language of the people group to whom they are attempting to incarnate the Gospel, fluency in the language of the image—of visuality—must be attained to interact with and engage those within our own visual culture," Paul Hughes, TWU's associate professor of biblical studies.

For its part, TWU is on the verge of offering professional degrees in visual art, theatre arts, musical arts and film studies. It's breaking from the conventional pack by developing students beyond their individual areas of creativity and allowing them to branch out into other fine arts. It's preparing well-rounded artists to be cultural shapers.

"I believe Christian artists have immense opportunities to influence society through honest, inspired practice of their talents, and by the excellence of the execution of their work, whether the theme is overtly Christian or not," Professor Brown tells me.

"If we teach critical thinking and demand excellence, our students will be prepared to take their place on centre stage."

The thought of TWU students transforming into actors of cultural change is intoxicating, but in a bad way. It brings back the slacker in me because it seems simpler to idealistically pat them on their backs and return to my pulp fiction. Why not leave the abstract paintings and complex metaphors to those who can construct and understand them?

On second thought, it will be hard to go back. Any retreat into art avoidance makes me much more nauseous than approaching it ever could. Besides, early impressionist coffee cups can only provide so much satisfaction.

Cameron Zimmer (Communications '02) lives in Saskatoon, Sask., where he is a communications officer for Western Economic Diversification Canada. He's been involved in Toastmasters for the past year and a half and begins a Master of Public Administration from the University of Victoria by distance this fall. "As a result, I've become interested in work-life balance," he says. Cam confesses, with regard to "Art with a Capital A" that he recently started his recovery from being an art sloth by joining a book club and critiquing his office's tired art collection.

Originally published in the Trinity Western Magazine, Winter 2004.




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