A Little Context For Me

Monday, August 22, 2016

Unpopular Opinion Brought To You By Emily

As close as I could get to a Kinkade without getting sued for copyright infringement.

Today I shared a post about the life, works, and death of Thomas Kinkade. (Find the post here: Facebook). Known as the “Painter of Light”, his work has become synonymous with “Christian art” and is seen in homes, offices, and churches around the world. His paintings are soft representations of a world that glows with peaceful serenity. Pretty is the word most often used to describe the landscapes where quaint cottages surrounded by delicate flowers huddle among trees beneath skies that radiate with pastel goodness.

Per standard operating procedure for me, I included the reasons I have always been mistrustful of his work which drew the standard objections that I have grown accustom to when I do open my big mouth on this issue. As my reasons for these feelings requires a rather protracted answer, I decided to respond here.

My two primary reasons for my passionate dislike of his work are:

1. Too many people fail to make the distinction between high art and decorative art. This is an essential distinction that too few are willing to recognize or acknowledge. I will explain why.

2. Artists are the single biggest influencers on the general public’s perception of truth. The role of the artist to shape culture has been denigrated and neglected even as our works are quietly shape society’s morals, ethics, and vision of the what life could be and what truth is.

Before any conversation on the arts can begin one must define the terms. For if we were speaking of Kinkade’s (dare I lump in Butcher?) works in the terms of decorative art, I would not have no objection to the high praise this man receives. However, as the distinction is seldom made and few perceive the divide between the two genres, their popularity has conditioned the believing community to discount or even recoil in disgust from the power and startling revelations of high art.

Decorative art is what we hang above the sofa. It is chosen for its beauty and the way it soothes our senses. It demands little of its viewer other than appreciation. It presents a completed idea without need for a viewer’s participation or investment. Another word for it is kitsch, Frank Burch Brown offers us this definition of kitsch: a beautiful lie that prettifies and falsifies the world, requiring an unqualified acceptance of reality.

Kitsch manipulates the emotions of its viewers in the same manner that pornography by pandering to people’s desires instead of addressing their needs, designed to elicit a predictable response by capitalizing on emotional reflexes. (Paraphrase of Roger Hazelton).

High art, to paraphrase the words of Rene Magritte, evokes mystery with attempting to define it. To attempt and do so “becomes mere joking.” High art defies clichés or definitions, (Hazelton). It brings to light an aspect of existence denied or hidden from consciousness, (Wilson Yates).

Now, why I believe these distinctions are crucial to our understanding and appreciation of art:

God has given us the blueprint for high art within the Bible. While the principles are scattered throughout Scripture, the most succinct example is the creation of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle embodies every element required of true high art: light, space, unity, symbolic representation, and mystery. And this but a short list of ways in which the Tabernacle served as art. We are told in Exodus 28:2 that aspects were created for “glory and beauty”, but we should not overlook the bloody reality of this place of sacrifice and bloodshed.

Time and space constrain me from delving into the various ways in which the Tabernacle served as art, art such as the world has never seen before or since, but still informs the believing artist on how their works can serve as a source of awe, wonder, and inspiration. All of which the world is severely lacking, and the deficient can often be most profoundly experienced in the realm of Christian art that does not point our hearts back to the necessity of God’s intervention within this fallen creation or the hope we find in his redeeming love. Hope that can only be embraced when we stand before in full acknowledgement of our deep need of his grace and provision despite our sin.

As to point two of my objections: Artists are the single biggest influencers on the general public’s perception of truth. The role of the artist to shape culture has been denigrated and neglected even as our works are quietly shape society’s morals, ethics, and vision of the what life could be and what truth is.

In the construction of the Tabernacle, Bezalel helped shape the future of an entire nation and eventually the world. The impact of his work cannot be overstated. For the believing artist, he stands the penultimate example of what we could and should be. A brief survey of what he has to teach us artists:

 ◦ called from a young age, (a phenomenon common to artists who instinctively perceive their differentness even before they have the words to express their drive to create),

◦ he used his gifts in submission to the Lord, as reflected in his name which literally means “in the shadow of El (God).”

◦ his work was inspired through being filled by the Holy Spirit, Exodus 31:1-5

◦ he was gifted with wisdom, knowledge, and understanding; all essential to the creation of art

◦ as an artist he was teacher and leader

◦ as a person he was obscured by his art

◦ he communicated in symbols that demanded contemplation and interaction in order to be understood

◦ he translated his inspiration into a medium where others could draw inspiration

◦ his work allowed others to interact with the presence of God

If you we were to scour our Bibles for others who fit this profile, we are quickly confronted with the prophet. Point by point, can draw parallels between the roles, functions, and experience of each with the other. Don’t blow by that statement, the implications are profound and level of responsibilities placed upon the artist by extension are staggering.  And we see the truth of the artist’s ability to shape the future in evidence all around us – be it the communicator device of Star Trek that led to a world of cellular devices, the architecture and design that shape our homes separating or uniting us dependent on style and form, the grand cathedrals that draw our hearts and eyes to heaven, or the mass shooting prompted by our uninhibited consumption of gore and violence in movies. Art drives our language and therefore how we label and thus perceive our world. (How many words did Shakespeare invent that are in common usage today?)

Does this mean there is no place for decorative art or the hobbyist artist who creates simply for themselves? No, and that is not what I am implying. What I am saying is that by making the distinction, we can be more honest with ourselves and the world. We can utilize art more effectively and encourage artists to aspire to be more than commercial success by appeasing the masses. We can stop chastising and disavowing the artists whose honest and raw work are seen as too disturbing to be Christian.

I know that few people understand my passion for this topic, but in my eyes it is not a trivial matter. The favored style of Christian art has clouded our perceptions of our faith. When we paint Jesus in pastels, we drain away his humanity and fierce passion he has for each of us. When we give Moses a softly curling beard and bubble eyes, we ignore the strength and authority he must have conveyed to lead a mass of former slaves into the desert. When Mary is clothed in soft robes and the never flinching serenity of an imbecile, we do not honor the heartbreak and horror she endured. When we embody the home of our faith as Eden-esque landscapes, the power of our faith to thrive in this brutal reality is weakened.

There is a place for beauty – radiant, awe inspiring beauty, that rips your guts out stomps them on the floor beauty. This is the beauty of resurrection and redemption, but we can have neither if there was no bloody body upon the cross. And by enlarging our vision to include both the horrific and the sublime, we begin to walk in the tension of our faith that empowers us in our humble gratitude of God who is great enough to encompass both.

For further reading on this topic, check out:

Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste by Frank Burch Brown
The Grotesque Theologically Considered by Roger Hazelton
The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture In Theory And Practice by David Morgan
The Grotesque In Art And Literature: Theological Reflections by Wilson Yates
State Of The Arts From Bezalel To Mapplethorpe by Edward Veith
And one day, eventually, my book once it is written.