12 Jun Aesthetics in The Arts
DAYS BEFORE GRADUATING COLLEGE, I was finally allowed to go to the cinema for the first time in my life with my college friends. I distinctly remember the fun we had as I enjoyed my new-found freedom. Having grown up in a protective Christian family and in the context of a strict Christian community, secular artistic work like movies and music were perceived to be soul corruptors. You may have grown up in a similar environment, or you may still be persuaded that those are indeed things of the world that Christians should avoid. But, is that a biblical way of thinking? Is art inherently good? Is God glorified by a good movie? What place does music have in our Christian lives? Above all, can art be beautiful?
SCRIPTURE’S EMPHASIS ON ART can’t be overlooked. It shows us that God is interested in not just art but excellent art.
2 Chronicles 2.6 reads, “He adorned the house with settings of precious stones.” Precious stones served sheer aesthetic purposes in God’s house. Exodus 25.31-33 talks about the lampstand that goes in the Holy of Holies. Here, God gives highly specific artistic details for what art is to be carved onto the lampstand. The same is seen later when He commands the design of the garment a priest is to wear while he enters the Holy of Holies (ref. Exodus 28.33). Alongside these specific passages, there are also passages where God gives artistic freedom to the builders (ref. Exodus 25.15). The Holy Spirit empowers Bezalel with craftsmanship to build God’s church (Exodus 31.1-11)
MUSIC WAS A BIG PART OF THE OLD TESTAMENT CONGREGATION. When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and were delivered from Pharaoh’s army, they broke out in song (Exodus 15.1-20). There was glorious music in the temple as four-thousand men sang with instrumental accompaniment (1 Chronicles 23.5). David wrote poems that expressed his joy, sorrow, frustration, and delights skillfully and with God’s power (Psalm 33.1-3; 2 Samuel 23.1,2). Not only is art in the Bible religious but also secular. God asks Solomon to create a throne for the king (ref. 1 Kings 10). And Song of Solomon is a romantic poem by a man to the woman he loves!
ART IS GOD’S CREATION for His glory, hence, it has intrinsic worth. Art carries human emotion that can’t be expressed in words but requires a great musician to write a piece of music or an artist to paint it. We all know about the heartbreaking, cruel Delhi rape case. When you first heard about it, what did you feel? Rage? Anger? In Jyothi’s Name, an Indian classical music piece by Anoshka Shankar, perfectly captures those feelings. Art helps us to be very empathetic as it explores the world through a perspective that we haven’t considered before. It shows the beauty in everyday life that we tend to ignore. Recently, Merku Thodarchi Malai portrayed the struggles of a daily wage laborer while showing the satisfaction in a simple life. Art can be a great tool to appreciate life; as lofty as some aspects of art may sound, there is time for mundane art such as folk songs, a funny cartoon about politics, or a hilarious drama.
ESSENTIAL TO THE GROWTH OF WELL-MADE ART is good criticism. Part of the reason we lack quality art in our culture is precisely the lack of the ability to judge what is good art, especially by Christians and the Church. In his book Art & the Bible, Francis Shaffer lays out four steps in evaluating art, namely, excellence of the work, validity, content/worldview, and use of the vehicle. As movie making always excites me, I’ll use it to illustrate, but these principles can be applied to other art forms. Disciplines like screen writing, dialog writing, and cinematography are involved in movie making. Educate yourself on these details, and when you watch one next time, look for how well the movie has delivered excellence. Often, we are stuck with the “purity” of an artistic expression and forget the artist’s immense freedom to honestly portray subjects that may be uncomfortable to the viewer. Visaaranai is stunningly shocking story about police brutality explicitly portrayed. This movie should not be rejected solely for its explicit nature because beautiful art is different from pretty art. Pretty art is pleasing to look at, but beautiful art, though may not be pretty, explores realities (even the evils) of this fallen world. It challenges and corrects the way we think of the world. Since art is a vehicle for the worldview of the artist, we should be cautious about what worldview is endorsed in a movie. Having said that, the worldview alone also should not be the sole determinant of a movie’s quality. Criticism coupled with an understanding of the worldview and appreciation for the art, helps us see the Imago Dei and what areas must be brought under Christ’s rule.
ART IN ALL ITS BEAUTY is never meant to be enjoyed only individually but in a community. Take a trip with your friends and family to an art or dance exhibit, ancient Indian era temple, Medieval mosque, or a British era Cathedral. Talk about the genius of the various dance forms; hear what the artist says through her paintings; wallow in the brilliance and magnificence of massive architecture. Do not be ethnocentric; find opportunities to experience and appreciate other cultures. After you have appreciated the beauty, see how you can support the artist. In this age of piracy, if good art is to be sustained, we must support it.
DESPITE THE RICH AND DIVERSE CULTURAL HERITAGE, the Indian church at large has failed to meaningfully engage with the culture and create art of our own. We have (for the most part) banned all artwork from Kolam to Bharathanatyam. Instead of using these art forms to further God’s kingdom, we have completely dismissed them; we have deemed them as “pagan” and have failed to realize Christ’s power to transform cultures. Schaffer says, “Why did we (the West) force the Africans to use Gothic architecture?… all we succeeded in doing was making Christianity foreign to the Africans.” I suggest that Schaffer’s statement is very applicable in our culture? When our artistic expression of Christianity highly resembles Western styles and culture, are we to be surprised when our Hindu friends think Christianity is a white man’s religion?
CHRISTIAN ART SHOULD BE beautiful, well-crafted, culturally relevant, and intelligent. Hone God-given talents for Him. It can begin with writing a poem to the woman you love. Write short stories for children. Write a doctrinally sound worship song for your church. Compose a sitar piece for it. Paint a picture showing the sufferings of a woman in a slum near you. Speak the language of your audience. Christian art should prioritize craftsmanship. A recent Christian movie I watched had an excellent message but lacked careful crafting. Christian art need not always be about the Gospel. Art that cries out against the evils of casteism, dowry, child labor, spousal abuse, etc. are all Christian. Art is beautiful because God created it. When Christians learn to appreciate and create God-glorifying art, God, the original Artist, transforms us.
Sources: Art & the Bible by Francis Shaffer
Grey Matters: Navigating the Space between Legalism & Liberty by Brett
Art & Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts by Hilary Brand & Adrienne Chaplin
Fraser Daniel, the author is a doctoral student in Micro & Nano-scale systems at Louisiana Tech University