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Does art need justifying?

19 January, 2008

Recently, I went to the National Gallery in London. I regularly go there out of a need but, lately, I wonder what this need actually is. Sometimes I think it is a desire for visual stimulation that, I sense, is bigger or larger than the ordinary ‘stuff’ of my life. In saying this I don’t want to minimise or rubbish the ordinary stuff of life. Far from it! Maybe I mean I want to see something that makes me think of what is bigger and larger than what I think about most of the time; and in this way I recalibrate so to handle rightly the ordinary in life. Two paintings grabbed me, so to speak, this visit.

The first is Winter Landscape by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). As you can see (well, clearly not in this posting) there is a crippled man sitting before a crucifix. The man is praying. It is the visual impact that I found appealing and compelling. It is winter; the immediate scene includes the ‘evergreen’ and the ‘rock’ — both highly symbolic within a Christian worldview.


The second painting is Lake Keitele by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931). This painting evokes memories of my various visits to Finland, a country for which I have affection. The use of light and colour in this painting are important and highly effective.


What grabbed me in both of these paintings wasn’t that these paintings were ‘beautiful’ or ‘pretty’ (I am not sure I know what these words mean). In Winter Landscape the painting conveys pleading and hope but through non-literal expressions. Lake Keitele employs the use of light and reflection so to ‘reflect’ something real and important. Not for one minute am I saying that these paintings should be reduced to propositional statements; they are not sermons; they are not parables.

Yet, both paintings do give rise to an agreement within us to what other narratives (myths, stories and, supremely, the Bible) give us. Again, it isn’t pretty pictures or romantic pictures that do this — this is why, for example, I have huge problems with the sugar-sweet paintings of Thomas Kincade. There are paintings, plays, films, music, novels that present ugliness, injustice and brokenness in ways that are ‘real’ (but not necessarily literal).

But here’s my question: do we need to justify art? Now immediately some will shake their head in astonishment, asking why I’d even ask this question. I ask this because in some Christian circles these paintings and others might be appreciated for their visual impact (‘pretty’, ‘nice’ or ‘symbolic’) but not necessarily be appreciated for what they are in and of themselves. There are some Christians who even say to be involved in the arts is ultimately a waste of time — because all will be burnt up in the end. At best, they might claim, Christians can be in the arts so to gain opportunity for evangelism. Only in this way is art justifiable. But this raises enormous questions and problems: what exactly is Christian art?

Others dismiss this despairing line of thought for what it is — despairing and, ironically, both anti-human and anti-creation. I am going to stand with this group (influenced by Rookmaker, Schaeffer, Lewis, Tolkein and many others in the Reformed tradition as well). See The Beauty of God: theology and the Arts, Treier, Husbands and Lundin, eds.

What I am increasingly convinced of is our human need for artistic expression — both for the artist as well as for those who read/view/listen to artistic expressions. I am concerned that art might end up being hijacked for utilitarian reasons (even for evangelism). I am not sure art does require justification. What it does require is thoughtful engagement, thoughtful investigation and, in the ultimate sense, thoughtful recognition of the created reality (and now fallen reality) to which art (imperfectly) refers and the Triune God who created, sustains and one day will restore this created reality.

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