What does it mean to be a serious artist who is a Christian? Is that different than a “Christian artist?”
About a year ago, I joined Christos Collective, an artists’ collective whose members are Christians. During the course of my involvement in the organization of the collective and our discussions, I have really contemplated the interplay of Art and Faith. Along with the other members of Christos, I would not identify myself as a Christian artist, but rather an artist who is a Christian. We have discussed much of what it means to be both a Christian and an artist.
Growing up within a major Evangelical church denomination, I had the understanding that there were two realms of art: Christian and Secular–whether it be visual, musical, performing, or literary. If I were going to use my God-given talent for painting, it ought to be to make inspirational art about the Bible or pretty, idyllic country cottages. Yeah, not so much. I didn’t want to paint storybook Bible illustrations, nor did I want to be Thomas Kinkade.
During my senior year of high school, I felt a strong calling to enter into ministry. Given my understanding of “Ministry,” finding a way to reconcile art and ministry was admittedly difficult for me. What, am I supposed to paint on stage? That’s been done, but it’s not me. I knew I had been given an amazing gift (artistic ability) to steward well, and I knew I had been specifically called to something I needed to follow (“Ministry”). This apparent conundrum gave me a lot of grief at the Christian liberal arts university I attended. Eventually, I came to the realization that every Christian comes to: Whatever you do, within or without the walls of a church, is your ministry.
This realization allowed me to be free of the expectation to paint Bible scenes or pictures of “Jesus” or angels or flowery landscapes. That has never been what really interested me. My art seems to come from the grittier side of life. I’ve experienced infidelity, addiction, divorce, abuse, remarriage and everything that goes along with it. With kids in tow. Being released from those expectations and limitations means I am now free to explore all that I have experienced and all I will experience honestly and deeply in my art. The world isn’t looking for some pie-in-the-sky-love-Bearded-Jesus-and-your-problems-will-all-go-away kind of Christianity, so why would we make that kind of art? Honestly, it’s shallow. Like, Michael Jackson and Bubbles kind of shallow (sorry, Jeff Koons lovers). If anything, we should be asking the hard questions with our art. We should be tackling the problems of this world that are just plain painful and confusing. We ought to show the beauty of Creation with unvarnished truth. And we should be doing it well! With the greatest skill and craftsmanship at our disposal. As Artists who are Christians, we have some huge hurdles to overcome in the art world. The art that has represented our faith for so much of the past 80 or so years has been seen as and called–and rightly so, in many cases–trite, second-rate, sentimental kitsch. And so now the challenge is for us to make art that pushes the envelope–intellectual, well crafted, exciting, and maybe even (gasp!) avant-garde art.
So what about the difference between a “Christian artist” and an artist who is a Christian? The example that keeps coming to mind is the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) scene from about the 1980’s up until the mid 2000’s or so. Much of what was produced during this time that did not fall into the Praise and Worship genre was in direct imitation of, and I think seen as replacements for, their counterparts in secular music. Stryper was hair metal church kids were allowed to listen to. P.O.D. was the acceptable substitute for Rage Against the Machine. T-Bone and D.C. Talk were the “good rappers” (until D.C. Talk switched genres–then they were the “good grunge”). The really sad thing is that sometimes they weren’t even as good as the artists they were imitating! We don’t need to make church-kid friendly, didactic knock-offs of the great art that is already out there. The great art that is already out there–the art that thrills and inspires us–is a bar too low for us. As artists who are Christians, we are freed from all expectations and all genres, and called to a higher standard of excellence. We don’t have to mimic non-Christian artists, nor are we constrained to making art exclusively about Christianity. We are free to paint, or sculpt, or draw, or compose, or write, or dance or film whatever inspires us, and do it with absolute honesty to ourselves and our audience! We are free to see the entirety of the world and humanity through the lens of the Gospel, and JUST MAKE GREAT ART.