Why are the arts important?
Let there be Light.
Let there be Form, Space, Time, and Matter.
Let there be Beauty, Goodness, and Truth.
Let there be LIFE.
“The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
Human beings, made in the image of God, are endowed and gifted with the ability to imagine and create. To use our minds and form matter to express and share our emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and experiences. To reflect upon the nature of humanity and reality. Granted, we have a limitation placed upon our creativity in that we cannot create ex nihilo. We are, as J. R. R. Tolkien declared, sub-creators with God, commissioned to make art for his glory and renown.
From the beginning of time, we have done all that through art, through the visual mediums of paint, chalk, stone, metal, clay, wood, and more.
Before we begin discussing the various artistic periods throughout history, which will be a lengthy endeavor, I’d like to address a few questions and concerns you might have:
- What exactly is the role of the artist and the arts in society?
- Why should we even take the time to learn about this aspect of human culture and civilization?
Role of the Artist
Artistry is a response to the world, to God’s work in one’s life, and to God Himself. Artistry becomes a space in which to listen, grow, and gather, and in that gathering, to prepare for something new to emerge.
As an artist, it is crucial that you not be cut off from reality but deeply connected to it. You create FOR something, FOR a purpose. The artist must be part of a community, enmeshed in the mundanity of life.
For what are you creating? For whom are you creating?
An artist is a craftsman.
Artists are midwives of faith. They respond to the world and draw others, not inwards, but outwards and upwards. And artists create for their place and their community. To do so, they must fully invest in the relationships they have.
Creative thinkers and makers provide their communities with joy, interaction, and inspiration, but they also give thoughtful critique to our political, economic and social systems — pushing communities to engage thoughtfully and make steps toward social progress.
They document human history and express collective emotions.
Artists are a vehicle for expressing universal emotion
Visual art provides a conduit through which people can connect emotionally. It is simultaneously personal and universal. It’s a human urge to express emotion through the medium of mark-making.
An artist has the ability to ‘feel strongly,’ to be ‘sensitive’ to things and to express this in paint, gesture, texture, form, or color. The artist ‘absorbs’ the atmosphere of a place or the memory of a feeling. Often it can be a burden for the artist to carry all this emotion – to be so sensitive. The artist bears the unique responsibility of not only carrying but also revealing the memories of our past experiences and histories.
Everybody hurts. Everybody loves. Everybody hopes. And, everybody dies.
In a way, then, a principal theme in art is the sense of our mortality. The temporariness and fleeting nature of life itself. Even our emotions, however deep and overpowering, do not last forever. The popular admonition to “follow your heart” often leads to chasing after the wind in an attempt to capture the elusive Joy and Meaning of life. Art can beautifully describe and reflect upon this intense anguish and yearning of the human spirit.
Artists are responsible for unearthing Truth
I believe that everything people create contains an element of truth. It may be 99% truthful, or 1% truthful. But since we are all touched by the hand of God, we all bear His image and have His Law impressed upon our hearts. As cultural influencers, artists, much like authors, musicians, theologians, philosophers, economists, politicians, scientists, educators, businesspeople — well, I guess everyone — have the responsibility to unearth the truth.
The unique call on the artist is to share with others his or her individual perspective and experience of Truth. Artist must connect the subjective to the universal, showing the unity of the diversity. In so doing, they foster community and communion within their society and the world at large.
As we live in a global village, we are somehow all connected via some form of social media. Artists are no longer hermits and we are all “out there in the world.” Artists should seek to inspire, connect, and collaborate!
Art can, and should, bring people together, although it may also cause division and rifts. By promoting unity and collaboration, not in spite of but because of differences, the artist empowers individuals and inspires personal, maybe even global, change and transformation.
This leads directly to another aspect of the artist’s role…
Artists may seek to illuminate the margins and initiate societal changes
As we will see later in this series, many artists have, through their artwork, spurred reformations and societal movements, incited controversy, and fueled radicalism and politics. Artists can help people and communities find their voices and express their concerns through individual and collaborative art projects.
Living in a global village, we are all connected via some form of social media. Given such interconnectedness, and the ease of travel, an entirely new movement of community artwork has arisen. Often, in working with local artists in spaces around the globe, beautiful, fruitful exchanges of ideas, customs, techniques, etc., occur, creating artistic growth, empathy, and new understandings and insights.
Artists tell stories and pass on traditions
We’ve all heard the old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” While the debate between words and pictures continues today, and vehemently so, there is no doubt that artists do tell stories and pass on traditions through their pieces. From the religious sculptures and ziggurats of the Mesopotamians to the landscapes of the Dutch painters, art grounds itself in a particular time and place.
Every nation, place, home, and person, has a glorious history of adventures, trials, suffering, joy, and triumph. Art honors the history of its place. Artists search for stories about the natural world and civilization around them, drawing inspiration from the beauty and the ugliness. In respecting the past, art speaks to the present and the future, offering commentary on the failures and mistakes, successes and advancements, of its time.
Book illustrations, for one, are a fantastic example of how artists tell stories through visuals. As young children, before we learn to speak or read, we observe and take in the world around us through our eyes (and ears). We can see pictures before we can understand the squiggly black lines on the paper. There is unquestionably great power in art as a medium of communication, storytelling, emotional expression, virtue formation, and education of the mind, heart, body, and soul.
I can remember the countless hours I spent with my sisters pouring over beloved pictures books, gazing in awe at the colorful, delightful illustrations. Good images never detract from the story but serve to accentuate the Beauty, Goodness, and Truth contained within the tale.
Artists record and preserve our human history
On that note, artists also record and preserve our history. We live in an ever more intricate society where every individual, regardless of their specific role, plays an essential part in the social biodiversity of the world.
Artists have been crucial from the very beginning of our existence. From cave paintings to frescos, from temples to state buildings, from anatomical sketches to scientific drawings, to the avant-garde movements, artists constantly contribute to expanding human growth from many different perspectives. Even the lonely, “starving artist” who works alone in his dingy studio at night, struggling to survive, is part of a much larger community and assumes a more significant role that one might anticipate.
We would have lost so much if the art of ancient civilizations did not exist. The material of which artworks consist informs us about their location, sacredness, the time period, religious beliefs, political environment, current events (i.e., the art makes a statement), etc., as well as influencing the instinctual reaction viewers might have toward the piece itself (i.e., the emotional response to a portrait painted on canvas is considerably different to that same face engraved in wood or metal).
For example, the art of the ancient Egyptians was functional and created for a practical purpose whereas later art was intended for aesthetic pleasure. A statue held the spirit of the god or the deceased; a tomb painting showed scenes from one’s life on earth so one’s spirit could remember it or scenes from the paradise one hoped to attain so one would know how to get there; charms and amulets protected one from harm; figurines warded off evil spirits and angry ghosts; hand mirrors, whip-handles, cosmetic cabinets all served practical purposes; ceramics were used for drinking, eating, and storage.
The materials the artist choose to use alone holds great historic significance and preserves history, not to mention the weight of the visual content of the art itself.
Artists offer messages of hope
One of the most well-known pieces of art today would have to be Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I am always amazed at the stark contrast between the image and the stories I have heard about the artist’s life in an insane asylum. It’s difficult to imagine that such an exquisite work of beauty and hope emerged from the chaotic imagination of a sick man’s mind. But that is the funny thing about hope. By nature, it isn’t rational. Much like faith, courage, and mercy, hope embraces paradox.
An artist’s role is almost that of an Alchemist—capable of transforming humble materials into objects imbued with spiritual and aesthetic value. They take something disparate and disconnected and, through their art, can reveal the Story that weaves all things together. Artists transform their own anguish concerning the present and the future into something tangible, simple, and beautiful, offering through their art and without superficiality, a message of hope to society, their community, and the world.
Speaking of the future-oriented nature of hope, in smaller cities, having local artists instills a sense of pride in the community. It also demonstrates to young people that an artistic career may require great resilience, grit, and persistence but is nevertheless a feasible undertaking. Artists support their communities by teaching their art and craft. In many communities, art auctions benefit local causes and charities, and art donations by local artists are some of the most popular items at such auctions.
They are ambassadors of the natural world
Creation is God’s canvas. It is his ultimate piece of art and imagination. He spoke the light into existence, hovered over the face of the waters, created in the infinite variety of animals, plants, and geological ecosystems, form man from the dust and breathed life into his lungs. Every morning, and throughout the day, God creates anew the heavens.
Canvas, wood, metal, clay, oils and pigments, water–the nature of art is intrinsically materialistic. It embeds itself in time and space, in physicality. As such, artists have a unique platform through which they can reveal to viewers the various textures, patterns, sights, scents, emotions, and moods of the natural world. Some artists choose to explicitly comment on environmental issues, but one does not have to pursue that route to still inspire love and deep appreciation for the place in which we live.
Think, for instance, of the myriad paintings made of the northwestern landscapes of the U. S., now records of what those environments looked like before wildfires swept away so much of that part of the continent.
Artists create a sense of community
Finally, we reach the point that ties every single previous point together: artists create a sense of community, if not real community. Artists connect people in their local area to each other, and individuals and societies around the world, through:
- expressing universal emotions
- unearthing the truth
- illuminating the margins and initiating societal changes
- telling stories and passing on traditions
- recording and preserving our history
- offering messages of hope
- being ambassadors of the natural world
Art involves relationships. As we established at the very beginning, artists create something both for themselves and for others. It is a response either to a relationship with one’s self, with another person, with the natural world, or, fundamentally, to God Himself.
The Role of Art
The role of the artist and of his or her art are inextricably intertwined. Thus, everything I have written previously could not be accomplished without the physical manifestation of the artwork itself. That said, there are some other aspects to the role of art that I would like to mention here.
Art is not a product. Art is a work of charity. Art is a giving back from your God-given gifts. It is a contribution of Beauty.
Art ushers us along the path between what is tangible and felt and that which is transcendent. Beauty comes through all the books, art pieces, dances, and music, to us from the Creator. Art creates an experience.
Art can help us understand our humanity and the historical conditions we live in, but importantly, it also draws us into thinking whether our reality needs changing. The Arts, as a catalyst of change, can become a medium of confronting personal, social or political issues through criticism of the world as it is and a vision of the world as it might be.
Art can be seen as a reflection, or better yet, the fruit of an individual’s and/or society’s beliefs about culture and the self. Art is the external revelation and material embodiment of a man’s knowledge, decisions, beliefs, dreams, desires, emotions, and affections.
Art opens up space and allows people in. It creates room for differences, room for questions and doubts, room for wonder and awe. Art, as C. S. Lewis wrote of fairy tales, allows Truth to creep past watchful dragons and steal into the hearts, minds, and souls of those who truly see. Art offers the world back to us, recast, that we might have ears to hear and eyes to see.
Art reminds us, much like fairy tales, that the world is an inscrutable miracle. “These tales,” G. K. Chesterton would write in his semi-autobiographical work, Orthodoxy, “say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”
All this commentary reminds me of a short poem by the wonderful Romantic poet and recluse, Emily Dickinson:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Art is an invitation into mystery and beauty, away from solid ground and defendable black and white, into the mist and storm of the heart.
It is incredibly difficult to “see” art today for we live in a visual culture–the “digital age.” Millions of images bombard us every minute. Images that convey little substantial meaning. What we consider “real art” often contains great nuance, receiving the labels “too complex,” “vague,” and “abstract.” Art is crucial to the culture that creates it. It expresses that civilization’s worldview.
No one needs special superpowers to appreciate art. God has gifted us with our eyes. We tend to generalize in our mental images. We’ve all had those arguments about who remembered that event the right way and what really happened. When our brain summarizes information and experiences for us, it allows us to move on in life instead of going into sensory overload. However, this leads us to give up trying to truly see and understand something. Once we know how to break beyond these generalizations, we can learn how to truly see and appreciate art.
Okay, that’s a lot to digest. There is much more I could have said regarding the arts in therapy, the arts in education, the arts in the prison system, and such specifics. Hopefully, we’ll touch on some of those aspects as we journey through the centuries.
If you take away anything from this post, I hope you leave with a deeper appreciation and curiosity about the beautiful realm of the arts.
Join me next week for the first installment in our look at the oldest surviving pieces of artwork in existence — Cave Painting!